Sunday, 13 November 2016

Literary Legends and the Pains of Publishing - Scott Davis Howard Casts Light

I'm delighted to welcome writer and teacher Scott Davis Howard on to the blog for some Sunday chat.

I began by asking:You're a teacher of English Literature and, obviously, knew about the Arthurian legends and the literary tradition. But how and when did the idea for the book Three Days and Two Nights take shape? 

King Scott - teaching!
The truth is that this is one of my older story ideas. Once upon a time, when I was freshly married and didn’t yet have children to occupy my thoughts, I was a bank teller in Missoula Montana—a job that I found to be less than stimulating. It was steady work with an adequate paycheck and excellent coworkers, but I got to the point where I felt that I was just this tiny cog in an enormous capitalist machine, spitting out money—not very fulfilling, and ultimately the reason that I applied to grad school in literature. In addition to that, when I moved out to Montana, I left all of my friends behind, including my gaming group, for which I was the creative mind. So, I was under-stimulated, especially working alone in the drive-through window, and I often would amuse myself by imagining a fantasy story-arc, which eventually became Three Days and Two Knights. I still have the notebook in which I wrote the initial ideas (and—historical footnote—T.S. Eliot was a banker, so I felt like I was in good company). Of course, I then went into grad school and then became a teacher, so the notebook languished on the shelf, an unrealized dream, for seven years before I began to write in earnest.

Was historical context important to you, or was the myth and legend surrounding Arthur and his knights more crucial in getting the setting right for your story?

Gosh, that’s a tough question. I’m going to go with, yes. Here’s an excerpt from my preface that attempts to explain my position on this tricky issue:

“For those unfamiliar with Arthurian romance,the tales of King Arthur are legendary and reputed to have taken place in the waning days of Roman rule in Britannia, roughly around the year 500 CE. However, they were recorded primarily in the 14th and 15th centuries, a time of chivalry, full plate armor, and medieval feudalism. Because of this, they have always taken place in an anachronistic paradox, occurring simultaneously in the 5th and 14th centuries—by this I mean that the knights are equipped as and behave as ideal chivalrous vassals of about the year 1350, but the physical setting is assumed to be long, long in the past, about the year 500. It would be analogous to retelling the story of William the Conqueror using actors equipped with modern military technology and openly referencing any historical event between 1066 and today whenever it was pertinent to the theme or plot. I have exerted every effort to maintain this paradox that is foundational to the genre.”

So, in the novel I tried to be as faithful to the legends as possible—I’ve read them all (if it is indeed possible to have read them all) and have followed them fairly closely (even when two or more of them are explicitly contradictory in plot or theme). However, I also tried to be faithful to the historical time period in which the stories were written, rather than the actual historical period in which they claim to be set.

A final footnote on this—medieval storytellers (and often even historians) weren’t at all scrupulous about accuracy. A great example of this is Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” which is set in ancient Greece with well-known characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta. Yet, despite its setting, all of the characters (“Duke” Theseus included) behave and are armed as chivalrous knights and vassals. I’ve unapologetically followed Chaucer’s medieval model, and as such, I feel that my story is more, rather than less, accurate.

Is this the first piece you have written?

It’s the first novel that I’ve published, yes. Obviously, I’ve done a fair amount of academic writing. I also went through a period when I fancied myself to be a poet… let’s not talk about that. Three Days and Two Knights is only two months old, and I’m pretty happy with the response. I’ve had nine reviews on Amazon, and 100% of them are five-star, so I’m taking that as a good indication of the quality of the narrative. I’m just hoping that it catches on and finds a wider readership. 

You say you wrote it standing up with a small child strapped to you, and yet that was possibly the easiest part of the process - how long did it take to get published?

Yeah, believe it or not, that’s not hyperbole. I wrote it in my kitchen with my youngest child in the carrier (he did his best sleeping that way). I had my wife’s old college laptop plugged in on the stove (it had zero 
battery life) and I was rocking back and forth to the radio. I finished the draft in 2012, spent a whole school-year carefully editing, and then began looking for an agent.
A facsimile page of Y Gododdin, one of the most
famous early Welsh texts featuring Arthur (c. 1275)

Everyone always hears that famous Harry Potter story about how J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before she found a home for her book. Well, for most writers it’s at least that bad, me included. First, I looked for an agent. It’s basically like fishing. I set the hook and dropped it in about 20 ponds. I got some bites—requests for chapters and phone calls, etc., but the book just wasn’t mainstream enough (too literary to be general interest, but too general interest to be literary) to hook an agent. I then started working on medium and small market presses, and by the summer of 2015, I’d landed a deal with the Piedmont Journal of Poetry and Fiction. That’s a three-year period between writing and getting published that was full of constant editing and frequent rejection. It took a unique combination of faith, thick-skin, and mulish determination to power through that and arrive at publication.

I might also mention that, when I’m honest with myself, the hardest part of finding a publisher was visiting a bookstore and seeing shelves upon shelves of drivel that somehow managed to get published by mainstream presses (I realize that I sound conceited here, but I swear that my drivel is better than most). I think a lot of aspiring authors feel that way. I’d glance at the backs of books and ask myself what I didn’t do. How did a book about a teenage centaur’s relationship problems in a surprisingly posh nomadic-steppe high school hit the presses (disclaimer, I made that example up—if such a book exists, it merely proves my point) while Three Days and Two Knights did not? It was a rhetorical question, but, generally, the answer was that I didn’t follow an accepted pre-made formula. I’m coining a new phrase for books of that type, stock-fiction. Like chicken-stock, they’re canned, cheap, simple, and they line the majority of shelves. That’s not what I write.

Do you have any plans in the pipeline for another book?

My publisher is already hinting that he wants a sequel. I’ve got some ideas on that front, but nothing solid yet. I’ve also got a plan for a mid-grade fantasy series set in a world with geography mirroring the western United States and including an empire resembling Victorian England. Finally, I am tinkering with a children’s book (written in ballad stanza) about a housecat who fights a war with the children’s toys at night (this last is an adapted version of a favorite bedtime story that is still in high-demand in my house). 

There are many theories concerning the true identity of Arthur. Do you subscribe to any of them?

I like the idea of Arthur being a Romano-British general leading the unified Bretons against Hengest’s Saxon invasion. It fits nicely with the popular notion of chivalry and with the (thankfully) outdated romantic notion of the crusades, giving the image of Christian horse-riding warriors fighting against a horde of grim, axe-wielding, pagan foot soldiers. I doubt that such a romantic vision was ever a reality, though (and certainly doubt that there were any clear-cut good or bad guys in that struggle). That said, I’m quite sure that Arthur is as real as Beowulf, Sigmund, Roland, or any of those heroic-age figures. He probably did exist, but he was so romanticized during the centuries in which the Germanic people who shared his story became literate, that when his oral-tradition epic was split into ballads and lays and then finally recorded, it was impossible to separate the fact from the fiction. The beauty of being a teacher of literature (instead of history), though, is that my appreciation of the value of Arthur to Western culture is not remotely dependent verifiable fact.

Again, because I cannot help but footnote my points, I ask you to imagine the stories that might be told of Richard I, Henry V, William Wallace, Robert Bruce, or Owain Glyndwr if there were no original source documents form their lifetimes, history hadn’t been around to record (in writing) their deeds, and everything had been left up to a succession of improvising and idea-stealing bards, who have less respect for the truth than they do for a good story or rhyme, and who desire to entertain rather than inform (heck, consider the accuracy of movies or plays written about them during the past century, a time when history is respected)?   

That's an excellent point! Thanks so much for talking to me today, Scott. [Scott wrote a guest article for this blog recently. Read it HERE]

And find him on:~
Piedmont Novels

1 comment:

  1. Hey, folks, feel free to leave me questions or comment about Arthurian romance, medieval history, writing, publishing, or my novel. I'll check back. --Scott Davis Howard