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  • Author interview: Sarah Mussi, Here be Witches

    Ahead of the launch of Here be Witches, we caught up with Sarah Mussi to talk about the latest instalment in the Snowdonia Chronicles series.

     

    1. Was there any such thing as a good witch in Welsh mythology or were powerful female figures usually treated with suspicion? Was it fun to write about two strong female characters leading the battles for good and evil?

    Interestingly in Wales witches were treated a lot less harshly than in the rest of the UK, and in certain places they were revered and honoured as wise women. Wizards too enjoyed the same good press! It seems that in Welsh mythology in the Mabinogion bad witches were relegated to beyond the Breacon Beacons to Gloucestershire! The Mabinogion has a number of sorceresses and women with great power like the Lady of the Lake and Blodeuwedd most of them are beautiful and kind but with a deceptive or dangerous streak especially when wronged! However in all mythologies there are wicked witches and Wales in that respect has some too – especially in local legends.

    It was wonderful to write about two strong female figure battling for good and evil – and I loved writing into the story the female wise mother archetype: Granny Jones too!

     

    2. The series draws on a certain traditional fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Other recent teen books (such as the Twilight series) have similar themes; did you set out to put your own spin on a traditional love story?

    WOW – I didn’t really think about Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve when I conceived The Snowdonia Chronicles and to be honest I’m not sure that The Snowdonia Chronicles really draws that heavily on the tale of Beauty and the Beast – even though there is certainly a beauty (who is very practical and not obsessed by self at all) and a beast – albeit a very noble and majestic one and not at all ugly. Rather than chose the boy next door and be satisfied with living on beautiful Snowdon, Ellie hankers for adventure, fantasy, something different, exotic and entirely her own. 

    3. Through all the epic drama, Ellie and the gang always maintain a sense of humour, which we think will really appeal to readers. Did you watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail on repeat before you started writing?

    Haha! No I didn’t watch Monty Python on repeat at all – but I LOVE dry British humour and listen to the various Radio 4 comical shows at 6.30 every day!

    4. In Here be Witches you pack in a smorgasbord of characters from Welsh mythology. Do you have a favourite? We like the Knockers best!

    Yes I really wanted Here be Witches to introduce the reader to some of the great mythologies of Wales. I loved writing the sections with the Knockers, but my favourite mythological character is the giant Idris Gawr. I adored thinking of him up atop Cadair lying on his lonely bed. In fact I climbed up Cadair with my sister to be sure of the location and was very tempted to spend the night up there to see if the myth was true and anything could improve my poetry!

    5. Rhiannon plays a much more important role in this book. She’s quite a complex character and she’s certainly not always to be trusted. Do you like her and is she anything like her counterpart from Welsh mythology?

    Yes, Rhi definitely develops in this story and hopefully starts growing up. She was always a kind and loving girl, but her adventures in Here be Witches teach her to become more aware, less self-centred and more thoughtful – and she definitely needs to for her role in Book Three Here be Wizards when she will have to face some very scary truths!

    In the Mabinogion as Miranda Jane Green says Rhiannon draws in the international folklore motif of the calumniated wife: "Rhiannon conforms to two archetypes of myth ... a gracious, bountiful queen-goddess; and ... the 'wronged wife', falsely accused of killing her son." In The Snowdonia Chronicles – Rhi is gracious and beautiful and rich - living in the equivalent of a palace – her Dad’s hotel. Like the Rhiannon in the Mabinogion she sets her sights on a lover that was not meant for her (George) but unlike her mythical counterpart she never really gets him. In Here be Witches Rhi is wronged and tricked, but she invites that because of her misplaced affections for George – so, yes, there are similarities.

    6. Finally, can you give us some exclusive insider info on what’s in store for Ellie and the gang in Here be Witches?

    Well … I’ve mentioned giants and Cadair Idris and a misled Rhiannon … but the real insider info is the witches’ spell that wakes up the old magic and with it Ellie’s old enemy Oswald! Ellie and the gang have got to find a way to break the spell and SURVIVE – and that involves being chased by weird wolves, attacked by a subterranean, underwater monster, the Afanc, and dealing with a magical mirror that cannot be trusted!

    BEWARE when you start reading Here be Witches … it is not for the faint hearted!

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  • Sarah Mussi: In a land of myth

    In a land of myth, and a time of the magic…  brilliant opening words from BBC’s immortal series:MERLIN.
     
    Once upon a time… classic line from every fairy story going…
     
    What better way to start your story than with a time and a place?

    Once upon a time, in a land of myth, I set out to find the most inspirational time and place where I could tell a story that would touch every storytelling nerve I’d ever had. I didn’t have to go far. For me, born on the Cotswold hills, the mountains of North Wales are just a Golden Valley away. 
    If any of you have ever been to Snowdonia, or have the good fortune to live there, you will know, only too well, that the Mountains of the West - as well as being the most beautiful things on earth - are the birth place of bards and the home of some of the oldest stories ever told.
    HERE BE DRAGONS, my story about Snowdonia, starts on the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself.  One cold winter’s morning, when a serious weather alert has snow locked everybody into their cottages…
    And as I spun the story out from that beginning - like the metaphorical little Welsh lady in her tall black hat at her spinning wheel – spinning out the stuff of fairy story and myth – I thought of other metaphors for the magical, for the mysterious and for the myths of the mountains.
     
    I imagined the snow perhaps as a symbol for something else - bigger and much more dangerous, but just as intangible.  I imagined the mountains as a symbol too, as the manifestation of the tangible – huge and perilous. 
     
    And I searched wider and deeper to find out just what that something might be… and I found the Dragons.
    In Welsh mythology underneath the rocks of Mount Snowdon lie two fighting dragons, interred, entombed and locked away from mankind, because they are so dangerous. These dragons are – perhaps themselves - a huge metaphor in their turn for that deep, dark, dangerous, locked-away subconscious – often at war with itself - that lies in everyone of us.
     
    The Welsh word for ‘Snowdon’ is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ – which some translate as Snowhill - but others, those who know the older, deeper Welsh translate it as The Burial, or the Snow Den. 
     
    When I discovered this a tingle went down my spine, and I knew I had found the heart of my story.
     
    Through peeling back these layers of metaphor, I got to what I wanted to write about. I began to understand the pull and call of mountains: why people put on their hiking boots, go out, climb, buy expensive mountaineering equipment, set out to conquer cliffs, beat mountains, bankrupt themselves, risk death to stand on summits – to be on the roof of the world… and why I tried at age 9 to climb my very own Devil’s Chimney.
    I understood why somebody decided to build a tower of stones right on the very summit of Snowdon, a marker that it would stand forever, a symbol that mankind had conquered the mountain.  
     
    The more I thought about this idea, though, the more I realised how hopeless it was to think that mankind can ever conquer nature, can ever chart it by erecting some kind of flag or marker. And conversely how futile it is for mankind too, to ever hope to map the depths of the human mind. 
     
    The human psyche is much higher than any mountain summit, and much deeper than its valleys  - and I believe quite unconquerable, quite un-map-able –wise men and women have showed us with their storytelling to work with the mind rather than to attempt to fathom it - have devised myths to describe its heights and depths and dangers. 
     
    And mountains are, perhaps, the best symbol of those two extremes. Great writers, poets have always understood that.
     
    No worst, There is None
    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
    Gerard Manley Hopkins
    So it was under Snowdon that I looked for my story not on top of it.
    And under Snowdon are the dragons. 
     
    When you walk through the mountains of Snowdonia you can almost feel the presence of these huge subterranean, mighty, majestic creatures and it was about them that I wanted to write.
    The retelling of myths surrounding the Dragons of Wales and the exploits of King Arthur and the magic of Martin and the battles of the giants in and around Snowdonia, have, of course, been retold many times, over the ages, right from the 12th to 13th century Mabinogion, down to the current, popular TV success: MERLIN, and the soon to be released epic fim : KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR (2016).  I was writing a great tradition then, with fabulous company! 
     
    Yet, I wanted to bring something new and different to the stories. It seemed to me that nobody yet had quite written a modern love affair based on the mythologies of the mountains of North Wales. In Cornwall, we have the mythologized love affairs of Tristram and Iseult; in Arthurian  legend we have many a gallant knight’s  quest, to bring back trophies to his lady love. We have the doomed love affair of Guinevere and Arthur – of Guinevere and  Lancelot… but specifically in North Wales there are very few love stories set in Snowdonia.  
     
    So I set out to create a love story that was going to be accessible to a teenager living in today's world.  Teenagers today love legendary romance, but expect a little bit more than a rusty sword and a metal overcoat- or for their boyfriend to go gallivanting off on a big swim, across rivers, or trek, across deserts, to prove his love. So I created Ellie, the mountain girl, who has already climbed many of the peaks, and in her own right was victorious over the landscape, but had not, as yet, really plumbed the depths of the human psyche – that deep well of emotion that first love taps straight into.   
    So she encounters the dragons, mythical monsters that dwell under the landscape and so begins a heartbreaking romance with the things that live beneath the hills, the buried selves - symbols perhaps of the unconscious desire to become one with the self, the unknown, the other and the magical – things that nevertheless are monsters in their own right.  Symbols too of a very human desire not to just conquer the elements and the geography of a place, but to fall deeply in love with it as well.

    My own love affair with North Wales began a very long time ago when I was a small child and went on family holidays to a caravan near Barmouth, for one glorious week every summer. During that week everything was totally magical. We did many things from hill walking to building castles on Barmouth sands - to visiting old mysterious and damp churchyards, poking around little villages with their huge, grey, thick-walled cottages, but the best bits of all were telling tales in the caravan, on windy evenings about the Breath of the Grey King, about the Dragons, about the giants, about all the mysteries of North Wales.
    It is hardly surprisingly then, as an adult, when I was looking for a story about the depths beneath and a first powerful love affair - that I should return once again to Snowdonia in North Wales and once again climb Snowdon and sit in the café on its summit and write the opening lines of HERE BE DRAGONS.
     
    IT WAS CHRISTMAS. Although, you’d hardly have known it. I was at home pinging my friends in front of the telly. The telly wasn’t going, of course. Nothing was going, unless you counted the snow. Since 5.00 a.m., my mobile had indicated a serious weather alert.
     
    You need to know what a serious weather alert means when you’re me, Arabella (Ellie) Morgan, living in a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Snowdon with only your mum. It means life comes to a standstill… 
    What better way to start a story than with a time and a place…

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