Interview with Juliet E. McKenna

The Cleaving: Interview with Juliet E. McKenna

It’s my pleasure to host Juliet E. McKenna as part of a blog tour organized by Angry Robot to celebrate the recent release of The Cleaving, a feminist Fantasy retelling of the Arthurian legends.

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Meet the Author
Juliet E. McKenna

Juliet E. McKenna is the author of 15 epic fantasy novels set in the world of Einarinn,  as well as several novellas and countless short stories ranging from SF to steampunk and alternate history. Her contemporary fantasy Green Man novels, published by indie Wizard’s Tower Press, have sold over 28,000 copies since 2018. She has been a judge for the World Fantasy Awards, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James White Award and the Aeon Award, and has, herself, been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. In 2015 she was awarded the Karl Edward Wagner Award for special achievement by the British Fantasy Society.  She is a regular at science fiction conventions, and is a 3rd Dan Aikido black belt.

Connect with Juliet E. McKenna

About the Book
The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna

Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur’s court…

A new, feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends

The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.

The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?

As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.

Juliet McKenna is an expert on medieval history and warfare and brings this expertise as well as her skills as a fantasy writer to this epic standalone novel.

Welcome to the Asylum, Juliet! Take a seat by the fire, have a glass of beverage of your choice and tell us something about yourself that’s not in your bio!

I’m a 3rd Dan Aikido blackbelt. Aikido is the Japanese martial art that doesn’t meet force with force. I use this ABC to explain the core principles to newcomers. A is for Avoid – your first move is don’t get hit or grabbed. B is for Balance – keep yours, take theirs. C is for Control – this is what A and B will give you.

What inspires your writing? Do you listen to music, stare into the fire, listen to the whispering of the wind, make deals with the Devil?

Stories start for me when two or more things that I have read or seen or heard strike sparks off each other. These can come from fiction, non-fiction, a film, TV, a radio programme, a chance conversation overheard. What if some particular people or places or events combined? What if they opposed each other? What might happen then? Whether I start with a place, its people or an incident that starts a plot, those elements soon start influencing each other. The story soon generates its own momentum, taking unexpected twists and turns.

What was the most exotic place you’ve visited? Did it inspire any of your work? How that experience affected you personally?

The word exotic comes with some tricky assumptions nowadays so let’s set that aside. Wherever I travel, I keep my eyes and ears open, and even if it’s years later, I’ll find I’m drawing on something I recall in order to enrich in my work. In my late teens, I visited Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa, and that showed me the limits and inadequacy of reporting on African issues in the UK media. I’ve tried to look deeper and become better informed about all sorts of things ever since.

Which character of your book do you identify with the most and why? Who would you like to live with in an asylum?

I probably identify with Nimue most these days. I’m in my late 50s and she’s an older character who has to deal with the practicalities of life as well as the trials and tribulations of the younger generation. She’s seen most things before, one way or another. I’d find her restful company in an asylum. The word means place of safety after all, and I think we could both enjoy a break and some peace and quiet. When we’d had enough of that, her magic could get us out. 

Your new novel, The Cleaving is being released on April 11 2023. Congrats! If you could launch a release party with your MC(s) present, how that would go down? 

Oh dear, that would be a party with people standing in different corners of the room and glowering at each other. You’d be able to cut the atmosphere with a knife – or an enchanted sword. It’s really not a good idea!

If you were a character in your book, how would you be described? And what your profession/role would be? How long do you think, you would survive in that world?

I have a range of useful skills so I think I’d be okay as long as I didn’t fall ill or get injured in some accident. I can sew clothes, knit, embroider, cook all sorts of things, and I have no problem skinning and butchering animals, or drawing and plucking fowl. I can also read and write Latin since I studied Classics at university. So I would look to join a noble household as an upper servant, and then I’d keep my head down. If I did get caught up in an adventure? It’s been a while, but I can probably still ride a horse. I can fight with a sword, a knife or a staff as well as hand-to-hand, and with a bit of practise I could probably get my archery back to a reasonable standard.

Was your approach to The Cleaving any different to your previous novels? I assume, as many other authors, you have quite a few ideas to begin with. How do you decide which idea to focus on? 

This project was very different to all my previous novels as it started when Simon Spanton from Angry Robot asked me if I’d ever thought about writing an Arthurian novel. I said I hadn’t, since the whole tradition of knights on white horses rescuing damsels in distress really didn’t appeal. One way or another, the fifteen epic fantasy novels I’ve written so far have been challenging those stories and their assumptions. 

I’ve never found any shortage of ways to look at classic fantasy themes and characters from a new and different perspective. Over the years, I’ve found the ideas to focus on are the ones that stand up and fight back when you challenge them as hard as you can, usually by asking what if…?

Tell us a bit more about the background of The Cleaving. What interested you in the Arthurian legends that made you decide to write a retelling?

That conversation with Simon started me thinking about the issues I have with so many Arthurian stories – the patriarchy, the toxic masculinity, the elements of rape culture. He wondered if I could find a feminist angle. The more I thought about that, the more interested I became, especially once I went back to the earliest versions. When I started looking at the female characters, I could see where their lives and stories intersected and overlapped. I realised how centering the women and their viewpoints could offer a very different perspective on Uther, Merlin and Arthur. That was a novel I had to write.

What do you think of the recent surge of Arthurian retellings/Arthurian legends inspired novels? How are they still relevant today, in your opinion? What can we still learn from these legends? 

The legends of Arthur, Merlin, Camelot and the knights of the Round Table have been used for nearly a thousand years by writers wanting to make a particular point or to explore an issue. This is what fantasy fiction does after all; holding up a magic mirror to reflect our own world, sometimes shining light into dark corners. One way or another, modern retellings do this – as well as entertaining us, of course. I find the range of uses and interpretations which different writers can find within the same core stories fascinating – even when I think something is a real stretch.

Relevance is in the eye of the beholder. A writer can hope to offer food for thought, but what an audience makes of that is up to them. For myself, writing The Cleaving, I hope that readers will see how the culture at this particular Camelot really did no one – men or women – any favours in the long run.  

Which part of The Cleaving was the hardest to write, and which was the most satisfactory?

The ending, in both cases. Writing a story with fixed points that I couldn’t change was a new experience for me. It was something that had always put me off doing anything Arthurian. In particular, I really wanted to make the Battle of Camlann more than the traditional field of bloody slaughter. While I was writing, that was getting closer and closer, but I still couldn’t see how I was going to put my own twist on that final conflict. I was very nearly there when I suddenly realised I had already set up the story elements I needed. Drawing those threads together and weaving them into the existing myths to create something unexpected was fantastically rewarding.

What are your plans for 2023? Any particular events you plan to visit?

I’m at Eastercon in Birmingham UK. I’ll be at the Cymera Festival in Edinburgh in June, and at the UK Fantasycon in Birmingham in September. Other things will doubtless crop up, and the opportunities these days to take part in events online 

While you are locked in here for eternity, we will allow you to invite one visitor (fictional and otherwise) – who would you invite? And no, they can’t help you to escape.

Ambassador Spock. Just imagine the conversations to be had…  

Well then, it was a pleasure to have a chat with you! Please allow these nice attendants to escort you out. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in the Asylum! Any last words? 

Can I have some paper and a pencil, please? I’d like to make the best use of this uninterrupted writing time.

*locks door*

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The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna

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