YA, romance, fantasy: RF Long’s much maligned influences
Ruth Frances Long tells Claire Hennessy about a trilogy’s power, making Dublin mystical and why romance fiction is a feminist act
Ruth Frances Long: YA is so exciting as a genre in that it combines bits and pieces of all sorts of genres and retells stories in a new way
Ruth Frances Long is the author of many dark young adult fantasy novels, often about scary fairies, such as The Treachery of Beautiful Things (Dial, Penguin (USA)), and the Dubh Linn trilogy, A Crack in Everything, A Hollow in the Hills and A Darkness at the End (O’Brien Press). As RF Long, she also writes fantasy and paranormal romance. She lives in Wicklow and works in a specialised library of rare, unusual and occasionally crazy books. But they don’t talk to her that often. In 2015 she won the European Science Fiction Society Spirit of Dedication Award for Best Author of Children’s Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her most recent novel is A Darkness at the End, the third in her Dubh Linn trilogy. We spoke to her about this and her writing in general . . .
A Darkness at the End is the final volume of the trilogy – how was the experience of writing it? Was it traumatic to say farewell to these characters, or a relief?
Strangely enough I actually found it much easier to write than the second book, A Hollow in the Hills. I knew where it was heading all the time, and the story threads wove themselves together neatly. As for the characters, I really miss some of them and saying goodbye to one or two in particular was very difficult. But because of the way I write, my characters tend to be very much alive in my head, so they’re still with me, still causing chaos. As with all created worlds you never know when you might head back into Dubh Linn.
Why does the trilogy appear so often in fantasy? Do we have Tolkien to blame, or is it that fantasy writers are more attuned to the magic of the number three?
The trilogy is very much a fantasy staple, most famously with The Lord of the Rings, although that was a decision based on the book-binding capabilities of the publisher at the times. The book as written was too long to be one volume (it wouldn’t hold together), and the divisions Tolkien had wanted (six books and six appendices) weren’t feasible. So the fantasy trilogy became a thing. That said, it is less likely these days, when fantasy series can run on and on.
In storytelling terms, however, the trilogy works really well. We are attuned to threes, not in a mystical sense but in the way our oral tradition survives. We have beginnings, middles and ends. In fairy tales and folklore, many things happen in threes and we recognise it as significant to the tale. The trilogy allows us to explore deeper levels of a story and other iterations of the world. If you think in terms of things like movie trilogies – the first ends on a hopeful note, the second explores the ramifications of the first, often ending on the blackest moment, and the third gives us the final victory.
You write a lot about the city – Dubh Linn – rather than what we might think of more typical faerie locations. What are the challenges – or joys – of making the urban mystical?
It can be difficult. Luckily I’m writing about Dublin and who doesn’t secretly believe that Dublin streets and laneways rearrange themselves when you’re not looking? There is a wealth of architecture and hidden places in the city, places we walk past every day without really seeing. The joy is starting with that familiarity and getting someone to take another look. There are stories everywhere, all around us, all the time. The challenge of course is getting it right, making it realistic to the reader, especially the reader who knows these places. I find little details work best. I visit the locations and hunt around. One of my favourite buildings in Dublin has carvings of animals at the base of the columns, sometimes doing typical things (a greyhound chasing a rabbit) and sometimes not (monkeys playing billiards, animals with musical instruments).
Using cityscapes, which are unique and diverse, to tell old stories lends a certain resonance to a plot. As readers we start to recognise things around us and then, because human beings are born with a love and a need for stories, we start to accept them, look for them, and the reality of the location lends its own weight to the tale.
What is the most mundane place in Dublin you’ve been inspired by? What’s the most magical?
Each location has a bit of something magical about it. I tried to find settings that were everyday locations, familiar to Dubliners and make them feel familiar to the readers as well. There are so many quirky places, wonderful places, places which have something special about them. And sometimes it feels like there is a story attached to every corner. I particularly love the tiny house on Dame Street, and the libraries – Marsh’s, Trinity’s Long Room and the Chester Beatty. I also had enormous fun with the National Leprechaun Museum and Smithfield.
Outside of Dublin, what places would you recommend to the aspiring fantasy writer to visit and be inspired by?
A place with a story. The most important thing is to find somewhere which touches on a passion, something that you’re really interested in. I really like Megalithic sites, so Newgrange is a must, but so is Loughcrew and if you can get to the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, it’s incredible… if you like cairns and standing stones (or as my kids call them, “more big old rocks”). Castles and medieval walled towns are brilliant too. Bletchley Park in the UK gives a fascinating insight into the codebreakers of World War II. Anywhere with a story inspires me and history always has the best stories, so many of my favourite places reflect this. Inspiration finds writers everywhere, so all our holidays turn into research trips. I take a lot of walks and about a billion photographs.
What’s your writing process like in general? How much time do you spend planning, researching, outlining, first-drafting, rewriting, etc?
I’m not a very disciplined writer, not in the first place, but as the story develops it takes over everything. I mainly write in the evenings but also make sure I have a notebook with me all the time because I never know when inspiration will strike, or when I will have some spare time. It’s also a bit hard for me to talk about process without sounding slightly insane. I generally don’t start writing until the characters are fully formed in my mind and generally won’t shut up. There’s a period of general research, especially with regards setting, but I don’t overdo it to begin with. The characters and the voice are the most important thing. Once I have an idea of where to begin, and where to end, and possibly some key scenes along the way, I start writing. If something comes up that I don’t know, I research as I go along. I always keep in mind that nothing is fixed, that the story can change at any time, and usually will. Once I have a first draft, I print it out and go through it making notes for the first rewrite. I go through multiple rewrites before anyone reads it.
Who reads your work first – family, critique group, editor, agent?
My first reader is always my husband and he has been for a long time now. Then I send it to writer friends to critique, and also to any special readers who might have particular insight on the story and to my agent.
You’re a very active convention-goer both in Ireland and abroad – which conventions would you recommend for writers? How do conventions differ from conferences or literary festivals?
I absolutely love conventions. They’re brilliant fun and have a great sense of community. I always go to Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction Convention in Dublin in October. There’s currently a bid to have the World Science Fiction Convention held in Dublin in 2019, which will be voted on at the next Worldcon in Helsinki next summer. Conventions differ from literary festivals in that a membership of a convention gives you access to all the events running over the time. They tend to have multiple streams of events as well and often the same people come back year after year which gives that amazing sense of community. They differ from conferences in that they tend to be less formal in atmosphere.
I also regularly go to the Romantic Novelists Association conference in the UK which I find the most valuable as a writer, and one of the most fun (formality does not come into it). The RNA is the most supportive and welcoming group imaginable and I always come back from the weekend inspired and determined to get back to writing as soon as possible.
You write YA and fantasy and romance. What draws you to each of these categories? Which of these is the most popularly maligned?
I’ve always loved fantasy; ever since I was little so I’m always drawn to the fantastic in a story. And equally, I’ve always loved a romance. YA is so exciting as a genre in that it combines bits and pieces of all sorts of genres and retells stories in a new way.
Sadly they’re all maligned, in various ways, with stereotypes of their readers portrayed as figures of fun, but I think romance has it hardest. Primarily written by women, for women, it is often maligned and considered lesser when in fact there is a strong argument that romance fiction, concerned as it is with the emotional life, is a feminist act.
As a librarian working with a specialist collection, what is the strangest book you have ever encountered?
There is a book from 1572 in my library which contains a map of the Middle East depicting not just real places which still exist today but also places from the Bible such as the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah (lost under the Dead Sea, which I suppose explains the salt).
And finally: what is the greatest crime one can commit against a book?
Claire Hennessy reports on children’s and YA novels for the Irish Times in between trying to finish her own