Interview with Ann Ewan

For the Literary Press Group, June 2005

First off, let me make clear that this is not a transcript of an interview. I was sent some of the questions in advance and I wrote out my answers to them. I just WISH I sounded this articulate in person! But I'm a writer, not a speaker.

What style of fantasy is Firedrake?

A very nice review in Canadian Children's Literature magazine called it "high fantasy." It's not something I had heard before, but apparently there are two kinds of fantasy, domestic fantasy and high fantasy. Domestic fantasy is where people from our world cross into another world and you view it through their eyes. High fantasy is where the whole book is set in another world, with its own history, geography, and culture. Also, domestic fantasy tends to teach lessons about life, with the characters returning to our world having learned something from their experience. In high fantasy, there might be parallels, but you don't have to take any lessons from the other world if you don't want to.

When I was a kid, I loved both kinds of fantasy, but especially high fantasy books like Firedrake. I thought of them as the kind of books that "throw you in off the deep end," so the main character already knows this whole world and you're a little behind, struggling to catch up. You gradually come to understand the world, and as you learn, you get so involved that it feels like you're living there. That's the best part of reading fantasy.

Could you tell us a little bit about the world of Firedrake?

The world that Shan lives in has three classes of people. The ruling class are called the Arkanan, and they are all wizards. They don't allow anyone else to join them, so they kill other wizards if they find them. The second class are the warriors, who are called the Kunan Keir, or just the Wolves. The Arkanan train the Wolves, and the Wolves do the Arkanan's enforcement for them. The third class are the ordinary people, the farmers and craftsmen, who are called the Perinan. They don't have much freedom and they're oppressed by the Wolves.

At the time the book begins, the Arkanan are very worried, because there's a prophecy that three people, a blind woman, a madman, and a wizard, will destroy the Firedrake, the dragon that is the source of their power.

The main character, Shan, is one of the children taken from her family and put into training to become a Wolf, one of the warrior class. She can't see very well, so she's bullied and picked on by the other Cubs. Since she has to find friends elsewhere, she becomes friends with a Perin girl, Briar, and comes to understand how the ordinary people, the Perinan, live. Later she meets Deakin, who is a Wolf who's been made a little crazy by the things the Arkanan have made him do. So she's half-blind and Deakin's half-mad, and later they pick up Fletcher, who's a wizard but not a very good one because he hasn't been able to do any learning or practicing of magic, since it's illegal. The three of them set out to destroy the Firedrake and set the Wolves and Perinan free, and that's the plot of the book.

How do you go about building such a complex world?

It takes a long time, but it's the best part of writing fantasy. I not only get to create the history, politics, and language, but also the physics. I can have dragons. I can work out exactly how magic works, and also how it can fail.

For me, world-building takes a very long time, years and years in fact. I had the world of Firedrake in my head a long time before I started to write it down. I always told stories to my younger brother and sister when we were growing up. My sister Jill is ten years younger than I am, and I started the book when she went away to Coast Guard College in Nova Scotia. I started sending her chapters as I wrote them. Of course it wasn't the book it is now. It was called the Adventures of Shan, Deakin, and Fletcher, and they had lots of adventures that didn't end up in the finished novel. They wandered around the world having adventures, so I got to know the world very well.

There are lots of little things that make a world seem more real and consistent. Not everything is obvious to the reader. For example, in the world of Firedrake, there are no horses. I doubt if most readers notice that, but it's something that gives the world a slightly different flavour from our own. Names are either words - that is, things that make sense, like "Fletcher" - or else they end with "n", like Shan and Deakin.

Why did you choose a visually impaired heroine?

I didn't, really. I just wanted a normal girl as my main character, because I wanted to show that everyone can be a hero.

When I was growing up, I wore glasses (contacts now), so it was easy for me to see how Shan sees the world, just by taking them off and imagining that I had to live my whole life like that. Of course it would be even more difficult in a world with dragons and evil wizards.

In both worlds, kids who can't see very well, and aren't good at sports, get picked on. I wanted to show how someone who gets bullied learns to rely on herself, how she gets more independent and strong inside.

Where did the other characters come from?

As I said, I've known Deakin and Fletcher a long time. I've always written lots of stories, usually fantasy, occasionally science fiction or stories set in the past, and one day I realized that a lot of the time I was creating the same characters over and over, just giving them different names.

I knew Shan, Deakin, and Fletcher for quite a while before I brought Briar into it. I invented Briar to give Shan a chance at being a nice person, a normal person. After all, she was being bullied and picked on since she was seven, and none of the kids were nice to her. I know when you're a kid it's really important to have one true friend, not to be entirely alone, so I added Briar to the book deliberately. She was based on my best friend when I was ten.

How did you develop the unusual language?

Words have always been always my favourite thing. I think that's true of many writers. Just like painters are fascinated with the colour of the paint and the texture of the paint, writers are fascinated with words and language.

I took Linguistics at University of Toronto, and studied Irish Gaelic - you have to take one non-Germanic, non-Romance, spoken language, and that was mine. I also studied Latin and Old English - Anglo-Saxon that is, not the language of Chaucer but the language of Beowulf. But having said that, let me say that I'd actually written Firedrake before I went to university. I went to university relatively recently as a mature student.

As far as the language in the book goes, I thought it would be easier on the reader, for such a complex world, if the different classes of society didn't speak in exactly the same way. So I gave the Arkanan one way of speaking, a very formal way, and the Perinan and the Wolves when left to themselves, a different way. And of course it was a lot of fun to do.

How long does it take you to write a book?

As I said, world development takes a very long time for me, many many years of thinking it, dreaming it, writing stories about it. The actual book, once I have the world and I know all the characters, only takes a year or two. I work full-time but I work for IBM and they're very flexible on the hours. So I work four days a week, long hours, and the other day is supposedly for my writing. Not that it always works out that way.

So there are two phases for me - ten or fifteen years of world development, and then maybe two years to actually write a book.

Will your next book be set in the same world?

No. It seemed that I finished everything I had to say about Shan's world once Firedrake was completed. For several years before that, I'd been developing another world, and that's the one in which my next book is set.

The next book is called Brondings' Honour and it's also set in a magical world, but not a world run by wizards. The world is larger and more complicated. As with Firedrake, though, the main character is a young girl who doesn't fit in very well and is just finding her place.

How did you become a writer?

Well, obviously I've always been a writer, but that wasn't something I could make a living at. So after I left grade 13, I didn't go to university because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I tried lots of different jobs. My best job was as a press clipper for Maclean Hunter. I got to read newspapers just looking for certain people's names, company names, articles about certain things. Then I went back to school as a mature student, to Seneca College, and became an animal health technician. But even though I'd always loved animals, the job didn't suit me. I became a security guard for a while. Then I met my husband, Rob, who taught me about computers. He also encouraged me to go to university, and I did, and took linguistics. I really enjoyed it. Then I sort of fell into technical writing, and found it was the best thing ever. I love it as a career. I've been a technical writer for about ten years now.

I wrote the adventures for my sister when I was a security guard, working nights. Now on this job at IBM I've had time to finish my first book, Firedrake, and write my second book, Brondings' Honour.

Are you planning any more books?

Oh, absolutely! I'm never going to stop writing. One of the nice things is that even though I've finished writing Brondings' Honour, I haven't finished everything there is to say about that world, so I'm planning to write - well maybe a sequel, or maybe just another book set in the same world, with another main character. Or maybe both. I haven't quite decided yet. But there'll definitely be more books.

The world of Firedrake is complete, but my new world is still wide open. My next book, Brondings' Honour, is coming out in 2006.

- Read reviews of Firedrake.
- Find out where I'm doing readings or signings.
- Check out my language page.
- Back to the front gate.

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