GENRE TALK with Carole Cummings
Hullo, everyone! Lisa and the gang at TNA have kindly agreed to allow me to come natter once or twice a month about genre fiction within the LGBT spectrum, so I’ll be dragging the DSPP authors along with me to answer a few questions and talk about their genres and their books.
Today we’ve got J Tullos Hennig, author of Greenwode, and the soon to be re-released Shirewode.
“The King of the Shire Wode. That is what they will call you.”
Years ago, a pagan commoner named Rob of Loxley befriended Gamelyn Boundys, a nobleman’s son, against seemingly insurmountable odds-and with horrific consequences. His home razed by order of the Church, Rob was left for dead, believing his sister, Marion, and his lover, Gamelyn, had perished.
But Gamelyn yet lives. Guilt-ridden by his unwitting betrayal of Loxley, one of the last bastions of the Old Religion, Gamelyn rides off to seek absolution in the Holy Land. Rob vanishes into the greenwode and emerges as leader of a tight-knit band of outcasts who revolt against the powers that be.
When the two lovers meet again, it will be in a brutal, blindfolded game of foxes and hounds that pits Templar assassin against Heathen outlaw. Yet the past cannot be denied, and when Rob discovers Marion is also still alive, the game turns. History will chronicle Robyn Hood and Guy of Gisbourne as the deadliest of enemies, but the reality is more complicated-and infinitely more tragic.
Buy links, etc., can be found at the end of this post, but for now, let’s jump right into the juicy bits, shall we? :)
Carole: So, tell us about your genre.
J Tullos Hennig: I rather have two fictional genres smished into one here, but I think they’re inexorably linked in so many ways. Fantasy is an access to our mythic history and our subtextual selves through storytelling, and Historical is an access to our mythic fantasy of what we want of ourselves through storytelling. Both are glimpsed through a glass—and yes, often darkly—of what we are and were. Both can be weighed down to tedium beneath the formulaic, and both can be—and in my opinion should be—wildly insubordinate. Both are magical in their mix of reality and wish-fulfillment.
My fascination with both genres translates into every story I’ve ever told, really. I’m not sure what it is to write something that doesn’t have a healthy dollop of the subversive and far out, and my preferred reading material doesn’t settle for playing by the rules.
(All right, I will confess to fancying beyond reason the trope of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven. I also fancy (way beyond reason) dragons, kelpies, tricksters, and the little forest dwellers known as fae in Britain or Kowi Anukasha in my ancestral region of the Americas.)
Carole: Why M/M?
J Tullos Hennig: Well, why not? I work in genres that are supposed to subvert the “accepted” paradigm and upend expectations on their pointy heads.
(Not to mention, I’ve been around long enough to remember how and as what that “/” appellation originally began, and to misquote Inigo Montoya: “Everyone keeps using that word. I think it does not mean what they think it means.” ;) )
It comes down to this: the characters are who and what they are, represented in all shades of the spectrum. Far be it from me to tell them differently!
Carole: Okay, so tell us something about Shirewood—or the ‘Wode series in general—we’re not going to get from the synopsis.
J Tullos Hennig: Shirewode is the second installment of a darkly magical re-imagining of the tales of Robyn Hode (and why yes, that is one of the original spellings). The mythos and legends are paramount. Robyn is the trickster and Green Man, possessed by the Horned Lord, a spirit of the primordial forest, who is losing his magic to the iron of noblemen’s politics and the cold stones of Church doctrine. In a theological twist only a stroppy dissident could come up with, Robyn swears he’ll defend the sacred space of the Shire Wode to his last breath—if his god will let him be a lover, not a fighter, to the nobleman’s son who is fated to be his archenemy.
The introductory novels are comprised up of a duology: the soon-to-be re-released Shirewode, and its predecessor Greenwode. The series arc will be completed with an upcoming trilogy, commencing in Autumn 2015 with the third book in the series, Winterwode.
Carole: Shirewood—all of the Wode books—are being published through DSP Publications, Dreamspinner Press’s imprint for nonromance genre novels. Tell us about the relationship in this series and why it doesn’t fit the accepted definition of Romance in the M/M genre.
J Tullos Hennig: I think the phrase ‘The Relationship’ is problematic. It is, perhaps, the underlying difficulty for those who tend to write outside the expected boundaries of genre Romance, but who also have some attraction to the audience who enjoys the same. For every group of readers who exult ‘OMG! I’ve waited years to read something like this!’ there are those who are royally pissed that you had the stones to colour outside the lines. Being an arsy sort, I tend to say “Oh? Well watch this!” when someone tries to tell me what crayons to use—but neither can I deny that, in the Wode novels, The Relationship is one of the defining edges. It affects everything in a profound manner, and the expression of that Relationship is, indeed, no small catalyst in the beginning of a legend.
It’s not the only edge, not even the only sharp one. There are other intentions, other goals in sight, ripples and eddies and whirlpools in which The Relationship is caught. There are other Relationships. Other characters who need a voice, who matter. Other skeins of Story. Relationships (note that plural) are a vital key to that Story, but to me as an artist—a storyteller—Story trumps everything.
And, best of all, the amazing people who make up DSP Publications seems to get this!!
Carole: For those readers who might be looking for a kind of “If you liked ____, you’ll love ____” sort of thing, what books could you shelve beside Shirewode?
J Tullos Hennig: … hm. Think history/legend touched with the breath and shadows of natural magic: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, or The King Must Die by Mary Renault, or Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave trilogy, or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.
Carole: Tell us about the evolution of this story. What was its earliest incarnation as a concept and when did it begin to take the form of the Wode series?
J Tullos Hennig: Well. These books, like Robyn Hode and Guy de Gisbourne, have a History.
I’ve always been interested in the 12th century and Robin Hood, and originally wrote what would become the Wode books over thirty years ago. They were pitched as a trilogy, and in contract talks with a major SF/F publisher… Then that editor died and a lot of things that were going to happen? Well, they just didn’t. It was the beginning of a remarkable run of ill-luck. So Robyn, Marion, Gamelyn and the others went into a file drawer with several other manuscripts (kept in ginormous stationery boxes in those days). I kept honing my craft for, I thought, nothing more than myself and the wall and, perhaps, a few friends.
Then a dear friend of mine *looks at Carole* kind of shoved me through the door of her publisher, Dreamspinner Press. (Note from Carole to Wode fans: Mwa ha ha ha ha! and you’re welcome. *takes bow*) And I started thinking that question that always lights a fire in my belly: What if? What if I did try to publish again? What if I took a look at all those manuscripts in my file cabinet? What if I rewrote my Books of the Wode with a more original and poignant twist? What if the mythic rivalry of Holly and Oak King for the Ivy Maid already present in the old manuscript took a different path? What kind of wrinkle would it put in a forest spirit’s agenda if his earthly avatar was not willing to compromise his homosexuality—and these are deities of fertility and engendering, mind you—but willing to sacrifice everything else he was to that god’s purpose?
For just as there are infinite ways to love, there are many different ways to seed and foster the fertile magic of growth and change.
Carole: So, that gives us some insight into why this story evolved with the M/M dynamic. Can you expand a little more on that thread?
J Tullos Hennig: As I mentioned, odd chance and what if? played a great part in this. But with some reflection, I’ve come to realise what was beneath even that:
There are so many voices that have been silenced.
And that silence lies not only throughout history, but now. As to history—well, it’s written by conquerors who have systematically wiped a literal constellation of cultures and ways of being from the record—or condemned them as ‘evil’ with the true evils of epithet, superstition and bigotry. As to today’s society, we have come a long way from even 50 years ago, I know… yet a sense of entitlement has grown in the space left, and, amongst other things both pleasant and unsavory, propagates the compulsion to fit things into narrow boxes. While this latter can be a valid method of understanding, it also tends to fear, disenfranchise, and—ultimately smother—alternative viewpoints.
As writers and readers, we should know better than this. What appeals to me, as a writer and a reader, is that interstitial place of simplicity wrapped in complexity. Writer-me hopes to challenge people to look outside themselves—or deep inside—in order to experience something disconcerting and profound and inexplicable. So frankly? I am baffled by this insidious willingness to accept narrow boxes and limitations. Both my chosen genres, while amazingly inclusive and insubordinate in fits and starts, have started to spiral further into one market definition, one set of rules, one culture, one religion, one sex, one colour of skin, one sexual preference…
Life is simply not like that. We need more balance. We need more subversion.
These silenced voices existed. They must be heard, and acknowledged.
And that’s why a stroppy dissident peasant said to me, not all that long ago, “Look pet, this time you’ve got to proper listen to what I’m tellin’ you.”
Carole: As last words go, that’s pretty perfect. Thank you, J Tullos Hennig, for spending a bit of time with us today.
J Tullos Hennig: Thanks, Carole, and Lisa—you are both, as the #1 grandson says, ‘Made of Awesome!”
Carole: Thanks for sticking around, Dear Readers, and as your reward, please enjoy this excerpt from the upcoming Shirewood. Buy links are below.
FIRELIGHT everywhere, turning the place into a velveted spill of copper and gold with black edges. It illuminated small, hollowed-out gourds, lit the way with beacons in stone fire pits, frothed up into the sky from the main bonfire. And defined, against the cliff-face, tens of openings, large and small, into a deep cavern beyond.
Guy could see, the closer he came, the runes and sigils carven into the well-lit walls. The Templar Masters would surely want to know of this place, if they didn’t already.
And people. It could rival a market day in Nottingham: individuals drinking, eating, sitting and standing and dancing. All masked, from the simplest of things to elaborate and detailed, limbs bared to the firelight, most garbed with some outlandish overtunic or tatterdemalion cape. Guy relaxed the closer he came to the main fire, noting everything.
Including the fact that it was roiling up into one amazing revelry.
A woman bumped into him by accident, turned to apologize. Her eyes went big as they met his, and for a horrific and nerve-twining instant Guy thought he was somehow discovered. She started laughing and let out a whoop.
“Th’ Hob! The Hobby!”
Hob? Guy remembered the name all too well, and it shook him. What?
At first none heard the woman. Guy tried to back away, lose himself in the crowd from whatever had amused her—she was probably drunk, nothing more. But as he retreated he found others turning to him, and soon the woman’s cry was shifting through the crowd, and they were turning to him with the same glee.
“The’ ’Ob ’Oss!”
“Th’ Wode Horse! The Tup!”
The Tup… The Wode Horse…. It hissed through and over the crowd, excited murmurs, echoes in the trees.
“Aye, the Tup! An’ he’s brung seed to th’ dying ground!”
Within a matter of moments, Guy was amidst a small crowd of masked revelers, a dance twining and spiraling about him. The ones coming the closest were mostly females, and they were laughing, each trying to shove the other toward him.
Guy had to forcibly make himself not turn tail and run. Inconceivable, that a bunch of maidens would nearly rout him when he had faced down desert armies.
Abruptly he remembered the teeth on his mask, groped at his chest for and yanked at the string. The teeth snapped together with decided effect; the lasses shrieked, darted away. But they were laughing, and they kept coming back for more.
Fairly soon he was the center of laughing and hollering folk, pulled into the line of the dance. He went along. There was something thoroughly exhilarating about the wanton energy of it, the familiarity that must be speaking to his mother’s Saxon blood….
Another mark on you….
Hubert’s voice, reminder and sobriety.
You have the right….
Nay, I really, really don’t.
And just like that, Guy was back in himself, the detached weapon looking for something to cut into.
The dancing line swung past the river, curled about, and came back to the caverns. Guy played his part, every sense he had waiting. Waiting.
“’Tis time for the horseplay, aye?” A growling purl of a baritone, its common accent not dodging its power in the least. Everyone turned, expectant. If Guy hadn’t known who he was, the surge forward and murmurings of the surrounding people told him.
Waiting was over. It stood, limned in the largest of the cavern openings. A man… a beast… unbelievably tall with an immense fourteen-point rack seeming to sprout from the cowled head. Caped with furs and feathers, rags and leathers, it was impossible to see body shape, or to discern if there truly was a body beneath. The sight of it stirred the unlikeliest of fears in the deepest places; Guy barely caught himself from angling back in sheer instinct. It was the gilt on the tines, and the glint of chain—bronze and silvered—dangling from the rack of antlers like the scrapings of velvet, which pulled him further from superstitious instinct, from reaction to rational.
This was no simple pilfer from the king’s deer… the horns held upon them more wealth than any of these peasants would see in a lifetime. The Horns of the god? Was Guy looking at part of what his master had sent him for—one of the artifacts that this murderous wolfshead had stolen?
The beast-man’s fire-lit eyes locked on him. Guy abruptly found himself in the midst of the circle, the masked revelers parting around him. He was left solitary, ringed by masked faces and glittering eyes.
“Did you think I’d let you do this, Gisbourne?” Full of some deep emotion, the beast-man’s mellifluous voice slapped Guy sideways and, inexplicably, traced shivers across his skin.
They fell on him, silent and purposeful.
J Tullos Hennig has had varied professions over a lifetime—artist, dancer, teacher, equestrian—but has never successfully managed to not be a writer. Ever. JTH is blessed with an understanding spouse, kids, and grandkids, and is alternately plagued and blessed with a small herd of geriatric and retired show horses…
And has, for the entirety of that lifetime, been possessed by a press gang of invisible ‘friends’ who Will. Not. S.T.F.U.
Next time on Genre Talk: A J Marcus talks Mystery!