Author Spotlight: Jill MacLean

Three of Jill MacLean’s five novels for middle-graders and young adults won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature. A fourth book won the Red Cedar Award. Two of the books are in Nova Scotia’s schools. She was born in Berkshire, the setting for her newly-released medieval novel for adults, The Arrows of Mercy, and re-visiting it—in reality in the 21st century and in imagination in the 14th—has given her much pleasure. She now lives in Bedford, Nova Scotia, near her family.

What do you feel passionate about?

My website gives a partial answer to this question: the power of words; a good story, well-told; the need to have characters alive in my head; canoeing, reading, gardening and travel; family and friends (far from least, even if last).

A relatively easy list to compile.

The passions that drive my writing are less conscious. They can nudge me towards genuine discoveries and they supply the energy that enables me to stick with a novel from beginning to end, through innumerable revisions and disheartening rejections. Passion demands persistence.

When I write, I don’t start out with themes in mind. I have to trust they’ll emerge as the story shapes itself and I’m often the last one to grasp what they are, even though they’ve grasped me for months. Theme, for me, equals passion.

How does that passion figure into your new novel, The Arrows of Mercy?

Two of the themes that underlie this novel are, in modern terms, scorched-earth warfare and PTSD.

I was born in England in early 1941, a time when Britain was in danger of being invaded, a time of intense anxiety. I had uncles in the forces, an aunt living through the blitz, a healthy young father who was an aeronautical engineer and took the train to work five days a week, conspicuously not in uniform. I remember long curls of barbed wire, blackout curtains and ration books, air-raid shelters, sirens, gas masks made of floppy green rubber that stank. I remember the victory parade from my perch on my father’s shoulders. By writing this novel, I’ve learned that war affected me, small though I was.

Edmund, my protagonist, was conscripted into the king’s army as an archer, and survived thirteen months of brutal warfare in northern France that left him haunted by the blood on his hands. I still have traces of PTSD from the long ago car accident in which my daughter died, and I suspect that many of our first responders suffer from full-fledged post-traumatic stress. Loss is a theme throughout all my books.

In the nineties, I completed a master’s degree in theological studies, taking the maximum allowable number of courses in comparative religion, and was fascinated by the stories cultures tell themselves in order to give meaning to life, to impose order on randomness. Even so, Edmund’s religious doubts took me by surprise. I found them intensely interesting.

To summarize all this, whenever a novel of mine is released, I feel as though I’ve undressed in public.

You are perhaps best known as a middle grade writer, having penned several award-winning books including The Nine Lives of Travis Keating and The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy. Why was it time to write a novel for adults?

By the time I’d finished the fifth of my novels for young readers, I was afraid I was falling into a literary rut: four of the books overtly about bullying, four of them set in Newfoundland (where my family was living at the time), all of them contemporary. Time to call a halt, change gears. Clichés abounded. Panic abounded, too.

Into that hiatus dropped my longtime fascination with the medieval period. I’ve been to the Cloisters, Cluny and Chartres, that great stone pile shot through with blues and reds. During my various trips to England, I sat in many a thick-walled Norman church steeped in the spirits of those who’d found solace there over the last eight hundred years. A medieval novel, then. Although the manuscript started out as YA, this soon changed. I wanted no constrictions, I wanted to write whatever came into my head. I wanted an adult audience.

Tell me about your decision to place this book in the past— 1348, to be exact.

The medieval period stretches, roughly, from 500 to 1500. What we now call the Hundred Years War started in 1337 under Edward III, who felt he had a legitimate claim to the French throne. From the beginning, I’d known Edmund would be an archer. The battle of Crécy, in which English archers slaughtered “the flower of French knighthood” was in 1346, the siege of Calais 1346 – 1347. Plague came to England in 1348. One by one, the dates closed in.

What kind of research did you engage in? Did your research take you to any interesting places? How did the pandemic affect your ability to do research?

I started reading early in 2014, taking full advantage of Dalhousie’s extensive medieval collection. The setting hit me on the head one day: Berkshire, the county where I was born – where else? I asked my son if he’d go to England with me that fall to do the driving, he agreed, and off we went. In London he was able to watch the last stage of the British version of the Tours de France (he’s a committed long-distance bicyclist), while I went to the British Museum and British Library. Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross added to the weight of each of our suitcases.

We picked up the car in Reading, took off for Wales (the first roundabout was a shocker) and explored the restoration of a medieval village in Comeston. We got lost in Cardiff, made it back to Berkshire, and drove the back lanes in the southwest of the county, narrow, winding lanes with hedgerows high as trees. Just as well for the sake of the local population that he was driving – and such a pleasure to spend ten days with my then 48-year-old son (we managed to find some wonderful pubs).

On the banks of the Kennet River, somewhere between Kintbury and Newbury, I found where Edmund lived, wandered the fields and woods, and knew I had to write this book.

Can you talk about the language you used for The Arrows of Mercy?

It was tricky. From the start I didn’t want to write about aristocrats. It was the lowest echelon of 14th century England that snagged me, the peasants, the villeins, whose unending labours allowed knights to fight and bishops to pray. I couldn’t replicate Berkshire dialect, Middle English was the language of the villeins, French of the aristocrats and Latin of the church. Gradually it came clear that Edmund, during the long siege of Calais, was tutored by a squire in grammar, verse and story, awakening in him a passion for words and “what rides their underbelly.” His manner of speech and thought thus differed from that of his neighbours when he came home, another factor in the isolation he experienced. Throughout the narrative, I used words like cottar, assart, maslin, chevage, virgate, because they were integral to life in the village (there’s a glossary at the end of the book). I also investigated medieval swearing (fun) and made up a few words along the way.

I wondered if you could talk about writing about the plague during a time of pandemic. What kinds of parallels were you making?

I researched the book during 2014, wrote it over the next two years, then started revisions, which lasted, literally, for years. So the actual writing was well before Covid.

When the pandemic happened with its various restrictions, the writer in me was rather amused that Edmund’s village, in its way, had been practicing “social distancing” and that Agnes the wise-woman knew enough to wear a cloth over her face and wash her hands, and to preach these precautions to others, some of whom listened, some of whom did not.
Geraldine Books, by the way, in Year of Wonders, brilliantly describes a 17th century village in Derbyshire, which, when infected by plague, totally isolated itself from the outside world.

Why did you decide to self-publish The Arrows of Mercy? What challenges does self-publishing present?

Because I was in love with the research, I wrote a sprawling mess of a novel, characters tearing off in all directions, events galloping across the pages. After the book went through two professional edits, I felt it was ready to send out to Canadian and UK agents. It wasn’t. Rejections dinged into my inbox. I had another professional edit. More revisions. More rejections, both from agents and Canadian publishers. Still more revisions. Finally, when I’d changed the ending innumerable times, when the manuscript had gone from 156,000 words to 113,000, I knew I’d found the essence of the story and the revisions had to stop.

I write to communicate and I wanted a book in my hand. After researching self-publication, I settled on a company out west and spent five months working with them so that I could hold that book. The challenges now? No placement of the novel in bookstores, as by traditional publishers. No promotion, no publicity. For three months I’m focusing on marketing The Arrows of Mercy, then I’ll write over the summer (I’m desperate to get back to that daunting blank screen) and do more marketing in the fall.

I made a substantial start on the sequel last summer—and I swear it won’t take eight years to finish.

Did you have any readings or launches you’d like to mention?

The launch of The Arrows of Mercy was wonderful, way beyond my expectations. More than seventy people in attendance, Mike Hamm of Bookmark sold over fifty books, and Brian Bartlett in his introduction was most generous in his praise of the novel. I’d also invited a champion archer and medieval enthusiast, who was kind enough to come in peasant garb with his longbow and describe how the bow, the weapon of peasants, changed the face of European warfare in the 14th century, starting with the battle of Crécy.

There was such warmth in the room, such a gathering of old friends and family—the three younger generations of my family did all the set-up and take-down, and when you add laughter, conversation and an armload of lovely flowers, it’s little wonder I was high for days afterwards.

So Edmund is now out in today’s world. I wish him well.

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