Thursday 16 April 2020

Merlin Creates Arthur. Writers in their Landscape with Scott Telek by Steve Gladwin

  Part One - Why and How?

Just one strange and atmospheric thing - a frozen lake gives off mist in warm weather.

Just recently, The Flower of Chivalry, the fourth volume in Scott Telek's epic series, (even by the standard of epic series), 'The Swithen', was published. Scott intends to produce the rest of his twenty five volume series of stories on what has become called 'The Matter of Britain', the stories of King Arthur and his knights, in the next twenty years and judging from the quality of books one to four, he will make it with ease. My interview with Scott is wide-ranging and barely touches on landscape in covering everything else. It is also in two parts, and the second, shorter part will follow in a week's time. I'm already become a bit of an evangelist for The Swithen, which incidentally is an Anglo-Saxon term for land that has been left to re-generate - and am unashamedly using this blog to spread the word. Scott also provided a short biography, the first part of which we begin with here. You will find the second part of this at the beginning of part two on April 23rd, and the all important details of how to buy both the separate books and volumes 1-3 in one, (the way I read it, and which I recommend) at the bottom here.

Scott's Biography - Part One - Background and Travels

Scott lived in Detroit, Michigan, where he had a very nice neighborhood existence until he turned 8. At that point his family moved out to a much more rural place in Michigan, which happened to have 55 acres of forest and meadow behind it. Scott spent the majority of his years from 10-18 wandering in there with his dog, which is where he developed his love of nature. Scott always loved reading, and studied English literature and Psychology at university. At 30, Scott moved to New York City. It was the place he had always dreamed of living, but was quickly changing from the place he thought it was. Eventually Scott moved to Chicago, and a few years later married his partner (to whom The Flower of Chivalry is dedicated) and settled in Toronto, Canada. There, Scott is much closer to the nature and hiking that he loves, as well as being around generally more humane people. 

Scott, in the last month or so, you and I have been corresponding quite a bit, and its pretty much that and reading the first three books that led me to interview you for this blog. I’d like to begin by referring back to something you said when I previously asked you whether writing this massive version of King Arthur was something you’d always wanted to do. How did it all come about?

I periodically get it in my head to explore a certain topic, and I decided that I wanted to know the real story of King Arthur. So I got Le Morte D’Arthur, and was reading it off and on for a year while commuting on the New York subway. The first thing that totally shocked me is when Merlin is trapped by Nimue, and I kept thinking “Okay, he’ll come back at some point…” and when he didn’t, that’s when I realized that there’s a lot in the legend that I didn’t know. By the time I finished it, I was fairly obsessed, and then I started to go back and read the earlier sources, like the Prose Merlin and then the Vulgate/Post-Vulgate. And I thought; “Okay, I’ll probably lose interest after reading these.” But I didn’t, I just became more obsessed.

The first book deals with Merlin's conception and birth from his brave and resourceful mother Meylinde.

When I read the story of Merlin’s mother, I thought one, people don’t know this story, and two, this is a great little self-contained thriller. And so are some of the other little episodes, like the Malegant story later on. And what really intrigued me is to wonder “What must these people be thinking and feeling while these extraordinary events are going on?” Because the Middle English sources don’t write about emotions or psychology in depth—or much at all—and I thought an interesting place existed to explore that. And I thought it would make a fascinating challenge as a writer to constrain myself to staying faithful to the story, and to have to make it work within that.

Your reply at the time surprised me, because what I think you were saying was that was more as if it was in a line of a series of big projects you periodically took on, albeit one you had developed a particular interest in. Is that a fair description?

What I said was that up until then I had explored numerous other creative outlets, like video making and oil painting, but I would only stay with them for a few years and then move on to something else, so none of them ever really flourished. So I thought, if I embark on this series, this is going to be my big project, and I’m going to focus on this one thing. And I knew that if I stayed with it, it will be my life’s work, which I was also okay with. So that’s what I meant. And in the meantime I have thought “Oh, I’d like to start making these videos, or do these art pieces,” but now I say, “No, you just continue to focus on your book series, and stick to that.”

Let’s now fit that into the context of the sort of thing you read or have read. Are you a lover of fantasy, or history, or a little of both?

Neither, actually. I have to say I hate the kind of fantasy writing such as Mary Stewart does, with all the “Fie on thee, foul enchantress!” stuff. You can tell that my writing is much more plain, and I really just want them to sound like real people. History… I have to say that this series has made me get more into it, but I am not a history guy.

What I am into is literature. I love the Arthurian literature, and you could say that what I’m doing is a massive interpretation of the existing literature. I'm also, I discover, very much into folklore, and this series also fits into that. Reading the unexpurgated Grimm’s fairy tales, one before bed each night, was one of the great reading experiences of my life.

What I see in these books—not that I am comparing myself with any of these writers—is the influence of extensive reading of Henry James in terms of describing states of mind and psychology. I love noir crime fiction and pulp writer Jim Thompson very much shows up in the sudden, brutal violence. And then I definitely see Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, another of my greatest reading experiences, just because it’s lightly literary while also just being so pulpy and fun. I would say that novel encapsulates exactly what I'm going for… it’s light literature, but I also really want it to be fun and give you all those classic King Arthur thrills.

So, you’ve decided to tackle this, you’ve done all the research, you have – as you’ve said – decided to take the whole story from the available source material and fill in the gaps creatively yourself. It sounds like you’ve got the best of both worlds there?

Yes, because in a way I have always felt that I am better at elaborating something that exists rather than inventing from whole cloth, and this works perfectly that way. Having some constraints works for me creatively, because then there’s an element of a puzzle to it, a challenge for myself to make it work. Also, working with a time-tested story, I know that it’s good. I don’t have as much of that self-doubt that comes when you’ve created something all yourself, and you start to think maybe it’s all just stupid. I know this is good, and I can build on its strengths to make it better.

But I’ve also found as I start to head into the main thrust of the story—meaning that now Arthur is born we mostly have a set of characters that will be with us for a while, as opposed to the first three books—that this opens up unexpected creative avenues. For example, there are a number of characters who simply drop out of the source material, like Arthur’s adoptive dad Sir Ector, or King Rion (AKA Reince), and for me, that means I can do anything I want to with them. I can also make up earlier periods for characters who come into the story later—like Percival’s mother.

The other thing I didn’t really think of when I started, but is coming clear to me now, is that I will have this entire society of intertwined characters, most of whom we’ll be following from birth to death, which is really an unprecedented opportunity for a writer. It also just works out that, since the Arthurian legend is really about life itself, this project allows me a great framework to overlay my own existential fascinations on, so it has turned out to offer me much more creative satisfaction than I imagined when I embarked on it.

The sons in question are Pendragon and Uther - but they have to get rid of the sitting King Vortiger first.

*Talk to us a little about the process of doing something like this. I mean three books are out and the fourth, the first time we really meet Arthur, will be with us soon. Do you have a series of wall charts, or a big floor?

I have two Excel spreadsheets, one that has a sheet for each book that I can jot notes into when I think of them, and sheets for notes on each character, my physical descriptions of each character, the names of new characters, and stuff like that. So that one pretty much has everything, and I make new sheets whenever I think of something.

Then I have another one, which is the main one I’m using lately to lay out the series as a whole. This is just one sheet with all the characters down the side, and each projected book going across. And I put in the major events for each character, when they enter the story and when they die, and this helps me know where any specific person is at any one time, and what’s happening with the other characters at that time, so I can start to group events thematically when I have some leeway, and that’s how I laid out the series and came to the total of 25 novels.

This is also really helpful for tracking back for characters that are not yet in the story. For example, I plan to write some childhood scenes for Guinevere, so we can start to see how her character was formed, and this helps me track back and say “Okay, if she meets Arthur here, then she would have been about thirteen back here, and she would have been about eight here…” and that helps, because I want to also include what went down with the False Guinevere when they were children, so that when she shows up later in the story we’ll have experienced the history, not just have heard about it.

This series of interviews is chiefly on landscape about what inspiration it has for an author, and how he or she goes about creating it themselves. So, I’m going to ask you – especially as someone from the other side of the pond – about the landscapes have inspired your work and why?

I have been in the English countryside a few times, spent a week in Cornwall and a week in Scotland, and I definitely call on those visits as I am writing. A real experience of a green field full of rabbits in Dover appears in Book 4. I also sometimes look at pictures of England, Wales and Scotland as I'm writing, especially if it’s referring to a real place, like Dinas Emrys. Then sometimes I have to throw it out and say, “Well, maybe it changed in the meantime,” because I was looking at topographical maps of Stonehenge, and finally had to say; “Damn it, I need it to be hilly!”

Forests like this one in Ontario, help to inspire the series more 'English' forests.

Very formative for me is that, after living in Detroit until I was eight, we moved to an area that had 55 acres of undeveloped meadow and forest behind it, and I spent many days, for years, just wandering through there with my dog, and I know this general love of being in nature sprang from that, and definitely informs the novels. When you hear Merlin or Arthur say he was “just out looking at the plants and bugs” that’s what that’s referring to.

Luckily also my partner is very much into nature and hiking, and now that I live in Canada there is abundant wildness and forest everywhere, and I can name several instances and landscapes that appear directly in the books. There is a beach with rounded black-and-red rocks sitting upon yellow sand in a lake that appears in Book 4, and that is a real place here in Ontario.

I am also definitely trying to play up the presence of nature in the novels. For one because thematically we are going to start seeing more of nature vs civilization, and also Paganism vs Christianity, but also just because… these people are out in nature. Historical writers tend to focus on how dirty everything was, but they were also out in nature and closer to animals—and much more at the mercy of nature—so I really wanted that to be a major force in the books. It’s also just pleasant to think about, the simple life out in the fields and forests, and on a very basic level I simply want these novels to be a pleasant and lovely escape into a beautiful and intriguing world.

A collapsed viewing platform. For Scott, this illustrates the rise of nature against the plans of human kind.

The stories of King Arthur and his knights have had many versions since the original source material of the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Mabinogi stories.  Have the sources been hard work, or a joy?

Oh, I adore them. That’s really the inspiration, because the original sources have such a weirdness and unique tone that I think gets lost the further one gets away from them. Most Arthurian fiction strays from the sources, and in doing so, they often lose what makes it so great and powerful in the first place. What I really aim for is to retain the tone of Malory or the Vulgate Cycle, just flesh it out so it can be read as a novel.

Something that is very important in the original stories and perhaps especially the ones of the Grail Quest, is the idea of an inner landscape which on the outside is represented by the signs and symbols, the rule of three, the grail procession, the colours of the knights and their pavilions. Is that something you reflect in the work that you’ve done, or are planning? Do you believe that there is hidden meaning, maybe some of the clues to our own grail quest?

Your question caused some reflection in me, because I wouldn’t think of myself as being on any sort of grail quest… that is, I don’t think I have some sort of big goal in mind that I’m working toward, except maybe to one day be able to live off my writing and no longer having to be at the mercy of the workplace. But for me I have never been that goal directed—which is perhaps also why I also haven’t achieved that much monetary success, haha—but for me, the whole thing (i.e. life) is about the journey, and seeing what comes to you.

For whatever reason, I find that I can't think too much about monetary success when it comes to my writing, or I get bogged down and it becomes impossible for me to create. When I started this, I decided that I was going to keep at it and just keep adding to it even if none of the books sold, and just think of the whole thing as a form of folk art. Like a quilt. So it's very important to me to keep the focus on creating art for its own sake, and because I enjoy it and want to make something good, rather than expecting any great reward. And it's funny, this made it into the upcoming book, when the Lady of the Lake appears and she says that her people make beautiful things, but it's important that they do it only for the sake of creation, rather than to sell or make money, because in that way it stays pure.

All that said, I’ve been happy with the sales of the books—I’m just thrilled that people are reading and getting into what I’m writing—but if they did bring monetary success, that would be fine, too! So I guess the Holy Grail for me would be to be able to live off of them and do nothing but write.

Something magical can be created from just a simple phenomena like water.

As for the colors and symbols you mention, I am slowly learning about them as I start to explore Celtic and Medieval British symbolism and folklore. Up until recently, I was still trying to get through the 9-volume Vulgate and Post-Vulgate versions of the legend, which I felt I needed to finish. That said, I am already working certain images and symbols into the books that (I hope) will remain fairly subtle until you start to see them over several novels. We are, ultimately, talking about one huge novel in 25 parts, so there are many things that I’m working in that won’t become apparent until later. As for the grail quest itself, I plan three whole novels for it, and look forward to the challenge of portraying the bizarre world in which the knights find themselves.

Well, Scott this has already been fascinating and I look forward to hearing more. In the meantime, this is the perfect chance to tell our readers that all your books are available both as actual books and in the kindle version I read. Here a quick link to Amazon, where you should be able to find all of them. You'll also notice quite a few from your previous life as a film blogger, Scott.

And thank you for letting us explore the landscape and story of The Swithen with us.

Thanks. I've really enjoyed, it.

.Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'


Penny Dolan said...

Wonderfully in-depth interview. Steve, and on an eternally interesting theme.
Thanks, Steve, and thanks to Scott Telek.

Sue Purkiss said...

Well, this has certainly sent me off to order the first three!

Steve Gladwin said...

Well they are certainly worth it. I'm loving the fourth -very different from the opening trilogy. Thanks, both.