The Incendiary and Magical "Of Blood and Honey": Rick Klaw's Interview with Novelist Stina Leicht
Stina Leicht's recently released first novel Of Blood and Honey has begun blazing a laudatory swath through the blogosphere with superior notices from places such as SF Reviews , Booklove, Speculative Fiction Examiner , Monsters and Critics, and more to follow. With an expert blend of classic Irish fantasy tropes and a gritty, realistic portrayal of the IRA circa early 1970s, Leicht offers one of the more distinctive and powerful novels of the young decade.
Special Omnivoracious correspondent Rick Klaw sat down with Leicht to discuss her new book, the Fey, researching prisons, the art of violence, and why women find it easy to write male characters.
Rick Klaw for Amazon.com: Of Blood and Honey is actually two distinct stories expertly melded together. Was this originally two separate novels? If so when did they become one and what led you to that wise decision?
Stina Leicht: The final version isn’t the version I submitted to my agent, Joe Monti. Initially, I shied away from writing about The Troubles. Again, I’m American. Americans are infamous for taking sides regarding that conflict without having any real idea what they’re talking about. I didn’t want to be that American. Enough damage has been done to the Irish and the British. So, my first thought was to write a story about an Irish púca living in modern day Austin, Texas with the plotline set in The Troubles treated as flashbacks. I figured I could get my points across with less risk. However, the more I wrote, the more I knew the heart of the story was in 1970s Northern Ireland. I knew it in my bones. Joe only confirmed it when he called. I have to admit, he was a bit frightened by how fast I agreed to throw out 66,000 words of my 116,000 word novel. But by then I’d been thinking about it for a year, you know?
As for the way it is now, well... I didn’t want to write the Special Snowflake(TM) story. I’m pretty sick of those. You know, the story where the entire world revolves around the main character for whatever reason? They’re special merely through an accident of birth. They're special because of their blood, DNA or family money -- not because of the person they choose to be, or because they’ve done anything great or good. It’s a very privileged mindset. I wanted to get away from that trope. I wanted to write a fantasy story about someone who wasn't some form of Messiah. So, Liam isn’t the center of the conflict between the Fey, the Fallen and the Catholic Church for that reason. His father, Bran, is in the middle of that conflict and has a separate story.
Stina Leicht: I once attended a panel at ConDFW about myth appropriation from minority cultures by fantasy writers with an emphasis on whether or not this was ethical. It was an interesting discussion. It was repeatedly stated that there wasn’t anything left to mine from Celtic myth. Based on the examples given, I understood that it wasn’t Celtic myth they were talking about. It was the English Victorian ideal of Celtic myth combined with other modern fantasy writers’ works. Irish fairies in particular have been transplanted so often that it’s no longer unusual to see them in New York or California. I had an urge to send them home again and allow them to reassume their original form as much as possible---that is, the tall tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Cuchuilain, and the Fianna. Of course, not everything I did fits because I’m American, but I gave it a shot.
Second, I was working at BookPeople and one day I happened upon an ARC [Advanced Reading Copy] of Those Are Real Bullets by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson. It’s a first-hand account written by two British reporters who witnessed the events at Bloody Sunday (January 29, 1972) in Londonderry/Derry, Northern Ireland. I was horrified. It was as if no one outside the U.K. seemed to have noticed the vast differences between what witnesses had reported and forensics had indicated, and what the military and British government had told the world. By then I started seeing the similarities between actions of the Thatcher administration and the American government, and I knew then I was on to something. My favorite sci-fi and fantasy works make commentary on contemporary society. I understand the thirty-year war the Irish call “The Troubles” is a very sensitive subject, but one of sci-fi and santasy’s greatest traditions is about discussing sensitive subjects through the vehicle of story. Sometimes that’s the only way humanity can face the realities of such topics.
Amazon.com: You realistically and brutally portray life within the British prison camps. Since obviously you weren't there, what sorts of research did you employ?
Stina Leicht: For the record, Malone Prison doesn’t exist and never did. Long Kesh? Now, that did exist. I made up Malone (which is named for a friend by the way – not the Belfast suburb) because initially I couldn’t find much information on conditions in Long Kesh. I didn’t want to be irresponsible and just make up whatever. Of Blood and Honey may be fiction, but it’s set within events that actually happened. In general, I needed to be careful. So, I created Malone. I watched films like Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, and In the Name of the Father. There was also Inside Long Kesh , a documentary about Long Kesh prison camp that aired on Irish television. (Part of it was a tour of the site given by a former Loyalist prisoner.) I also read nonfiction accounts like Ten Men Dead by David Beresford and Cage Eleven by Gerry Adams. I also read Louise Dean’s fiction novel This Human Season. Then I asked a friend in Belfast to check my work. (His cousins, like many men at that time, were interred.) All in all, I did the best I could with what information I had.
Amazon.com: Speaking of brutal, some of your scenes are particularly rough—one of them with Liam will make all of your male readers squirm—do you find these parts difficult to write? If so, what inspired you?
Stina Leicht: Yes, those parts were all very difficult to write. Some had to be put onto the page a few lines at a time and then I had to walk away for a minute or two and think. There were even moments when I had to laugh at myself because I was bawling like Joan Wilder in the film Romancing the Stone. I mean, what a sap, right? Who does that? Yeah. Okay. I do. But I’m a dork, and I admit it.
Like all writers, I pulled from many sources and sewed them together like a patchwork quilt. I used my own life, the experiences of friends and family, and then mixed them with a healthy dose of exaggeration or extrapolation in some cases. I used my own reactions to my mother-in-law’s death in the hospital and observations of my husband’s grief as well. Someone I knew once died in a car crash practically in front of my house. He drove into a concrete bridge going about 40mph, but he neglected to buckle his seat belt. So, there he was, sprawled dead under a sheet in a puddle of blood on the street at 3am. I remember the sheet didn’t cover his right hand. It was the only thing that slammed the situation home. His identical twin brother was the first to arrive on the scene. It’s not like the movies. People pass from life shockingly quick. They die in the span of a breath and with very little fanfare. As for other scenes... well... unfortunately, many women have experienced sexual abuse---many more than most men realize. It’s disgustingly common, but few people actually want to admit that it is.
Amazon.com: The stories of the Fey read with an air of authenticity. How much is from the previously established legends and how much did you develop whole cloth?
Stina Leicht: I used the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill for the most part. I twisted them a little, and I think in the actual legends Bran and Sceolán are Fionn’s cousins, not his nephews but that’s what happens when you’ve a mind like a steel sieve, and you’ve a ton of details to track. In the legends, Bran and Sceolán’s mother was pregnant when she was transformed into a dog by a jealous woman of the Sídhe. She was still in dog form when the twin boys were born. So, Bran and Sceolán are humans in puppy form. I don’t think they ever transform back into humans in the stories---although, their mother does. I’ve liked púcas since watching Jimmy Stewart in Harvey at a young age. So, I thought it’d be interesting to combine the two legends.
As it turns out, there was a púca in Long Kesh. Gerry Adams in his book Cage Eleven describes an instance where one of the cages (the fenced areas where prisoners were kept) in the Kesh reported a haunted Nissan hut. Men were so frightened by the poltergeist that they moved out of the hut and crowded into the second one. They even called a priest in to bless the place and get rid of it. They named the ghost “Harvey” after the six foot tall rabbit---the púca, from the Jimmy Stewart film. No one is going to believe that I came up with the idea first and then read about it in Gerry Adams’s account, but I did!
Amazon.com: One of the finer aspects of the novel is your handling of stereotypes (the swearing, drinking Catholic priest; the overprotective mother; the powerful, rebellious wife; the nearly illiterate, reluctant soldier). These characters are simultaneously familiar and fresh. Was it a conscious effort to do this?
Stina Leicht: I didn’t think about it that way. For example, the powerful, rebellious wife: Mary Kate. I named her for Maureen O’Hara’s character, Mary Kate Danaher, in The Quiet Man. I love that movie, flaws and all. I can’t help it. As I understand it, the Irish like it too. In reality, it’s nothing but John Ford’s love letter to an idealized Ireland – right down to the tweaked Technicolor film stock. So, Liam’s Mary Kate represents that idealistic Ireland, and Liam, in a way, represents the Republican Army. He bravely suffers for his Mary Kate and their future (the baby) – only he’s been driven more than a little bit self destructive and crazy. Yes, it was that simple.
Then there’s the fact that historically, financial power equates to cultural power. In minority cultures where minority men are not able to maintain employment over an extended period of time, minority women, the least threatening to the privileged majority, can. When that happens women end up with more power within that minority culture. This happened in Ireland. However, even under those circumstances, women are often only allowed to exert a certain amount of power over men – particularly in that era. I’m not sure if any of that answers your question. But I guess stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.
Amazon.com: How much of Liam's feelings of isolation and being different stems from your own experiences?
Stina Leicht: Quite a bit. I didn’t fit in as a kid. I was told I was stupid when in reality I was intelligent. I’m also an undiagnosed dyslexic---although, not anywhere near as badly dyslexic as Liam. I wasn’t popular. I was entirely too tall, skinny and flat-chested. My hair was frizzy. I was a tomboy. I was too sensitive, shy and fearful. I was gullible too. All these things made me an easy mark. So, I protected myself by withdrawing into my own imagination. Books were my life, of course---books and music. But really, I’d bet money that just about every professional writer could tell a similar story. We become fiction writers for a reason.
Amazon.com: Did you find it difficult writing from the male perspective? You created characters strong, fully developed, and interesting women, so why did you choose a male protagonist?
Stina Leicht: You don’t often hear women being asked that question. More often, you hear it being asked about male writers who write about female characters. To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult. That’s part of my job as a writer, creating a character who isn’t me and seeing things from that different perspective, making them real. Being a sci-fi/fantasy writer is writing about Other. For me, Other is male.
I also believe it was easy for me because, well... I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that women have to think outside themselves and their own experiences pretty much all the time. The world, if you’ll pardon the expression, revolves around the penis. Advertisements are oriented toward straight men, even advertisements supposedly aimed at women. (Have you really looked at fashion magazine covers? Isn’t it just a little odd that any one of them could pass for a copy of Maxim or even Playboy?) So, I’m dead used to it. Don’t get me wrong. I love men. Men are wonderful people. I’m married to one of the most wonderful men of wonderful men, but let’s be honest. Men tend to forget that they’re only 49% of the population. But you know what? We women tend to forget it too because it’s really hard not to buy into that thought. It’s so pervasive.
That said, I selected a male protagonist because I didn’t want to be lumped in the Romance category. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked what kind of fiction I write. If I answer, “I write fantasy.” I get asked whether I write for kids. When I say I write fantasy for adults I’m asked,“Oh? Erotica and Romance then? Do you write about vampires?” Why is that? None of my male friends who write are asked if they write Romance or Erotica. So, I must confess, my desire to be taken seriously as a sci-fi/fantasy writer was a big factor in that choice. There were two other factors as well, however. There’s a vast flood of strong female heroine stories out there – whether there are enough that aren’t Romance-oriented is something I won’t get into. (There aren’t.) However, I’m kind of a contrarian. If I feel the current pushing one way, I tend to swim against it for the sake of swimming against it. Lastly, whenever I think about that question I’m reminded of my first Armadillocon Writer’s Workshop. There was a female writer who talked about how one selected the Point of View Character. She had a very colorful answer that I’ll never forget: “The best Point of View Character for a story is the one whose goat gets f-----.” Seriously. That’s what she said! Regardless, it’s great advice. It’s the character who has most at stake---or in this case,the character for which the Reader will feel most is at stake. And that’s it, really.
Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, interviewer Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures, SF Site, RevolutionSF, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.