Emma Davis talks to Elizabeth Knox in March 2021.
Tell us about yourself, please. How long have you been writing and what has been the best thing about being a writer?
I’ve been writing for decades.
The best thing about being a writer is the readers who respond to a book as if it was written just for them.
The Absolute Book blends history, myth, and magic. While readers will recognise some of the names in the story, other characters are very much your own. What kind of research did you do for the novel? How did you get the mix of myth and your imagination just right?
I’m pretty much steeped in myth, folktales, religion, and many later takes of myth in fiction, from Dante and Shakespeare onwards. The stories that were useful to my story would just float to the top of my mind as I was writing. I’d then check versions and echoes before using them in the ways that worked for me. The myths and folktales were a constraint and discipline, like science is to science fiction – you have to know and understand stuff before using if speculatively.
Most of my research was this world stuff, about intelligence services, server farms, surveillance, ELINT, and so forth – only a fragment of which shows in the novel.
I didn't really think about the mix of myth and my own imagining. My imagination has moments of great waywardness – like the link in the book between Noah's raven and Odin's ravens. There are many different takes on every myth. I try not to get knotted up by the idea that this might be a young reader’s first time with – say – Mimir’s Well. Or that it might be some slightly older reader’s fourth version, and they have an idea about how the story should go. And I don’t imagine the reader as some proto-crone, like me, with dozens of encounters with Mimir’s Well. What I think is that each of the great old stories, when we encounter it again, actually addresses the whole reader we have been, are, and will be – the young one to whom things are new (even when they know the things are old and only new to them) and the old reader who has seen this stuff many times before and has a sense of a myth’s many possibilities. Those ends of the spectrum are who you want to aim at – the young and old – because they can be guaranteed to be astonished by both the same old thing for the first time, or, if you can manage it, a very new take on something familiar. As for the rest, how they take any new variation will depend on how persuasive you can be, how open and trusting a reader they are, and how much of their sense of their own expertise they bring to the reading.
Like some of your previous works, The Absolute Book is a surprising mix of known and unknown worlds. Why did you decide to explore faerie for this story? And what came first, characters, plot, or setting?
As to what came first, characters, plot or setting, none really precede the others. The first thing that comes to me of any novel is a series of scenes in which something happens to somebody. I have to work out what’s going on and who that somebody is. In this case it was Taryn, who I saw right away would be a scholarly hero, and someone who had written a book, but who first came to me as the matron of honour at her friend's wedding, unable to enter a church for reasons mysterious to everybody including herself. Taryn, who has buried or obscured memories of an object others are looking for, an ancient scroll box known to have survived several historical library fires, the latest being one in Taryn’s grandfather’s library.
I decided that Taryn was someone whose actions in the past had opened her up for, just for a start, possession by a demon who doesn't want to do what possessing demons normally do, but wants to find out what Taryn knows by lurking inside her and slyly questioning people around her.
This was a kind of plot proposition, a place to start, with a problem one character was having that had some scope and implications for her and her world (and other worlds). Then I had to figure out what the demon was interested in – a scroll box called the Firestarter. Taryn has mentioned it in a book she’s written – The Feverish Library – a book that has attracted all sorts of attention, some of it alarming. After that I let the reader follow Taryn and other interested parties as they find out more about the Firestarter – and begin wanting the thing themselves. Which is how I came to the Sidhe – my version of them – which I’d been musing on for some time.
I’ve always liked stories about the Tithe that Fairyland is said to pay to Hell. I’ve thought about how that would work, how it might have come to be. I wanted to explore the implications as I saw them, to write about a beautiful society founded on theft. Not beautiful as in wealth, private property, astonishing tools. My Sidhe are nomadic, communal, and live along broad paths of food forests, gardens that run through wildernesses. Theirs is a harmonious and lovely existence. But it is paid for in human souls, although they love and nurture the humans concerned for a long time in happiness and plenty.
My plot decision at this point was that some of these Sidhe, including Shift, another of the novel’s key characters, want to get their hands on any lever to force a renegotiation of their treaty with Hell. And that introduced the idea that the pursued thing of value might be valuable because of what it can do, but also because it might be exchanged for something else of value. Which is an idea that stays live till the very end of the book.
So I guess I get my plots by going ‘What would it mean if?’ over and over again, and having my characters, and readers, walk through the rain and sunshine of all the story’s questions and answers.
The plot is complex and cleverly interwoven across time and worlds. How long did it take you to plan? And write?
I plan as I write and the book took around six years, but I was also writing two other books, both nearly complete now.
What was your biggest challenge in writing the book? What was the hardest scene to write?
My biggest challenge was getting Purgatory right. It had to feel like a fully imagined but previously unseen version of Purgatory. The Purgatory chapter holds so much of the meaning of the book, including a very big clue to an answer about what will eventually happen with the Tithe beyond the end of the novel. The clue is an invitation to the reader to imagine what something means, in the same way that I am always finding the next bit of a story by wondering ‘If this is true then what does it imply?’ In this instance, what it means if the garden in Addy Cornick's courtyard in purgatory might one day be a gate.
Can you share your favourite quote to whet the readers' appetites?
Since I've been talking about Purgatory I will share this quote; an insight Taryn has: 'Purgatory was wasn't forever living with your mistakes; it was forever defending your decisions. '
What’s up next for you?
I’m finishing a YA novel titled Kings of This World.
Finally, where can readers find out more about you and your work?
I have a unflashy website with a few dusty corners: elizabethknox.com
There’s a page for every book, and a blog, Knoxon, which is a rugby joke.