Writing Living With Ghosts
"It's true," said d'Artagnan, "I don't have the uniform, but I have the soul. My heart is a musketeer."
Can books really change lives? I think it must be so, because two books in particular have changed - have, in some ways directed - mine. One is that great classic, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The other is Alexandre Dumas père's The Three Musketeers. Between them, those two set my course for me.
I was eight when I first met The Lord of the Rings. My teacher that year at junior school (Grade School in the US) was Mrs Parnham, who was then and remains one of my favourite teachers. One term, she read us The Hobbit and told us that it had a sequel. Captivated, I went straight to the library to find it. The Fellowship of the Ring was out somewhere on loan, so I borrowed The Two Towers instead. It was a little confusing - who was this Boromir fellow, anyway, and where was Bilbo? But I enjoyed it, and within a couple of weeks my mother bought me the fat yellow-spined paperback edition of the three parts of the book. I still have that copy, held together with sticky tape and with several loose pages. I read it over and over and I've never stopped loving it.
I already wanted to be a writer: to be honest, I can't remember I time when I didn't. But Tolkien's complete world fascinated me and inculcated in me the belief that this, somehow, was how a writer should be. I read his books, I read books about him and decided that to write, I needed to follow in his footsteps.
Tolkien was a mediaeval philologist. As a career, it appealed: I loved books and words and reading; I loved history and to study languages. It was tailor-made. When I was 17, my choice of university courses to apply for was dictated by this Tolkien-template. I was lucky enough to win a place at New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) Cambridge, to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. I was going to become Tolkien.
It didn't work out that way, of course. I loved the history, I loved the poems and texts. I hated philology. Within a term, I'd turned into a historian; at the end of my B.A., I embarked on a PhD specialising in early mediaeval Wales. I've written books and articles in that field (see my non-fiction work) and I've taught it at university level in various places. Tolkien, in the end, did not make me a writer, but he led me to my career and to one of my dominant fascinations. He showed me how societies and cultures might be constructed.
It was Dumas who turned me into a writer, though I didn't know it when I first came across him. I can't remember when I first heard of Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan. They were part of my cultural landscape, in cartoons, in stories. When I was 15, I saw part of one of the many films based on their adventures, but I had to miss the end. Curious, I checked The Three Musketeers out of the library and fell in love with its verve, its joy, its panache - and with Aramis. If Tolkien was my ideal of how a writer was made, Dumas showed me what I wanted to write and how I wanted writing to make me feel. I wanted to live in that world of musketeers and honour, to build characters who fought for what they believed in, supported each other, and - when I discovered the sequels - who would develop and grow and change while still remaining their essential selves. I read other books by Dumas, and found that same excitement and pace and intensity. Here was a writer who cared above all about story. I read about Dumas himself, with all his excesses and enthusiasms. If Tolkien loved the world he built, Dumas loved his characters, and that was the way I wanted to be.
For a long time, I got them the wrong way round. I kept trying to bend my writing back towards Tolkien, while the historian in me wondered about developing a secondary specialism in seventeenth century France. I started two Tolkien-esque fantasies, one a quest, one steeped in Celtic mythology. Eventually, I was to co-author an academic book about the real people behind the characters in the musketeers. I had fun with the novels (though I finished neither) and I'm proud of the book. But I was swimming against my internal tides.
The summer before I got my first academic job, I had two spare months. I decided I should write a novel. I'd always wanted to, but I had never got beyond a few chapters and some scattered scenes. And for some reason, I decided to write a book like Dumas, not Tolkien. That was 1989: I can't now remember why I decided this. Perhaps I'd just re-read The Three Musketeers. Perhaps it was something to do with the role-playing campaign I was running, set in seventeenth century France. Certainly, some of it was down to my background and training in Celtic history. I went back to the second of my unfinished Tolkien-type books and plundered it to give my new project a history. I invented a city that would reflect the Paris of d'Artagnan and his friends. I invented another country that was built from my academic knowledge of mediaeval Wales. The city was called Merafi, the country Lunedith.
That book was not Living With Ghosts. It was a coming-of-age story about a young nobleman called Valdarrien d'Illandre, who killed a man in a duel and was sent into exile. With his clever sister Evelliane, he travelled to Lunedith, learnt some history and fell in love with a woman called Iareth Yscoithi. The name Illandre came from my first ever attempt at a novel, which had had a hero with the surname Allandur. The name Iareth was a mediaeval Welsh spelling of Japheth, which I had found in a mediaeval text and liked. The story, with its duels and tragic love story, was modelled on Dumas.
I didn't sell that book, though I received some wonderfully encouraging feedback from several professional editors. It's still in my bottom drawer. But I did go on writing. At the end of the Valdarrien story, a young man called Edelis de Varnaq appeared. He was based on a role-playing character I had back then, and it was meant as a cameo. But he was interesting. When I started on my next project - while the Valdarrien books was doing the rounds of publishers - Edelis became my new protagonist. Valdarrien had turned out to be something of a d'Artagnan: I wanted to write an Aramis. And that was the beginning of Living With Ghosts.
It went through many, many changes. The first version is totally different to the one I eventually sold. I wrote and re-wrote it over and over. Characters changed, evolved, acquired new names, new skills, new agenda. Edelis - another name from a Welsh chronicle - became Gracielis, acquired a history and personality far removed from the RPG character. New characters arrived and carved themselves a role. But two things persisted. Valdarrien would not leave the story and the entwined histories of Merafi (by now Merafis) and Lunedith played a crucial role. Quenfrida did not arrive until the second or third complete rewrite, when she sauntered into the end of the first chapter and nailed her devious colours to the mast. I had no idea who she was, but Gracielis knew her, and his alarm taught me her danger. I didn't set out to echo The Three Musketeers, but one day I realised that I had four heroes - Gracielis, Thiercelin, Joyain and the inevitable Valdarrien - and a story about a city in peril that must be saved by personal commitment, loyalty, courage and love. With ghosts. It had elements that derived from my career as a historian, and Tolkien's lessons about world-building. It had elements that derived from my love of Dumas. I will probably never be the consummate story-teller that he was, but he taught me about plot and pace and character.
In May 2007, I sold Living With Ghosts to Sheila Gilbert at DAW books. How I came to sell it is a whole other story. But, having sold it, I went to Paris and put a bouquet on Dumas' tomb in the Panthéon to thank him. I like to think he'd have been pleased.