Hello and welcome, Sarah. It’s lovely to have you here and I’m so excited to have the chance to ask you about your new story, Chanctonbury Ring, which is released today as part of the Dreamspinner Press anthology Not Quite Shakespeare.
Before I ask you about your contribution to the anthology, could you tell us a little about yourself and the types of stories you write?
Thank you so much for having me here, Sarah! Well, let’s see… a long time ago, I used to write stories that I kept in a spiral bound notebook—a series of improbably adventures about a group of young horse-mad girls who solved mysteries. The stories were so popular, I had a waiting list of people who wanted the notebook next! I also wrote terrible Mary Sue self-insert type fanfiction, though at the time, I didn’t know fanfiction even existed. Somewhere along the way, I decided I needed to grow up and put such childish things away. I stopped writing. I buckled down, studied hard, became a hard-working professional without a scrap of creativity in my life. I thought that’s what being an adult was all about. Work hard. Take care of your family and responsibilities. Go to bed. Get up and do it all over again.
About ten years ago, a friend introduced me to online fanfiction archives. I confess, I went a little nuts. I discovered the fanfic for a favorite sci-fi show and began reading the entire posted archive on it. In alphabetical order. After a few hundred stories, the urge to write became so strong, I began writing and posting my own fanfic. Over a three year period, I wrote some 70-odd stories—over a million words of fanfic. It was only because of the encouragement of friends that I even considered submitting an original work for publication, but there you are.
My stories often have the same central theme of my own life: Life is more than mere survival. It isn’t enough to work hard and meet your responsibilities. There has to be joy, too. I love writing stories about people who discover someone that makes breaking out of their mold worth all the risks. I also like to put my characters in hot water to see what they’re made of, to see how strong they are. Like tea bags. Only sexier. 🙂
Your contribution to the volume is the wonderfully romantic and evocative Chanctonbury Ring. What was it that inspired you to write this particular story set in this particular place?
Ah, I was fortunate enough to travel to the UK for the first time in 2012. I don’t get to travel much, and I’d never been overseas before. Having grown up reading British cozy murders, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, J. K. Rowling and the like, every moment on British soil was a fangirl’s dream. I trailed magpies around in the yard, snapping pictures of them. I stomped my feet in excitement at the sight of a red call box, and my first yew garden. I bounced up and down and squealed on seeing landmarks from Gaudy Night and punched the BF in the arm as I pointed out the church where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey got married.
The BF pointed out early on during the trip that because we were only going to be there a short while, we’d be unable to take in the ‘sights’. I indicated the soggy lane at our feet and said, “You see that? This is English mud. I don’t need to see anything else.”
It was a magical trip.
Having made it, however, I can say that I don’t think I would have been able to adequately capture the elements that make someone recognize the country had I not actually been there. I’m slowly learning how much travel to the place in question fills out the gaps of imagination. Not all the Googling in the world could have prepared me for the spongy turf on the South Downs. Now I know why the UK excels in field sports.
One of the things that struck me most forcibly about Chanctonbury Ring is the way you evoke the English countryside in all its beauty and cold, damp glory! I’d go so far as to say it’s a character in its own right in your story. I know you’ve been to Britain – indeed, the pictures on this page are all photos from your trip – but I wonder just how you managed to convey the way it feels with such immediacy and detail?
It helped that I’d just been there recently, I think. I also love the land, though. I love the outdoors. I love farms and working in stables. So when I set my story in a UK stable versus an American one, it was just a matter of translating one set of physical memories for another.
I love stories that can, with a single sentence, cause me to see the entire scene laid out before me. I want to be able to see the scene, to smell it and feel it, too. I know that some people can get impatient with that kind of writing, but I want to tell stories that feel like little movies playing out in your mind when you read them. 🙂
Taking photographs helps, too. Fortunately, I adore taking pictures and I think I have an eye for what makes a good shot. I wish I had better than a little point-and-shoot camera—but rarely a day goes by without me taking some sort of photograph. When I look back at the pictures, I can remember how I felt when I took them.
The haunting poem from which the couplets are taken is one I wasn’t previously familiar with, but I, along with Denny, have now read so often I’ve memorised it. Are the lines from the poem indeed displayed at the bottom of the lane, or is this a piece of artistic licence? And can you share a little about the history of the place itself?
I know that the poem is displayed on a stone tablet, but I can’t exactly recall if the tablet was at the beginning of the path up to the Ring or at the portion that empties out into the town of Steyning. I remember seeing a sign posted on a fence near the beginning of the path where some ponies lived, and the notice advised not to feed the horses as they were cheeky and they would bite. That made me grin! So did climbing over stiles and crossing pastures full of shaggy cattle.
Chanctonbury Ring itself is a stand of centuries-old beech trees on the top of the Downs. It was originally an Iron Age fort, and then the Romans built a temple there. In the 1800s, the stand of beeches were planted, but in 1987, a hurricane destroyed many of the trees, changing the look of the Ring from a distance. The old trees are still there, however, and new ones have been planted. When I walked along the grassy path between these ancient trees, I found myself thinking that this must be what Middle Earth looked like—so all those thoughts and impressions worked their way into the story, too.
The town itself is a perfect example of the quintessential small English town. I loved how you could tell the age of the various buildings depending on the tool marks used to work the flint, and how there was a centuries old mounting block in front of the post office, and how natural it was to walk to the market every day and buy fresh food for dinner. I was struck by how narrow the roads were, and how small the cars were, too. Here in the US, we drive such long distances as a matter of course because this country is so huge. Our vehicles are ridiculously large, and our streets in town tend to be very straight, with few curves. A person can live in a small town in the US most of their life and never meet anyone from a different culture. It can make us very insular sometimes. I’d love to be able to travel more. I could see setting stories in exotic-to-me locations if I’d only been there once.
Without giving anything away about the story, Tarquin and Denny evidently have deep and real back stories, contributing to the way they live and breathe and hurt through this story. There’s a real sense of loss winding its way through the tale. Did you work their stories out in detail beforehand, or did they develop as you wrote?
Well, I find it challenging to tell a good story in less than ten thousand words, so I decided to cheat and have Tarquin and Denny already know each other and meeting again for the first time in over a decade. I had to figure out what would have separated the two young men and kept them parted. After the basics of the background were worked out, the story really wrote itself.
Writing a short story is a very different undertaking writing a novel – or at least, I find it so. Do you find one more difficult than the other?
Golly, yes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write a short story for a specific prompt only to have it turn into a novel on me. I tend to have big story ideas and find it difficult to tell a succinct story in the frame of ten to twelve thousand words. By making Tarquin and Denny an established relationship, I could skip over the ‘getting to know you’ bit that most short stories need as background without sacrificing the connection between them.
I almost hate to ask this when ink is still drying on the pages of Chanctonbury Ring, but I have to know – are you currently working on anything?
*grins* I am! The sequel to Unspeakable Words is coming out sometime in Sept-Oct 2014. Walk a Mile takes FBI agents Flynn and Parker in the next step of their quest to reverse the ‘gift’ that Flynn acquires in Unspeakable Words, only things go disastrously wrong. I’m afraid I left the ending of Walk a Mile on a bit of a cliffhanger and that readers will lynch me if I don’t bring forth Truth and Consequences in due time. So never fear, I’m working on the next in the series right now!
I’m thrilled to hear it! Thank you so much for being here today, and also for sharing your lovely photos with us. I walked up that very lane in Oxford a few weeks ago, but although I always appreciate Oxford, I certainly didn’t see it in the way I do in your photograph. Now I’m off out to investigate the consistency of the mud in my locality. When I’ve finished reading Not Quite Shakespeare, of course.
Sarah Madison – Contact Information
Bio: Sarah Madison is a veterinarian with a big dog, an even bigger horse, too many cats, and a very patient boyfriend. She is a terrible cook, and concedes that her life would be easier if Purina made People Chow. She writes because it is cheaper than therapy.
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