Caitlin Sweet Interview and Telling of Stars Review

Since publishing her debut novel A Telling of Stars (2003) with Penguin, Canadian Caitlin Sweet has joined the burgeoning ranks of young, innovative fantasy genre writers. She has since released a prequel to A TellingThe Silences of Home (2005). Both novels have received high praise for their lyrical prose and emotional potency, and have been likened to the work of her Canadian counterpart, Guy Gavriel Kay.

caitlin sweet

Victoria – First of all, what can a reader unfamiliar with your work expect from A Telling of Stars and The Silences of the Home?

Caitlin Sweet- I was worn out from reading sprawling, predictable, carelessly written fantasy and long before I knew it would be published I intended A Telling of Stars to be a simple, frustrating story told in beautiful language. As the years went by, I decided I’d temper my approach a bit and try for ambiguity, rather than frustration; this worked much better. The simple story: a girl (Jaele) is angry and grieving and sets off on a quest for revenge – or so she thinks. The point-of-view in the book is entirely Jaele’s. The plot is fairly straightforward, though the story does take place in several different times at once. There are no wizards or battles, and there’s only one smoky inn. In short: it’s a book more concerned with emotional than physical action, and it’s written in prose that’s been called both “lyrical” and “quasi-poetic.” The Silences of the Home is a prequel, and it’s entirely different. The plot is more complex and plays out via multiple points-of-view. There are two battles (but no smoky inns!). It’s a much longer book, but I’ve been told the action moves quite quickly. There’s more dialogue and less description, though the language does still echo that of A Telling of Stars. It may be a more “mainstream” fantasy.

I continue to be thrilled that the two books, while connected, are so unlike each other. I also continue to be stumped when people ask me which they should read first. There’s something attractive about the idea of others discovering the stories in the sequence I did – but it might come down to a reader’s mood. Yearning for something introspective, quiet, rich? Try A Telling of Stars first. Something with many narrative strands, many characters? Silences of the Home.

Sequence aside: try them both!

Victoria- Both of your published novels are built around the principal of personal journeying and self-discovery, both physical and emotional. Could you tell us a little about your own journey to becoming an author?

Caitlin Sweet- My grandparents used to tape me telling stories, starting when I was about three. Cassette tapes don’t age very well, so it’s hard to tell, now, what the stories were about (skeletons? in a field? watermelons?). What is clear is that I was totally enamored of words (and, in classic toddler fashion, my own voice). This love never went away. When I was seven I filled my grade 2 notebooks with stories that were too long for my teacher’s liking; when I was 14 I wrote my first novel. After my father read the painstakingly typed pages, he said, with a gentleness and pragmatism I now understand much better, “You can’t expect to get this published, you know.” I did know, but hearing this stated so baldly, after the triumph of finishing the thing, was fairly crushing. So I wrote the next one, and the next, figuring that one of them, one day, would be publishable.

I finished my third book (“Rowansong”, a y/a fantasy I’m periodically tempted to revisit) in 1986 and spent 1988 revising it (as an independent study project in my grade 12 English class. That particular teacher remains a dear friend!). For the next three years I didn’t write anything. I stopped telling people I wrote, since the inevitable, “Oh, so what’ve you published?” was too painful a question to answer. I went off to university in Montreal and spent a year in a state of miserable elation (or elated misery). A manicstate. I was broken-hearted. University wasn’t as compelling as High School had been (yes, I was very, very lucky with my High School); I felt as if my nerve-endings were all exposed. I hardly ever thought about writing. I read voraciously, but not much fantasy – and the fantasy I did read just frustrated me with its tired stereotypes. My second year of university saw improvements on personal and academic fronts, and I started wanting to write again, in a vague way, but didn’t. My third year involved more heartache and a sudden engagement in my courses – and, abruptly, I needed to write again. I started A Telling of Stars in December of 1991, thinking, “I’ll write a fantasy I’d be interested in reading. I’ll have no expectations.” And I didn’t. I just wrote, a sentence or paragraph at a time; occasionally, for months in a row, I wouldn’t write at all. About three years into this non-process, I realized I just might have a book on my hands. It took three more years to finish the first draft, at which point I made some half-hearted inquiries to literary agents, was soundly rejected, and put the manuscript in a box. I was profoundly contented, proud of myself for having finished. And I didn’t write again for another three years.

[How’s this for telling you “a little”? ;-)]

When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I was abruptly, consumingly restless. I’d never thought of my administrative job as a career; now it was intolerable. I remembered the manuscript in the Rubbermaid box, pulled it out and read it, thought it wasn’t as way-out as I’d once imagined it was. I spent days and days surfing the internet for literary agencies, found several, honed an appropriately cheesy electronic query letter. The responses were quick, and I had an agent within about three weeks. A few months after that, I had a publisher. My walls weren’t papered with rejection letters; I spent very little time biting my nails. I continue to be amazed by and grateful for this.

The thing was (and this may be a common experience for first novelists) that I’d written my first book years before it found its way to an editor’s desk. I’d been under no pressure other than the self-imposed kind, writing it. Less than a year after “Telling” was published, in 2003, I got a second contract from Penguin Canada. All of a sudden I had to write, and regularly. Although I no longer had a 9 to 5 job, I now had two children under 4. I was excited and terrified – and, very soon, confident. I had 1.25 hours per day in which to write (while one girl was at school and the other was napping), and write I did, without fail. The bulk of The Silences of the Home was written during one nine-month school year.

And now…? I’m going to have a bit more time for writing, beginning in September. I may have another contract before too long. I trust that my newfound confidence will stay with me. I hope I’ll be able to navigate the strange, marketing-related waters I’ve found myself in, with the first two books (such an odd, conflicted state: the pure love of writing, the joys of reader feedback, the continued amazement that my books are out there at all – plus the almost constant worry about sales and publishing future. It’s disingenuous to say, at this point, that the act of writing is enough, as it used to be).

And there you have it! A Brief History.

Victoria- An easy question… Why write fantasy and what do you think are its particular strengths?

Caitlin Sweet- Not necessarily an easy question, actually! One of deceptive simplicity, maybe. Which makes a fine segue to my response.

Fantasy is simple, in a vast and elemental sense. It’s closer to myth than any other genre. Adult fantasy can harness the wonder of “Once upon a time” and transport its readers – and writers – in ways other genres can’t. That’s why I write it: for the wonder. Non-fantasy people (who often equate wonder with a pejorative kind of escapism) have asked me when I’ll write something “real” – and while I hesitate to say never, it’s tempting. I need breadth of possibility, impossible imagery, a language that’s different from the one I speak every day. This is the only context into which I can place “real” characters.

Of course, fantasy also offers a kind of complexity that mainstream fiction doesn’t: a sort of allegorical sweep, a framework in which references to contemporary societies and historical ones can be made, to evocative and thought-provoking effect. This is a happy by-product for me, though: it’s the awe, the beauty, the transport that makes writing (and reading) fantasy so appealing.

Victoria- In other interviews you’ve mentioned how personal an experience writing A Telling of Stars was. What do you think the relationship is between the fantasy author (and their personal experiences) and fictionalised character?

Caitlin Sweet- I’m not sure that my answer to this will be much different from one a non-genre author might give. “Telling” was, indeed, intensely personal, and I’ve never concealed the fact that many of its characters were based on people in my own life. I suppose placing characters in a fantasy world, rather than the “real” one, serves to blur identity just a little bit more (no one’s going to read my book and say, “Oh my God! That’s my old green bathrobe she’s talking about; that’s me she’s talking about!”). I definitely did feel an extra thrill (and a bit guilty, in a few cases) as I transformed the real into the imagined. And there was something very meaningful about writing about myself and people I loved/lost in a fable (which is essentially what “Telling” is). Many years ago, I tried (very, very briefly) to write a piece of contemporary fiction that dealt with autobiographical elements, since I thought that this form would encourage some sort of catharsis. It went nowhere; form was too close to function, and I couldn’t handle it. When I turned to fantasy, though, it worked. There’s such familiarity and possibility in a fable: I felt safe and challenged at the same time.

While Telling is full of “inspired by” characters, my second book isn’t – and I found it quite liberating to write without always being conscious of balancing personal concerns with narrative ones. I think that this will be the template for my next book too – though you never know!

Victoria- A Telling of Stars is centrally focused on the nature and necessity of storytelling. Do you have a personal philosophy of storytelling?

Caitlin Sweet- Our lives are full of narratives of various kinds. The media tells us things, we tell each other – and ourselves – things: the world is built on dizzying layers of words. These words can be powerful: transformative, redemptive, warping, violent. A real, once-upon-a-time story can contain just as much power, but it’s bound by form and meaning we can understand. Our stories (the best of them, anyway) illuminate lives – our own, and other people’s. Imagination fosters empathy. (Ian McEwan wrote a powerful essay right after September 11, in which he asserted that a lack of imagination, and resultant empathy, had allowed the terrorists to carry out the attacks.) I don’t want to imply that authors should attempt to write Fiction With a Message (the first of many capitalized terms!). Didacticism can hobble, and date, a story pretty quickly. Characters who are intended to symbolize traits or themes end up seeming thin and unappealing. While authors may have themes they want to explore, it’s the story that should lead. The readers of a good story will identify and be touched by innumerable themes, some of which weren’t deliberately or consciously included by the author. (This can be both disconcerting and exciting, of course: you might find euphoric online praise from a conservative religious group and a leftist feminist one in the same hour.)

So: a philosophy of storytelling… Follow where your story leads and it will foster self-reflection, empathy and compassion in those who read it.

One more brief note about the “following the story” idea: I used to think authors who said, “My characters have a life of their own and they tell me what to do,” were insufferably pretentious. Then I started my second book – and lo and behold, my characters surprised me again and again with their decisions and directions. Perhaps this makes me insufferably pretentious now? 😉

Victoria- Jaele is often a difficult to empathise with and revenge (a key to the novel’s momentum) is a difficult impulse to morally reconcile. How do you envision the moral universe of your created world?

Caitlin Sweet- When I started it, I thought of A Telling of Stars as my “protest fantasy.” I intended to challenge or transform genre stereotypes of all kinds – including the Entirely Evil Villain and the Always Sympathetic Hero(ine) characterizations. Such characters inevitably inhabit a predictable moral landscape. The Good vs. Evil trope may be rooted in myth, but it’s a dichotomy that’s been overdone and frequently badly done. I wanted to try to depict a much more ambiguous (and, to my mind, realistic) struggle. So yes, Jaele is often frustrating or irritating, makes questionable decisions, or none at all. She’s neither innocent nor wise, and is by no means a Heroine. In the same way, the man she pursues in her quest for vengeance is no Villain, and their ultimate confrontation has nothing to do with Good vanquishing Evil (and now enough with the capitals!). I do appreciate the emotional and narrative appeal of such a setup, but it wasn’t what I needed for this story. So I guess my moral universe is tinged with grey…

Victoria- I know that you have your own young children. Do you think fantasy writing is an especially important genre for children to explore?

Caitlin Sweet- I grew up on y/a fantasy (C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner…), so for selfish, nostalgic reasons I have to answer Yes! Of course! I’ll attempt a bit of objectivity too, however. Although this’ll be somewhat of a generalization, here it is: Children are born imaginers. They construct narratives before they can speak them (just watch an 18-month-old playing with a stick, a leaf and a toy car). And once they can speak them, it’s an endless stream of, “Pretend that…okay, now pretend that…imagine that I’m…and you’re…” They’re struck by wonder at the oddest (to adults, anyway) times, and this wonder reverberates, works its way into their stories. It’s an amazing thing to watch these kids discover “real” stories – especially fantasy ones. Suddenly there are other words for the wonder they’ve felt: words about a wardrobe full of snow-covered trees, or an oracular pig named Hen Wen, or a girl named Alice who has a miraculous, subterranean fall. Children understand fantasy, and they thrive on it.

They also learn from it. Not because it instructs, as so many children’s “issue” books attempt to do, but because it inspires. Kids have a lot to say after they read about Ged’s use of his power in the Earthsea trilogy, or Gollum’s divided soul in Lord of the Rings, or Taran’s choice at the end of the Prydain Chronicles.

Fantasy has been an acceptable children’s genre for decades. Harry Potter has only validated it more. Apparently we’re allowed, even encouraged, to read about wondrous things when we’re under twelve years old. It’s adults who have to grow up, get “serious” about their choice of literature. As just about every reader of fantasy knows, Ursula LeGuin has written many extraordinarily erudite, funny and trenchant essays; one of her best is called “Why Americans Are Afraid of Dragons.” In it she articulates what happens to those kids who stop loving fantasy, or feel pressured to. She illuminates the reasons for the distrust and even distaste with which fantasy (and often fiction itself) is viewed by adults. So while fantasy may be a natural, inspiring genre for children to read, many adults avoid stories with magic rings in them. (Harry Potter seems to have changed this perception a bit: adults are as rhapsodic about the series as children are.)

And the conclusion is…? Adults should encourage their children to read (and write!) fantasy – and they must make sure that these children continue to recognize the richness and value of imagination as they grow up. These children will then become adults who appreciate good fantasy, and they’ll give their own children the books they loved, and so on, and so on…

Victoria- Finally, can we beg a glimpse into your current project? I hear it’s going to deal with interesting themes like the constructions of myths and alternative histories.

Caitlin Sweet- I certainly hope it will! One never knows. I’ll take a deep e-breath and respond, despite my “oh no! Now that I’ve talked about it, it’ll never work!” superstition.

For over a decade, I’ve been fascinated by the Minoan period in the ancient Aegean. I’ve also, for a slightly longer time, been taken with the bloody story of the House of Atreus. As it turns out, myth and history do a bit of dovetailing at around 1500 BC. So much about this time is compelling. The names alone make me fibrillate a bit (this marks me as a first-class nerd, I know!): Mycenae, Knossos, Troy, the Middle Kingdom, the Hittites… At first, back in 1991, I thought I’d try straight historical fiction; I started writing, then stopped when I began work on A Telling of Stars, later that year. My desire to write something set in the ancient Aegean didn’t go away, but it did change. Several months ago I realized I no longer wanted to write historical fiction – nor did I want to write historical fantasy, with its fairly faithful parallels. I decided to try a mixture of myth, history, geology, geography. Some of the mythical creatures the Minoans and Myceneans represented in their art will be real creatures, in the book. Mythical characters will inspire those who people my own fantastical world. Natural phenomena that occurred during this time in history will be given supernatural causes.

Hopefully it’ll be an engrossing story on its own terms, too. (Please see my answer to question 4, above!) Pirates, volcanoes, princesses (and kings) in distress, at least one love triangle, some treasure…what’s not to like? 😉

As for the progress of the book: I’m still at the planning stage, getting close, hoping to start actual writing in September. I’ll keep you posted!

Caitlin Sweet’s debut novel – A Telling of Stars– was nominated for the Locus Best First Novel of 2003 and the Crawford Award for the Best First Novel 2003, given a special mention by the Sunburst judges in 2004 and was heavily praised by certain friends and authors whose opinions I trust. So, as soon as a copy came my way, through the mysterious channels and numerous hands that constitute overseas shipping (the book has only been published in Canada thus far, making it slightly more difficult to obtain in other parts of the world), it leapt to the top of my reading pile. And it didn’t take long to devour. Partly because it is that most rare of things: a short(ish) stand-alone fantasy novel, weighing in at a svelte 373 pages and partly because it is written in a lyrical, sensual prose that delivered me quickly from chapter to chapter.

Like many first novels A Telling of Stars is a coming-of-age story, told from only one point of view and with a focus on character and interior emotions. Eighteen year old Jaele lives an idyllic life with her family by the sea, playing games of queens and warriors with her younger brother Elic and re-enacting old battles against the sea-raiders, amphibious humans from a dry, barren land across the ocean. Her innocence, and her family’s stability, is shattered however when a small group of these sea-raiders sack her home and murder her family, leaving her utterly alone, bereft and filled with a raw desire for revenge. Haunted by memory and running just ahead of despair, she chases a single sea-raider (abandoned by his comrades after infighting) across country for hundreds of miles, determined to kill him. Along that way she encounters a vastness of landscape and numerous exotic races, gains companions and looses them and undergoes sexual and spiritual awakenings. Nevertheless, her determination remains the same: capture the sea-raider and kill him.

A Telling of Stars is not an action fantasy, and aside from one dramatic tribal battle scene, consists largely of introspective journeying. Nor is it political fantasy; while we’re introduced to the myths and legends of Jaele’s world, we’re not made aware of its wider current affairs or its leading protagonists. It is very much an insulated, personal and, ultimately, humane, tale of grief and discovery. And yet it proves itself to be extremely lively and engrossing; Sweet’s prose is rich and bright, painting a vivid picture of Jaele’s environment and of the many different cultures she encounters. If there is such a thing as “anthropological fantasy” then this is it. A whole world of races, peoples and tribes are laid before us, from the Gypsy-like horse-folk, the Alilan to the Shonyn, a settled people with no words for past, present and future, to the ethereal, prophetic Iben-seers. Weird and dreamlike places are absorbed and realised and I was especially enchanted by the desert palace of Yagol, a haunted ruin watched over by the Rabelaisian “Keeper” and filled with living memories. Further, the book is constantly lit up by imaginative sketches from jellyfish that juggle shells to orchards of fruit trees that grow underground. So, although I’ve heard the book called “quiet” and “slow”, I’d disagree. While the prose may be mellifluous and full of careful detail, with many ripples of repetition, it is also filled with excitement and experience.

Caitlin’s writing style is worth further mention. It reminded me most of Guy Gavriel Kay, but was even more poetically pared down with short stream-of-consciousness sentences and an oceanic quality (which fitted well with Jaele’s family heritage).
Throughout there were long gatherings of the wave and then short crashes of sensation. Jaele’s most painful and insistent memories were like breakers constantly beating on rock: short, sharp and sensory. This led me to read the novel in a very different way and mostly aloud. I found almost from the very beginning that silent reading wasn’t tangible enough and that the prose (and the story) demanded that I speak (which resonates nicely with the title of the novel). I had to literally Tell myself this story, which is deeply dynamic with forms of oral storytelling, myth-passage and history-building.

My only real reservation was that Jaele’s interactions with the people she meets, several of whom become physical and emotional partners to her, are so single-faceted and self-absorbed. Because of the particularity of the novel’s point of view apparently interesting characters often seem short-changed and easily discarded. But having thought more on this, I began to see how it was really an index of Jaele’s character – that her limited, and thus limiting, view of her environment was an essential part of her journey and the changes she experiences by the end of the story.

Finally, I have to mention that this end to the novel left me pretty breathless (is there higher praise?), filled with all kinds of emotions from helplessness and compassion to anger; I was surprised to find how much I had internalised Jaele’s emotional processes and conflicts.

If you enjoy unusual fantasy storytelling and poetic prose, then I highly recommend Caitlin Sweet’s debut; personally, I look forward to reading the newly released prequel The Silences of Home and to her new project-in-progress, an alternate history fantasy based on Greece in 1500BC. She shows every sign of becoming an invigorating, and alternative, new genre talent.