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Interview: Suzannah Rowntree

Author of The Wind from the Wilderness

Today you are in for a treat! I had the great pleasure of interviewing Suzannah Rowntree, author of A Wind from the Wilderness. (Click link for my review). We had a great chat about it, and about her historical fantasy series, The Watchers of Outremer, set in the First Crusade. By way of introduction, here’s what Suzannah says about herself on her website:

I live in a big house in rural Australia with my awesome parents and siblings, drinking fancy tea and writing historical fantasy fiction that blends real-world history with legend, adventure, and a dash of romance. If you like the mythic fantasy of Stephen Lawhead, S. A. Chakraborty or Naomi Novik, you’ll probably like my stories too!”

She is definitely a kindred spirit, and I’m excited to welcome her to the blog today!

Hi Suzannah, and thanks so much for being willing to take some time to chat with me today! First of all, a couple of general questions: What got you going on this writer’s journey, and how long have you been doing it? Is A Wind from The Wilderness your first book?

Suzannah Rowntree

Hi Lisa, and thanks for having me today!

Stories have always fascinated me, ever since my mother read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to me as a child. So, it was a natural step to start telling my own stories. I started writing as a young teen, and I’ve never really stopped. A Wind from the Wilderness is actually my second full-length novel: my first was Pendragon’s Heir, an Arthurian retelling, and I also had a number of novella-length stories under my belt by the time I published Wind.

Wonderful. I love an Arthurian story, myself! A Wind from the Wilderness is set mainly during the time of the First Crusade. What drew you to this particular time and place?

I’ve always been fascinated by medieval culture and history. Pendragon’s Heir was my tribute to the medieval literature I loved. The Watchers of Outremer series was the natural progression from that story: I wanted to spend some time investigating how well the medieval world did or didn’t live up to their ideals in the stories they told about themselves.

The specific reason I chose the crusades as a setting was actually another book, a boys’ adventure story by Ronald Welch, Knight Crusader. When I read that book in early 2012 I somehow had never realised that the crusaders didn’t always start in western Europe, travel east, and then go home again. Some of them chose to stay. A mere handful of Franks settled down among the natives—both Muslim and indigenous Christian—and helped build this fascinating, unique, and very diverse culture there. These crusader states lasted 200 years, and their story is a blood-soaked drama of epic proportions that captivated me instantly. “Someone should tell this whole story,” I thought. But it took me a while to admit that no one else was going to do it and it needed to be me.

Yup, I can relate.

Which character did you find harder to write: Lukas, the Byzantine Greek Christian who was mysteriously transported from the 7th century to the 10th, or Ayla, the young Turkish girl who is facing a deadly threat not only from the invading Crusaders but from an ominous prophecy?

Ayla was simply delightful fun to write; she’s in such a unique predicament (she knows the exact date of her death, and it’s rapidly approaching) and it drives every choice she makes in such a clear and strong way that I felt I knew her very well from the start. Lukas has always been trickier for me. His deal is that he was a noble in his own time but now he’s been plunged into a strange and terrifying future where he’s nobody at all, and it’s a huge challenge for him to accept that. Sometimes I wonder if it might be hard for modern readers to sympathise with such a motivation since it’s so strongly tied to medieval notions of class and entitlement. But it’s my job as the author to make such attitudes understandable to the reader, and that was certainly a challenge for me.

I really appreciated that you included some real historical figures in your novel, including Raymond of St. Gilles, one of the leaders of the First Crusade. Was there any real historical figure that you considered including, but didn’t? Did you find it hard to get into the mindset of people who lived so long ago?

Haha, well, I sometimes feel the problem is less fitting myself into a historically-accurate mindset than it is making such a mindset sympathetic to my readers! I really enjoyed writing Saint-Gilles – he’s one of my favourite characters from the history (despite glaring character flaws).

I think I’ve managed to include most of the historical people I’m interested in, but the main omission is Eustace of Boulogne, the elder brother of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, who are two major characters in the story. It seemed strange to write about two of the brothers and leave the third completely unmentioned, but he had no specific role to play in the story and I was trying to keep the names and characters to a minimum!

On the face of it, the Crusades was an attempt by a Christian army to take back the holy sites in the Middle East which had been conquered by the Muslims. But of course, the reality is much more complex than that, involving layers of politics, religion and ambition. I thought you did a great job of portraying the bigger picture of the Crusades, but was there anything that you wish you could have gone into in more detail in the book? Or anything you left out that you wish you could have included?

It was an extremely complex situation about which much has been written, but I have to say that when I re-read A Wind from the Wilderness late last year in preparation for drafting Lukas’ next instalment, I felt I’d actually done a pretty good job of depicting the complexity of the history. If there’s one crusading-history topic Windis about, it’s about the motivations of the first crusaders themselves: what they hoped to achieve and why they were so desperately driven to achieve it. Lukas’ next instalment, A Conspiracy of Prophets, will delve into another part of the picture, which is how even the most idealistic elements of this vision became tarnished in the desperation of the journey.

I’ve given myself 9 books to tell the story of the Crusades, so there’s plenty of time to hit the high points!

Wow! Nine books! Great! What do you wish that people will learn about the Crusades from reading your books?

Well, if nothing else, I hope they come away knowing the actual historical events in vivid, immersive detail. Of course I hope they’ll understand the nature of the motivations that drove the first crusaders. Beyond that, I hope they’ll understand the incredible geopolitical diversity of the landscapes the crusade travelled through, from Anatolia to north Syria, during the time of the story’s setting. The Levant has been a melting-pot for millennia, and so you had Turkish tribesmen living in centres of Greek learning, or Armenian warlords employing Frankish mercenaries (including, long before the crusade, the brother of at least one crusader prince).

Above all, I hope that whatever perspective a reader might have held on the crusades before picking up the book, they’ll come away realising that the reality was incredibly complex and can’t be reduced to a specific modern political take!

You could have written this as merely a historical fiction account of the beginning of the Crusades, but you have included some interesting fantasy elements into it. Why?

I’ll admit that originally I assumed the story would be straight historical fiction, but then I decided I wanted to include time travel. After that, I looked for ways to lean in harder to the fantasy elements. Of course, medieval people didn’t have the same rationalistic/materialistic worldview that many moderners do today. They believed in a larger, stranger world full of demons, angels, saints, djinn, and other forces—and these beliefs had a profound and sometimes wildly dramatic impact on the course of events. As I learned more about the history, I realised that in some ways, leaning into the supernatural beliefs of the crusaders would produce a more historically accurate picture than otherwise.

Time travel can be great fun! What made you want to add that specific element into the book? And why going forward instead of going back?

The time travel was the first fantastical element and became the premise of the whole series—take a Greco-Syrian family from the eve of the Muslim conquest in 636 and scatter them throughout crusader history so that we can see the events through their eyes. Initially, I had played with the idea of making the story a standard generational saga, where you follow a single family throughout generations’ worth of story. But then I got the idea that, instead of being from different generations, the protagonists should have known each other personally, so that their interactions through and across time—as they are influenced by each other and put events in motion that will impact each other decades later—would hold more meaning.

I decided to send the characters forward in time because I was fascinated by the idea of telling the story of the Crusades from what seemed to me to be the most marginalised of all viewpoints: that of the local Greco-Syrian indigenous Christians—what today we might call Palestinians. In late antiquity, these people had been the ruling class. From their perspective, both the Franks and the Turkish or Arab Muslims were invaders and either heretics or suspiciously close to it. I liked the thought of taking these people from a time of immense if shaky privilege and throwing them into a completely alien future where, for the first time in their lives, they would feel powerless. What would you do if that happened to you? Would you fit in? Would you try to fight back? Would you become consumed with turning back time so that your family could hold onto the reins of power? I think a lot of people still have those kinds of feelings about Jerusalem today, or even just the past in general.

If you had the ability to go back or forward in time, where would you go?

I would absolutely be a time-travelling historian like the ones in Connie Willis’ novels. I would go back to the medieval crusader states and indulge my insensate lust for historical research.

It is probably for the best that this will never happen!

Ha ha, yes. I have a feeling time travel is best kept to fiction!

What was the most enjoyable part of writing this novel, and what was the hardest?

Probably the most fun I’ve had in the whole process was right back at the beginning when I was starting to read up on the history of the crusades in detail for the very first time, and kept having my mind blown by the incredible, dramatic stories I found. The actual process of writing is work, as is the more detailed research. I think the hardest aspect of this novel is simply the fact that I worked on nothing else for about 14 months leading up to publication! I found that focusing on a single project for that long left me feeling pretty exhausted. These days, the Outremer books seem to come together more quickly, and I can refresh myself with shorter, lighter side projects!

Who are the authors you enjoy reading?

My favourite dead authors include Tolkien, Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Austen, Chesterton, Trollope, Mary Stewart, and many anonymous authors of medieval literature. Among the living, I read everything that Naomi Novik, Rosamund Hodge, SA Chakraborty, Intisar Khanani and Silvia Moreno-Garcia write, as well as my favourite indie authors WR Gingell,  ML Wang, Angela Boord, and no doubt many others I’m forgetting!

There are two more published books in the Watches of Outremer series so far, but they are about other members of Lukas’ family. Will there be more after that? Will you get back to Lukas’ story again in a future book?

Absolutely: this is going to be a nine-book series, DV, and each of our three protagonists will eventually have three instalments. Next up is Lukas’ second instalment, A Conspiracy of Prophets, which I drafted before Christmas and hope to release at the end of this year. We’ll see Lukas dealing with some of the fallout from his choices in A Wind from the Wilderness, as well as struggling with his newfound seer ability!

Oh, good! I’m looking forward to what is next for him!

This book is classified as YA (Young Adult). What draws you to writing for that age range?

Well, the shocking truth is that in fact the book was neither conceived nor written with a young audience in mind. While Lukas and Ayla are in their teens and there is something of a coming-of-age plot, I had an adult audience firmly in mind: after all, medieval society considered you to be an adult by the age of 15 or 16. YA definitely doesn’t include adults as POV characters, so including Saint-Gilles—a man in his 50s—as a major viewpoint character was one of the factors that made the story for adults, in my mind; as does the somewhat gritty tone and the dark ending.

However, the truth is that in practice the YA genre has become a catchall for certain kinds of stories: stories written by women, stories with a somewhat “cleaner” sensibility, stories with strong romantic elements, or which showcase specific tropes like enemies-to-lovers romance. Although I didn’t intend to write a YA story, this story does have certain things in common with that genre, and as a marketing experiment, I recently tried recategorising the story as YA on Amazon. I don’t particularly like it, though, because it’s not truly YA.

Interesting! Finally, could you tell us a little bit about what else you have written, and what you are working on now?

I think I already mentioned my first book, an Arthurian retelling, Pendragon’s Heir (now repackaged in three parts as a trilogy). Then, in the years during which I was working through the early stages of the Outremer series, I also wrote and published a series of 6 novella-length fairytale retellings. All of them are set in different time periods and are a homage to a different genre, from a Bollywood-inspired Beauty and the Beast to a wuxia Sleeping Beauty.

At present, I’m busy revising a gaslamp trilogy! Miss Sharp’s Monsters is a light-hearted romp through an 1890s Europe ruled by monsters, for everyone who loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the 2004 Van Helsing movie! It’s ridiculously fun and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!

I hope you are inspired to go and read Suzannah’s books! You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  

 FYI, A Wind from the Wilderness is currently a top ten finalist in the 6th annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog, which was founded by author Mark Lawrence to shine a spotlight on self-published fantasy novels. The winner will be announced once all the reviews from the participating blogs have been published. See the current scoreboard here.