Marie Powell - Award-Winning Medieval Fantasy
Marie Powell’s adventures in castle-hopping across North Wales resulted in her award-winning historical fantasy series, Last of the Gifted. Spirit Sight (Book 1) and Water Sight (Book 2), released in 2020. Marie is the author of more than 40 children’s books, along with award-winning short stories and poetry. She holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing from UBC, among other degrees. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Spirit Sight.
Please give us a short introduction to what Spirit Sight is about.
I’d love to! It’s a medieval fantasy about two siblings who pledge their magical abilities to protect their people from the ruthless army of Edward I (Longshanks), with a little help from the last true Prince of Wales, after his murder. Hyw is a warrior-in-training with a special ability to control the minds of animals and birds. His sister Catrin can see the future in a drop of water. When the prince is murdered, his spirit melds with Hyw’s, to help guide them in fighting back against the English.
What inspired you to write about two siblings who pledge their magic to protect their people from the invading English?
It really started when I was exploring Dolwyddelan castle ruins on a family trip to Wales. It was very isolated and quiet, and we walked around the castle, reading placards about the history. Kind of a self-guided tour, I suppose. And I started imagining what it would have been like to live there in that final year of Welsh independence, to have everything taken from you: your language, your culture, your laws, everything. We went up on the wall walk and looked out over this beautiful hillside, and I could suddenly imagine it filled with about 3,000 hostile soldiers. It started there, and these characters gave me an opportunity to tell the story.
Tell us more about Hyw. What makes him tick?
Hyw’s life is all about balancing on a high wire. He’s smart, he’s able to speak several languages, and he’s loyal to his friends—even when they’re English. That’s not easy, because the Welsh faced a lot of discrimination from the English in that time. He’s also inherited a magical ability that’s one the strongest in his family. But the gift is wild Welsh magic, not the kind that obeys rules like “conservation of mass,” but magic that grabs you and won’t let you go. Wild magic is powerful enough to corrupt you if you aren’t careful, and it evolves in unexpected ways. So the temptations are always there, and Hyw has to fight himself as much as the English to keep balancing on that wire. And when he takes the spirit of the fierce and charismatic Prince of Wales into his mind, that just makes everything a little more interesting.
What makes Catrin so special?
Well, Catrin would be the first to tell you she’s not special. She’s an ordinary girl trying to be happy and help her family and friends. She has an extraordinary family, but she’s resigned to being the ungifted one, until the wild magic singles her out unexpectedly. It’s a challenge and it comes at a time when Catrin can’t stop and figure out how to respond or learn how to use it properly. She has to trust her instincts, her heritage, and her friends. And when she makes mistakes, she has to face the consequences. As do we all.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Oh, it turns out that I’m a ninja zucchini grower! Seriously. I usually try a few experiments in gardening every summer, and this year I have a zucchini duo that just won’t quit. Neither hail nor frost nor the extreme high-low temperatures we get here in Saskatchewan will stop these plants from sprouting bright yellow flowers again and again! And with a few herbs and spices, I can turn any veggie into a mouth-watering medieval feast. During the pandemic, I started taking online medieval-fusion cooking classes with Blackfriar’s Restaurant and Durham University, called Eat Medieval. Highly recommended! So my new superpower is combining medieval medleys with veggies on a barbecue.
Why medieval fantasy? What drew you to the genre?
I’m naturally drawn to speculative fiction and fantasy when I read and when I write. I think we’re often aware of things without being conscious of it. Our personal past or family history has an effect on our present, just as the past affects the future, but we don’t often realize it. When I was a kid, I read a Welsh story about a bard who saw an animal transform from one shape to another and another. It’s like, everything is connected but in a subtle way, and we often aren’t aware of all the connections between us and our world. The medieval part came out of exploring places that are so old you can feel the stories dripping from them. That’s the kind of magic I want to capture in all my stories.
Do any of your characters ever take off on their own tangent, refusing to do what you had planned for them?
Interesting concept. Characters do what they’re motivated to do. It’s my job as a writer to understand what the character’s motivations would be, and to write their emotional responses to the events happening to and around them. It all has to fit together to make the story. If I get that right, then the story unfolds.
Interesting cover - please tell us more about how it came about.
Aren't these covers great? Both book covers were designed by a UK artist, Callum Jagger. I did the usual: I looked up some novel covers as examples of the style I liked best. I also had collected a lot of real and imaginary images from my research on Wales and the House of Aberffraw. I did some brainstorming with writer-friends, and they reminded me that the book titles involve “sight” so that should be part of it. So I emailed all that to Callum and just let him work. Water Sight was very close from the early stages, but Callum came up with a couple of possibilities for Spirit Sight. Two were very strong: one had a black “pupil” for the eye with a gold lion inside it, and one used the red-and-gold from the Gwynedd crest. I’m really bad at decisions, and I liked them both, so I put them up on my Facebook author page and asked for help. There was quite a bit of discussion, with a consensus that the gold lion seemed to “pop” more on the red background. It’s great to have so many smart friends!
This is book 1 of a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?
It began as a stand-alone. The first editor who read Spirit Sight asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a second book with these characters. At the time, I had just found a footnote in the book Llywelyn ap Gruffudd by J. Beverley Smith that seemed to relate to my family lore. I also wanted to explore Catrin’s side of the story more, and that became Water Sight. This duology and the new series I’m working on now are all wound up in these characters and how they help each other through the worst possible thing that could happen to them. When you’re caught in that kind of impossible net, you have to make a tough choice. The characters, their choices, and the consequences hold the series together for me, and I hope that’s true for readers as well.
How much research do the books require from you to make the history part of it feel authentic?
A lot! I used books, websites, bibliographies from willing university scholars and professors, YouTube videos, movies, photographs, Google Earth satellite shots, old illustrations and paintings, strange old books on Google Book Drive, legends and myths, sound recordings, bird and animal calls, and everything I could lay my hands on. I emailed wildlife organizations and Welsh heritage organizations. I phoned people and interviewed them. I took a Welsh class at Nant Gwrtheyrn, a few medieval cooking classes, and a medieval history course from my historical editor Daniele Cybulskie (a.k.a. the Five-Minute Medievalist). I traveled through Northern Wales, stayed on a sheep farm and in a restored 13th Century wattle-and-daub cottage, and tried to visit and photograph as many castles and ruins as I could. And I’m still researching for the next book.
Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do to combat it?
You know, the first time I really experienced it was after the first time someone asked me that question! But I think everyone who writes does experience writer’s block at some point. I know writers who use rituals and all kinds of techniques to overcome it. But for me, I have to write my way out of it. I write nonfiction articles, kids’ books, poetry, short stories, flash fiction, paranormal fantasy, historical fantasy, and anything that comes at me. About 20 years ago, I started to write “morning pages” (based on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron), and at times I would just literally fill three pages with affirmations. But I believe that if you show up at the page with a pen in your hand, or pull up a chair to the keyboard and stretch out your fingers, and you start to write something—even “I don’t know what to write today”—some wild magic will be there to grab you.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I write at my kitchen table. It’s a habit I started years ago, as a single parent raising two little kids, and I still do it. But through the pandemic, one day just slides into another. I open the blinds in the morning because the kitchen window lets in the sunlight. The cat demands to go out first thing, so we water the plants and tend the garden, and then settle at the kitchen table. There’s an interesting view, and the coffee is right there. I have a blanket on the table near the window for the cat, and cat toys in a cardboard box on the floor nearby. Throughout the day, I connect with my online writing community, and I go for a walk a couple of times a day. And for the rest of the time, I write.
What are you working on right now?
I always have a few stories on the go. I’m writing a series of three books that take the characters into the years just after the fall of Wales. I need to explore a few more questions from my research and there are some aspects of the lore that I want to work out. And I’ve been caught up in a contemporary paranormal thriller that’s really fun to write.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
The best place is my website, mariepowell.ca (ca for Canada). I’m on social media and I have a mailing list, and all of those links are on my website.