**UPDATE March 2017: Unfortunately this video seems to have been taken down. I now can’t locate it, or any of the ‘Off the Page’ interviews, on YouTube. I am leaving this post in place because it lets us read the transcript I made of the interview, and I hope that the video will be made available online again.**
Here is a lovely video of Mary Stewart being interviewed at her home in 1992.
The interviewer is Jenny Brown for the Scottish Television programme Off the Page. Jenny Brown founded and was Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (1983-1991), was Head of Literature at the Scottish Arts Council (1996-2002) and has run Jenny Brown Associates, a leading literary agency, since 2002. She is Chair of the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.
The video is chock-full of fascinating details about Mary Stewart’s childhood, values and writing. I loved learning about the inspiration for Airs Above the Ground, for example. She says in this video that The Last Enchantment was intended to be her last book – I am so glad that she carried on writing!
Transcript of interview.
Disclaimer: I have doubtless misheard and mistyped what was said several times over. I made this transcript because my memory is not up to the task of remembering what was discussed where in this recording. It is not intended to replace watching the programme in any way: it is lovely to see and hear the author, and to see where she lived: enjoy the video, and read this transcription alongside if you wish.
[This programme begins with a voice-over as Mary Stewart and interviewer Jenny Brown (plus dog) walk outdoors, in the author’s beautiful garden and up to a view of Loch Awe.]
‘I was born in Sunderland in Co. Durham. My father was a curate there, in St Thomas’s parish. St Thomas’s was rather a nice church but it was bombed during the war; it’s gone completely now. He moved to a village still in Co. Durham, Old Trimdon, and we lived there until I was seven years old.
‘We were so isolated in a small country village that one just read. I mean, that was the great amusement, you played games I suppose in the evenings or you read, and I learned to read very very early actually. I could read by the time I was about four because my brother was 18 months older than I was, and so my father taught him to read before he went to school. We went to school at five. And I was so jealous that I remember making terrible scenes – I must have been 3 ½ to 4 or something, I can remember this – and I cried and cried and cried until I was included on the lessons. It was ‘the cat sat on the mat’ for some time I suppose but I remember being given, well before I was seven, Arabian Nights and Hans Anderson, of course the Bible, and fairy stories.
‘In fact, I wrote them then, I still have the books I think, ‘illustrated by the author’, with plenty scenes of carnage as far as I remember, a crimson lake flowing from the bodies. Knights in armour and witches and all the rest of it.’
‘I think from the very start, if anyone asked what I was going to be when I grew up it was, no, it wasn’t, I used to say ‘an author. I write stories’ but also an artist, I wanted to draw as well.’
Jenny Brown: ‘So, when did you choose?’
‘I think it chose me. I think this is what happens, if it’s something, I think if you’re going to write, it’s in you, you can’t help it, you have a flair and you’ve got to, you’ve got to use it. I just wrote stories all the time when I was young and through my teens and at school and so on. And I remember, when I went to boarding school, I was the dormitory storyteller, made up these long, perfectly ridiculous tales.’
JB: ‘When did the serious writing that got published begin?’
‘I’d been writing all the time but never thinking I would ever get published or… seriously. Because I was too busy, I worked hard, I mean I was lecturing and writing lectures and all the rest of it. And then I wrote a story for children, a fairy story, called The Enchanted Journey and sent this to every conceivable publisher in the United Kingdom. It’s still upstairs. It was too… They said it was too frightening for children. It was something like the adult thrillers I write now but with children. As a matter of fact, I think they were wrong, children just love frightening stories and witches, and murder and sudden death and so on.
‘But anyway, then I put it aside and I started to write Madam, Will You Talk? which was my first book and… I don’t think even then I thought it would be published. But my husband said it might as well be out on its travels as sitting there in the house. So I posted it off. And Hodder – Hodder & Stoughton – took it. One Christmas I found the envelope lying on the mat. And we went on from there.’
JB: ‘How did you know what vein you wanted to write in, because it was a genre that hadn’t been much explored, in a feminine way, before?’
‘Not from women, no. It was a sort of John Buchan adventure. Well, it was the kind of thing I would have liked reading, that’s really what made me choose it. Like a lot of the Buchan stories, I wanted it to be out of doors, mostly out of doors, I’m happiest, not with conversation pieces in a house or anything like that. So it was out of doors, it was an adventure. Because this was a very cold January in the north of England, I wanted it to be in a nice hot country, in the sun. So it was set in Provence. And I also I think wanted to recreate, for myself, to walk about in my mind, a place I’d loved, and a place that was beautiful. And I think that, that has been the spring, the starter, for most of my books.’
JB: ‘Almost the setting coming first.’
‘The setting coming first. Wanting to recreate something particularly beautiful or with a history that interested me. Ancient history and natural beauty. Then you shove a few people in and let them get on with it.’
JB: ‘Did the people come easily to you – those confident young heroines of yours?’
‘Well, I don’t know. They’re not confident you know. My first heroine was I suppose very much like me, scared of everything! But she had to get through whatever happened, and she did. No I don’t think the people do… I honestly don’t know… I don’t think anything in writing comes easily. People talk about my descriptive passages and so on. They are the passages that take the most painful writing. Over and over and over again. I can take a fortnight on a paragraph.
‘The conversations aren’t easy but I find when I’ve done a conversation, I read it aloud. I used to do a bit of amateur acting and so I read it, I act it all. And then you can tell whether it’s flowing like real conversation or whether it’s just sounding like something in a book.’
JB: ‘Did your books take you to various locations, like Greece and Corfu? Or was it a happy accident?’
‘No, it was the other way round. If I wanted a holiday, a fortnight abroad or a holiday, I would go to a place that attracted me for some reason of its own, either its beauty or its history. Like Greece of course because I’d been interested in ancient history. So I would go to the country and just… take it in, as best I could. And I have got a photographic memory for places. And then come back and… perhaps not straight away, maybe years later, suddenly find I wanted to revisit that place and so I would write, use it as a setting for a book. And as I was writing, then I would find that memories… things I’d quite forgotten would come back, some little thing that I was writing about would unroll a new memory and it becomes vivid.
‘I usually keep a diary, quite a brief one, just from day to day what I did and where I went, and then memory does most of the rest. But I must admit I take a lot of nature notes of what’s out, what the weather’s like and… Vivid, small things that help you to remember.
‘But there was one book, that’s Airs Above the Ground, which had to be set in Vienna. A member of staff, who worked with me in Durham, told me that she’d been driving home, at the end of term, to Wales. And at sunset she’d driven onto the verge, she was tired, she’d driven onto the verge of the road, onto a wide grass verge, and she’d parked her car and had a sandwich, or something like that, sitting in the car, and pegged on the grass verge was an old piebald horse. And she turned on the radio in her car while she was eating and she suddenly saw this horse start to do its dancing act to the music of her car. And she told, she was telling me this story in the staffroom, at college where I worked. And I said: ‘May I use that story some day?’ and she said, ‘of course’ and twelve years later I used it in Airs Above the Ground.
‘It’s about the white horses of Vienna, the Lipizzans. It had to be set there and I’d never been there so I did go to Austria for three weeks to… find settings really and to talk to people and to see the horses themselves.’
JB: ‘Your books are rich, for anybody who’s interested in literature. How did all those quotations come about?’
‘Well, if you’ve lived and worked and taught literature as I did, until my late 20s, 30s, even after that, that’s the sort of terms you think in. You… I think when I first started writing novels, like in Madam, Will You Talk?, it was almost like writing an essay, you felt you had to quote about every second paragraph, just to show you’d read the stuff, you know!
‘But the quotations of the chapter headings are just for fun, it’s like the icing on the cake, I always enjoy looking those out. And I think, is there a little bit of sort of snob value in it, if one is literary oneself? I always used to enjoy reading Dorothy Sayers’s novels because she does the same thing, you recognise the quotations, and you preen yourself a little bit.’
JB: ‘What about the danger element, the adventure – is that easily written?’
‘Yes probably, it’s probably the easiest of all. You know, I get letters sometimes, from readers who say: ‘Everything seems so vivid. I suppose you must have had all the adventures that you’ve had in your books.’ Well, I would’ve been dead long since – of fright among other things. No, I find that quite easy to do actually; the suspense comes naturally, I don’t have to think how to do it, the cliff-hanging business. I think it’s what I’ve said: flair for storytelling. You can tell a story which keeps somebody reading from chapter to chapter. It’s something… I don’t know if you could learn it, I think a storyteller has it or they haven’t.’
JB: ‘You were bringing out a new type of fiction altogether. What was the public response?’
‘People have liked them very much. The Americans took me on fairly early and the sales there have been tremendous and I suppose… I don’t know how many languages they’re translated into now, it’s every European language and sort of Indian dialects and Arabic and Japanese and heaven knows what.
‘The Hollow Hills made publishing history because I think it was the first book that the Russians paid royalties on. Before that things had been quietly published in Russia and people had loved reading them but nothing had come back out of Russia. But I also heard from a professor – a Russian professor wrote to me, the one who translated it, and said that people had actually queued for it because it contained something (this was still when it was the Soviet Union), this was because the book contained something that they were hungry for, which was sort of progress towards, I suppose God or good… and honourable dealing and a sort of centre to live by and work for. I can’t put it any better than that.’
JB: ‘How come you turned from writing adventure thrillers to writing the Arthurian books?’
‘I knew you would ask me that! Well, I think it was something I’d always wanted to do, not necessarily Arthurian but I’d always rather wanted to write a historical novel because you can see through the adventure books how interested I was always in history particularly ancient history.
‘And I wanted to write a historical novel as a sort of literary challenge in a way, to see if I could make that come to life as vividly as a contemporary one. Even though life in that period wasn’t familiar to the readers. And the other thing about the Merlin novels is the other challenge of trying for the first time to write in the person of a man and see if I could get away with that vividly enough and genuinely enough.
‘And the story itself. I’d started by thinking that I would write something Roman, a Roman history, Roman Britain. And then one day I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and I came across this story about Merlin as a young man, 17 year old, when he was hauled up before Vortigern and was threatened with death and so on, and it made such a marvellous scene. Even in the rather stilted translation from Geoffrey’s Latin and I thought: ‘Oh boy! What could one do with that!’ And of course also Merlin as a character, appealed to me tremendously because he had the magic, the otherworldly sort of thing, which again appealed to the fairy-story side of me. And one could invent his childhood completely because this was his first appearance in any kind of literature, at 17, in Geoffrey… And so I wrote The Crystal Cave.
‘And I think probably the publishers were horrified. Certainly the American publishers were, they like you to be categorised and to go on producing the same book, you know like Erle Stanley Gardner or somebody.
‘People liked it. I think they found that all the things they’d enjoyed in the adventure books, they found in this book with a little more added.’
JB: ‘Was The Crystal Cave supposed to be a one-off?’
‘Yes it was. It finishes with the conception of Arthur and it was Merlin’s story, the way Merlin had contrived the birth of this king, who was to save Britain. And I didn’t want to go on originally because I thought the ground had been trodden over too well and too often by classical writers, including of course dear T H White with his lovely story The Sword in the Stone. But then my editor, who knew TH White, said: ‘No, Tim would’ve loved it. Please go on’ so I went on and I wrote The Hollow Hills and that again, that took the story up to the actual drawing of the sword from the stone and the accepting of Arthur as king.
‘And that again was a full stop until, I forget, somebody said ‘please go on’. So I wrote The Last Enchantment and that was supposed to have been my last book ever, the last enchantment. But then again at the end of that it was my American publisher this time who said: ‘What about Mordred?’ Who is the villain of course of the Arthurian story, and the more I thought about this the more I was attracted to it. And that again, the fourth book, the book of Mordred, it was a challenge because it’s the first and only book I’ve written in the third person, with a man as the protagonist but written in the third person. But then I really did come to an end.’
JB: ‘Why did you choose the third-person narrative?’
‘Because Mordred had to die, that’s, simple as that. I mean, your first-person narrative, you gain a tremendous lot from the vividness of it, but you also lose a little bit of surprise because everyone knows the person has to survive.’
JB: ‘Were The Hollow Hills onwards more difficult to write because there was actually more source material?’
‘The first was the most difficult because the research you see had gone on for many years before I started writing. I’d been interested for years. It was about six years after my first idea that I started to write it and of course when I came to The Hollow Hills the setting, the period and everything was in my mind and I knew what was happening.
‘But the difficulties were that with each book, regarding each book as a one-off and finishing it at the end, I left myself with people I would have liked to survive I’d killed off, and found I couldn’t have them back, or you know loose ends left which I found it very difficult to tie up; but we got through.’
JB: ‘What’s the enduring appeal of the Arthurian legend?’
‘I think it is just deep in our, could it be race memory or race consciousness or something, but everywhere you travel in these islands, even up here in the Highlands, there are sort of Arthur memories and places called after him and he can’t have been everywhere that he is supposed to have been but it is so much a living legend still, I think.’
JB: ‘How do you feel about the recent television adaptation of part of The Crystal Cave?’
‘Oh, Merlin and the Crystal Cave, I thought they did it marvellously. It’s a curious thing to know that your work, which is, you see it’s so vividly in your mind and everything, is being taken by somebody else who’s going to adapt it, and who also brings a totally different set of experience and totally different vision to it, but I think you just have to accept and to realise that visual presentation, the film, is a totally different thing from a written story, and I think they adapted it extremely well. Where, for instance, I was able as a writer to tell you what the person was thinking, the adaptor has to invent a conversation so that the audience will know what the person what thinking. Or else the actor has to do a very complicated series of… make some faces to show that he’s thinking something! No, it’s quite a different thing, and also, what takes me two pages to describe, can be done in half a second, visually.’
JB: ‘Had you been hounded for the film rights for a long time?’
‘Yes. The people who’d been wanting the rights for years and years were mostly from America and I somehow couldn’t bear the thought of American voices, and I don’t know how much control they’d have allowed me. You don’t have much control but the people who did the television adaptation really did promise that they would, you know, keep it in the right period, not bring in knights in armour and all the rest of it. And they did, they kept their word and I thought they did it awfully well. But I certainly would have never allowed any of them to go to America. Though they might do them awfully well, but they wouldn’t be the way I wanted them done.’
JB: ‘What sparked off your most recent novel The Stormy Petrel?’
‘It’s dedicated to the Argyll midge, do you know that? And if you’d tried gardening here in Argyll in June you would know why, because it really does rule the Highlands. No, again it was the setting. I thought, we’ve, my husband and I have been out to the islands, we go to Mull quite a lot which is lovely and I thought, well I’ll try a setting out, I’ll invent an island, which I did. And also I think, partly one’s getting this very strong feeling of wanting our natural heritage to be protected and left alone in fact. Birds, animals, scenery, and there you see the midge comes in very handy because it really does defend the Highlands! I don’t see anybody happily sunbathing on our beaches in June, do you?
[There follows a voice-over of Mary Stewart reading from The Stormy Petrel, what we see is Mary Stewart and her dog walking through woods and garden]
JB: ‘How do you feel about the lifestyle of being a writer?’
‘You mean shutting oneself away in a study for hours at a time? Oh I love that! I mean, I’m a loner, and you have to be, I think. It’s a very lonely life and a very hard one. There’s… you have to forget about social life while you’re writing a book, and then of course when you’re not writing a book and you’re doing nothing, social life has forgotten about you so you just… there you are, and you start another book in self-defence.’
JB: ‘Does one novel lead naturally into the next?’
‘Sometimes it does. You must understand that when you’ve finished a novel, you are then dealing with the galley-proofs, the page-proofs and all the business part of it which goes on for some time. I mean, there could be a gap of months between the finishing of a novel and its appearance; in fact, a gap of nearly a year. And so you’ve probably started another one by that time, and so going back to do galley-proofs is a bit of an interruption. But sometimes, when you’re writing, an idea jumps out at you and you think, ‘good, I want to get onto that’. I can’t… I do remember it happening, one of them I very vividly remember, it was when I was writing The Moon-Spinners and, you won’t remember, but there’s a reference in that to the Bay of Dolphins where the girl goes swimming and so on. And I’d been reading up about dolphins and then I suddenly thought: ’That will be the centrepiece of the next book so I wrote This Rough Magic in which I suppose the hero is a dolphin. But it doesn’t always work like that. But sometimes it does, one thing suggests another.’
JB: ‘What are you working on at the moment?’
‘Well, I’m not sure that I’m working on anything. I’m… As I said, I’m getting older, and one gets a bit tired, and it seems the days get shorter. You know, as the hills get steeper. I don’t know. The Stormy Petrel, which was my last book, I don’t know whether that’s going to be really and truly my last enchantment. I’ve tried to write my last book so often; this might well be it.’