Earlier this week I reviewed Anne Lyle’s debut novel Alchemist of Souls. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction that she blends with fantasy elements to create something wholly unique. A lover of historical fiction during a long stretch in my 20′s, I found myself quickly drawn into the background of the novel. Before long I was neck deep in a Wikipedia wormhole following Lyle’s historical threads and their real world simulacrums. After my supplementary reading, I wanted to ask her a few questions… Lyle agreed.
When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods–and a skrayling ambassador–to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?
Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally–and Mal his soul.
Justin: Thanks for agreeing to answer my questions, Anne. During my college days, when I thought I was way too cool for fantasy books, I started reading gobs of historical fiction. James Clavell, Stephen Pressfield, etc. In reality, historical fiction is as much fantasy as well… fantasy. Especially when you get into alternate time lines as you have in Alchemist of Souls. What do you think about the distinction between the two?
Lyle: I never considered myself too cool for fantasy – I was playing RPGs such as D&D and Runequest at uni! – but I did read Shogun and other historical novels as well. I think they appeal to a similar audience, in evoking nostalgia for a simpler time.
Some would say that all fiction is fantasy, in that it can never be a true representation of reality, but the lines blur more easily when it comes to historical fiction. After all, most human cultures throughout history have believed in ghosts and other supernatural creatures, so these things will be as real for your historical characters as magic is for Gandalf or Harry Potter. However I’ve noticed that many historical novels play this down, perhaps for fear of straying into fantasy territory. Their loss, I think!
Justin: How much research did you put into making the novel feel historical? Is Elizabethan England a passing interest or something you’ve studied extensively?
Lyle: It’s an era I’ve always loved, but naturally I had to ramp up my knowledge level once I decided to write a book set in this period. I now have an entire bookcase shelf full of non-fiction about sixteenth-century England, and have made research trips to specific locations used in the book, such as the Tower of London.
Justin: Is it true you were locked up in the Tower of London after a controversial incident at university?
Lyle: Damn, I thought that had all been hushed up!
No, I went to university in Bristol, which is a long way from London. The city does have a tower, a Victorian edifice honouring the Italian explorer John Cabot, who sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. And, in my alternate history world, found skraylings. They say write about what you know…
Justin: Your historical macguffin is that Elizabeth had children. It’s not one of those great what-ifs that you hear about (what if Alexander went west, what if Hitler never went to Russia, etc.) Why this one?
Lyle: Late sixteenth century England was politically volatile because of Elizabeth’s lack of a clear heir, giving rise to the many plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and of course the Spanish Armada. I didn’t want these problems – or the consequent high tension between Protestants and Catholics – to overshadow my fictional political struggles between humans and skraylings, so I took the decision to stabilise the Tudor dynasty, and that meant marriage and children for Elizabeth.
Justin: On top of that you throw in the Skraylings, some kind of mystical race living among the Native peoples in the New World. Where are you drawing the Skraylings from? It all seems significantly more imaginative than say… dragons in Napoleonic Europe (no offense intended to dragons in Napoleonic Europe) or pixies.
Lyle: There have been quite a few fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England, and nearly all of them draw on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and therefore have fairies as their main fantasy element. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I felt I didn’t have anything new to add in that line. What interested me was the Age of Discovery and particularly the conquest of the New World. With bands of brave, reckless men crammed into those tiny ships for weeks on end, crossing the vast featureless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, I saw obvious parallels with space exploration, and the thought came to me: what if the Europeans discovered “aliens” – people who weren’t just humans speaking strange languages (though they exist too). I like the idea of stealing tropes and themes from other genres – crime and noir are popular additions into fantasy these days, but SF has such a rich history, it’s just ripe for mining
Justin: You’ve got two story lines going on in the novel. One is court intrigue stuff and the other is the theater. Obviously the theater is a huge part of Elizabethan England, but what prompted you to use it as a major component in the novel?
Lyle: I’ve always been interested in the theatre. My parents met through the local amateur dramatics society, which performed at a proper theatre in town, so I more-or-less grew up backstage, watching rehearsals. I even appeared on stage once myself when I was eight or nine, dancing in the pantomime “Babes in the Wood” (a traditional English tale featuring Robin Hood). In recent years I’ve seen many of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, two of them at the reconstructed Globe, so I had a lot of experiences and imagery to draw on for the book.
Justin: Of course, men dressed as women was the default of the era. Interestingly, you went with a woman dressed as a man as the PoV character. And then also went with a gay character to bridge the gap between your two story lines. Both fascinating choices given the time period.
Lyle: My female PoV character Coby started out as an ordinary young woman, but I soon realised that it was going to be difficult justifying her running around London with these young men – Elizabethan society was very strict on the subject of proper female behaviour. So, I decided to have her disguise herself as a boy to earn an honest living (she’s an orphan), which allowed me to riff on some of the Shakespearean clichés of that situation.
Likewise Mal’s friend Ned was originally straight, and a promiscuous rogue to boot. When I made the girl into (apparently) a boy, that changed the dynamic between them – so I shifted it back by making him gay and therefore potentially still interested in her. It gave me a chance to explore Elizabethan attitudes to homosexuality and masculinity, which were very different from ours.
Justin: It made for a fascinating juxtaposition, I thought. So what’s next? Will we get a chance to visit the New World in future books?
Lyle: Next is a sequel set mainly in Venice (one of my favourite places in the world), which reveals more about the skraylings, as well as moving the main characters’ stories forward. I don’t have any immediate plans to take the characters to the New World – that would require a lot more research to get it as authentic as the European settings!
Justin: Well, let me know if you need me to go the Native American Museum. It’s right down the street! Thanks for joining me Anne. I really enjoyed the book and look forward to the next one!
Lyle: Thank you for having me!