Today marks the United States release of Elspeth Cooper’s highly anticipated debut, Songs of the Earth. Released in the UK last year, Songs garned a great deal of praise along with its fair share of skeptics. I read an early galley of the U.S. edition and reviewed it about a month ago. Long story short, it’s a very solid debut novel that features great writing with some (not unexpected) first novel unevenness.
Over the last few months I’ve had a chance to chat with Cooper on Twitter and various literary forums. I’ve very much enjoyed her insightful and candid responses. After finishing the novel, I had some questions, which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!
Here’s the blurb:
The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own.
Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can, beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City, that can mean only one thing: death by fire—until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames.
With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own.
For the Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love.
Justin: First off, it seems to me it would be difficult to have two major release dates so far apart. You’ve been out in the UK for something like 5 months. You saw all the reviews and critiques the first time around, and suffered whatever second thoughts about how you did this or that. Now, the same book is being released again to a whole new audience. It seems like double dipping anxiety. How have you handled that?
I’m a lot more relaxed about it this time around, though. For the UK release I was pinging off the walls with excitement and therefore terribly vulnerable to anxiety; this time it’s all happening way over there so it feels a bit more remote, and I’ve got a better idea of what to expect.
As for the second-guessing, well, I try not to do that. The book’s written and in print; I can’t change it now so I try not to get wound up about “Oh, I wish I’d fixed that/made that clearer” when a review comes in. It’s done. Any missteps I made the first time around I’ve tried to avoid with the second book, but at the end of the day, no matter what I do, there will always be someone who doesn’t like it, or thinks I should have done things differently. That’s their prerogative, but it was my best effort at the time. No book is ever perfect.
Justin: You wrote three main POVs in the novel. Gair, Alden, and Masen. All men. In fact, there’s only one female PoV, and it’s only for a few pages. What compelled you to write so many male characters? Were you tempted to give us Aysha’s POV?
Cooper: I was compelled by the story. You see, Songs came about because like many debut authors, I got an idea and I ran with it, figuring things out as I went. As E L Doctorow said, it was like driving at night in the fog, only able to see as far ahead as my headlights would let me. This was where the story led me; I just wrote it down.
A certain amount of maleness was predicated by Gair’s origins as a member of a monastic military order – an absence of women in that environment is kind of a given – but mostly I didn’t choose to have all-male POVs in Songs: I opened the tap, and that was what came out. By the same token, Trinity Moon wound up hip-deep in women with agency: Tanith has a larger role, there are two more terrific women in Ytha and Teia, and numerous other smaller roles.
I was tempted to give Aysha’s POV in Songs, largely because she was so much fun to write and I knew it’d be a hoot to get inside her head and hear her take on things, but in the end I decided that doing so would have been pure indulgence on my part. She didn’t have enough to add to the main story, and I was afraid that if I let her off the leash she’d end up trying to take over the book. She’s a force of nature, that woman.
Justin: Speaking of the Church, the one in Songs feels very hypocritical, although led by a man who seems quite the opposite. Between you and me, were you raised Catholic?
Justin: I detect some very biblical themes though. Maybe even a little hint of Paradise Lost. Conscious influences?
I stand in awe of writers who actually decide what they’re going to write about, and choose to explore such-and-such a theme by doing thus-and-so. How do they do that? That kind of thought process does not come naturally to me at all.
As you can probably tell, as a writer I am very much what George RR Martin called a gardener. I get an idea for a story, incubate it a bit to see if it’s got what it takes, then I just let it go and try to keep up until it’s done. During the edit phase I prune and trim and shape, bring some strands out and send others into the background, but mostly I’m just transcribing a movie playing in my head.
Justin: You also seem to have a thing for swords. The scenes where Gair is playing with his sword (not a euphemism) are really compelling. Any experience in that type of stuff or just good hard research?
As for research, yes, I did a bit – there’s plenty of WMA/HEMA (Western martial arts/historical European martial arts) videos on the internet, for instance – but mostly it was instinct, common sense, and watching a lot of historical and fantasy movies an awful lot of times . . . ahem. Sooner or later someone who actually knows what they’re doing is going to come along and put me in my place, I’m sure.
I’m not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of how anyone’s magic works, as long as it’s consistent and enough is explained for me to understand it. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t dwell on Gair’s studies: I shouldn’t need to write a primer on the use of the Song for a reader to enjoy the story. Besides, with Harry Potter et al the whole magical college thing has been done, and I didn’t think I had anything new to add to that particular trope.
The way I see it, if you make your magic too hand-wavy and unknowable, you run the risk of it becoming a cop-out, a cheat, a way to cover up a deus ex machina. Analyse it to death and it becomes too much like science (don’t you start quoting Clarke’s Third Law at me!) and you lose a little bit of what made it magic in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire the heck out of writers who have the patience, the imagination and the sheer dwarven cunning to come up with systems like allomancy and sympathy, but it’s not my thing. So a magical thingummy doesn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics? Dude, it’s magic. If the author’s managed to suspend my disbelief this far, I’ll swallow almost anything. And no, we are *so* not going there ;o)
Justin: The primary story arc in Songs is Gair learning how to be a Guardian and, to a large degree, a man. There are quite a few other subplots, some more obscure than others. They certainly hint at a much wider world. Can we expect Trinity Moon to take us over the hills and through the woods?
Justin: Thanks for joining me Elspeth! Get back to work.