Thursday, 3 September 2009

Interview - Lisa Ann Sandell (Song of the Sparrow)

The gifted Lisa Ann Sandell is back again! Song of the Sparrow is a remarkable novel that was published in 2007 - it follows the journey of Elaine as she follows the men in her life in their battles. Integrating Arthurian lore with some of our favourite characters (Lancelot, Arthur, etc), this novel is beautifully written in verse, winding delicately around one's imagination.

Why free verse?
I tried to write this in prose. Really, I did. But I kept having trouble with the voice. Then, one day, "Motherless, sisterless," just sort of came into my head, and I knew, right away, that this was Elaine's voice and that she wanted to tell her story in a song or poem. As I thought about it, the verse just started to seem right. Organic to the time and very organic to her story and voice. Sometimes it let me hear the war drums, other times the bird song, and other times still, the murmuring of the river. I tend to think in pictures and scents and sounds, and free verse lends itself quite nicely to that method of thought and writing.

I first heard about Elaine from watching (then reading) Anne of Green Gables as a kid. When did you first learn about Elaine of Ascolat?
I first heard about Elaine of Ascolat (or Astolat) when I read and watched Anne of Green Gables, too! It's remarkable--since I wrote Song of the Sparrow, lots of people have told me that they learned of Elaine's story from Anne of Green Gables, as well. But, when I got older and saw John William Waterhouse's 1888 painting of the Lady of Shalott, I became obsessed. I remember rounding a corner in the Tate gallery about ten years ago and coming face to face with this luminous, beautiful, totally compelling woman whose face told her whole story. She was doomed to die. That was it, I couldn't stop thinking (and reading) about her. Then writing about her....

When writing, how difficult is it to remember not to write your protagonist as a modern girl in a historical setting?
I think that as a modern writer, it's hard not to take certain liberties frequently. Didn't Harold Bloom claim that psychology didn't exist in literature prior to Shakespeare? Well, I'm not sure how given to interior monologue people living in the dark ages were, but I think it's pretty essential to crafting a truly engaging, character-driven story. Moreover, because we know so little about this period of history, I'm not even sure if Elaine's situation would have been possible. So, while I was able to always keep the setting in mind as I wrote Song of the Sparrow, and I really believe that I told a story that is true to the character, I might have taken some license with some of the treatment in the spirit of spinning a good story that would resonate with readers today.

I have always found Gwynivere to be a rather uninspiring character in Arthurian legend, I loved your take on her. Why the initial 'mean girl' approach?
Gwynivere has always struck me as a pretty unlikable character in this mythology; however the love triangle that she inspires is super interesting, and of course it has extremely significant and tragic consequences. I could never understand why Gwynivere cheated on Arthur. He's so GOOD. As I began writing Song of the Sparrow, I could only surmise that she was vain and given to superficiality. This set her up in direct opposition to Elaine and also made for great tension between her and Elaine. Yet, as I wrote Gwynivere, she became more layered and complex in my mind--especially as the crappiness of being used as a political bargaining chip and of essentially being bartered into an arranged marriage to a stranger, became evident. Then I started to empathize with her and really feel bad about her lot. So, I, too, sort of took a journey along with Gwyn as she matures in the story.

One of the aspects of the novel that I love so much is the relationship between Elaine and her brothers. How difficult was that to write authentically for men and for the time?
Oooh, this is a great question! I hadn't written historical before, and writing male characters is a challenge for me. The men in Song of the Sparrow are all soldiers, fighting men. I know men who have had to serve in the military and I thought about the realities they faced and the various ways in which they approach the concept of war--with grim acceptance, dread, horror, enthusiasm, sensitivity. War spins a whole complicated web of emotions and it was fascinating to sort of thread my way through it and really explore what it might mean to have to fight. One thing war isn't is new. It's one of the very oldest and most fundamental facts of human existence, and so, surprisingly, the fact that my story was historical actually made writing about men and war easier, I think, because I didn't have to teach myself about all of the details of contemporary warfare.

What is your favourite on screen depiction of Arthur and the story of Camelot?
I think it's the Sean Connery movie, First Knight. With Richard Gere as Lancelot. Yum.
Can you tell us about the juicy morsel you are working on at the moment? Well, it's still in a pretty early stage, so I don't want to reveal too much, but I'll just say's going to be something totally new and different for me. I'm venturing into a genre that I've never tried before--still YA--but I think it'll be really exciting for me as a writer and hopefully for readers, as well.

Thank you so much, Adele! Answering your questions has been tremendous fun!

Thank YOU Lisa!

Lisa has a number of novels published - The Weight of the Sky (2006), Song of the Sparrow (2007) and A Map of the Known World (2009) and a contributor to 21 Proms, all which you should definitely pick up when stalking your local bookstores.


Suzanne Yester said...

Wonderful Interview! The book sound wonderful too! I have read one book written entirely in free verse and will definitely check out Song of the Sparrow because I would love to read another novel written this way.

Aubrey said...

Wonderful Interview! Lisa is such a delight and expresses herself so well.

If you have not read Song of the Sparrow get it! It is one that I had to go out and buy in hardback I loved it so much!

Anonymous said...

I read Song of the Sparrow when it first came out and I LOVED IT. One of my favorite things about it is that the book is fair to the women in a way few Arthurian-legend set books are.

Awesome interview.