The Chronicles of Iona; Exile
Exile is the first novel in the historical fiction series The Chronicles of Iona; the story of the two men who laid the foundations of the Scottish nation – an Irish monk, Saint Columba, and a Scottish warlord, Aedan mac Gabran. Recently we caught up with the book’s author Paula de Fougerolles
What inspired me to put this book together?
I have loved the early history of the Celtic-speaking peoples ever since I was a girl. Irish, Scottish, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Breton—you name it, it really speaks to me. And in terms of medieval history, the 6th century in particular is just such a fascinating time. The Romans had left in a hurry, the Anglo-Saxons and others hadn’t fully established themselves yet, and everything was just a mess. I love that uncertainty: 6th-century Europe was poised between myth and history. Then, while I was doing my doctorate in Medieval History at the University of Cambridge, I came across the character of Columba, or Colum Cille. He was a saint and a statesman who, in 563 A.D., was exiled from Ireland for some unnamed but apparently violent and unforgiveable act. Yet instead of destroying him as it might have done, his exile became his impetus to found the monastery of Iona (one of the greatest centers of civilization in Dark Age Europe) and, from it, the Celtic Church in the British Isles. Along with Columba, the other person who jumped out of history’s pages was a contemporary and a great friend of Columba’s, Áedán mac nGabráin, the Scottish warlord who beat the odds to become the king of the Scots of Dalriada, the progenitor of Scottish kings, and the greatest warlord of his age. To me as a writer and a medieval historian, these two men were a match made in heaven. The basis for a perfect story. Two larger-than-life characters whose accomplishments, extraordinary for their own time, have become politically timely in a way I believe they would both wholeheartedly support. I wanted to flesh out their friendship. I also found it deeply intriguing that these two men could only have achieved what they achieved (the foundation of the monastery of Iona, the foundation of the Scottish royal line) by acting in concert with one another. Yet Columba was a man of faith, and Áedán a thoroughly pragmatic warleader. It ought not to have worked, but it did. Again, very timely: to me, Columba and Áedán embody dual aspects of a fight being played out on all levels of society today. Are we, as a society, faith-based, or are we based on a wholly rational world view? Are we people of God? Or people of science? If they found a synergy in the friction of their opposing world-views, then maybe we can too.
Did the work come quickly or did you really need to work at it?
It’s both, really. Some aspects of the series have been in the works for 20 years now. I started by studying medieval history as a young girl, which culminated in a doctorate from Cambridge. I have a deep regard for the history, the languages and the cultures of the Celtic-speaking peoples, so it’s very important to me to put in the time to get the historical framework for the series right, or as right as I can. Then there’s the historical landscapes (the archaeology, the topography, the terrain, etc.). In a very real sense, medieval peoples were the product of where they lived. The politics and history of the early middle ages were driven by topography, so the The Chronicles of Iona series is deeply rooted to the landscapes of Scotland, Ireland and Britain. Luckily, I’ve been able to travel a fair bit, as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, and then as a doctoral student in Cambridge, so I have managed to spend time at most of the historical sites which feature in the series. Now that I’m in Boston, I go back every year on research trips to double-check the specific itineraries of my novels. So, in a large way this series has been my life’s work so far. And it means that by this time all seven books in the series are fully plotted. But once the historical framework is in place—what each book needs to do in terms of the narrative, what each character’s journey will be in each book, what each chapter and each scene need to do—then the writing of individual scenes goes very quickly indeed. Often I am typing so quickly that my wrists and elbows ache by mid-morning. Because, by that point, I am simply offloading images and dialogue and language that have been mixing it up in my imagination for months, if not years. And that’s the really fun part: the characters, Áedán and Columba and the rest, have been living fully-realized lives in my head for years now. And they are desperate to finally be let out and wreak havoc. In fact, they often do and say things once they are on the page that even I, their creator, could not have scripted. So that part just flows. It’s a real joy.
What was the most challenging part of the experience?
For me, it has been trying to figure out how to get the books published. I’ve been at this a long time—I began writing Exile in earnest in 2005. I went through agents and publishers here in Boston and NY who loved the book, but who then either couldn’t sell it, or would only try to sell it if I changed certain aspects of the story. So, last Christmas, I finally gave myself permission to self-publish. There was a steep learning curve as I taught myself how to build a web-site, and the best way to market and publicize the series, and about search-engine optimization, how to format the manuscript for all the different digital platforms, that sort of thing. But, to be honest, traditional publishers are no longer spending money or time to help writers do these things. For a good decade now, writers have had to do for themselves. With the advent of digital publishing and of print-on-demand (which means you can print one book at a time), the entire publishing industry is undergoing a cataclysmic transformation—as it should. They can’t do business the old way anymore. None of us can. It’s been a troubling time for them, of course, and for agents—but it’s a fabulous time for writers. I feel very lucky that the world has changed in such a way and just in time for The Chronicles of Iona to be able to find its natural audience.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
The process of writing itself is the most rewarding part of the experience. First, of course, is the research. Immersing myself in the primary sources, revisiting them over and over again as I start a new novel, seeing nuances, levels, I hadn’t seen before. Weaving aspects of all of that fantastic Celtic literature into books. That feels endlessly creative and very fun. Then there’s the travel. I love going back to Scotland, Ireland, and Britain to revisit the sites. I get to hang out with people and ask them what it is about their people’s stories and histories that still resonate with them. What it is about their Celtic culture that they love. Then I get to incorporate that into the books. That’s wonderful—to see history living like that. And then to have readers respond to the books, to say that they love the characters, that they were moved by the stories, that they couldn’t put the books down and read them from start to finish in one go—that’s just lovely.
How did you feel when the book was completed?
When Exile was published I felt like I had finally become the person I was always supposed to be. Now it’s just gravy. I feel truly blessed. How many people can say that they are living their dreams?
What has the response been like so far from those who have read it?
The response from readers has been phenomenal. There is so much interest in Celtic history, in early medieval history. People have such a passion for it. The professional reviews of the book have been great, too, which helps of course. There is also a lot of very exciting traction for the book in Europe at the moment. 2013 marks the 1450th anniversary of Columba’s founding of the monastery of Iona and of the city of Derry/Londonderry, and a whole host of events are being organized in both places. So the timing for the series is just ideal. The book will be launched at this year’s Golden Bridges conference in Boston in November, which brings together entrepreneurs, business leaders and artists from Boston and Northwest Ireland to build cultural and commercial links between those communities. And the book is a featured work in the County of Donegal’s Global Diaspora Project which is building a global network of people with a connection to Donegal. Exile will also be the feature novel in a transnational reading project between Donegal, Derry, Scotland, and Boston called one book project. Exile will be read simultaneously by readers in these four countries in the hopes of encouraging dialogue and exchanges across national, cultural and religious lines. A series of author events, including visits to the historical sites, will be built around it. That’s an exciting project.
What’s next on your creative agenda?
The second book in the series, called Prophet, has just been released. Now I can get back to work on the third book, Island-Pilgrim, which is half-finished. That will come out by next summer, 2013. The story is set predominantly in Ireland, so to have it out in time for Ireland’s The Gathering 2013 will be a lot of fun. I gather that in 2013 all of Ireland will be one big party. After that, the plan is to publish a book a year until the series is finished. There are several more to go. I’m also well stuck into research for a series about the first generation of settlers in Plymouth Colony.
What made me want to be a writer?
Writing was always the thing I knew I supposed to do. Like many writers, I started my first “novel” when I was very young—eight or nine, as I remember. It was a horrible novel. It had dwarves; and not good dwarves. But that’s okay: it got me started. (And I no longer write about dwarves.) I was also a voracious reader. Every week I was allowed to take home from the library as many books as I could stack between my chin and my hands. (I would have taken out more but my mother wisely refused to carry them …) In elementary school, they created an award for me for having read the most books. (Nerdy, I know: but I’m okay with that.) I think the two—a love of reading, a love of writing—goes hand-in-hand. They engender a love of language, which encourages communication, which leads to the telling of stories. Or maybe it’s a genetic inheritance, because I see this pattern already being repeated in my own children.
What makes a good book?
At the very least, a good book has to be well written. Technically, I mean. For the simple reason that if it’s not, the reader will be catapulted from the fictional dream, and the book can not then do what it is meant to do. This is to resonate for the reader—to make them feel, remember, think about life, and think about the meaning of life. A good book will change the reader. They will be different for having read it. Maybe they will come to think differently about love, for instance. Maybe it will help them come to grips with a particularly painful loss they have endured. Maybe it will just arouse their curiosity about history, their language, their homelands, a country they would now like to visit or to revisit. Good books transport readers. A great book changes society. Because the job of literature, the job of all art, is to help us better understand and to get through our own existence, to make meaning of not only our own lives, but of living.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I do. Exile has been a long road. But I’ve learned something from every step of the way. Even from the Nos. Most especially from the Nos. First, write what you know. That old maxim is an old maxim because it contains an essential truth. But I would take it one step further and say: “Write what you wish to know”. Write stories that attempt to pose and to answer the questions that irk you the most. (For me: “What is the meaning of life?” And: “What happens after death?”) It’ll make you a better writer, it’ll make you a better person, and it may help the people who read your books lead happier, more fulfilled lives. Which is the point, I think. Keep at it. Develop good discipline. Most of Exile and Prophet got written in the very little down-time I had between changing diapers, and ferrying the kids to and from school, and otherwise raising them up. (My kids are now 10 and 8.) You can get an awful lot done with even ten minutes, as long as it’s concentrated effort. Over time that’s how books get made. You build them up. Then: don’t take no for an answer; meaning that when you get a no —no, your readers don’t like it; no, the agent won’t represent you; no, the publisher will not be taking the book—consider it the perfect opportunity to force yourself to think outside the box, to think creatively about your work. Don’t just stick the draft in the drawer and get depressed. Well, do that first, but then get out of bed, rescue that draft, give it and yourself a big hug, and get back to work. Keep trying to improve your craft. That’s important. In response to good critiques I’ve received, I’ve rewritten Exile several times, trying different points of view (omniscient versus multi-viewpoint, third person narration, etc.), different techniques, structures, plot elements, each time keeping what worked and throwing out what didn’t. The book got honed. Eventually, I ended up back where I started—I kept the priest; I kept the warlord—because that’s how this particular story needed to be told. But I do not regret the exercise in the least. Every word of Exile has been vetted over and over again. I truly intend every word in the book. And now: remember that we live in a new world. The internet has shrunk the world. Take advantage of it. The model of the writer working in isolation in his or her garret, being discovered by an agent and landing a six-figure book deal to world-wide fame, fortune and accolade is only one (very, very, very rare) way to get this thing done. It’s unlikely to happen to you. So what? You can now go out and find your demographic, find your like-minded readers and colleagues, anytime, anywhere, in any part of the world. Use social media to find them, talk with them, help them, let them help you, share, exchange, publish, thrive—create. There’s no excuse any more. We’ve all got prime store fronts on the world-wide marketplace. You no longer need anyone else’s permission. So just do it. Above all, be brave. Be brave and tell your story. Be brave and question everything and create.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Celtic culture?
I can speak to the current state of Celtic culture here in the US, in New England in particular. Here it is strong. Not counting the newly emigrated, we have large and vocal groups of people who identify themselves as Irish Americans, or Scottish Americans, etc., who derive a goodly percentage of their sense of self from their Celtic heritage. Who go out of their way to celebrate and perpetuate it. Who love the U.S. but also long to learn more about the homelands of their ancestors. Ireland’s The Gathering 2013 looks to be fantastic opportunity to infuse new life into Irish culture. If you have ever had any interest in getting over to Ireland to trace your family’s roots, to tour the countryside, or simply to have a grand time, 2013 will be the year to do it. Make sure to get to Iona while you’re there. They’re planning an Iona Gathering for next year. And Scotland is organizing its own Gathering in 2014. The Scottish Referendum in 2014 will be momentous, of course, whichever way it is decided.
What can we be doing better to preserve and promote that culture?
Governments need to invest money on the arts, especially to preserve and promote language, which is both vibrant and fragile—and is the essence of one’s sense of self. But I also think that the onus lies with us. It’s our job to keep talking about our heritage, our culture—to promote it with our children and with one other. As a student of history, I have seen first-hand that that is how things get passed down, how they remain alive. The Celtic myths and legends that I incorporate into my novels are only still with us because people passed them on by word of mouth, over and over again, over centuries. And yet, we have an advantage that no other people have ever had before: with the internet, we can make things go viral. So let’s make Celtic Culture viral. Like the roots and branches of a tree, we have an opportunity to be both really intimate in the sharing of our culture, and to go global with it at the same time.