This interview first appeared in the Ottakar’s bookshop newsletter, in February 2001. The interviewer is Alex Cullum.
What made you chose Merlin as your main character?
I’d written a short novel called Merlin’s Wood, in the mid 90s, set in the forest of Broceliande, in an alternative present where the ‘pagan’ church has absorbed Christianity, rather than the other way round. The essential story was that Vivian, his nemesis, is still pursuing him through time, even though Merlin lies impaled in the bottom of a votive shaft. I like that Merlin so much I determined to bring him back. He was a late addition to the idea behind Celtika, but an essential one, as he gives an immortal’s perspective on things.
Why did you set the story around the return of Jason and the reforming of the Argonauts?
This was my original notion, five years ago now. I’d seen the play Medea, with Diana Rigg as the enchantress. Medea was betrayed by Jason and killed his sons in front of him. On the stage, the ‘dead’ boys were giggling and talking as they lay sprawled in their own gore. It gave me the idea that the murders had only been a trick, and Medea had fled with their ‘bodies’, keeping them all to herself. And if Jason had found out? I thought that as an old man he would be revivified, rebuild the Argo, recruit new argonauts, and go in search of Medea and his sons, a whole new adventure.
How much time did you spend on research for the book?
Too much time. That whole period was fascinating: Jason predates the bulk of Greek myth and he is hard to pin down in time. But the best research was into the Celtic raid on Delphi in 279 BC or thereabouts, which coincides with Jason’s resurrection. An enormous attack, a true invasion undertaken when Greece was very weak. I also had to work out how the western Celtic lands would have looked — very aristocratic, massive fortresses, and a warrior caste emerging from a declining matriarchy. All good stuff.
How long did it take you to write Celtika?
Bloody ages. And the next in the sequence is slow as well. I’ve always been a slow writer. Merlin’s Wood took me a year and its only sixty thousand words. I like to have a theme very deeply embedded in each work, and an external source that I echo. In Merlin’s Wood it was Tennyson’s massive poem Idylls of the King. (‘How from the rosy lips of life and love, flash’d the bare-grinning skeleton of death.’) In Celtika it was a shifting of narrative tone between Apollonius’ Voyage of Argo and the ancient Irish epic The Táin, which tells in part of Cuchulainn’s feats and death. The ideas of ‘betrayal’ and the ‘rediscovery of passion’ run through Celtika. The epigram by James Flecker suggests it: ‘It was so old a ship — And yet so beautiful. I watched in vain to see the mast burst open with a rose and the whole deck put on its leaves again.’ Celtika was a two year weave. I hope the tapestry stitches are all in place.
Thanks very much.