Monday, 18 June 2012

MUSE MONDAY: Celia "this is not forgiveness" Rees

Celia Rees’ latest novel This is not Forgiveness came with a clever press release claiming “this is not Celia Rees…” which worried the unicorn a little bit, because Celia is known and loved for her spooky stories and atmospheric historical novels such as Witch Child.

But fans of her earlier work need not worry. You can still sense Celia's trademark spookiness lying just beneath the surface, with passing reference to tarot cards and ouija boards to keep even a unicorn happy. Told in accessible first person style by her three narrators – innocent teen Jamie, his damaged elder brother Rob fresh back from Afghanistan, and the beautiful, slightly witchy girl Caro who gets too close to them both – there unfolds an unsettling story of modern teens that you just know is going to get dark and dangerous before the end.

Today, the Muse is delighted to welcome Celia “this is not forgiveness” Rees to talk about why she felt compelled to write this book…

 I was delighted and honoured when Katherine asked me to contribute to Muse Monday on the Reclusive Muse, but I felt like a bit of a fraud. I was by no means sure that I had a Muse to write about. The more I thought about it, however, I began to realise that for each book there was something important, call it a significant presence, if you like, sparking my inspiration, leading me onwards, lending deeper significance to what I was writing, feeding the well springs of creativity.

For Witch Child it was the hare. When I first had the idea for the book, I knew I wanted Mary, the main character, and her grandmother, to be witches. Not kind sought by the Witch Finder General, in league with the Devil, but belonging to a wholly different tradition. I drew on a theory of European Witchcraft, first put forward by Margaret Murray in "Witch Cult in Western Europe", that witchcraft was a kind of survival of paganism. It didn’t matter that her theories have been widely discredited; it made sense to me and also meshed with the connection I wanted to make with Native American Shamanism. It seemed that there were many correlations: psychic ability, the power to heal, and shape shifting. A shaman’s ability to shape shift, to take the form of an animal, is very common in Native American belief systems. In English and Scottish witch lore, it was often claimed that a witch could turn into a hare.

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;

This is the charm used by Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie and this transformation is commonly attested to in folklore and folk song. So when I was writing Witch Child, the hare became my totem animal. And still is.

The beguiling of Merlin

The Wish House could not be more different from Witch Child. It is a near contemporary coming of age novel, set in Southwest Wales but this area is suffused with Celtic myth and magic, one of the settings for The Mabinogion and the fabled site of the Vale of Glamour. I couldn’t ignore such riches. A powerful sense of place and myth became increasingly important as I was writing the novel. At the heart of the story is an ageing artist and his beautiful daughter. While I was writing, the legend of the beguiling of Merlin began to take on greater and greater significance.

I don’t regard myself as a fantasy writer, but in my writing career, I’ve had a go at most things. My novel, The Stone Testament, is the closest I’ve got to real fantasy. It is split into three different time periods, the near future, the near past (early 20th Century) and the deep past – 25,000 years ago. I was interested in the idea that there could have been advanced, sophisticated civilizations before our own and that perhaps they formed a kind of Ur Civilization. If this was so, then our only access would be through the universality of myth; ancient and world wide beliefs in essentially the same things – mother goddess, sky god and gods and mythical creatures who are half man, half beast. In that book, the Great Mother, in all her forms and manifestations became very important to me, distilled into her symbol of the bee.
I don’t always know exactly what will gain significance in a book, or why. In The Fool’s Girl, it began with an amulet: the cimeruta, an Italian charm against witches and the Evil Eye. I’d first seen these displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and although I did not consciously think, ‘Ooh, one day I’ll put one of those in a book’, I registered them as interesting and every time I was in the Pitt Rivers, I’d pull the drawer out to look at them. When I wanted a charm to put round the neck of my character, Violetta, the cimeruta seemed the natural thing. The Fool’s Girl is based on Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. Violetta is Viola’s daughter, she is from Illyria, which I locate on the coast of modern Croatia, an area where east and west, Christian and Pagan meet. The cimeruta is a powerful charm, a stylized sprig of rue, Shakespeare’s ‘herb of grace’, with three main branches, hung with up to eight different symbols, including a hand, the moon, a dagger, a flower, a cock, a fish or dolphin, and sometimes a bee (an intriguing connection to The Stone Testament). The amulet in its most primitive form is very ancient, examples have been found in Etruscan tombs. The cimeruta’s three branches make it a charm associated with Diana Triformis or the three formed Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads, of Witches and of the Dead. I didn’t know about this connection until I began to find out more about the cimeruta for The Fool’s Girl. Once I knew, it seemed all the more significant, Shakespeare being no stranger to witches, or to their worship of Hecate, as we know from the Scottish Play.

In my latest novel, This is Not Forgiveness, water is important. A river runs through the town where the story is set, and through the novel. Jamie, the main character, has a job on the boats. He takes Caro, the girl he’s becoming obsessed with, to an island, only accessible by water. Caro loves to swim. She identifies herself with nixie, the shapeshifting water spirit. Yet she fears death by water.

Myths, legends, elements and elementals are important in all my novels. I don’t claim one muse, but many.

Thank you, Celia! Which is your favourite Celia Rees novel? Please leave a comment below!


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