A Conversation with Joan Lennon...

I'm very happy, here, to be talking to my friend and fellow writer, Joan Lennon.

Joan lives in the Kingdom of Fife at the top of an old Victorian house.  She's been writing full-time since she hit the ripe old age of 50 and plans to be still scribbling when the coffin lid goes down. 
     She writes funny stuff for 5-7, historical stuff for 8-12, fantasy, sci-fi and poetry for any age you care to mention.  You can find out more about her books on her main website.  
    Her YA novel Silver Skin was inspired by the Stone Age village of Skara Brae that disappeared for thousands of years.

Sue: Being nosy, I’ve always wondered where in Canada you came from originally?

Joan: I was born in Toronto. Then we lived in London (Ontario). Then Windsor (Ontario). Then I escaped back to Toronto. At least we managed one non-British rip-off name!

Sue: Still being nosy, were you of Scots' descent? I know that quite a lot of Canadians are, as many people thrown off their land during the Clearances emigrated to Canada.

Joan: Scots' descent? Probably! My father's father came to Canada from Donaghadee and lots of the Protestants in Northern Ireland were Scottish imports. There's some French Huguenot on my mother's side, if you go back a bit. Oh, and English weavers and lace-makers. My mother was born in China -- does that count?

Sue: I’m quite curious about how your mother came to be born in China -- but perhaps another blog.
     We’re flattered that you chose to come and live in Britain. How did that come about?

Joan: Flu brought me to Scotland. It was like this -- in my Masters year there was one of those really knock-out flus going about the campus and I didn't pick up from it for ages, and my mum and dad invited me to go B&Bing with them in Britain to perk me up. And it was lovely and I was duly perked.

     And one day we visited the Abbey on Iona and there was a sign up in the cloister -- "Wanted -- Secretary for a Year." So I applied, not thinking for a second that I'd get it. I'm pretty sure the person they wanted fell through, and so I got this odd letter through the post, weeks later, back in Canada. And the rest is, well, not history, but still a long time ago. I worked there 1978-1979 -- by the end of that, it was totally clear Scotland was the place for me.

Sue: I love Iona. It’s the only place in Britain I know of where you’re sure to hear a corncrake. It will always make me think of you now.

Joan: I must go back -- it's been decades!

Sue: You won't be sorry.

Joan: But I’d like to make it clear that I do not describe myself as a Canadian ex-pat. That's a term I've never really understood. I'm an immigrant. And, after just shy of 40 years here, I am pretty damn Scottish as well (even though I don't like haggis).

Sue: I never doubted it! I think of you as Scottish and Canadian, and, to my mind, it lends you a certain cachet. I know a lot of Scots, but only one Scottish-Canadian. -- I do like haggis, though.

Joan: Thank you -- Scottish-Canadian, Canadian-Scot, that woman with the weird voice -- take your pick.

Sue: 'That witty, clever woman, who never fails to make me laugh.'
     When did your fascination with the Stone Age and Skara Brae begin?  -- I always think of 'Third Rock From The Sun' where the (Earthling) Professor of Archaeology, Mary, smiles goofily and says, "Oh, I was always Daddy's little girl and, of course, like all  little girls, I was totally obsessed with Paleolithic Archaeology." It made me laugh out loud because, when the siblings and I were children on the beach, instead of sandcastles, we used to build neolithic tombs from flat pieces of slate, with lolly-sticks for the bodies and shells for grave goods.

Joan: If flu brought me to Scotland, my teeth introduced me to Skara Brae.
     When I was little, I spent a lot of time at the dentist, with the drilling noise and that smell, and the National Geographic magazines in the waiting room were the one good thing about it all. And that's where I first learned about Skara Brae in Orkney. The pictures were so evocative and the thought of an entire village, hidden under the sand for thousands of years, and then revealed overnight by a killer storm, made the hairs on my imagination stand on end. And I love Third Rock from the Sun!

Sue: Oh, so do I, and Big Bang Theory! -- But that’s for that other blog.
     I also have some pretty horrible memories of the dentist, with that rubber mask, and the smell of the gas, and waking up with blood in your mouth… But I don’t remember any word of Skara Brae to comfort me.
     I think I must have been a teenager when I first read about it -- possibly because I was always reading up on the Vikings -- and the Vikings left runes at Maeshowe -- and if an author is mentioning Maeshowe, then they might as well throw in a mention of Skara Brae. Like you, I found the whole account of the abandoned, buried village, and its reappearance after a gale, completely irresistible. Sometime in my early teens I formed an ambition: to go to Oslo and see the Viking Ship Museum, and to go to Orkney and see Skara Brae and Maeshowe.

Joan: I've seen your photos of the Oslo Viking ship -- could it BE more beautiful? I would love to see it myself.

Sue: But I wanted to talk about your wonderful book, Silver Skin. When did the idea of writing something based in/on/around Skara Brae come to you? Have you always wanted to do it -- or did the idea of the book form slowly as you learned more about Orkney and the Stone Age?

Joan: I'd visited the Skara Brae site a couple of times over the years, but the final push to write Silver Skin came when I was doing some author visits to schools on Orkney. I was talking about my series, The Wickit Chronicles, set in the Fens in medieval England, of all places/times. During a Q&A, one of the pupils asked me why didn't I write a book set in Orkney? And I realised I was desperate to do just that. The story of Rab and Cait and angry old Voy grew out of that moment.

Sue: I think it was lurking around in your subconcious, just waiting... 
     Did you always intend to bring the future -- and the 19th century period of the uncovering gale -- into the story? Was there ever a time when you meant to set it entirely in the Stone Age?

Joan: Rab from the far future and Cait and Voy from the Stone Age were there from the start. The young Victorian bride Mrs Trevelyan came into my head, quite quietly, later on in the writing. There is a rambling, bleak, cold, old house near Skara Brae that's open to the public -- Skaill House -- that I visited one time with my sister. It had ... an atmosphere. I've been trying to think of another word for "bleak" but I can't -- not that seems as right. But it wasn't just bleak. It had a powerful feeling to it, however you put it, and Mrs Trevelyan came out of that visit. She's made up, of course -- they're all made up -- but totally real to me!

Sue: Oooh! I think you should write a ghost story set in Skaill House! Perhaps featuring Mrs. Trevelyan. I’d like to know more about her.

Joan: I'd like to spend more time with her too -- she's got a lot of spirit ... There's a joke in there somewhere ...  Now I've got a question for you -- do you fancy talking about genre? How do bookshops and publishers categorise the Sterkarm books, for example?

Sue: I'd say, with a bit of difficulty. I think of it as history mixed with fantasy -- because the time-travel is dressed up as science, but it’s pure fantasy. Other people tell me it’s science-fiction -- but I  think that's misleading as there's no more than a nod to science in it. It came about -- as I would venture a guess Silver Skin did -- because I wanted to compare and contrast modern life with the life of the border reivers. What I didn’t want was any supernatural element to explain the time-travel. I wanted that to be as matter-of-fact and routine as catching a bus. So I invented the Time Tube -- and then could have a lot of fun with imagining that the reivers make sense of it by understanding the people from the future as Elves, and the Time Tube as the hillside opening for the Elves to come out.

Joan: I tell people Silver Skin is a sci-fi historical adventure romance.

Sue: Sounds about right!

Joan: Somebody described it as "genre-bending"-- which I like the sound of, though I can't say that was the plan. Really I just wrote it the way it wanted to be written, just as soon as I could figure that out, one page at a time.

Sue: You wrote it the way it wanted to be written!  Exactly! The Sterkarm books were the same. They made it clear from the start that they did not want to be straightforward historical novels, set entirely in the past. I think 'sci-fi historical adventure romance' about covers them too. Perhaps, between us, we've started a new genre?
       Thanks to Joan, for giving up time to help me make this blog.

     Silver Skin is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, especially if you like Sci-fi Historical Adventure Romance.

There's more chat about Silver Skin here on An Awfully BigBlog Adventure