Interview with author
Barbara Campbell
by Scott T. Barnes

(Also, read the book review)

Barbara Campbell's trilogy Trickster's Game is one of the most unusual Celtic-style series I've read in a long time. A review of Heartwood appears in this issue under Books We're Reading, with reviews of Bloodstone and Foxfire to come. Barbara was generous enough to give some of her time to answer a few questions for New Myths. She also has extended an offer to New Myths' readers to participate in a drawing for her books on her website,

How did you arrive at “Holly” and “Oak” as the gods for summer and winter?

Heartwood draws on both Celtic and Norse mythology. There is an ancient myth from Great Britain that the Oak rules the waxing half of the year and the Holly, the waning half. Every Midsummer and Midwinter, the “dying” god must battle the newly ascendant one and the outcome of the battle determines the turning of the year. I wondered what might happen if the battle was disrupted and that became the jumping-off point for Heartwood.

It’s often said that you have to “love” your characters, even your villains, to make them believable. Did you “love” the villian Morgath? How so?

I’m not sure anyone could love Morgath! But I hoped readers could understand why other characters might find him – and his power – seductive. Morgath epitomizes the old adage that the villain is the hero of his own story. He believes he has been treated unjustly, that he fell victim to lesser men and women who were too small-minded to understand his quest for knowledge and punished him for venturing into forbidden territory. He considers his desire for revenge perfectly justified, even as it pushes him to the brink of madness.

Your books carry far more description (as opposed to dialog) than most books I see in print today. Any comments?

It’s funny you should say that, because description is something I struggle with and dialogue is much easier. So I was going against type with Heartwood. It has the least dialogue of any of my books, in part because the protagonist is a man who is not comfortable expressing himself with words and I felt the style of the book should reflect that.

Can you discuss your style?

It’s hard for me to say, “My style is X,” because the book I’m writing now is so utterly different from the trilogy. The moments that are easiest for me to write are the fictional equivalent of the “11:00 o’clock number” in a musical – the climax of the show and the point of highest emotion and dramatic tension. In all three books, those scenes changed the least from first draft to finished book.

Trickster’s Game is an unusual series in many ways, one of which is that the time span between books one and two is a generation.

Part of the reason for the time gap was simply practical. Heartwood was written as a stand-alone and it was already in production when my editor and I made the decision to go for a trilogy. Since I’d wrapped up the problems explored in Heartwood, it made sense to move on to the next generation. 

What started it all was wondering what might happen if the natural order were disrupted. And coming up with the idea of the spirit of a nature god being uprooted from its tree and finding sanctuary in a human body. The themes of transformation and balance are at the core of all three books – both for the characters and the world at large. And the idea of the uprooted spirit is carried forward in Bloodstone and Foxfire.

Obviously, all three books are linked – they cover thirty years in the lives of one family that – for better or worse – has attracted the attention of the Trickster-God. I think a reader will get a deeper experience by making the entire journey with the characters. But I wanted each book to be able to stand on its own, so you could read Bloodstone or Foxfire and come away satisfied.

While every book has its share of battles and magic, I spend a fair amount of time exploring the inner life of the characters and their relationships with each other. That reflects my tastes as a reader. If I don’t care about the characters, I can’t get into a story, no matter how fabulous the world-building or surprising the plot twists.

Your books have sex and violence that is more intimate and explicit I’ve come to expect from fantasy novels. The torture scene at the end of Book 1 in particular surprised me. Did your agent and/or editor have anything to say about that? Do you get reader comments about this?

You know, I’ve never thought of these novels as dark because each book ends on a note of hope. But there’s no denying that I put my characters through A LOT!

I do have violence in my books. Those scenes represent key turning points for the characters and the plot. The trauma that Darak undergoes in that torture scene breaks him down – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Only then is he ready to make the transformation that allows him to defeat the antagonist and help restore balance to the world. The after-effects of that trauma – and transformation – resonate throughout the subsequent books.

There are two rapes in Bloodstone. I showed one as part of a secondary character’s flashback. I chose to do that because it seemed a more powerful way to illuminate the true nature of the antagonist and to set up the bond between that secondary character and the protagonist. It felt more powerful not to show the other rape, but to cut away, leaving the reader to imagine the details.

Neither my agent nor my editor urged me to pull back on these scenes. I rarely get readers who say I went too far, although some have commented that they were shaken by the scenes. But that’s exactly what I wanted! Readers should be shaken by these events and by the way they shape – and shake – the characters.

What changes, if any, did your agent and/or editor ask that you make in your books?

Sheila Gilbert – my editor at DAW – asked me to flesh out the world a bit more at the beginning of Heartwood. She was more involved in helping me shape the subsequent books. I could always call her when I hit a roadblock or wasn’t sure how to address a problem with plot or character. She’ll bring up questions for me to consider, point out elements of the draft that need to be stronger. She works differently with each of her writers. I love brainstorming possible solutions to problems with her. Others just want to know what’s not working. Her feedback is generally global, not “this description is too vague.” During a recent conversation, we spent most of our time discussing the protagonist’s back story in order to enrich her character arc in the novel.

Are you done with this world?

For now, yes. Although I have considered returning to the world, say 500 or 1,000 years after Foxfire concludes. I envisioned that the indigenous culture would be largely displaced by the more technologically advanced Zherosi, but a core of resistance had formed, intent on throwing the conquerors out. A lot of parallels with the Roman conquest of Britain, actually. An empire on the verge of collapse from within. A tribal culture fighting to maintain its identity. 

Do you consider yourself first and foremost a writer or an actor?

Definitely a writer! I made the transition years ago when I began writing for musical theatre. First just writing lyrics for children’s shows and eventually moving on to write book and lyrics for full-length musicals.

How did your acting experience affect your writing?

I think it helped me most with character development and dialogue, since those are key tools for an actor. But I also draw on improvisation skills. Instead of sitting in front of the computer, I’ll often go into the living room and improvise a scene aloud, playing all the roles and holding lively exchanges with myself! Which sounds weird, I know. But when I allow myself to play like this, the scenes go to unexpected places and reveal interesting truths about the characters.

Tell me about The Awakening and Far from The Madding Crowd.

Both are adaptations, one from the novella by Kate Chopin and the other from the novel by Thomas Hardy. Since they were my first attempts at writing full-length musicals, I felt more confident adapting an existing work. That was actually a problem with Crowd. I was so respectful of the source material that it took awhile to make it mine and get over the fact that Thomas Hardy might be spinning in his grave at some of the liberties I took.

Since I’m writing these questions just after the New Year, what are your writing-related resolutions for 2010?

Finish my new book! And bring a little more discipline to my writing day.

Describe your daily writing schedule.

I’m all over the place. I’m either writing 12 hours a day or finding ways to avoid writing. Generally, I’m up early – anywhere between 5:30 and 7:00. I get my best writing done in the morning. Then use the afternoon to edit and rewrite or to research. I seldom write at night, mostly because that’s my time with my husband.

What types of books do you like to read?

I read a lot of historical fiction. Part of what I enjoyed about the trilogy was researching everything from herbal medicine to Bronze Age shipbuilding to ancient guerrilla warfare.

What authors do you look to for inspiration? Who is your favorite author?

I admire Guy Gavriel Kay’s world-building and character development. And the lyricism of Patricia McKillip. I’m really don’t have a favorite author, but there are books I return to again and again. Dan Simmons’ The Terror, where he puts a fantastic spin on an historical event. Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles, with its vivid depiction of 16th century Europe and its wonderfully flawed protagonist. Michael Shaara’s beautiful retelling of the battle of Gettysburg – The Killer Angels.

Do you write short fiction? Any chance we’ll see you submitting to New Myths?

I very seldom write short fiction, although I’ve been asked to submit a story for an upcoming anthology After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar that will be published later this year. I’m writing a rather light-hearted take on the Tam Lin tale. Sort of a “what happens after” the folk tale concludes. 
What’s next for Barbara Campbell?

Barbara Campbell is morphing into Barbara Ashford for a contemporary fantasy set in a magical summer stock theatre. It’s about as far from the trilogy as you can imagine: a female protagonist, first person POV, paranormal romance element. And the overall tone is lighter. Some sex, no torture!

There are some thematic similarities, though. All my books deal with parent-child relationships, the search for your place in the world, the need to let go of those aspects of your past that are holding you back.

I’ve enjoyed drawing from my past for this one, including going back to my roots in the theatre. The protagonist’s voice feels very natural, so much so that my husband – who is always my first reader – told me he can’t give me much feedback because it sounds so much like me telling the story.

Still searching for a title. But it will be published by DAW in 2011.

It took me nearly six months to find this new story, but once I sat down and started writing, the characters just popped. It’s been very freeing writing in such a different style and period. And that helped me separate from the world of Trickster’s Game.

Which was not an easy task! I lived with Darak, Griane, and the Trickster for eight years and they became very real to me. (Once I dragged my poor husband to a craft fair where I saw this small ceramic heart with the words “Find Balance” inscribed on it. I exclaimed, “Look! That would be perfect for Darak!” To his credit, David didn’t laugh, although he did give me a long look.)

It’s been great meeting these new characters and seeing where they’ll take me. I’m enjoying the ride and I hope readers will, too.