A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
- The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, lines 37-45
Sound familiar? Do you remember when you first heard those evocative lines? I do. I bet I'm not the only one with this memory, either. As indicated by the picture of Megan Follows, I was introduced to Tennyson through the television when watching Anne of Green Gables over, and over, and over again. The movie opens with the lines, and I've never forgotten them. It symbolizes how trapped Anne Shirley feels in her life before Green Gables, and Elaine of Ascolat reappears when the ice is finally, finally broken between Anne and the love of her life. While this was my first introduction to Tennyson, I found myself returning to him over and over again as I grew up. I recited, for extra credit, The Charge of the Light Brigade in high school. I talked my way out of Jane Austen in favor of a Tennyson paper in Brit Lit in college. I foisted him off on some poor HS student looking for a descriptive poet last week at the library. So, yeah. I've been enamored for a long time, but not so much as today's author, Lisa Ann (no 'e') Sandell.
In Song of the Sparrow, Sandell has taken cursed, maligned Elaine and re-imagined her in a world without curses; without even magic. She's kept the contact with Camelot, but we now find our heroine with spirit and spunk and hope for future. She isn't a doomed waif. She matters to us, and to the dynamic men of myth who surround her. She is as powerful and inspiring as the language Sandell uses for her tale.
You can find more Lisa in Colleen's fantastic interview from yesterday. I especially love where they talked about merging another cursed character from lore, Tristan, into Elaine's story.
But on to our interview!
1. Do you remember when you first encountered Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott? Or his Idylls of the King? Both clearly had great influence over Song of the Sparrow. If you remember, what was your first introduction to Arthur & Elaine?
I first read Tennyson's Arthurian poems in high school, but became truly enamored with them as an English major in college. Of the two works, I have always been more drawn to "The Lady of Shalott," with its haunting depiction of the young woman weaving alone in her tower, rather than the more eventful — and tragic — events of "Idylls of the King." Reading "The Lady of Shalott," I was struck not only by the elegance of the language and the exquisite story, but also by the inescapable subtext of the poem, that which presents Elaine as a sort of patron saint of artistic creation: Alone in her tower, she weaves, isolated from the world, doomed to see only reflections. As a —let’s be very honest here — dorky and unpopular teenager who often found comfort in writing, I identified with Elaine instinctively, even though it took me many readings and college classes to fully realize why.
2. The Tennyson poems are quite famous, and (among other things) inspired Waterhouse's haunting painting. However, the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, is largely unknown by the large players of Arthurian myth in both poems. She's referred to as "the fairy" in one, and is merely a pawn for Lancelot in the other. How did you get her from a footnote of legend to a pivotal role?
My own infatuation with the Lady of Shalott began after I saw the 1888 Waterhouse painting. I was spending a semester in London, and snuck into the Tate one afternoon to find shelter from the freezing rain. I was walking aimlessly through the galleries, and there, suddenly, she was: her ghostly white gown, her golden-red hair, and her expression, tortured and yet calm, the face of someone who had come to terms with a terrible fate. Being somewhat of an Arthurian buff, I had no difficulty recognizing who she was, but as I walked home that evening questions began to swirl around in my mind: Why a curse? Why death? Elaine, I couldn't help but thinking, was first and foremost a young woman, close to my own age at the time, and the more I thought about her the more fascinated I became with what this person’s life meant, what the sum of all its parts and versions and stories were. And, if she were a real girl, what would her life have been like? That was the origin of Song of the Sparrow, an attempt to imagine a normal life for Elaine, a life filled, like any other, with hardships and triumphs, challenges and joys, heartbreaks and romance. It was partly an act of proud feminism, and partly one of historic and artistic curiosity.
3. In Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Guinevere says, "'Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,/ That passionate perfection, my good lord--/ But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?... / He is all fault who hath no fault at all: / For who loves me must have a touch of earth..." This statement humanizes a character that is often villainized in adaptations. Your Gwynivere expresses a similar statement - that Arthur is too perfect to truly love. You have, in fact, portrayed all three of the females (Gwynivere, Elaine, Morgan) connected to the tale in a far more favorable light than they are traditionally depicted. Why? Why all three?
It is this aspect of Arthur, his perfection, that makes him such an indelible symbol of hope. So, in writing this book, I wanted to explore that piece of his character and how other people would have reacted to and interacted with him and also try to find the humanity in his perfection.
And, again, I wanted Song of the Sparrow to portray the women surrounding Arthur as they've seldom been portrayed, namely, neither as damsels in distress nor as villains and connivers, but rather as well-rounded human beings thrust into a complicated scene and forced to make their way in a traditional and patriarchal society.
In this sense, all three women in my book represent, perhaps, a different and maybe more realistic strategy for coping as a young woman in a world dominated by men. And so, even when my Gwynivere is being nasty and condescending to Elaine, and when Elaine, in turn, plays a cruel joke on Gwynivere, I still bear in mind that rather than their being mythical figures, they are two adolescent girls, alone in a camp full of warriors, living in a time of great uncertainty and fear, and struggling to make sense of their world. Whatever their tactic — whether they choose to be haughty and prim or tomboyish and straightforward — they end up developing empathy for one another and working together for the greater good, which, I think, is an issue many young women at that age struggle with, even today.
As Tennyson's curse was the incentive for me to go out there and imagine a better, more plausible, and fuller life for Elaine, I had no wish to curse her myself. And, as for the nature of the curse, I really don't know — it's a great question. I can guess that the weaving Elaine is the embodiment of artists everywhere, practicing her craft in loneliness, doomed always to observe the world but never to be in or of it. That makes a lot of sense to me…especially as a writer who practices her craft in solitude.
5. Have you any thought to continuing with further stories in the world you adapted for Song of the Sparrow? Perhaps picking up with a different character's point of view? 'Cause I'd TOTALLY read it, and I know several others who would too...
That’s really nice. Thanks. J I’d love to keep going with this. I have a huge crush on Arthur and am wholly fascinated by the mythology, by the process of re-imagining the setting and the situations and trying to fill in the blanks myself, by the research, by all of it. I don’t have any definitive plans at the moment, but that is certainly not to say that I wouldn’t pick up with it someday. Because, I’m talking borderline obsession.
6. In your author's note at the end you talk about doing extensive research. How did you go about that?
I began with a short reading list: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Then I happened upon a BBC radio piece about the Merlin’s presence in ancient Welsh poetry and decided to try to get my hands on translations of some of the ancient texts. And then when my husband saw my pile of books start to grow and overtake our tiny living room, he bought me Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. Very romantic, yes? It was about five months of solid reading and note-taking, during which I also listened to recordings of birdsong, read up on what species of plants and trees and animals are native to the United Kingdom, and learned about healing plants and their uses.
7. Camelot is our ideal. It was a place where honor and justice was paramount. Your Elaine won a war without lifting a weapon beyond her own wits and helped secure the possibility of Camelot. Is the idea of non-violent solutions to conflict at all connected to your experiences in Israel and some of the thoughts expressed in your first novel, The Weight of the Sky?
I don’t believe I drew this connection consciously, but we’re living in a world that is rife with war and it is possible — probably normal — to feel overwhelmed and engulfed by rage, helplessness, and hopelessness because of it. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, mostly in Israel. And like so many people, I am deeply troubled by the conflict there; it makes no sense to me. I simply cannot understand why the leaders can’t figure out a way to make peace. In The Weight of the Sky, Sarah only begins to grapple with these questions, but I feel like my consciousness is, in a way, saturated with this sense of powerlessness and frustration as I watch the violence continue to play out in that particular corner of the world, and also on the larger global stage. Now that you’ve posed the question, yes, I believe Song of the Sparrow reflects the maturation and growth of my own thoughts on questions of war and conflict and injustice.
My favorite will always be Le Morte D’Arthur, for its comprehensiveness and romance, and because it is so much a cornerstone of the mythology. However, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a very close second. She was truly a pioneer and a genius. She re-imagined the legend in such a far-reaching and brilliant and unpredictable way, so rich, so full of depth and music. Her Morgaine is a heroine for the ages — strong and intelligent and brave and human.
9. Since your first two novels have been so vastly different, can you tell us a little about what we'll see from you next?
The book I’m currently working on is also a YA novel. It’s contemporary and…not in free verse! The title is A Map of the Known World, and I think it’s going to be very different, again, from the first two — at least in terms of the setting — as this one is set in a high school in the Midwest in the United States. I’m really excited and intimidated to be working on a contemporary piece.
10. You've said that you've always been a voracious reader. Who/what are some of your current YA favorites?
My list of favorites is very, very long, but a shortlist would include: Kevin Brooks, Cecil Castelucci, Chris Crutcher, Sarah Dessen, Aimee Friedman, Adele Griffin, Alice Hoffman, M. E. Kerr, Madeleine L’Engle, David Levithan, Patricia McCormick, Walter Dean Myers, Gary Paulsen, Alison Pollet…I could keep going, but I’ll stop here.
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas
Micol Ostow at Shaken & Stirred
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland