Even More About Patricia (for the curious)

I haven’t always been a novelist, but as far back as I can remember, I've always been creative, and an inventor of stories. I started seriously writing down my original ideas in 2009. Between 2011 and 2018, I have written four novels, five novellas, three novelettes, quite a few short stories, several dozen songs and parodies, and a few more dozen poems (some of which have become songs).

Sometimes people ask me “what took me so long” … why was it only in 2009 that I began to seriously write? Simply, it took me that long, to not be afraid of how much I might reveal about myself, through something as intimate as the written word. I had a difficult childhood (father an alcoholic … mother a bundle of anxieties). I endured a lot of emotional abuse at home, and a lot of bullying in school. That sort of early life toughens some people up, but it makes others more vulnerable, more in need of drawing back. It’s a scary prospect, putting the most sensitive bits of one’s psyche so far out into the world, where they can be most easily trodden on. I was born with a creative soul, but it took a lot of detours into sheltered by-ways, ones where I could mask the deepest parts of myself from too much discovery.

So … how exactly did those by-ways lead me here? Yes, I started writing the first of the novels in May 2009. But that’s an oversimplification, because the first one is an adaptation of an unsold screenplay I wrote around 1987. The screenplay, in turn, was an adaptation of a centuries-old Scottish ballad, “Tam Lin”. My fascination with that ballad goes back to about 1972. I was deeply involved in Scottish Country Dance at the time – was part of a San Francisco-based performance group – and one of the other dancers loaned me his Fairport Convention LP, “Liege and Lief”. That’s the first version of the ballad I’d ever heard. The paranormal, love-triangle story is so simple yet archetypal, it has captured many people’s imaginations over the years. I was one. I’m sure that Sandy Denny’s haunting, powerful voice in that recording, has had much to do with how unforgettable the song is, for many people.

A handful of other authors have done their own adaptations of the tale. I haven’t read any of them. I didn’t even know there were other versions, until after I completed the first version of my own novel. But I think mine stands apart from the others, by being set in 1790 (Jane Austen would have been going on fifteen). In the spirit of Austen’s wry outlook on human foibles, my Elfin Scots series (a.k.k. Randolph Family Saga) has a strong “comedy of manners” element. I think my adaptation is also quite different, in being only the first of an ongoing series of seriocomic novels, which continue to follow the fortunes of the family eventually founded by Tam Lin (in reality, John Randolph, Earl of Roxburgh).

Why a series? Just because by the time I finished writing the first volume, I had already done a lot of speculation about how “real life” might go for a pair of lover-protagonists, after a “happy ever after” ending. The old ballad ends with Janet being both pregnant, and courageous enough to risk her life to save the man she loves … we know that he is going to marry her, and all will be well. But I found myself wanting to know a lot more about how their lives would play out. In particular, what about their child … or children? So I embarked on imagining those children, and what adventures would come to them as young adults. And so it has continued to go.

What else went into my becoming a novelist? Well, the main ingredients seem to have always been a vivid imagination and a love of stories. From infancy I loved books and stories … so much, that I drove myself to learn how to read by age four, because no-one ever had enough time to read me as many stories as I wanted. In childhood, I had a large collection of toy animals, to each of which I assigned name, personality, complex relationships … I’d spend days guiding my creatures through elaborate scenarios which played out across detailed landscapes constructed upon my bedroom floor.

In high school I went through a rebellious phase, which took the form of never turning in my English assignments, but instead turning in whatever story I had most recently written. I had the great luck of having a teacher who was insightful enough to grade me on what I actually handed in, not on what it should have been. I was already a devoted fan of fantasy and science fiction, having (when my age was still single-digit) discovered a big fat hardbound collection of short stories from Galaxy magazine, on the family bookshelf.

In my twenties, through the Scottish Dance scene, I immersed myself in the folklore, folk music, and literature of Scotland, and soon expanded to the British Isles in general. I also took theatre classes, singing classes, other forms of dance … and went to work for the Living History Centre in California, performing as a theme character at their Renaissance Faires, teaching customers how to waltz at the Dickens Fairs. I met my husband, who was a fellow actor, at a “Ren-Fair”; we got married at “Dickens”. A few years after we wed, together we started a theatre company (ultimately called West End Repertory, and based in Berkeley, California).

The Fairs having given me a taste of directing for stage, it turned out to be something I liked better than acting. Over about four years, we produced sixteen plays; I directed ten of them. I also functioned as my own dramaturge. I made a new translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, wrote a stage version of Dickens’s The Cricket on The Hearth, and some of his shorter stories too; created an absurdist adaptation of the Restoration comedy The Rehearsal, and pared down Hamlet to a manageable two hours and twenty minutes (to make it more accessible to kids with their shorter attention spans). My production of Hamlet was set on another planet … my Romeo and Juliet took place in an apocalyptic future … my Midsummer-Night’s Dream was a plunge into an Elfin Realm which was very much a foreshadowing of the fully-realised one in my Tam Lin novels.

Then, it was time to try Hollywood. I was a typist by profession, and soon mastered screenplay formatting, so that I could get freelance work typing scripts. The American Film Institute offered affordable seminars on screenwriting; I took as many as I could. Soon I was writing my own “spec scripts”, as well as taking a few adaptation commissions here and there. However, Hollywood wasn’t a good fit for us, psychologically. We felt isolated, and my husband didn’t have the aggressiveness necessary to force his way into the right circles. We returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’d both grown up.

I’d had parents who saw no point in sending me to college. I was entering high school at barely thirteen, with not one friend, since we'd just moved to California from the East Coast at the end of my eighth-grade year. Because of my extreme insecurity and shyness, they’d had to enroll me in a tiny private high school where I felt safer. When I barely graduated (having quit turning in homework or taking tests in my Junior year), they seemed to feel that they’d spent more than enough on my education and it was time for me to go to work. I wasn’t all that keen on further education myself, because that conservative, all-academic private school, which offered no courses in art, music, or anything but “solid” subjects, had been a very bad fit for my creative temperament.

But by the time I was in my early forties, and turning my back on the “lively arts”, I had a new interest: painting and drawing. I signed up for four cheap art classes at the local community college. To my surprise, I received grades on my artwork – all ‘A’s! That inspired me to see if I could at least earn a two-year degree. So, in the second semester, I enrolled in some of the required breadth courses, including cultural anthropology.

Taking that anthropology course turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life. I realised, very soon, that what had already fascinated me for years, had a name – and it was anthropology. I’d been a fan of the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin for years. Now I understood exactly why I loved the kinds of stories she told. They were all rooted in cultural anthropology … she was the daughter, after all, of Alfred Kroeber, who helped create the discipline at U.C. Berkeley. I set myself a goal – complete my lower-division courses with high grades, transfer to Cal, get a degree in anthropology, from the very department founded by Ms. LeGuin’s father.

It all worked out. I graduated with honours, having spent my senior year researching and writing a thesis. My topic was “Neopaganism and Wicca as Revitalisation Movements” … it led me to many, many hours of participant-observation in the Bay Area’s Neopagan community. That kind of immersion left me convinced that I was, at heart, a natural and lifelong Pagan … that for me, the living world is innately sacred, and there must be some sort of vital creative spirit, immanent in every aspect of the Earth, and every living thing. This fully-formulated spiritual view, blended with my understanding of traditional Celtic lore and folk religion, has come to richly inform the cosmology and worldview which underlie all my novels and short stories.

Well … between “anthropology of religion” studies and Wicca classes and feminist college courses, I had become convinced that the “Elf-Queen” of the old Tam Lin ballad was in essence, the “great goddess” of early human cultural beliefs. My present view is this: as monarchies and governments became ever more dominant, the countryside-dwelling people’s faith in a great, nurturing nature-goddess had to be diminished and bowdlerised into a fairytale creature, with elements of “wicked witch” and “typical spiteful jealous female”.

When, some years after college, I set myself to rewriting my old screenplay as a novel, the Elf-Queen lost no time metamorphosing back into the great goddess she used to be: sexy, funny, compassionate, loving, romantic, loyal, playful, protective … a healer … a giver of life to the natural world. My human characters are very ordinary humans, not particularly noble, heroic, or spiritual. But those in the Randolph Family, by chance (or fate? perhaps), have come to have a unique talent. They can cross the Veil between the worlds, they can meet and interact with the goddess (and an assortment of other metaphysical beings) … occasionally, they can even learn something useful from the Other Side.

This is the essence, for me, in “speculative fantasy”. If there are divine beings to be met, to what extent will it change any humans who meet them? To what extent will those characters – being human – continue to make the same kinds of mistakes that any human can make? Will the Randolph Family’s destiny, in time, become inextricably intertwined with the fate of the Earth? These are the questions which continue to provoke my imagination into constructing the Saga.

And now I’ve come back around to that first question … “What took you so long?” Well, it seems that one day I woke up and found that I’d lived long enough – had proved myself enough to myself – that I wasn’t afraid any more, of what I might reveal to others. Certainly, there is a lot of me, in every one of my characters. There’s also a lot that is other people I’ve known, both good and bad. Readers may indeed be able to find me in my writing … it doesn’t scare me any more. In fact, I kind of hope they do.

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