Helena Sorensen is the author of the Shiloh series and the forthcoming Half-Bald Hill. In addition to lolling about on the edges of Irish cliffs, she also writes beautiful fantasy fiction and is a contributing writer at Story Warren. She’s smart, thoughtful, and articulate, and I’m happy to be able to introduce her to you.
KCI: What was the catalyst for Shiloh?
HS: I wrote a chapter of a “something” in college. Apart from a brief backstory I wrote for Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) as a high school English assignment, it was the only writing I’d done apart from a little poetry and songwriting. I can’t recall if the title was in that first bit of story or what, but the initial seed of the series was there.
After I had my son, I found I needed a creative project to keep me sane. I kept mulling over that verse about “those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” I wondered what it would be like if we could see the shadow, the veil of darkness that covers our world. I wondered how much courage it would take to believe there was such a thing as a sun if you’d never seen one. I imagined a boy who was born without the fear that pervaded that dark landscape, a boy who seemed to know who he was, in spite of what seemed to be. I wondered how long he could maintain that belief, how it might be shaken. And that’s how the world of Shiloh was born.
KCI: World-creation is a foreign thing to me. My kids do it, but I don’t think I ever did (I preferred to draw houses and imagine the people who lived in them). You’ve created two worlds now (and maybe more?). Talk to me about the process of doing that.
HS: World-building is hard work and delicious fun. For me it always begins by asking questions that lead to other questions that eventually lead to answers that narrow down options that lead to more answers and so on. My first draft of Shiloh was bare-bones. Just a concept, a plot, and characters. When I went back to flesh it out, I understood that I needed legends; I needed a creation story. I needed to show what these people valued, what they feared, whom they idolized. I wanted songs that were illuminating and haunting. I wanted stories that gave you chills and heroes that made you want to fight. That was fun.
I also wanted the world to feel real. I researched nightshade plants, because they grow well in very little light. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, huckleberries, tobacco, and mandrake all fall into that category, so they’re used often in the series. I did some research on wool, how it’s gathered and carded and spun. I studied horses and blacksmithing. I watched videos on archery and glass making and dagger fighting and basket weaving. In a fantasy world, these concrete elements help to ground the reader, to make a new world seem familiar and ordinary, like home.
KCI: How does it feel to kill off characters you’ve come to love? (I’ve always wanted to ask an author this question!) What about villains? How do you feel about axing them?
HS: There is one character in particular that it broke my heart to kill. It sounds like madness (KCI: um, no, it doesn’t), but I knew her and loved her, and I miss her. In the world of Shiloh, though, it’s essential that characters should die. Otherwise the reader would never believe there is any imminent danger; he wouldn’t understand their fear. Acts of hope and courage and self-sacrifice would seem flimsy, half-hearted. Also, there would be no opportunity to grieve. Seeker, in particular, is a book about loss. I want the reader to feel the enormous weight of all the beautiful things that have been lost to the darkness. What is it Tolkien said? “You can only come to the morning through the shadow.” Losing the things you love most, well, that’s the experience of the shadow of death. And the glorious ending, the restoration, is that much sweeter if you’ve passed through the valley.
The villains question is a good one. It is thrilling to “kill the bad guy,” and I certainly enjoyed the destruction of the Dark Immortals at the end of the series. That said, I don’t believe there are many purely evil villains in the world. Most are broken. Most are pawns. When I write, I strive to make my villains sympathetic. My heart breaks for them, and so you see Ram’s grief when he loses his son, Rurik. Even in victory, there’s a sense of sadness there. That wicked god, that hideous creature, that vicious opponent, began as something else. He was meant for more.
KCI: What were the most fun and the most difficult parts of writing this series?
HS: The most enjoyable part is meeting the characters and living the adventure with them. I love choosing their names. As each one is chosen, a face begins to appear and a life take form. It doesn’t feel as if I created them at all. I met them somewhere, and I got to know them. And I love them dearly. I often find photographs of faces that match particular characters, and for me, the face and name and story are bound together forever.
There are many difficult parts of the writing process. Beginning might top the list, for that requires such faith, such boldness, that it almost takes your breath away. Receiving negative or lukewarm feedback (or no feedback) is also very difficult. It can be like having someone insult your child. It feels quite personal and intense.
Boiling a first draft down to a concentrated vision of what a book is is also a challenge. A story can go in many directions, and you can pursue all sorts of themes and ideas, but I think it’s wise to narrow each one down to an overriding word or phrase that keeps you on track.
If I had to choose a most difficult aspect, though, I might choose the part of the process where we allow readers into our private world. That feels risky. Sometimes they see no value in what we’ve created. Sometimes they don’t understand it. But art is communication, and if someone, somewhere, enters our world and finds a place there, if they meet us in this place and their heart resonates with our words, that is a glorious thing. I know of nothing else like it.
KCI: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? And to write fantasy?
HS: Hah! I’m the latest of late bloomers. Once or twice, as a child, I got an idea for a story and wanted to work on it. Sometimes I wrote poetry or songs, but I chose to study music in college (rather than English), so I imagined that’s the direction I’d take.
As I said before, I never wrote any sort of fiction of any length until I turned 30. I decided that I was going to get comfortable in my skin in my thirties, that I was going to hit my stride. I still can’t tell you what possessed me to sit down and write a book when I had not the slightest idea how to go about it. But I did. And for me, there was no question that it would be fantasy. When I read fantasy, something inside me sighs with pleasure. Good fantasy, I think, is the most beautiful writing in the world. The stories allow things to be made clear that could not be made clear in a modern, “realistic” setting. Good fantasy stories come around behind you and surprise you, and I think they stay with you longer than most stories. Of course, I am partial. 🙂
KCI: You’re working on a new book set in a different world. Can you tell a bit about that?
HS: Yes! It was intimidating to start from scratch with a new world, to make it fresh and unique and not something like a cousin of Shiloh. But it’s funny how it came about. For years, we’ve driven I-24 between Nashville and Atlanta, and along the drive, at about mile marker 99, there is a hill that backs up to the interstate. One side is forested. The other is almost perfectly bare, just smooth green grass. I saw this hill and remarked on it over and over, until I began referring to it in my mind as “Half-Bald Hill.” At some point, I pictured a girl on an iron chain somewhere within the first line of the trees, and I was off.
Since then, I’ve been to Ireland twice. I’ve read up on Irish fairy tales and Celtic myths and legends and ancient Irish history and druidism and tree-lore. For this world, I got to spread a smorgasbord of history and legend and such and then pick and choose what I liked to build a new world. I have stacks of hand-written lists and charts showing what elements are associated with which trees and what herbs cure which ills. But the great benefit of writing fantasy instead of straight history is that I have the freedom to make changes in order to serve the story.
My hope with Half-Bald Hill is to place the reader in an ancient, pagan setting, and then come around behind them to surprise them with a new perspective on something quite familiar. The “something”? Conquering death.
KCI: You had me at Celtic. And then you go and throw in that “something”—well, I can hardly wait. One last question: What are a few of your favorite books? You know, the ones you would risk drowning for just so you could have them on that desert island with you. (Try not to go too crazy.)
HS: Boy. I’d fight the swells pretty hard to rescue The Hobbit and Till We Have Faces. I also love Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series (the first two especially). Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief Series is spectacular, and no one seems to have heard of it. (KCI: I have! I love The Thief!) It starts slow, but by the third book I was head-over-heels for Eugenides. He is one of the most fascinating, complex characters I’ve ever encountered. Oh, then there’s Robin McKinley (The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown). I love the way she sits down in a scene and gets comfortable. And Betty MacDonald writes the funniest memoirs ever.
I am very grateful to Helena for taking the time to answer my questions. To read more of her work, please drop by her blog or by Story Warren, where she is a regular contributor, or better yet go buy her books.
Photo credit: Probably Helena’s husband, but possibly a friend. Or a hardy stranger who was willing to brave the edge of a cliff to take her photo. Someone like that.