By Alexander James
Publishers, with their obsessive desire to pigeon-hole novels, see a clear distinction between historical fiction and fantasy … but author Hunter Taylor thinks they’re missing a vital point.
In her book, ancient history is where fact and fancy meet on equal terms.
Hunter’s firm belief is that the supernatural must be accepted as an integral part of early medieval life to accurately recreate the times of which she writes and the mindset of those who populated the forests, villages and towns of a bygone era.
Before the line between reality and myth had been drawn, war raged between the new religion and the old -- and she calls on her own rich heritage as well as painstaking historical research to bring to life times of bloodstained reality and magical legend in her remarkable debut novel, Insatiate Archer.
Hunter’s family heritage is rich in ages old Celtic and Native American tradition and a store of folklore and intimacy with nature helped create the book’s unforgettable heroine, Susanna.
In her extensive and unfettered research, she found that the deeds of the mighty were carefully written down on parchment and calfskin, but the lives of everyday folk were recorded in poem, song and fireside stories that rang with their own truth.
Reality lay somewhere between documented history and magical legend in the misty past when witches and their public burnings were both equal facts of life.
This realisation led to the development of her complex and unforgettable lead character Susanna, whose startling, differently coloured eyes mark her as a sorceress, and who is a high priestess of the secret and sacred druidic groves, struggling to embrace the best of Christianity. And the deep-rooted superstitions and unholy terrors of those dark times also created the monstrous Yellow Curate who will stop at no evil to rid the world of Susanna and her kind.
Hunter’s seamless blend of 14th Century fact and myth produces a breathtaking odyssey through a land in the birth pangs of change, where Susanna is never more than a footstep ahead of the sadistic cleric obsessed with her destruction.
But the book’s mirror-true reflection of life in a cruel age where illiteracy and misunderstanding ruled is not the result of insightful and open-minded research alone; much is instinctive and drawn from the author’s inherited feeling for the times and people recreated in Insatiate Archer.
As a former military journalist, Hunter -- who is now a full-time author and lives with her husband in Texas -- also weaves into her work personal family folklore and a closeness to nature inherited from ancestors rich in the wisdom of ages.
I am on every page in my own right, but I am there in the presence of everyone who nourished or influenced me. My grandmothers are there with their store of homegrown remedies and old family tales. My Celtic father, with his never-ending humor and great creativity, is there. The people with whom I trained in the Army are there. My travels around the country and the globe are there. All the experiences of a lifetime -- and the lifetimes of those close to me -- come together.The result is that Insatiate Archer’s mystic heroine, Susanna, is a flesh-and-blood woman of her time, but one who readers can understand and identify with in the materialistic 21st Century.
My childhood was filled with the kind of history in which the story is set, with a strong oral tradition in tales of adventure and mystery. My father was Celtic Scots, and family lineage also includes direct ancestors who were Native American as well as old Germanic and Irish blood lines
This heritage of folklore and harmony with nature was a tremendous source of
inspiration as I wrote of times shrouded in myth and of people close to the earth, independent in their ancient beliefs and facing a changing world. Although my story is set six hundred years in the past, the circumstances and characters felt very close to home. I could feel part of them.
I could understand that, in their world, there was little if any distinction between the real and the supernatural. For the book to recreate this (what is to us) strange balance, it must honour fantasy as well as cold fact and include elements of both forms of the prevailing reality.
Susanna first came to me in the early 1980s while I was serving with the Army in Germany. Through the years, she evolved from a slightly fairy-tale being into a real presence, strong-willed and adventurous.Hunter’s title is taken from poet Edward Young’s 18th Century Night Thoughts: “Insatiate Archer! could not one suffice? Thy shaft flew thrice, and thrice my peace was slain.”
In the early 1990s, while living in New York City, I saw a revival of the musical, Camelot. It occurred to me then that of all the people in the Arthurian legends, the character of Nimue was largely unexplored. She is usually portrayed as conniving, a thief of Merlin’s magic who seals him in a cave and leaves him there. She did not seem so to me. I saw her as a highly intelligent young woman, assertive and independent. She became the ancestor of Susanna.
So the character of Susanna is original, although it has been said that all writing, no matter how the author may deny it, is to some degree autobiographical. I confess I did not see this as I was writing the novel. When it was completed and had sat the shelf for a time, I took it down and read it again. And it was there -- me and my family ghosts.
When I saw the quote on an old gravestone in Norfolk, Virginia, marking the resting place of a mother and her two children, it seemed to sum up the losses suffered by Susanna in the book. The harsh impersonal randomness of life itself.Hunter’s passion for writing goes back to early childhood and, ever since, she has always translated her thoughts into words on a page. She said:
The intertwining of historical fiction and setting with elements of fantasy came about as a result of my reading King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the King James Bible, and Playboy magazine. These may appear to be wildly divergent sources, but they all played a role in the conceptualization. Our modern lives tend to become bogged down in mundane detail. I believe that real life today -- as well as in days of old -- is something of a combination of fact and fancy, of the ordinary and the extraordinary. So even in the 21st Century, we can understand the touches of fantasy that make my book a more accurate mirror of life in the medieval times of which I write.
I have been interested for some time in the idea and the history of the manner in which women were persecuted as witches. This goes hand-in-glove with the struggle between the old religions and Christianity.
The unicorn has a part to play in the book; a creature that’s been associated with Christ and the early Christian church, the older nature-based religions, and belief in gods and goddesses. The image of the unicorn has been found in such widely divergent localities as ancient China and on the royal seal of England. You may have noticed that even in cyberspace, it’s one of the most popular avatars in chatrooms and forums. It’s almost like a genetic memory.
But to ensure historical correctness I researched histories of religions, witchcraft, ancient myths and legends. For instance, one seemingly fantastic episode in my book is based on an event actually documented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain.
As between forms of religion, I have no doubt about this blurred line between fact and fantasy in history. I feel that recognizing this in a novel accurately reflects the mindset of those who populated our world in olden days. I’m sure my ancestors would agree.
I cannot remember a time when I was not serious about writing. I believe it would be truly traumatic for me if some circumstance should keep me from it.Even in uniform, Hunter was armed with a pen. She said:
My earliest memories are of a love of words; reading, and the enchanting experience of writing. As a child, I haunted the public libraries and read incessantly.
I remember reading the same lyrical passages again and again, savoring the way the words were constructed to evoke an emotion, a scene, or a thought. I loved John Steinbeck, and Jack London; Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Hardy; and later, Tony Hilllerman. And I cannot read enough of Erica Jong.
So I have always known I wanted to be a writer. It was a question of arranging my life to allow me to write; family responsibilities had to come first for many years. I don’t believe I had early successes or failures in writing, just in getting to a point in my life where I could devote myself to writing.
I trained as a military journalist and wrote for military newspapers, magazines, radio and television for more than 20 years. I also read as much literature as possible, and took every writing, poetry, literature and English class I could find at nights and on weekends, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles.Life revolves around writing for Hunter, but it doesn’t fill every waking hour. She said:
I even took leave to attend longer courses. I once camped at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and lived in a tent to study [William] Shakespeare. I also commuted weekly from Germany to England over a period of several weeks to attend another Shakespeare course, and from Germany to Spain to complete a creative writing workshop.
I think the way to hone writing skills is simply to write as much as possible, trying different styles, subjects and venues. And it helps to have really good editors interested in your work, such as my editor at Fort Carson, Colorado, Sam Sears, and the people at BeWrite Books who helped me to fine tune Insatiate Archer.
My training as a soldier gave me the background and discipline necessary to focus on my mission and to develop an attitude of ‘failure is not an option’. These are things that serve me well in all areas of my life. All writers need a sense of discipline and mission to complete the long and arduous task of completing a novel.
One thing I have learned that Iwill share: you cannot write after all your work is done; your work is never done. If you try to write in your so-called ‘free time’ you will never write. You have to learn that the dishes will wait, the laundry is patient, dust is non-toxic and sandwiches are nutritious. All else can wait, but your Muse cannot. If you ignore her, she will become bored and desert you.
Insatiate Archer is the first in a trilogy of linked novels. Hunter is currently at work on the second, set two centuries later with a descendent of Susanna’s as protagonist. Again deeply researched hard fact and documented myth and magic will be interwoven to recreate a lost age in which reality had a less rigidly defined definition.
I stay very busy, which I like; I have a low boredom threshold. I am an instructor at Central Texas College, I am pursuing doctoral studies at Union Institute & University, I write every day, I design and conduct writing workshops for disadvantaged populations, I am involved in animal rescue efforts and I am active in my church.
In my free time I say hello to my husband … seriously, I’m blessed with a life-mate who understands my drive, and helps me to find time for all I feel I must do. Soldiers don’t have a lot of opportunity to make lasting friends in the Army, because of the frequent moves. But the friends I have made have always known that I write; for me, writing is a normal state -- and my husband and my family have always been there as an inspiration.
I have traveled a long and often bumpy path, and each hardship has made me stronger. Many years ago my Celtic grandmother said that when people find happiness in their lives they feel a need to give something back, and that each of us has been endowed with our own special gift, one that we can share. It may not seem to us a very special blessing; we are accustomed to it, and we may take it for granted.
Writing is my gift and my passion, and is what I want to share. Writing is my way of honoring the many blessings in my life.
This interview was first published by Twisted Tongue Magazine
Ghosts, a Haunting and an Exorcism, Conversations with Writers, March 3, 2010