Interview with Jacqueline Carey with Melissa Bartell

Whether or not you classify Jacqueline Carey’s sextet of novels in the Kushiel’s Legacy series as straight fantasy or alternate fiction, the concept is compelling. These are the stories of the D’Angelines, people who descend from the fallen angel Elua who was created when the blood of crucified Yeshua ben Yosef (son of the One God) mixed with the tears of the Magdalene and was given life by Mother Earth. Elua, alongwith eight companions, including Naamah and Kushiel wandered the earth until they finally settled in the land that became Terre D’Ange (modeled on ancient France) and followed the precept, “Love as thou wilt.”

With the publication of the last book in the series, Kushiel’s Mercy, this month, the curtain has been closed on the characters readers have come to love, but as this interview with the author reveals, there are other visits to Terre d’Ange planned for the future.

Please tell our readers a bit about yourself and your background.

Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid! I grew up in a fairly normal, well-adjusted family, first in a suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, then in a quirky resort town in Michigan. In high school, I spent a couple years at a boarding school where half the kids (including me) were there for accelerated academics, and the other half because they’d been kicked out of a more prestigious boarding school. I suspect my fascination with human nature and how we interact with one another began there. I went to Lake Forest College, graduating with degrees in English Literature and Psychology and no idea what I wanted to do with either. So I took part in a work exchange program and spent six months working in a bookstore in London, which is when I realized that I wanted to write for a living.

In what ways did your childhood influence you as a writer? As a person?

I always had a vivid imagination, and my parents encouraged creativity. I used to bully my little brothers into taking part in imaginary adventures in the woods, which occasionally resulted in all three of us getting lost. After they wised up and refused, I spent years making up stories in my head, long before I ever set pen to paper and wrote them down.

Most writers are also avid readers. What authors most influenced you? What did you read as a child? What are you reading these days? Is there a favorite book or author you want to share with us?

“I always had a vivid imagination, and my parents encouraged creativity. … I spent years making up stories in my head, long before I ever set pen to paper and wrote them down.”

When I was ten years old and bored during nap-time at summer camp, I borrowed Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy from my counselor. It’s a historical fiction novel that follows the latter half of Alexander the Great’s life, seen through the eyes of the Persian eunuch Bagoas, and it was the very first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read. Although I was a bit sketchy on exactly what a eunuch was, I was captivated by her ability to bring to life a world that no longer existed, and by the lyricism of her prose. To this day, her writing remains a big influence. I went back to that book to study how she was able to write compelling battle scenes from a 1st person bystander’s point of view. The first sentence in Kushiel’s Dart is actually an homage to The Persian Boy.

There are tons of others, of course. In fantasy, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Lots of animal books – The Call of the Wild – all the Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry horse books.

Has writing always been your passion? When did you first realize you’d written something good?

I started writing when I was sixteen, but I didn’t take it seriously. Although I kept it up all through college, it wasn’t until afterward, during my time in London, that I realized this addictive hobby was a genuine vocation. A lot of my early writing was flawed, but I knew the potential was there. When I began writing Kushiel’s Dart, I knew I was onto something truly good.

Many of our readers are also writers, who are curious about the business of writing. Tell us about getting your first book published? Is publishing fantasy more or less difficult than publishing general fiction?

Publishing is a tough, tough industry, and I don’t think it’s any easier to break into fantasy than general fiction. There’s just too much competition. Over the course of ten years, I’d been around the block with earlier novels – the flawed work mentioned above – and collected my share of rejections. In hindsight, I’m glad, because it pushed me to become a better writer, but it was a long journey. Most major publishers won’t read unagented fiction these days. I researched literary agents while I was writing Kushiel’s Dart, and put together a target list of ten or twelve. One fell in love with the book and signed me. He went on to sell it to an editor who made a similar love connection. It takes hard work, perseverance, and always, luck.

Did you keep a diary or journal when you were a kid? How about today? Do you blog?

No, I’ve never kept a journal or diary; although the novel I began in my teens served much the same function! I don’t even count that among my practice novels, since it was a meandering mess. I write monthly updates for my website, and I’ve begun keeping pages on MySpace and Facebook, but I don’t really blog. Writing big, fat fantasy novels takes up a lot of time!

Writing can be extremely solitary. How do you balance your writing time with the need for a social life? Do you have a strong support network?

Luckily for me, I’m a Fortress of Solitude type of writer. It’s different for everyone, but I work best alone, without critique partners or writers’ groups. Now that I write full-time, it’s easier to find a balance. I have a great network of friends and family who keep me from turning into a hermit. When I’m done writing for the day, I close my office door and venture out into the real world.

Speaking of that creative space, can you set the scene for us? Do you work in an office or at the kitchen table? Is there any single item you HAVE to have in order to feel inspired (a computer/keyboard doesn’t count)?

You wouldn’t want to see that scene! I have a small, messy, cluttered office. There’s no single must-have item, but I need to be holed up in my lair to write.

Many of our readers struggle with balancing their creative needs and the rest of their lives. How do you do it? Walk us through a typical day in the life of Jacqueline Carey?

“Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve found it in travel, in books, in movies, in music, dreams, in lectures, in museums. But ultimately, there is a part of the process that’s a mystery in the truest sense of the word.”

Writing full-time is a luxury. Mornings and early afternoons are for correspondence, errands, paying bills, etc. Late afternoon to early evening is for writing, and nights are for relaxing and socializing. But I worked a full-time day job for well over a decade, so I know the struggle! All my writing was done in the evenings after work and during long stretches of the weekends. And a lot of the creative process takes place in the in-between times. Driving to work, walking the dog, folding laundry. If the impulse is strong enough, you WILL find the time, no matter how difficult.

I’ve read that the initial inspiration for the Kushiel’s Legacy series came from a book on angels, but beyond that, where do you find inspiration for your work? For your characters? Phaedré and Imiriel are both such strong personalities – did you model them on anyone?

Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve found it in travel, in books, in movies, in music, dreams, in lectures, in museums. But ultimately, there is a part of the process that’s a mystery in the truest sense of the word. For me, it lies in the question of “Where do characters come from?” I truly don’t know. Often, we write the books we wish to read. In my case, I think I also create people I wish existed.

I love that you write in first person – it makes everything so much more intimate. Did you have any issues taking on a male persona for the second trilogy, and writing from Imriel’s point of view?

I was concerned about being able to from a male point of view with integrity. I read a lot of male writers, paying attention to voice. There are differences in the way men and women communicate, and I wanted Imriel’s voice to ring true. And, obviously, the sex scenes required a greater leap of imagination!

There are some trilogies in which the middle novel feels like it exists just to be a bridge between the first and second, without much plot of its own, but with Kushiel’s Justice there was no sense that this was the middle part. Was this something you were conscious of during the writing and editing process?

Although it’s a trilogy, I don’t write cliffhanger endings. The books build on one another, but each has its own self-contained narrative and character arc, and explores different issues. I think that helps the middle book stand on its own; and Kushiel’s Justice is simply a strong story that deals with some universal themes.

Even in the three books told from Imriel’s point of view, you’ve given your readers a lot of strong women characters. Phaedré, Joscelin, and Ysandre are old friends, but Dorelei, Sidonie and Alais are all given their moments to shine, especially the latter two in Kushiel’s Mercy. Do you have a favorite among these three? Or at all?

Umm… his girly name notwithstanding, Joscelin wouldn’t thank you for including him among the women! But among the latter three, I’d have to say Sidonie; in part because she has the biggest role, and in part because there are contradictory elements in her nature that make her fun to write. One of the biggest challenges in Kushiel’s Mercy was figuring out how to put her in the middle of the action and give her a chance to come into her own. Though I have say that in the grand scheme of things, Phedré will always be my favorite, because she’s a truly unique heroine.

[Editor's note: I do, and did, actually know that Joscelin is male – he's a yummy character – my question was poorly phrased. MAB]

Did you set out to redeem Imriel’s mother, Melisande, in the last book, or did that flow naturally from the story. Do you even consider her redeemed?

Insofar as Melisande is capable of redemption, I do. But in a sense, I think her redemption took place in Kushiel’s Avatar at the end of the first trilogy. Fate punished Melisande in the cruelest way possible, by making her inadvertently responsible for her innocent son’s suffering. She made the only sacrifice she could in giving Imriel freely to Phedré and Joscelin to raise. Her role in Kushiel’s Mercy flows naturally from that point (although to be fair, it also stems from my love of an ironic plot twist).

Do you have a favorite scene in Kushiel’s Mercy? What is it?

I do, but it would spoil a major plot element to reveal it, and I hate to run the risk with a book that’s just hitting the stores. I work too hard trying to outwit my crafty readers! I’ll pick one from Kushiel’s Justice instead since it’s been out longer. SPOILER WARNING: My favorite scene is when Imriel kills Berlik, then falls to his knees in the snow and weeps, his quest for vengeance turned into something larger and deeper. There’s just something very poignant about the brutality and poetry of that moment.

Have we seen the last of the Kushiel world, or will you be revisiting it in the future?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new trilogy set in the same milieu. It takes place a few generations after the end of Kushiel’s Mercy because I felt it was time to let those beloved characters retire gracefully into legend, but there will be many familiar elements.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“Ultimately, the best way to learn to write is by writing. … Write. Write a lot, and allow yourself to make mistakes.

There’s an axiom that Writing = Butt in Chair, and it’s an axiom because it’s true. Ultimately, the best way to learn to write is by writing. Whether to outline before you begin or fly by the seat of your pants, whether to set goals or ignore the word count, whether to edit as you go or plow through a rough draft and edit later, whether to find a critique group or work alone – different methods work for different writers, and the only way to discover what process works for YOU is by trial and error. Write. Write a lot, and allow yourself to make mistakes. When it comes to seeking publication, it’s important to keep a professional approach. Research your market, adhere to their submission guidelines. There are no secrets and no shortcuts, and rejection comes with the territory. I dealt with it by always, always writing, so that when rejection slips came, I was already focused on The Next Big Thing.

One of the things that struck me about your work is an underlying sense of musicality – the rhythm of the language, the crowd scenes, etc. Obviously Imriel and his contemporaries don’t have iPods, but do you? What music are you really enjoying these days, and do you listen while you write?

I do have an iPod. I don’t listen to music while I write, but I take my iPod on long walks, or jogging on the beach during the summer, and I do a lot of my best creative thinking then. I listened to a lot of Coldplay, Arcade Fire and Blue October while I was hashing out my current work in progress. Oh, and Allison Crowe and Joe Purdy. More recently, I’m listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ latest release.

What’s next for Jacqueline Carey? Tell us what you can about your next project?

Naamah’s Gift is the working title of the book I mentioned above set in Terre d’Ange; although the heroine is actually born to the Maghuin Dhonn, the dreaded bear-witches of Kushiel’s Justice. And I have a side project that’s something completely different, so much so that it will be published under a pseudonym: Santa Olivia, which I describe as a “post-punk desert bordertown fable, with boxing and cute girls in love.” Very different!

Kushiel’s Mercy, the last book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series, is being released in June, 2008, and can be found at your favorite local bookstore, or Ms. Carey’s website is located at

You can find a review of Ms. Carey’s books here in All Things Girl: Reviews: Kushiel’s Justice and Kushiel’s Mercy. Look for Jacqueline Carey as the ATG Guest Blogger the week of June 16th.

(Photo credit: Robert Carey)

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.