How long did it take you to write Megge of Bury Down, and how did the story come about?
It took roughly seven years from concept to publication. Like many of my narrators, Megge just appeared in my mind’s eye one day when I was ready to write, and started showing me around her home and telling me the story of her family and her life.
When she described a river that ran alongside a circular castle and emptied into an estuary along a southern coast, somewhere west of Holland, I got out a globe and opened Google Earth, and realized that the river was the Fowey. Megge’s story was set in Cornwall.
I then had to research medieval Cornwall, medieval medicine and midwifery, and ancient grimoires and herbcraft. Then I had to turn this story into a novel. Never having written one before, I knew I would have to seriously study writing craft. That was when I learned about low-residency MFA programs.
I looked at all of them from Pennsylvania to the east coast and felt most strongly attracted to the University of Southern Maine. It was there, at Stonecoast, among the talented students and faculty, that I learned how to take Megge’s story from mostly summary narrative to a scene-driven novel.
What makes your book different from others in the same genre?
I think the nature of the story’s principal conflict and the irony around Megge’s decision set her story apart. Megge’s mother has sworn to face death by fire if Megge does not vow to protect the power of her ancient grimoire—her book of incantations; and Megge refuses to take the vow because she fears that doing so will make her commit murder. But by refusing to take her vow, Megge unwittingly endangers the lives of everyone she loves as well as those of the mentors whose wisdom and knowledge guide them.
Are there any significant real life locations in your book’s setting?
1. Bury Down is an ancient hillfort whose ruins can still be seen on a hilltop just outside Lanreath, Cornwall (England). The stone house on that site, with its 3-foot-thick walls, was the home of the clerk of the first Duke of Cornwall.
2. Restormel Castle: the home of The Earl of Cornwall. The structure still stands.
3. St. Winnow Church: the church in Megge’s village (the present-day village of Lerryn). Still in use.
4. Tintagel Castle, built by Earl Richard of Cornwall on the site presumed to have been the birthplace of King Arthur.
Please list all other books you have written.
This is my first published novel.
How do you choose a voice for your narrator?
As it turns out, I don’t get to choose. The narrators come into my imagination full-blown, with their own pasts and their own voices, so I listen to them and watch the scenes play out, and I try to capture their words, expressions, dialect, and cadences as closely as possible. This goes for all the characters, too.
What themes in your book do you believe are relevant to current news topics, society, the world, or life in general?
1. There seems to be a lot of loneliness and isolation in young people despite their engagement in social media: kids feeling like outsiders, wanting to belong but not knowing how or not being able to fit in.
2. There has always been pressure on young people to fulfill their parents’ expectations, and that is probably more prevalent than ever now.
3. The stress of a young person trying to do something for which they are not suited or interested, especially when there is something else they feel they are meant to do.
What are some of the themes that readers might identify in their own lives, or that you have identified in yours?
1. The desire to belong vs the need to find your own path.
Many of us can identify with a young girl’s confusion, misunderstandings, and fears about the life they are expected to lead and may have experienced a similar conflicted desire to belong in a family or group whose strict requirements for membership keep them outside the bonds the members of that family or group share.
2. Tolerance. Understanding that the life you must lead in order to hone your skills may make you an outsider, even to those you serve.
The women of Bury Down, unbelievers living in a Christian world, respect and live in harmony in the villagers while maintaining their own identity. “Respect, girls,” Morwen says. “Though we’re not of them, we dwell amongst them, and we serve them. We shall abide by their rules, even as we live by our own.”
Like the women of Bury Down, almost anyone who devotes time to serious study, practice, or thought is likely to experience this feeling of being an outsider, even to those who benefit from those skills.
What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
Figuring out what the real story was! There were many tangents along the way that took me off course. Finally, I realized that the story centered on what Megge was trying to understand, what everyone was keeping from her, and what she needed to learn: a frightening truth tied to a distant past. Once all these strands became clear, it felt like a weaving job, blending all those textures and colors into an image people could follow and enjoy.
Is the book part of a series? If so, how many installments do you have planned?
Yes, the series is called The Bury Down Chronicles. There will be many books in the series, some going back in time to the origins of Murga’s secrets, and the story line moving forward into the current day and beyond.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I would advise aspiring writers to study writing craft, including the basics—grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and formatting. And before sending anything out, consider hiring a professional editor to review and suggest improvements to the piece. Other than that, my main suggestion would be to persevere. Persistence can be hard, especially when it seems like nothing is happening, but it’s the only way things ever will happen. All good things take time. Giver yourself and your work plenty of it!
If you could meet 3 authors, alive or dead, who would they be?
I would like to meet three writers who are on their way up. Three writers whose work I’ve had the good fortune to see early on and who have made me think, “This one’s the real thing.”
Are you working on something at the moment?
I’m writing Books Two and Three of The Bury Down Chronicles. The story is coming along so fast I’m afraid to stop! But there is one point that I think will make for a nice transition between them, so when I dare to take enough time to pull the stories apart, I think I’ll have the next two books.
What is your favorite scene?
I have many favorites, but I especially like the one, early in the story, when Megge and her family attend the May Day fair. Though Megge feels resentful toward Brighida for her beauty and because everyone makes such a fuss over her, she’s ready to come to Brighida’s aid every time she thinks Brighida is about to be harmed or insulted. That scene shows many sides of young Megge.
Questions from NinaLight.com
What are your reading habits?
I like to read novels, usually historical fiction. I review books for the Historical Novel Society, so I read closely, often reading the book twice to make sure I have a good feel for what the author is trying to do and how well he or she pulls it off.
My guilty pleasure, though, is listening to audiobooks while I drive or when I’m cleaning the house or walking the dogs. My favorite audiobooks are crime or mystery novels. I go through several a month, and I relish them!
How old were you when you started writing?
I started publishing medical papers in my forties. I started writing fiction with an eye to doing it professionally at 53.
Where do you write?
First draft: at home, in my library, at the typewriter. Revising: at my desk or kitchen table, on the computer.
Dedicated favorite place? My home. It’s big, light, airy, and quiet, except when Ollie starts crowing. Then I put on my headphones and keep going!
Plotter or pantser?
Pantser. Definitely a pantser for the first draft. After that, the plot has to be brought out and substantiated. But in the first draft, I’m at the mercy of imagination or whatever is telling the story.
How much research did you do for the book?
A ton! I’ve researched everything from the location of the story to the rainfall and temperatures during the fourth century CE. I’ve studied grimoires, herbal medicine, medieval life, the Church in medieval times, and whether people could drink from natural springs in rural Cornwall. And I have loved every minute of it.
The best part of the research, though, is going there and seeing—and feeling—the place where the story took place. Finding the church Megge described, the hill where she herded sheep, and site that might once have held a sacred grove? I’m telling you: I was covered in chills half the time I was in Cornwall, especially at Bury Down.
Where do you see yourself as a writer in the long term?
I see myself as a novelist continuing to write Megge’s story for as long as it continues to come to me.