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Interview with Virginia Kantra

If she didn't have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.

Sea Witch So begins Sea Witch, the first novel in Virginia Kantra’s Children of the Sea trilogy. While most paranormal romance authors deploy incredibly complicated plot devices to make it acceptable for their heroines to go all the way with sultry strangers within the first thirty pages or so, Kantra refuses to offer any sort of narrative apologia. Instead, she presents readers with a protagonist who is driven purely by her own physical need. Of course, it makes a difference that Kantra’s heroine is a selkie—a seal who assumes a woman’s shape on land.

The authors of paranormal romance regularly borrow from folklore in their search for resonant tropes and characters, but Kantra makes particularly deft use of her source material. In Sea Witch, for example, she exploits her heroine’s non-human status to teasingly challenge readers’ expectations.  She is working within the genre while pushing against its boundaries. Her subtlety is exceptional. One of the big surprises in the interview below is the revelation that Sea Witch was, in part, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” Magred’s slow transformation from selkie to human shows no traces of Andersen’s heavy-handed moralizing. Kantra is able to give her heroine a soul while preserving the ambiguity and ambivalence of the folkloric selkie.

On your Website, you say that you’ve always enjoyed fairy tales. Have you had a lifelong interest in folklore, as well, or is that something that you’ve only recently begun to study? What folklore are you interested in at the moment?

Virginia Kantra: As soon as I had a library card, I read my way through Andrew Lang's collections of fairy tales—all twelve volumes!—which were originally published around the turn of the century.  A lot of those are based on folk tales from all over the world.

Growing up, I didn't make a distinction between fairy tales and folklore.  My father was an English professor.  The bookshelves in our living room were jammed with Aristophanes, Ovid, Pope, and Milton on one side of the fireplace and Chesterton, Belloc, and Frazer’s The Golden Bough on the other.  I categorized everything as either "stuff I could read" or "boring stuff."

I'm developing more Children of the Sea stories, which as you know use the legend of the selkie, but I'm expanding the role of the finfolk, based on another bit of Orkney folklore.  I'm also intrigued by the legend of the njugl, the Shetland water horse, and trying to think how to fit that in with my current project. 

The Children of the Sea novels are not, of course, your first works. What inspired you to embark on this series?

VK: At the same time I was writing my first two romantic suspense novels for Berkley, I also did a couple of novellas based on legends about the fair folk.  I had what I thought was the idea for another contemporary romantic suspense: police chief on a remote island in Maine finds a naked woman who’s been attacked on the beach.  

And then I thought . . . What if she wasn’t human?

The “naked” bit set me off, I think.  There are folk tales up and down the British coast about the selkie, shape-shifters who take the form of seals in the ocean and cast off their pelts—get naked—to come ashore as beautiful men and women who have sex with humans.  Which is a fabulous fantasy if you are a lonely sailor and a pretty unarguable explanation if you are an unmarried village maiden who can’t possibly name, say, the married butcher as the father of your baby. 

It was that juxtaposition, that tension between land and sea, between the contemporary, pragmatic, police procedural world of my hero and the timeless, sensual, magical world of my heroine, that totally hooked me into the first story and into the series.

One of the things that I found most striking when I read Sea Witch was the beginning: Magred is a female character looking for sex—not love—when she goes ashore. It struck me that an author can do things with a non-human character that might be difficult to do with a human character; that is, behavior that's acceptable for a selkie might not be acceptable in a human. Do you find it liberating to work with supernatural beings?

VK: I did reverse gender expectations a little there, didn't I?  Genre expectations, too, perhaps.  At least one reviewer criticized Margred for not falling in love sooner, for not being "human enough." 

For me, non-human characters are a way to explore what makes us truly human: the capacity to choose, to love, to commit.  I wanted to take Margred's "otherness" seriously, both as a non-human character with a unique point of view and as a way of exploring human relationships.   I had to consider how Margred’s experience and emotions within her element—her environment, the sea—would affect her thoughts and decisions on land.  There’s a recurring line in the books that I use to capture the children of the sea:  “We flow as the sea flows.”  I adored writing Margred because she’s so amazingly sensual and sexually confident, but has so much to learn about faith, love, and tenderness.   

Romance novels are often compared to fairy tales, and they do share many structural similarities. And paranormal romance novels, in particular, borrow from folklore. But paranormal romances also tend to have a sense of cosmic danger—the heroine is often caught up in a battle between vast forces, a battle with far-reaching consequences—that is generally absent from folktales. How does this tension between your folkloric source materials and the demands of the genre affect your work?

VK: What you're saying is probably true about the majority of paranormal romance, but frankly, I don't think about the "demands of the genre" when I'm writing.  For me, high personal stakes trump cosmic consequences every time. 

But even in fairy tales, you'll notice, the characters' choices often have implications for their larger worlds.  We miss that sometimes as modern readers because we don't think of princes and princesses as part of a recognized social order.  "Cinderella," for example, hinges on dynastic realities—the prince must marry because the kingdom needs an heir.  When the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" offends the witch, his entire kingdom suffers for his sin.  Even the superstitions surrounding the practice of the corn maiden have implications for the harvest.  So once I have the characters and their personal conflicts in place, I do look for those kinds of larger consequences as a way of upping the stakes.

Have you been inspired by any particular folktales—rather than just the idea of selkies—in shaping the plots or characters of your Children of the Sea novels or "Sea Crossing"?

VK: Absolutely. I got the idea of linking the first three books from an old shanty, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light": "My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light, and he married a mermaid one fine night.  Of that union, there came three..." 

Sea Witch borrows pretty freely from Hans Christian Andersen's original "The Little Mermaid," especially in terms of Margred's search for a soul:

“So I shall die,” said the little mermaid, “and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

The whole mythology I created for the elementals and the "First Creation" is of course patterned on the Creation story in Genesis.

Sea Fever Sea Fever doesn't draw on any particular source, but the upcoming Sea Lord was definitely inspired by Hades' abduction of Persephone, including the rape in the garden and the setting of the story in fall and winter.  Perhaps because I was already using all that harvest imagery, I also used the tradition of the corn maiden. 

Since you can't get a look at that book before May, I'm pasting in the relevant bit below. 

    He slid his knife from the sheath at his knee.
    Corn stood around them in patches, skeletons of summer among the stakes and twine.  Conn gathered a sheaf in one arm and, bending, sliced it through in a single stroke close to the ground.  He bound the dried stalks together with twine, tying them to form a waist, a neck, legs.  The shock at the top he left loose like long, stiff hair. 
    He laid the corn maiden on the ground beside Lucy, measuring its length with his eyes.  They were almost the same size.  He dressed the sheaf in the girl's clothing, forcing the jeans over the stalks of its legs, bundling its body into the shirt.  He was sweating when he finished.  Bits of dust and broken chaff clung to his skin.
    Kneeling beside Lucy, he gathered her hair in one hand the way he'd gathered the corn, counting the strands across his palm, one, two, three...seven.  Her face was still, her skin cold and pale. 
    An unexpected twinge caught him beneath the ribs.  He used sex as a tool, a weapon.  He did not expect it to turn like a knife in his hand.  But his feelings, her feelings, could not be allowed to matter.  He did what he must do.
    Fisting his hand around the strands of her hair, he yanked them out by the roots.
    Her breath escaped her lips in a silent cry.  A drop of blood beaded at her scalp, but his magic compelled her to sleep.
    He set his teeth, touching his finger to the blood and then to the center of the bundled corn, the claidheag, where the corn maiden's heart would beat.  If such a creature had a heart.  His fingertip burned.  He felt the heat flow upward through his arm, power building and pulsing like a headache.  He tied the seven strands of hair over the twine at the top.
    "Know," he commanded.  The pressure hammered at his temples.    He blew into the featureless face.  "Breathe."
    He pressed the heel of his palm between Lucy's legs, still wet with her essence and his seed.  The magic gripped his neck like claws, sinking fangs into his skull, squeezing his brain.  He smeared his wet hand over the dry husks of the claidheag, anointing it with life.  "Be."
    He felt the surge, the shock of focused power, leap from him to the sheaf on the ground.
    The power ebbed away, leaving him drained, his head throbbing with the aftermath of magic, and the claidheag stiff and still.
    Conn inhaled, holding his breath to fill the sudden emptiness of his chest.
    Lucy slept, unknowing.
    He lifted her body in his arms and carried her away, leaving his handiwork lying behind them in the field.

    Sea Lord The dried stalks rattled together.  Know.
    The wind whispered.  Breathe.
    The earth radiated warmth.  Be.
    The breeze teased the bundle on the ground.  The claidheag's hair, the pale gold of corn husks or straw, fluttered, smoothing, softening.  Beneath the swaddling clothes, its limbs swelled and grew supple, taking on substance, taking on flesh. 
    From the branches of a spruce, a crow launched, squawking in protest or warning. 
    The corn maiden opened its eyes, the green yellow of pumpkin vines.  Lucy's eyes, in Lucy's face.
    It lay in the field, watching the clouds chase across the sky, absorbing the last rays of the sun, listening to the chatter of the wind.  
    A catbird landed on a nearby stake, cocked a fierce, bright eye and flew away again.  An ant, wandering the furrows, traced a trail over the claidheag's motionless hand.  Slowly, thought formed, a pale shoot from a kernel of consciousness. 
    It did not belong here, cut down, cut off from the earth. 
    Not anymore. 
    Sighing, the claidheag raised on one elbow and then to its knees.  To its feet.  It should go...The word was buried deep, a fat, round word, moldy with disappointment.  Home.  It should go home.
    Following the tug of blood, the stir of memory, it shambled toward the road.

May 20, 2009 | Permalink