Thursday, October 15, 2009

Archived Interview: T.A. Barron, author of The Lost Years of Merlin and The Great Tree of Avalon

Originally published in the October 2006 edition
of Writer's Tips from Jorlan Publishing


LJ: What events in your life helped to mold you into the writer you've become?

TB: I have done many things—built a mountain cabin, studied at Oxford, run a growing business, started a family—but I have always written.

When I was in fifth grade, I liked to tell stories so much that I started my own little magazine, called The Idiot's Odyssey. As an Eagle Scout, I won a scouting speech and essay competition that sent me to Washington to meet the President. Even when I was president of a business, I often found myself getting up at 4 a.m. to write, composing during meetings, or scribbling in the back of a taxi.

Finally I had to make a choice, to do what I love best, because life is too short not to follow your passions. So here I am, still telling stories. Writing is the hardest, and most joyous, labor I know.

LJ: How much research do you do before you start on a new book, and is research an integral element of your writing process?

TB: Extensive research is a must. If I as a writer am going to convince you as a reader to come with me to some fantastic place or time, I must first win your confidence. Your trust. The only two ways to do that are: first, to engage every one of your senses fully; and second, to do my research.

I spent almost a year reading texts about Merlin before I began to write The Lost Years of Merlin books. Starting with the ancient Welsh Mabinogian, I read the poems of Robert de Boron, the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and as many Celtic ballads as possible. That's just the beginning. Then, of course, I read more modern treatments such as The Once and Future King by T. H. White. My attitude was, if I was going to be so bold as to try to fill in the gap in Merlin's lore about his youth, I had better know as much as possible about the rest of Merlin's lore. Also, this process filled me with the richness of Celtic language and imagery, as well as the music of the old names. In the end, I created Fincayra and all that came with it, but I hope that these new threads still fit into the greater tapestry of Merlin myth.

LJ: What is your plotting process—do you outline the book, the chapters, and the scenes?

TB: Normally I need some sort of aerial photograph of the terrain of a quest. So I know the approximate beginning, ending, and the dangerous marshes or inspiring peaks in between. This means writing an outline, which you could call my trail map. Then I intentionally lose the map, so I can find out what the terrain is like on the ground. Often my characters tell me to turn right when the map says turn left. In such cases, I always listen to my characters. Then I rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite, researching whatever is required. In the end, the journey has included several surprises and experiences I would not have predicted.

LJ: How much time do you spend on writing? Are you disciplined and structured—do you have a set block of time or a certain number of pages that you expect yourself to write every day, or does it vary?

TB: Essentially, I write all the time, even when I'm traveling, shaving, going for a hike with my kids, sleeping, whatever. It happens on many levels when you are immersed in a project. I always write the first draft with a blue felt pen and a pad of paper, because that is a good chemistry for me. And I do lots of rewrites. How many? As many as it takes to get it right! Like a good stew, novels get better when you boil them down and integrate all the ingredients. Most of my novels take six or seven full rewrites and two years to finish.

LJ: How do you go about getting to know and understand your characters? How do you bring them to life for the reader?

TB: To develop a character, I watch people around me and look at the small things: how they talk, how they walk, how they gesture. I try to go inside them to look at their motivations. Then I throw them in—let their actions introduce them. Any good character is immersed in relationships, a particular place, and a gripping situation. So you just have to jump right in and show the readers—don't just tell them—what the characters are like.

LJ: What's the best advice you were ever given as a writer? What's the best advice you can give us as writers?

TB:

1. Remember that you *are* a writer, even if you are not yet published. You have things to say—important things—and you deserve to find a voice of your own.

2. Writing is a craft, something one learns by doing. So there is no substitute for constant practice. (And that, unfortunately, requires constant discipline.) The bad news is, no matter how good you get at the craft of writing, there are always things you can learn to do better. And the good news is—exactly the same. That is why writing is a wonderful way to grow as a human being…even if it is also full of struggle and anguish at times.

3. Be honest. Deep soul-searching leads to more compelling writing.

4. Write through your passions. That energy will flow into your writing; breathe life into your words.

5. Now for some practical advice: Get yourself an agent. It's just too difficult to get published without one. How do you find an agent? There are professional writers' organizations, such as the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Mystery Writers' Guild that could be helpful. Or you could track down whoever was the literary agent for a published book you admire by contacting the editorial division of the publishing house.

6. Finally: Don't give up. Remember, when you receive those rejection letters, that every writer including Shakespeare has had the same experience. It's part of the process. But if you persist, and you have something to say, the chances are good that you will eventually succeed.

7. Ignore advice from other writers.

LJ: Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and expertise with us!