Today on Why Words Work, I am joined by a special guest! I have featured her once before in my article discussing fan-fiction. However, she has kindly joined us to talk about her own book series, The Harmatia Cycle.
I’m pleased to welcome fantasy author M.E.Vaughan!
M.E.Vaughan is an author, freelance writer, co-host on speculative podcast Dissecting Dragons, and Creative Writing Lecturer at The University of Winchester.
With two books currently released in the Harmatia Cycle – The Sons of Thesitan (which I have reviewed) and The Blood of the Delphi (which I am currently reading) – I am super excited to speak with our guest about her series, as well as any new projects she may be working on.
With all that said, it’s time for the interview!
First things first: What drew you towards writing initially? And why the fantasy genre specifically?
I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved magic. Being dyslexic, I couldn’t read and write for a long time as a young child. This meant that, being part of a family of bibliophiles, while everyone was busy reading, I would have to create my own entertainment. My imagination was my solace, and I would frequent bizarre and wonderful worlds in it.
As to why it was fantasy that stole my heart, I couldn’t exactly say. I love mystery too, and drama, and history…But fantasy appeals to something deep within me. This fascination with the things beyond us. Every day I want to believe that magic is real, and fantasy is the gateway to letting me experience that.
The Harmatia Cycle draws a lot of inspiration from arthurian legend and folklore. What were some of the key aspects of these legends that you wanted to adapt/examine into your books?
This is a tough question! I’ve always loved the Arthurian Legends, and because they’ve been retold so many times, there’s a little bit of everything in them—magic, heroism, love, profound stupidity…
When I started writing The Sons of Thestian, the Arthurian Legends were on my mind, and I think one of the main themes I drew on was loyalty. The Knights of the Round Table had a real family feel to them, and it’s that—that fierce companionship, that deep sense of morality and insane loyalty for one another—that I wanted to reflect. Harmatia is built on the foundation of that loyalty, and what happens when loyalty is divided.
The characters themselves are tied with different figures from the legends. For instance, Jionat is the embodiment of the King Arthur archetype. Courageous, righteous to the extreme, a Royal fighting for his given right to rule. Like King Arthur at the beginning, Jionat is idealistic, and sees the world in a very black and white way.
Then you have the more enigmatic, mysterious character of Merlin, represented in Rufus. Someone connected to the crown, but also separated from it, loyal to a force beyond. Merlin was a druid in a Christian Court, he represented the ‘old gods’. Rufus plays a similar role in Harmatia, caught in his own battle of identity, and with a much more complex view of the world.
Folklore and fairy tales also had a strong part to play in the conception of the series. I wanted to use the themes found in these stories, whilst also playing with the traditional gender roles, eg. a female warrior and a runaway prince. The Harmatia Cycle is also full of fairy tale imagery—captive princesses, children fleeing cruel parents, monsters in the woods, star-crossed lovers…And always this battle between what we believe is good and bad, right and wrong.
I have to say, however, that the main theme, which is prevalent in both folklore and Arthurian legend, is one of consequence. The debts you owe will find you, the past will catch up, you will be held accountable for the promises you made…This appears time and time again in legend and fairy tale. The idea that there is a balance in the world, and that if things tips one way, they will tip again, and usually not in your favour. The Sons of Thestian, in particular, is about people running away from their problems, which ultimately doesn’t work. I think what I was really trying to look, in particular, was grief and what happens when you don’t address it properly. That is, ultimately, what the book is about.
For pride month, you posted a list of all the LGBTQ* characters in the Harmatia Cycle. With that in mind, what are your views on LGBTQ* representation in the fantasy genre?
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I crave representation in all media. I have been pleased by the increase we’ve seen over the last few years. There is still some way to go, however.
I think, in Fantasy, it’s as important to represent people as it is in any other kind of fiction. We come to fantasy to escape, to dream, to taste a bit of magic…We put ourselves in the stories, and want to know that there’s a place for us there. That’s the appeal. How many quizzes have you done to find your Hogwarts’ House? To figure out if you’re a Stark or a Lannister?
But if you don’t see yourself represented, or if you’re only represented by a character who’s entire arc is a harrowing journey of self-deprecation ending in an a untimely death, than what do you take away from that? That you don’t belong in this world, that there’s no place for you, unless you’re the tragic victim. That’s no longer fantastic escapism, it’s just miserable.
Everyone wants, and deserves to believe that they can be the swash-buckling hero, the smarmy detective, the mysterious sorcerer. And what’s more, we could all do with a little reminding that anyone can be these characters, regardless of their sex, gender, colour or culture. People are more than a stereotype.
As I mentioned in my review of The Sons of Thestian, the most prominent theme I encountered in the book was grief/loss. As the fantasy genre is somewhat infamous for mercilessly killing off its characters, was this something you intentionally wanted to explore?
Oops! I actually already jumped the gun a bit and mentioned this in the question above! Yes, grief and loss was something that I really wanted to focus on in the series.
Around the time that I started writing it, I’d experience my first loss in the family—a great aunt, whom I was very fond of. I’d sent her a letter a few days before, but it hadn’t arrived in time. When I got the news, I took it surprisingly well, but later that evening a throw-away comment from someone had me hunched up into a ball, sobbing helplessly.
My mother was also recovering from cancer at the time, and so a part of me was suddenly very conscious of the genuine possibility of death and loss. Beforehand, these had been abstract concepts.
By the time it came to rewriting The Sons of Thestian my mother was terminally sick, my grandfather and another great-aunt had died, and writing about grief became a solace for having to suffer it. And then, by the time the book was published, my mother was dead, and I’d been to more funerals than weddings. The more death I encountered, the more important it became to address how to handle grief. And how not to handle it.
You’ve said that you’ve led a nomadic lifestyle – but how do you make time to write when you’re out there travelling?
I dare say it’s the other way around, but only because of the volume I write. It’s really not a matter of making time—I am usually desperate to write. And when I’m not writing, more often than not, I am imagining scenarios to write. It’s a bit of an obsession.
The nice bit about travelling is that it does usually involve a lot of travel time. I write on aeroplanes, trains, busses, boats, in stations, cafes, airports—I write almost every night when I got to bed, and I write almost every morning before I get up. It’s true that while I’m travelling, of which I do a great deal, the time I have to physically write is limited…But new experiences, places and people trigger inspiration. Take me somewhere new, and I can walk away after three days with a new world, a new story, and new characters, and be ready to write it all out when I get home.
You’re working on a new series: The Kestrel Saga. What’re some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced, starting this new project?
“Urban Fantasy just isn’t selling at the moment!” – That was the consistent feedback I got at the last Writing Festival I went to. Not that it’s discouraged me. I started writing The Kestrel Saga a year after The Sons of Thestian, or there abouts. It was a big step away from epic fantasy, but aside from that I was also moving from third person to first, with a main female protagonist who was much older than me, and who lived in London…
Despite all that, Kestrel is actually easier to write then The Harmatia Cycle. In-fact, I’d say Kestrel is easier than almost any other project I’ve ever worked on. I enjoy writing her, I enjoy writing her story. Kestrel is the next level of escapism for me, and that’s because to some degree, when I created Kestrel she was me…A totally unrestrained version of me. There’s a whole sob-story behind it, for which I won’t bore, but Kestrel was literally created for me to have fun. Somewhere along the lines however, she started to attract a few followers. I believe the term my friend Alex used to describe her, (and me) was: “[She’s] a bitch. A wonderful, beautiful bitch.”
Obviously, since then Kestrel has grown into something more than a self-insert adventure story, and about a year ago The Kestrel Saga got a major revamp, with some big plot changes. Editing is now finished, and book one The Clarion Call has gotten the stamp of approval from my betas and editors, and is now zooming off to agents looking for a home. Hopefully someone out there still has a little room in their heart for some good ol’ urban fantasy.
Are there any other projects/events that you can share with us?
Well, I have just this very evening (as I’m typing this) finished writing the first draft of my Middle Grade fantasy! It’s my first children’s book, and I am rather pleased with myself!
I was recently accepted into the Golden Egg Academy, which is a writing academy specifically for children’s fiction. I will be working on this book with them, to get it into tip-top form for submission! So who knows, perhaps in a few years that’ll be something you can look out for on the shelves!
Outside of that, I am also about to start rewriting a YA Fantasy I began last year. I can’t tell you very much about it, but it’s an LGBTQ+ Romance, and there are dragons, and alternative worlds, and strange magic, and epic sea voyages…and I’m incredibly excited! I recently had a real break-through with the plot for this story and now I am rearing and ready to go. I imagine I’ll probably get started in September, when I’ll be taking a short trip to Cyprus! Cyprus is where the whole story began…It seems fitting I continue the journey from there!
Alright, time for the hardest question: Which two authors have inspired you the most and why?
This question literally makes me writhe! It’s so hard to answer, because I have been fortunate enough to meet and know so many authors. Each of them has inspired me and helped me grow as a person, and as a writer. I count myself fortunate for each encounter.
I suppose, therefore, to answer this question I’ll have to go back to before I was a writer. In which case, it starts with J.K. Rowling. This may be incredibly generic, but the truth is that I owe her for pulling me into the world of fiction. As stated, I am dyslexic, and I really couldn’t read or write for a long time as a child. I wasn’t interested in books because of it. My mother introduced me to Harry Potter via the audiobooks, and I fell absolutely in love. I listened over and over, and read along, and soon the audiobooks just weren’t coming out fast enough…so I forced myself to read the next book. And then the next…And slowly it got easier, and before I knew it, my reading age was five years older than I was.
The second author who has had a remarkable influence on me, was Caroline Lawrence, the author of The Roman Mysteries. Again, it was my mother introduced me to the books. I started with book 2, The Secrets of Vesuvius, and was quickly pulled into the series. To my delight, my school then announced that Caroline Lawrence was going to be visiting!
I remember sitting there, listening to her talk and take questions, and it was like my eyes were full of stars. For the first time in my life I realised that all the stories I created to entertain myself could actually come to something. The thing I enjoyed—there was a name for it. There was a job I could do. Caroline Lawrence made me realise I was a writer, and I’ve never looked back.
Finally, for all of the writers who are making worlds of their own, what’s the one piece of advice you want to give?
Be diverse. The world is huge and strange and wonderful. People are different from one another, and I don’t just mean it terms of skin colour and sexual orientation, but in economic background, culture, moral beliefs, education, life-style…
If you have more than one country in your world, or people from more than one place, a fun little thing to do is to create stereotypes.
Now, stick with me—I don’t mean write stereotypes, I mean create them within the body of the world.
For instance, in Harmatia, they stereotype the Betheanians as a bunch of lecherous drunkards. They’re considered less educated, faerie-loving, dramatic and superstitious. Now where does this stereotype come from? It actually tells us more about Harmatians than Betheanians. Bethean is a Kingdom who formed an allegiance with the faeries to make peace, in contrast to the Harmatians who are still suspicious of them. Being more agricultural, Betheanians produce a lot of mead, cider and beer and have trading ties with East Réne, who produce a lot of wine.
The Harmatians get most of their alcohol from and through Bethean, and are probably bitter they have to pay tax on it. The Betheanians are a liberal people with equality laws between men and women, and practise same-sex marriage, in contrast to Harmatia where same-sex marriage is not recognised and the society is more patriarchal. The Betheanian’s religious background means that, even though they’ve adopted the ‘True Gods’, they still accept the old ones and continue some traditions and beliefs, which the Harmatians don’t recognise.
As such, a stereotype here has given me two very different places: who the stereotype is supposed to be, and who came up with the stereotype…In both cases we get the ‘why’, and that ‘why’ is the question that allows your world to flourish.
What makes people see each other differently? What morals to they share, what cultures contrast, how does the terrain differ? Are they miners, farmers, conquerors? Are they a religious state, or do they welcome people of all creeds?
The best bit of all, however, is then having your characters challenge those stereotypes. Are they what people imagined? Are they not? What’s different? What’s the same?
Having diversity of character and culture in your work will only every improve it. If everyone talks, thinks and acts the same way, it’ll start to get boring very quickly…
Once again, a huge thank you to M.E.Vaughan for such a fascinating interview! If you like the sound of her work, do check out her Twitter, Facebook, and website for more details. And if you wanna know what I thought of her books, click here to read my review of The Sons of Thestian!