Juliet McKenna – Q&A

Juliet McKenna
Juliet McKenna
Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far.

Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore, followed by The Green Man’s Foe, The Green Man’s Silence, The Green Man’s Challenge and The Green Man’s Gift.

There will be more books in this series for as long as Juliet has new ideas, and readers are enjoying them. Her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. As well as reviewing for various magazines, she promotes SF&Fantasy by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing.

Her Arthurian novel The Cleaving will be published in April 2023.

Juliet can be found at:
Website: www.julietemckenna.com
Twitter: @JulietEMcKenna
Facebook: facebook.com/jemck
Mastodon: @JulietEMcKenna@wandering.shop

Tell me what inspired you to write your debut novel?

Back in the early 1990s, I’d read rather too much disappointingly generic secondary world fantasy fiction. I decided I should see if I could do better myself. My debut novel The Thief’s Gamble was the result in 1999, after I had discovered that this writing lark is nowhere near as easy as I had naively imagined.

What came first the characters or the world?

The world, in that the world of Einarinn was the setting for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign I was running. The first of a great many lessons I had to learn was what makes a good tabletop scenario and what makes a decent fantasy novel are very different things.

How hard was it to get your first book published?

The very first hopelessly derivative brick-thick fantasy that I wrote went the rounds of more agents and publishers than I can recall, and they all said thanks but no thanks. With the benefit of hindsight, I am intensely grateful for that, as well as for the occasional scribbled notes on rejection slips highlighting things I was doing right. When I stopped tinkering with that non-starter and started fresh with a blank page and a new idea, I wrote The Thief’s Gamble, and that was picked up within a few months.

How long did it take to write?

About six months for the first draft, and then another six months to substantially improve it with invaluable editorial input.

Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?

I don’t ever write to music, unless there’s something like roadworks going on outside and I need a less jarring noise to ignore. So no playlists, sorry.

How many publishers turned you down?

Thinking about my most recent experience, which was looking for a publisher for The Green Man’s Heir, I stopped looking fairly soon. The responses were all ‘This is urban fantasy so your epic fantasy fans won’t read it. Since you’re an epic fantasy writer, urban fantasy fans won’t pick it up.’ So I offered the novel to Wizard’s Tower Press, the small independent publisher who had been putting out my backlist as ebooks. The rest is history and nearly 20,000 copies sold since 2018.

What kind of reactions have you had to your book?

As far as The Green Man’s Heir and its sequels are concerned, it turns out most SF and fantasy fans are happy to read widely across all variations of the genre. Readers particularly like the way these books gender-flip the urban fantasy template – the human caught up in supernatural goings-on is a man and the scary supernatural figures are mostly female. Of course, that’s been the pattern in the British folklore I’m drawing on since the way back when. The woodcutter’s third son goes on a quest and meets the witch in the woods…

What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?

‘Honestly, Dan’s such a bloke!’ That’s Daniel Mackmain, the central character the Green Man books, and the reader was referring to – sorry, spoilers. Anyway, that made me laugh out loud, and it was also very reassuring to know I was writing a young 6’4” male carpenter’s point of view so convincingly, when I am obviously none of those things.

What can you tell us about your next book?

This is something different again. I’ve written a feminist take on the Camelot myths, looking at Uther, Arthur, Merlin and the rest from the viewpoint of the women in these legends. The Cleaving will be published by Angry Robot in April 2023.

Do you take notice of online reviews?

I always take a look at them because it can be useful to see reactions to aspects of a book that hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t fret if a book of mine hasn’t worked for a particular reader. It’s a shame and I wish them enjoyable reading elsewhere, but I accepted a long time ago that not every book works for everyone. I’ve had good friends recommend books that have left me cold and got ‘meh’ responses from them to books I have loved.

Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?

I’ve written three murder mysteries set in ancient Greece as JM Alvey. Unfortunately, internal reorganisations at the original publisher saw the books lose two editors inside six months and they abandoned the series six weeks before the second book was published. Canelo picked up the ebook rights and we’ve added a third story I had planned, but we have a long way to go before those sales justify me writing the next one I have outlined. Some day, who knows? I live in hope.

What did you do before you became a writer?

I worked in recruitment and personnel management after university. Finding the right people for the right jobs and vice versa was fascinating and very satisfying. When my children were small, before I was first published, I worked part-time as a bookseller for Ottakar’s. That taught me many things about the book trade that are invaluable for an author.

Which author(s) inspire you?

I always find that an impossible question to answer. I could come up with a list of ten writers and tomorrow I’ll realise I left out someone crucial. Then someone will tell me they see something in my work that reminds them of an author I’ve forgotten I ever read – and they’ll be absolutely right. All I can say is, one way or another, I’m influenced by everything I read.

Which genres do you read yourself?

Crime, thrillers, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, non-fiction of all kinds. The only thing I definitely don’t read is horror. I appreciate the skills needed to write it well, but I simply don’t enjoy it. Each to their own.

What is your biggest motivator?

Deadlines. I plan ahead and I like to stay ahead. Yes, I used to do my homework on a Friday evening as soon as I got home from school. Habits like that stick.

What will always distract you?

Nothing short of an actual disaster. I’ve always been very good at focusing on the job in hand.

How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?

In the UK and the US, I’ve been extremely fortunate from my first book onwards. I’ve been involved in early discussions and I’m often able to share visual references I’ve used, as well as answering any questions the artists might have. This sort of collaboration makes for great covers, as a glance at The Green Man’s Gift and at The Cleaving shows.

Were you a big reader as a child?

Absolutely. I have a brother who’s two years older than me and when he went to school and learned to read aged five, so did I, aged three. I vividly recall sitting on the sofa with him and Mum and the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme starring Peter and Jane. I was in the local library every week getting my full allocation of books, and borrowing any tickets my brother wasn’t using.

What were your favourite childhood books?

I went back to E Nesbit’s books time and time again, along with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons stories. I adored a trilogy set in ancient Egypt by Rosemary Harris; The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun, and The Bright and Morning Star.

Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?

Blackwell’s, Broad Street, Oxford. When I first went in there as an undergraduate, it was my idea of heaven. It’s still a magical place.

What books can you not resist buying?

Those labour-of-love, small-press books about local history and folklore on the gift shop shelves of castles and stately homes.

Do you have any rituals when writing?

Not really. My routine is sit down, switch on the computer, read over yesterday’s writing to catch any obvious glitches and carry on typing.

How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?

I have half a dozen research, non-fiction titles waiting. Don’t ask me about the ‘ooh, that looks interesting and it’s only 99p’ ebook stash…

What is your current or latest read?

Remember My Name by Sam Blake. A crime thriller set in Ireland. I’ve only just started it, but it’s looking very promising.

Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?

I’m going to restrain myself and only pick one. Val McDermid is writing a new series of crime novels with a decade between each book. So far, we’ve had 1979 and 1989, and the blend of a gripping mystery with the historical detail of years I remember has enthralled me. I am really looking forward to 1999.

Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?

I’m currently reading around the ideas for the next book in the Green Man series. I’m also working on a short story that I’ll be submitting to an anthology.

Any events in the near future?

It’s a while off yet, but I’ve got next year’s Eastercon in Birmingham in my 2023 diary. There’ll be more to come.

and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?

When I decided to take everything I’d learned from writing the derivative fantasy non-starter, and from working for Ottakar’s, I was at home with two small children. I opted for epic fantasy rather than crime because I’d heard so many crime writers stress the importance of getting the real world details right, and there just weren’t the online resources we have today. I could create a fantasy world without leaving the house with one in a pushchair and one in a baby sling.

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