Interview with Pamela Dean (TAM LIN)
Pamela Dean is best known for Tam Lin (1991), her wonderful retelling of the Child Ballad of the same name set in a midwestern college campus that is as much a love letter to English literature as it is a key Fantasy work of the 90s. Her debut novel, The Secret Country (1985), features a group of children who get drawn into the magical world they invent, and was followed by the sequels The Hidden Land (1986) and The Whim of the Dragon (1989). The Dubious Hills (1994) is set in the same world but features different characters and an intriguing original concept. Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary (1998) is another Child Ballad retelling that was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Fantasy. She has also written short stories in the Liavek shared world anthologies.
Pamela Dean was kind enough to speak with the Fantasy Hive via email.
Your novel Tam Lin is a retelling of the Child Ballad of the same name. Would you be able to tell us a bit about how you came to write it?
Terri Windling, a now-legendary editor and artist, in an earlier life as an editor at Ace/Berkley, acquired and edited my first three novels. Then, with Mark Alan Arnold, she started Armadillo Press in order to publish beautiful editions of novel-length adaptations of classic fairy tales. She invited authors to submit manuscripts.
I have a very uneasy relationship with fairy tales and did not want to adapt one, but I did fervently want to write a book for Terri if she wanted me to. For some reason, despite many similarities, I get along much better with ballads than with fairy tales. I wasn’t immediately drawn to “Tam Lin” as a good ballad to adapt; instead I just sat down with the two volumes of Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads that I happened to possess. These days you can find the Child ballads online, but at the time they were most readily available from the invaluable Dover Press, in trade paperbacks that were facsimiles of the original books. They were pretty pricey. I had Volumes I and V; the first I found used and the second was a gift. I just read through everything looking for a story in which a woman takes action.
When I got to “Tam Lin,” which is No. 39, I felt pretty silly, since I was already very fond of the song as performed by Fairport Convention on their album Liege and Lief. I asked Terri if it would be all right to adapt that instead of a fairy tale, and she said that it would.
At the time I fancied myself to be very good at Elizabethan or at least a high grade of pseudo-Elizabethan dialogue, so I thought of setting the book during the reign of Elizabeth and/or James I, in Scotland or possibly England. But it would not go. I did a lot of research and would become energized and excited by various historical tidbits – like you do – but when I sat down to write, it all went flat as a pancake.
So I just kept reading the ballad over and over, and eventually realized that the verses about how Janet goes from being as fair as any flower to as green as any glass, and her father says that he fears she goes with child, transported me instantly to my college years. Then I was able to begin to write.
The novel transposes the story from Scotland to a midwestern university. How closely was it based on your university experiences?
Very closely in some regards, and not at all in others. There are some incidents from my actual freshman year in Janet’s freshman year. Janet takes all the classes that I took. But differences press in at once. To the best of my knowledge, there are no members of the Unseelie Court at Carleton College. So the behaviour of many students and professors was altered, because they were altered. Janet’s family lives in the town (mine was in Omaha); she has a sister and a brother (I had three brothers), her father is an English professor (mine worked in containers); and she is emphatically not me, being significantly fiercer and more impetuous. So even a few incidents that I’d meant to just transfer whole from my experience were transformed by the changes I’d made in the world the fictional college inhabited. Many professors and some students are based on people I knew, but as they were formed by a different world, they behave differently.
The novel is part of the Fairy Tale series, edited by Terri Windling and featuring other Fantasy authors such as Steven Brust and Patricia Wrede. What was it like writing for that?
Steven and Pat were in my writing group at the time; so was Kara Dalkey, who wrote the beautiful adaptation The Nightingale (1988). That was actually alarming enough because Steve and Pat were well ahead of me, though we were all still at the beginning of our careers; and Kara, while newer to being a professional writer, was knowledgeable and ambitious and doing very interesting work. Steve pulled off a tour-de-force of a double creation story and Pat actually did set her adaptation of “Snow White and Rose Red” in the Elizabethan era.
On top of that, other contributors were Jane Yolen, an experienced and prolific writer, poet, and storyteller, who was writing a stunning and incomparable adaptation of the fairy tale “Briar Rose” set partly during the Holocaust; and Charles de Lint, who had wowed all of us with Moonheart (1984) and wasn’t looking back. I felt utterly out of my league.
The novel is full of allusions to English literature, particularly Shakespeare, Keats and English folk songs. What drew you to the texts you talk about in the book?
That’s surprisingly hard to answer. I actually was an English major who studied many of those writers, and I went on to scrabble out an M.A. in English before concluding that I was not cut out for a teaching job or any kind of academic life and bailing on the entire enterprise. I also was fortunate to meet and become friends with other people with a rich knowledge of drama and poetry. But that just pushes the question further back; why did I major in English anyway, what drew me to poems and plays and novels well before that point?
It’s unclear to me that I actually know what I’m talking about here. However, I was a voracious reader as a child, and there were never quite enough books. Even if your parents got the library to let you check out more books than the rules should let you do, and even if your parents both could and would buy books for you, and even when you were old enough to do chores and earn a little money, there were not ever, ever, ever enough books. So I started reading my parents’ books, a very motley assortment, some perfectly well suited to my reading level and general knowledge of the world and some miles, light-years, over my head. I got used to failing to understand what a book was doing, what was happening, in it, what it meant, the first or even second or third time through it. When there are not enough books, being able to read one again and find new things in it is a very valuable quality.
There’s a multitude of ways to make a book dense, or multilayered, or mysterious, however exactly that quality is best described for a particular book. But literary reference is one of them. I skated blithely right over a lot of literary references at first, because they weren’t marked in ways my reading experience could recognize; and I hadn’t read very much yet in my life despite my best efforts. But then I encountered L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Enter Mrs. Who, speaking half in quotations, because she finds it hard to verbalize and it’s easier if she can quote. I am not an ancient angelic being, but I very much identified with Mrs. Who in this particular regard.
I’m not sure that really answers your question.
You’ve also retold the ballad ‘Riddles Wisely Expounded’ in your novel Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary. What makes the Child Ballads such a potent source of inspiration?
I’ve been lucky to participate in discussions of this question with Jane Yolen and Terri Windling, and other amazing writers and readers as well. There are a lot of reasons, but for me at least, I think it’s an aspect of ballads suggested by both Jane and Terri, that they are so full of hints and mysteries. They jump over whole acres of action, they don’t explain what’s going on except when occasionally they do so in huge detail; they are folded up very tightly and if you unfold them they spill out magical and narrative magic all over the place. And that stuff that spills out is different for every reader or writer.
Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary started life as a short story in the anthology Things That Go Bump In The Night, edited by Jane Yolen and Martin H. Greenberg. What made you decide to expand it into a novel?
When Jane called me to say that she would be buying the story, she said that it read like the first chapter of a novel, and I really should consider writing the novel. Later on she was running her own line of YA fantasy at Harcourt and invited me to submit a novel. I tried first with The Dubious Hills and then, when that was rejected (not by Jane) as being too complex for children, I figured out what a novel-length version of “Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary” would be like, but that was also rejected (again, not by Jane) as being too complex for kids. Having worked with Jane as my editor for two pieces of short fiction, I would have loved to work with her on a novel, but it was not to be.
The story deals with riddles, which are a common motif in folklore. What is it about them that we find so fascinating?
I hope this won’t sound too glib, but I think it may be similar to what is so fascinating about ballads. Riddles are tightly folded bundles that open out in unexpected directions. They are, ideally, both obvious and very obscure; you don’t understand them until in a flash of intuition, you do. Also, I think the human mind just likes puzzles of all sorts.
Your first novel, The Secret Country, is about five children who find themselves transported to the magical country they have dreamed up, and also draws on Shakespeare a lot. What inspired this novel?
I talked in an answer to an earlier question about how, when I was growing up, there were never, ever enough books. Another difficulty that my husband has also cited as a major part of his childhood was that many books were only available at one’s school library or the local public library, and one would lose access to them when one went on to another school, or in my case, moved from one city to another. There would be new books in the new libraries, but old ones would be lost. A lot of what we read wasn’t easily available or available at all to be purchased, and there wasn’t always much money for such purchases anyway.
So I lost track of some of my favorite books, but retained very fond and vivid memories of them. Then I got older, travelled to London on a college program, had a little more money to spend, and was able to buy a lot of my old favorites for myself. I was also able to buy classics I’d heard of but never been able to track down as a child, notably Edward Eager’s books and E. Nesbit’s. In addition, I had never read the Narnia books as a child, and when a college roommate discovered this, she immediately gave me a boxed set because I mustn’t be deprived for a moment longer of that experience.
So at around the same time, in my early twenties, I was rereading old favorites and reading for the first time books that probably would have been old favorites if I’d encountered them in time. It was a very strange experience. Almost none of the old books was the same. They were shorter, less detailed, somehow flatter. Neil Gaiman has written about this experience in childhood reading, where he apparently invented an exciting, tense set of scenes (a struggle through a blizzard, maybe, though I don’t recall for sure) but found that in the original book his vividly imagined scene was just a sentence or two. Other writers have had experiences like this too – Lois Bujold has written about the participation of the reader in story, and so have many others. Anyway, I hadn’t inserted whole scenes from my imagination (the more fool I), but had seen a complexity, a sense of potential, mysteries at the edge of the frame, galaxies only perceptible using averted vision. That was all gone, everything was clear to me, everything was understandable.
When I read the Eager and the Nesbit, I wasn’t disappointed in the same way. I enjoyed myself a lot. But, except for some bits of Nesbit’s work, I couldn’t see enough mystery or richness in the books. They were fun, sharp, absorbing, but just not rich and dense enough for what I really wanted to read at that time.
So I thought, what if I wrote a book that’s like these books, with the other worlds and the group of children and all the entertaining and, if I can pull it off, numinous parts, but put in the layers, the mystery, the things at the edge of one’s sight? How would that be? Aside from arrogant, but I didn’t perceive that at the time.
The Secret Country is followed by The Hidden Land and The Whim Of The Dragon, and your later novel The Dubious Hills is set in the same world but with different characters. When you wrote the first novel did you realise how much time you would spend writing in this world?
Yes and no, I think. I had very deliberately put in a huge number of details of history and hints of other stories and found myself revelling in them all as I wrote my first attempt at a novel amongst them. But at the same time, in a lot of ways I really had no idea what I was doing, and any notion that I would write a series, or offshoots set in the countries I had happily named because I wanted there to be a lot of difference places and cultures in this rather peculiar world, really stayed underground until I was struggling with writing The Whim of the Dragon.
In The Dubious Hills, the village is under a spell by wizards so that everyone knows one thing but is very dubious about everything else. Where did this unusual idea come from?
In the beginning, a linguistic error that I made. I thought of “dubious” as a term used in antique maps, along with “here be dragons” or “terra incognita.” Insofar as I was thinking of anything at all, it was probably of real places like the Doubtful islands or Doubtful Sound; but I used the wrong word. A friend of mine thought the name was very funny indeed, so it was in my mind when I was invited to write a short story for an anthology that never came together. Martin Greenberg wanted to pitch a collection of short stories set in the worlds of a number of writers’ first novels. I didn’t want to write a short story about the main characters of the Secret Country, so I thought I’d try a short story about the Dubious Hills. Incidentally, the original version of “Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary” was based on Child Ballad #1 because that is a very short ballad. This didn’t help, of course, as I’ve already recounted above; and indeed the fact of the ballad’s shortness just meant it was folded very tightly and sprang open like an overstuffed cupboard when bumped. In the same way, I thought I might get a short story out of the Dubious Hills if I wrote a very formal, stylized fairy tale with some serious constraints on it. But I was not and am not at all good at seeing what space a story needs to occupy. The short story was synopsized but never written, but then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. When I was done with Tam Lin, I wanted something different to work on, and Jane Yolen wanted books for her new YA fantasy line. I’d already decided that the characters were mostly children.
The Dubious Hills is also an exploration of the domestic in Fantasy, which is another thing that makes it quite unusual. Is this something you’d like to see more of in the genre?
Oh, yes, it’s an element I’m very fond of. I probably couldn’t get enough of it, ever. And people are using it in various ways. Marissa Lingen and Ursula Vernon use it over and over in their short fiction. Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series is a remarkable mix of the domestic and the extra-epic. Cat Valente, Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison, I hate making lists like this and I know you didn’t ask me to but it seemed like a good idea; but I always forget somebody. Anyway. The more the better, as far as I’m concerned. Oh, John Chu’s short fiction uses domestic detail very interestingly, and I just recently, thanks to a recommendation by Marissa, read a short story about AI that’s centered on cooking. “Nutrition Facts,” (2019) D.A. Xiaolin Spires. There’s a great deal more, and I apologize for forgetting people I should have included.
Having started this, I should definitely also mention Jo Walton’s Lifelode (2009) and Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life (1990) as being very much about domestic life, though not exclusively.
One thing that shines through all of your writing is your love of reading and of story. To what extent do you feel your stories are about stories?
To a very great and sometimes alarming degree. I find the process of writing to be intimidating; it seems completely audacious to be even contemplating it in the first place. For some reason, taking a step back and looking at events through other, extant stories makes it easier to contemplate. I think this answers part of a question about the Secret Country books that I skipped over, namely why there are so many references to Shakespeare in them.
You have also written for the Liavek anthologies, a shared world series edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. How did you find the experience of writing for a collaborative world?
Initially I was very reluctant to do it at all. I’m not a natural collaborator, being secretive and intermittent in my work habits, so that conferring with anybody else at any time just makes the whole enterprise much more fraught. Beginning to write for Liavek was frankly much more terrifying than writing for the Fairy Tale Line. I felt that one needed to be very hip, street-smart, to write for Liavek, and was really completely paralyzed.
Two things helped: Emma simply wrote to me and said that she wanted me to invent a religion; and I invented a family of immigrants who didn’t really understand Liavek and felt alienated and uneasy in it. The particular decision I made about that had some problematic aspects, but its main impetus was just pure funk.
All that said, I had a wonderful time writing for Liavek. Fitting one’s own inventions into other people’s when doing the worldbuilding, watching writers you admire using your characters or settings, and doing your best to amplify and build on what other writers had set up, was exciting and fulfilling.
Your Liavek stories have most recently been republished, along with Patricia Wrede’s, in Points of Departure by Diversion Books, and you have set up Blaisdell Press with your husband to reissue The Dubious Hills and Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary. Can we expect to see more of your work back in print soon?
We – Blaisdell Press, that is – have a collection of three pieces of long out-of-print short fiction just about ready to go. It’s currently called Owlswater and Other Stories and will probably go on being called that. All three stories are based on ballads, though it took us quite a long time to realize that. One of the stories is the short “Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary.” The others are pretty obscure. Another of the stories is connected to my almost-completed new book, and we had thoughts of not publishing them too far apart. The ending of the new book is an ever-moving target, and I’m starting to think we should just get the collection out there.
When we publish that, all of my work that I have the rights to will be back in print.
What’s next for Pamela Dean?
The new novel, when I finish revising it. It’s called Going North, and has been for years, though I’m still considering whether that is more than a working title. Because I have no common sense, it’s a joint sequel to The Dubious Hills and the Secret Country books generally, but especially the third one, The Whim of the Dragon. I sold it on spec to Viking Penguin for their excellent YA line Firebird, in 2004 or around then, but it went through many transformations and was in time cancelled for a number of reasons, including its length, the inadvisability of cutting it any more than I had, and – wait for it – not actually being a YA novel. Then there were more adventures getting the rights to it back. So we’ll almost certainly publish it ourselves when it is finally done. I’ve lost most of my perspective about its quality by this time; but some passages still make me laugh or get tearful– in a good readerly way, not in the writerly this-is-so-terrible-I-cannot-let-it-see-the-light-of-day way; so I have hopes about it.
One major reason I’ve been able to revise the novel as it needed is that I have amazing supporters on Patreon. I salute them all.
After I’ve removed that albatross of a novel from my neck, I have two more partly-written novels, one set in Liavek, though at this point of course it has to be able to stand on its own, which deals with a theatrical company; and one set in the larger Secret Country world that deals with werewolves who do astronomy.
Thank you Pamela Dean for talking with us!