With less than three weeks until Plenilune officially releases on October 20th, the release fun is beginning! On Monday 6th comes the cover release, which you'll be able to see here or at Jennifer Freitag's blog, The Penslayer. I'll also be posting my own review here at Vintage Novels, to the accompaniment of much readerly squeeing. And last but not least, an author interview, posted herewith, in which I get the opportunity to ask Jennifer to reveal all her writing secrets...
Jennifer, hello and a warm welcome back to Vintage Novels. As you know, I loved every minute of Plenilune. Where did the first seeds of the idea for this novel come from?
The necessity for this story—I call it a necessity—came when I mentioned, perfectly innocently, at the end of my first draft of Adamantine, that the main character’s cousin (Margaret) seemed to have undergone a change in more or less a twelvemonth. At the time it was a dumbish piece of writing: I suppose I didn’t want to resurrect the raw, haggard cousin which had occupied the early pages of Adamantine’s manuscript, I wanted someone easier to work with in the limited time that I had. But then I began to wonder: if something did happen to Margaret, what was it?
Other than horses (because, let’s face it, I’m a girl), I have undergone an obsession over two things: Rome, and the English Civil War. While the atmosphere of Plenilune is decidedly Teutonic (for no reason I can determine, other than that it came that way), aspects of both these youthful obsessions definitely impacted my novel. You will come across casual cameos of both to varying degrees, and I am not sorry at all.
If you want to know where the actual plot of Plenilune came from, I must warn you to always ask me at the outset of a novel: by the time I have finished writing a story, it has been so long and so much water has gone under the bridge, I cannot for the life of me remember the early seeds of my plots. It is a sad but recurring fact. I can’t tell you how I came up with Plenilune. I can simply no longer remember.
I’ve noticed a few other advance readers comparing Plenilune to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy. Obviously both books are similar in genre (planetary fantasy) but are there other commonalities or influences going on here? Some touches of allegory, for instance?
Unfortunately, people must relate Plenilune and Lewis’ Trilogy because there are so few planetary fantasies in popular circulation, but really they are very unlike in tone. Readers of Plenilune might find more connection between my novel and something like Lewis’ excellent non-fiction work The Discarded Image, which explores the medieval view of the universe. The Trilogy is not divorced from this hierarchy of the universe as posed by ancient and medieval philosophers, but it is definitely more of an accepted and influential concept among Plenilunar thought than it is in the Trilogy.
Now for a writer-workshop question: When I interviewed you for The Shadow Things, you mentioned “the poignancy of and the emotional importance in detail”. This is something you do amazingly well in Plenilune. How does detail intensify emotional reactions? Can you give examples of what kind of detail you might specifically try to include in different scenes?
I have difficulty putting this concept into words, so I will borrow someone else’s line. “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”
That last part, working off the resonance, is where the poignancy comes in. You cannot take in the scope of terror or joy, it is simply too much to write down, and often it is simply more than we can contain when we experience them. So you hone in on one small aspect, something that holds a wealth of meaning, such as the child’s socks in the road. You take in that one small thing, but you are immediately hit with the importance of it, like waves of sound trembling through a gong—only, in this case, the hammer is a sequence and the sound is emotion.
It would be hard to give examples of my use of this without picking up lines of text from my manuscripts and plopping them in here. I don’t invent these circumstances outside of their organic stories. The trick is somehow knowing which details, noticed in the moment by the character, will equally convey emotion and empathy to the reader. Sometimes these connections are intuitively obvious, sometimes you have to almost write the reader as much as you write the character.
Note: (I apologize, this is a long answer.) Between Rosemary Sutcliff, who really taught me how to write, and the opening battle sequence in the film “Gladiator,” I learned the significance of practically arresting the movement of reality, of slowing it until things seem both numb and terribly clear. I have experienced this sort of thing, but I was taught it mentally and visually through Sutcliff’s literature and Ridley Scott’s cinematography.
Besides the lush writing and thrilling melodrama, my favourite thing about Plenilune was Margaret and her character arc, from someone who is very powerless to someone who is “terrible as an army with banners”. It can be so hard to write a female character who is feminine without being useless, and courageous without being annoying. Can you share some thoughts on how to get this balance right?
I think the balance lies in knowing what people are like. Margaret is someone who is struggling hard to be something more in life, something better, but discovers when push comes to shove that she hasn’t actually got the skills required to stand on her own. The desire remains, and through the mutual nurturing of necessity and the school of hard knocks, and actually seeing a strength worth emulating, she grows into her ideals. “Strong women” is also not an issue that ever needed arguing in Plenilune: it is tacitly understood that a great woman is one who is both powerful in genius and tender in temperament.
There is also a need to recognize that these balances will look different in different women, and may not always rub others the right way. My “strong female character” of an upcoming Plenilunar installment can be so “terrible as an army with banners” that it can grate for other characters, and come across as almost more masculine than a woman ought to be, but she is a woman, and the reader is not left without a picture of the fragile side of the weaker vessel.
Who was your favourite character? What did you like most about writing him or her?
I think, in reading the book, my favourite character will probably be apparent. I won’t say outright who it is, so that nothing is spoiled for the reader, but I think it was the constant wheeling harmony of paradoxes in the character which I particularly loved. The sensation of motion, like rings around a planet, was never still, it was always humming, and there was always a sense of a thunderstorm building and waiting to let loose. The complete absence of any compartmentalization in the character’s brain allowed for a more cohesive picture of Plenilune and life than the main character and reader might have got from a more orthodox individual. The sense I got from Chesterton that “here we have battle and blazing eyes, and chance and honour and high surprise” was never lacking in this character, and I loved it.
I loved (and thoroughly agreed with) your explanation for the use of magic in Plenilune, but I wasn’t expecting the friendly dragon. I guess I’m most accustomed to the idea of dragons being the enemy, as they often (but not exclusively, eg Ps 148:7) are in Scripture. What imagery did you draw upon for your dragon?
This aspect of Plenilune is less Teutonic and more Eastern. The being in question is not an actual dragon (whatever dragons were, I do believe they existed as physical creatures): what you see is only the formal projection of it upon the five human senses on which we rely so heavily. (In this, you will meet a concept shared by Lewis’ Trilogy.) But because I did not want to rely only on the five basic sensations of the physical body, I chose a more Eastern picture, which is a little less reptile and a little more mystery, often seeming to defy the laws of the natural universe as if they were beneath it. In giving the reader a visual picture of the character, I wanted also to convey to the sixth sense that something was not quite right about the picture, the picture was not all there was. As for why I chose a dragon at all, by now the reason is swamped under years of working on this project. But perhaps the answer lies somewhere in my highschool Beowulf...
I was fascinated by the existence of formal Christianity on Plenilune, plus classic Thulcandran works like the Divine Comedy, and that quote from Hugh Latimer. It all raises the question of how Earth has influenced Plenilune’s culture in the past. Are we going to see some of that backstory in future books, or can you give us some hints now?
The fact that you recognized that quote by Latimer makes you ten times more awesome than before.
Ours is a mutual appreciation.
I was afraid someone would ask me this question—when Skander pulls The Tempest off a bookshelf, where did that come from?—because I have yet to discover the answer. My best answer for you is that, in light of the medieval structure of the universe, Earth, while not at the top, is still the most important world and everything looks toward it. How that communication is kept up, I don’t yet know, but I know that it vitally shapes the philosophical backdrop of Plenilune.
Would you tell us about your plans to write more Plenilune books? And I beg your pardon if the question is a little cruel, but have you any kind of ETA on the next book? Plenilune comes out on October 20th, and I imagine people will start begging for the next book on October 21st...
My plans include at least nine other titles. My current work in progress, Talldogs, is the third installment in the series. Ethandune, which is number two, will not be coming out next year for certain, as a good deal of it needs expanding and tweaking (I wrote the first draft in two months!), and I will probably not get to that until after I finish my Talldogs draft. I am sorry that it takes me so long to finish and turn these titles around, but you will thank me when the finished product is not too shabby by half!
Thanks so much for talking to us, Jennifer! I, for one, loved Plenilune and can’t wait to discuss it with everyone else once it lands on October 20th. All the best!
Thank you, Suzannah! It has been a pleasure wrestling with these fantastic questions.
Jennifer Freitag blogs at The Penslayer. Plenilune releases on October 20th, but you can add it on Goodreads and read other advance reader reviews right now--which I urge you to do!