Author Spotlight: S. K. Marlay (THE STONE KEEP)
S.K. Marlay is an Irish fantasy author. She’s been a fruit picker, a maths teacher, a factory worker, a touring singer and a boat hand, not to mention a bunch of other jobs not worth mentioning. Before writing her first novel she was a songwriter. She thinks the discipline of having to distil a song’s story down to sixty words or less really stands to you when writing a book, though she does miss being able to just repeat the chorus when stuck. She still doesn’t quite believe writers are real people; this is likely to trigger something of an existential crisis when her own first book is published.
Welcome to the Hive, Stella. Let’s start with the basics: dazzle us with an elevator pitch! Why should readers check out The Stone Keep?
Thanks for having me, it’s a fabulous spot you have here.
Urgh though, elevator pitch, please no! The whole reason I wrote a book is because I’m useless at getting to the point quickly. How about: the world of the The Stone Keep is ruled by the Channellers, who sap the life-force of others for magic so crops can grow, cities prosper and the dragons can be held at bay. But a different, more ancient power is growing in Eadha, one that doesn’t drain the life out of others. With it comes a terrible choice; use it and make a lie of her true love’s life, or watch him lose everything?
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I wish I had a certain method – I started writing after a run of personal trauma meant I really needed to write, to find some joy in my life. So there was no real method, only a need. I wrote everywhere, in snatches, at first – in cars, on stairs, on the sofa, anywhere I could find space and time. Music though, has always been essential. It helps me pull back from the world, especially as these days I write in coffee shops a lot. It’s a way of carrying a mood with me, from session to session. I have this ridiculously long playlist I keep adding songs to, and now just hearing some of those songs tells me it’s time to start writing. I was a songwriter before I wrote my book, and my bandmates curse the fact they now have what they call ‘producer’s ears’, where after years of recording music they can’t help dissecting other people’s songs, but thankfully my ears aren’t that good!
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
Yes, there’s a magic system in The Stone Keep – it was the first thing I had, before I came up with the world itself. Power on Domhain is drawn from life – primarily from the life-force of other people. This sets up a whole hierarchy, where you have the Channellers, who can draw life out of other people along silver threads and use it to do things like raise crops or buildings, create illusions or fight dragons. Then you’ve the Keepers, who can manipulate those threads and support the Channellers, but can’t draw power themselves. And last you’ve the Fodder – normal people who are drained by the Channellers for power. I wanted to set up a world that’s built around exploitation, and then see the choices and compromises even basically decent people end up making, when you’re born in a world where it seems the only options are to be a user or the used.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Ursula Le Guin completely shaped me, as I read her Earthsea books as a child, along with older writers like T.H. White, who wrote The Sword in the Stone – books that were in my local library growing up. As an adult, it’s a fairly even mix of fantasy and sci-fi. I’ll always love Terry Pratchett, Iain M.Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson and David Mitchell, and just very lately I read the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K.Jemisin – their writing is so phenomenally good. In terms of creators who’d be amazing to work with, I’d say David Mitchell. He’s so gifted and rigorous in his writing, but he’s also turned his hand to other art forms, even turning up as one of the writers of the new Matrix movie. He also helped translate a biography by Naoki Higashida from Japanese called ‘The Reason I Jump’ which gives wonderful insights into autism.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
There’s the editing you do yourself, and then there’s editing on foot of other people’s feedback. I became very aware of the limits of self-editing, in the sense that you can reach a point where you lack the distance from the story to be able to see (or admit to yourself) what’s not working or what’s missing. You might think you’re editing, but really you’re just tinkering. Having someone else read my writing and give engaged, insightful feedback is still, for me, a novelty, and an incredible experience. Just the idea that someone is taking your story seriously and really thinking about how to make it better. So I felt very lucky to get this feedback at all, and never minded doing the editing that came with it. That said, it is daunting, essentially being asked to explode your story and insert say, some character or relationship development, then put it all back together without ruining the pacing or the plot. What I learned is that often a huge amount of thinking and editing has gone into what ends up being just a couple of extra lines that your editor can read in a minute.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
Heroic were great about the cover – they collected lots of quite impressionistic information from me about aesthetic, styles, colours, other covers I liked. I’d like to pretend I had a central role, but honestly it was all the cover designer’s work – she took my garbled notions and created something really beautiful that I would never have come up with in a million years. I was just thrilled when I first saw it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
I wouldn’t say I have a favourite type of character to write, but rather worryingly I do find it easier to write dialogue for the more unpleasant characters. I don’t know what that says about me. I think it’s because, unlike nicer folk, they just don’t care who they hurt when they speak, so they can just say whatever they think – there isn’t that process of working out ‘is it ok to say this?’ that nicer people go through before they open their mouths.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Singing our songs with my song-writing partner (sorry, is that cheating?).
Examines the clauses… no?
Preferably at a live gig, as we haven’t been able to play live for so long.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
A dragon – always a dragon. I wrote a whole book just so there would be more dragons in the world. Though I think I’d rather be the dragon than ride on it?
Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?
Not a hidden gem exactly (it’s won prizes) but maybe less well-known outside Ireland is Tangleweed & Brine by Deirdre Sullivan. It’s a wickedly feminist re-telling of fairy tales that’s dark & mischievous and very beautifully written.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I spent the last few months writing something completely different – a book of non-fiction personal essays. I enjoyed it but found it almost like a protracted therapy session – possibly worthwhile in the long run but very draining in the moment, having to excavate things you haven’t ever properly faced before. So, it’s with great joy that I’ve recently switched back to writing fantasy, starting on the sequel to The Stone Keep. It introduces some new points of view, which I’m excited about, but it’s also challenging. You get used to depicting your world from one person’s perspective, so to step into other people’s points of view involves something of a mental reset.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
I can talk all day about stories, and characters and plot and why things work or don’t work. For publication the lovely people at Heroic are organising an online tour with some equally lovely reviewers, so I’m really looking forward to being able to talk shop with other story-mad people. Also, my family made me a mug with The Stone Keep cover on it, which I’m really proud of.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
While I’ve just said I love stories and plots, fundamentally for me, a story also has to be grounded in a big idea, something important enough to make me want to talk about it. Ultimately The Stone Keep is about power, inequality and exploitation, how they warp everyone (including the powerful) and ruin lives. Many of us are on the pointy end of inequality these days, so if even a few readers feel their experiences of being exploited are in some tiny way seen and acknowledged for the unnecessary cruelty they are, through this story, that would just be the best thing.
Thank you so much for joining us today and good luck with the release of your debut!
The Stone Keep is out today from Heroic Books! Find out more, and how to get a copy, here.