Please welcome Douglas Nicholas to The Qwillery. Douglas is the author of the fabulous Something Red series: Something Red (2012) and The Wicked which was published on March 25, 2014.
TQ: Welcome back to The Qwillery. The Wicked, the 2nd novel in your Something Red series, was just published on March 25, 2014. What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Has this changed from when you wrote Book 1 to Book 2?
Douglas: I write slowly, partly because I like to make sure that real-life details (as opposed to the fantasy elements) are correct, and partly because I care a great deal about the language, and want to get the prose just right, while a the same time telling a gripping story. I’d like people not to be able to put it down, to keep turning the pages, but then feel that they’d like to go back, sooner or later—or even immediately!—and reread it, just to savor the language. Some people have posted that they went back, two of them immediately, to read Something Red again; one person has read it three times since it came out in 2012.
TQ: What do you wish you'd known about publishing when Something Red (Book 1) came out that you know now?
Douglas: I’ve said it before: I was quite surprised at what a sweet bunch I have to deal with at Emily Bestler Books/Atria—not at all like the type of cold cutthroat corporation one sees portrayed, either for chills or for humor, in books and on TV. More like a group of chums.
TQ: Tell us something about The Wicked that is not in the book description.
Douglas: The villain, Sir Tarquin, is one of the most evil critters you never want to meet:
Sir Tarquin’s strong pale face was a mask of malignant hunger. Hob had seen a hawk standing with taloned foot on a mouse and tearing it with its hook-knife bill, and it was a model of sweetness beside this face, this expression, that might have been the portrait of Satan in a rage.
And his lady wife is not far behind:
Beside [Sir Tarquin]: Lady Rohese, a woman of smoldering beauty, a woman neither young nor much past youth, dark-haired, dark-eyed. Hob had just begun to think how beautiful she was when she looked at Molly’s table, and he thought to see an expression of the sourest evil, covered over with an attempt at neutral cordiality—an effect as of powdered sugar on a dish of spoiled meat.
Also in The Wicked, Jack acquires a very devoted dog, there’s a shipwreck, a storm, music, two “bar fights” of sorts, bandits, a giant (in the basketball-player sense) knight, a magic water-mirror spy device, a mano-a-mano sorcerous duel between Molly and Lady Rohese, a final conflict that involves swordplay and grim heavy sorcery, and a wedding between two of our favorite characters. That raven on the cover is not just decoration, either: it’s important.
TQ: What research have you done for The Wicked?
Douglas: I did a lot of research about the North Sea coast—its appearance, its flora, its fauna, and its history. For example, I needed fresh-plowed fields in August to foreshadow a later metaphor (I told you I work hard at the prose), so I had to find out what one might be planting so late in the summer (the flax and hemp were harvested in July, and then the turnips were planted in August).
As in Something Red, all the names are chosen from thirteenth-century tax rolls or court records. Jack’s dog, Sweetlove, has a name borne by at least three women in the thirteenth century who paid taxes or were involved in a legal dispute. Spellings varied a bit—one was “Sueteloue”—but in other words it’s a perfectly likely name. Another major character, Sir Odinell, is of the De Umfrevilles; he has a castle on the North Sea. There really was an Odinell de Umfreville, but he stayed in Normandy. Remember that at this time the Normans, who had come from France, often had property on both sides of the Channel—King John spent a lot of his time trying to hold on to the parts of France (Anjou, mostly) that were his by inheritance.
The North Sea, by the way, was called the German Sea by the English in the Middle Ages. The Dutch called it the North Sea, because it was north of the Netherlands, and this became the current name.
One noble whose name is not particularly Norman is Sir Tarquin—I chose his name to evoke the Etruscan kings of Rome, before Rome overthrew them and became a republic—Tarquin the Elder, and the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud. Why? Because at one point Molly realizes that Sir Tarquin is much older than he appears, and may have been around “for many a long, long year.” (No, he’s not the Devil himself. But he’s working on it.)
YouTube is good for taking virtual walks around Northumberland, and for learning how charcoal is made, including the curious one-legged stool the charcoal-burners employ, which found its way into the book. (If you’ve ever had spaghetti carbonara, that’s pasta “charcoal-burners’ style.”)
TQ: What appeals to you about thirteenth century northwest England?
Douglas: When I began Something Red, as a short story(!), I wanted it to end in an isolated, wintry mountain castle. If you want mountains in England, you have to be in the north, where the Pennines run from the Scottish border to about a third of the way down England. Northumberland today (it was bigger in the Middle Ages, and was called Northumbria) is still the most deserted area of England, and was even more so, of course, 800 years ago. The more I looked into the culture and dialect and history of Northern England, the more interesting it became. You say “northwest” England, but Something Red only starts there, and then our little family is trying to get over the central Pennine range to get to Durham and York, cities on the northeast coast. They’re stranded in the north-central castle, Blanchefontaine, and only get underway to the east coast at the end of the book. The Wicked takes place almost entirely on the northeast coast, by the “German Sea.”
I started the tale in 1995, then put it aside for a while. Sometime after that Susanna Clarke also made much of the North Country in her excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I’d already chosen the area for my story.
I discovered that there’s a sort of cultural unity between northern England and southern Scotland, with a lot of linguistic sharing of terms, etc. There are some Scottish villains in The Wicked (even though my half-Irish, half-Scottish mom was from Glasgow), because the Scots were such a formidable warlike people who presented Norman lords with a constant threat of raids, and when they’re bad, you have to take them seriously.
TQ: In the series so far who is your favorite good 'guy', bad 'guy' or ethically ambiguous character?
Douglas: We will meet an ethically ambiguous character in the third volume of this series, the papal operative Monsignor Bonacorso da Panzano, but most of the characters in the first two books fall into the good-guy bad-guy categories.
I find it hard to choose: I’m very fond of our four main characters. Nemain is the most prickly, and has not yet grown into the mature kindness of Molly. Sir Balthasar is interesting to me: he’s frightening even to the men he leads, and more so to his enemies, but he’s absolutely gentle with his wife, Dame Aline, a merry character who was also a pleasure to write. Others: the restless, hyperactive, dangerous Sir Jehan and his wife, the enigmatic Lady Isabeau.
I like a lot of the minor characters, some of whom only appear for a page or two: Hodard Squint, the lawman who warns Molly in Something Red, or the dog groom Herluin in The Wicked. The unnamed aged but strong winch-tender in SR, who tells what is essentially a complete murder ballad in one page of dialect (which I hope impatient readers will sound out and not skip). Also from SR, the atte Well twin daughters, Margery and Parnell, and Osbert atte Well himself. From TW: Erec the Irish wolfhound puppy. Rollo, another Irish wolfhound puppy. (There’s a strong canine thread in The Wicked.)
TQ: Which character has surprised you the most?
Douglas: They don’t surprise me: I don’t let them. “Stand there—no, a little to the left—and say your lines,” I tell them. “No, once more, and put a little feeling into it.” I have a story to tell; I can’t let them begin to sass me.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from The Wicked.
Douglas: I’ll give you three sentences; two are just for context—the middle sentence is the one I’m fond of:
She watched the road where it curved out of sight. The sea grumbled; the moon burned along the ridges of the waves. Around the bend came a double column of Sir Tarquin’s bewitched knights.
TQ: What's next?
Douglas: Next year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. In volume three of this series, Molly will defeat an evil plot by King John to massacre the barons assembled for the signing, including her friends Sir Jehan, Sir Odinell, and Sir Balthasar.
TQ: Thank you for joining us again at The Qwillery.
Something Red 2
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, March 25, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 368 pages
A thrilling and intoxicating journey to a land of legend, where nothing is quite as it seems. . . .
Something evil has come to reside in a castle by the chill waters of the North Sea: men disappear and are found as horribly wizened corpses, knights ride out and return under an enchantment that dulls their minds. Both the townspeople and the court under Sir Odinell’s protection live in fear, terrorized by forces beyond human understanding. But rumors of a wise woman blessed with mysterious powers also swirl about the land. The call goes forth, and so it comes to be that young apprentice Hob and his adopted family—exiled Irish queen Molly, her granddaughter Nemain, and warrior Jack Brown—are pitted against a malevolent nobleman and his beautiful, wicked wife.
Richly set in the inns, courts, and countryside of thirteenth-century northwest England, The Wicked is a darkly spun masterpiece that will leave fans of epic fantasy thirsty for more.
Something Red 1
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, June 18, 2013
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages
Published in Hardcover, September 18, 2012
In an intoxicating blend of fantasy and horror, acclaimed debut novel Something Red transports you to the harsh, unforgiving world of thirteenth-century England. An evil and age-old force stalks the countryside—who dares confront it?
Douglas Nicholas is an award-winning poet, whose work has appeared in numerous poetry journals, and the author of four previous books, including Something Red and Iron Rose, a collection of poems inspired by New York City. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife Theresa and Yorkshire terrier Tristan.