Gillian Philip – FIREBRAND – interview

By on February 19, 2013 is very pleased to bring in author Gillian Philip for a fireside chat about her newest book, Firebrand, out today in the U.S.  We talk about the inspiration for the book, characters who prefer shouting to speaking, the superstitious nature of modern Scotland, and much more!

firebrand gillian philip

Elena Nola: What inspired you to write Firebrand?

Gillian Philip: It wasn’t a book that was supposed to happen! I’d written Bloodstone (now Book 2 in the series), which involved different characters called Finn and Jed, as well as a minor villain named Seth. It wasn’t right, and I knew it, but it took me a while to work out what was wrong – which was that Seth had taken over the whole thing, because it should have been his story in the first place. I scribbled some notes about his back story, and they got out of hand, and turned into 100,000 words – which became Firebrand. So I suppose that my main inspiration was Seth himself, who wouldn’t leave me alone till I was finished.  

I was also very inspired by the landscape of the Highlands – especially the island of Colonsay, which is one of my favourite places on earth, and where you can almost feel the Veil between the worlds fraying…

How familiar were you with the myths and various fantasy representations of the fair folk before you started writing?  Did you have any particular favorite stories (or writers) about them?

I was familiar with a lot of the stories, though not in any depth – they were part of the background of my childhood: Tam Lin, Finn MacCool, Cuchulainn, the Ban-Sith; and later, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and all those stories of men and children who get lost for decades in Tir Nan Og. Some of the latter are surprisingly recent! Also, a lot of place names in Scotland have -shee or -sheen as a suffix (and there’s a beautiful hill called Schiehallion), and that can’t help but pique your interest.

I always loved kelpies, the water monsters of myth, so I’d always wanted to include them in a story (and I used to scare my children away from wild water by telling them kelpie stories). And faery stories and traditions are still surprisingly prevalent in modern Scotland – there are still people who won’t wear or use the colour green (though that can be a sectarian religious thing, too) – and there are plenty who still hold a superstitious respect for rowan trees (which are sacred to faeries).

In fact, my mother-in-law’s gardener argued with her for ages because she wanted him to cut down a rowan that was obscuring her view. In the end she wore him down, but he wasn’t happy – and he blamed that deed for the fact that not long afterwards, the house burned down!

Did you wind up doing much research on folklore (or academic interpretations of it) or historical periods to help build your Other world?

My knowledge of the mythology was fairly superficial, so yes, I did go back to investigate it in much greater depth. The series title came from that research – I never knew the story about the fallen angels, which has local variations throughout the Highlands. It holds that the faeries are rebel angels who fell on land. The ones that fell in the sea became the selkies, or seal people; the ones who were caught in the sky became the Merry Dancers, the Northern Lights. I fell in love with that myth as soon as I read it.

As for historical research – that was something else. I knew Seth would be young around the time of the Scottish Reformation and the witch trials of the sixteenth century. I had to read a lot about that because I wasn’t very familiar with the period, and while I don’t usually like research, this was fascinating. I got quite caught up in it. As well as the social history, there were original witch-hunting tracts like the Daemonologie written by King James VI & I, and the Malleus Maleficarum. It was grim reading, but it gave me a lot to throw at my poor old characters. I even found a very prosaic price list for the services of a witch executioner, which was quite spine-chilling.

Why do you think there have been relatively few fantasy movies that deal with them either as heroes or villains?

Good question! I really don’t know. For me they have all the sinister attraction of werewolves or vampires. They’re more interesting than dragons (for me) and they are certainly sexier than your average zombie. I suppose their time simply hasn’t come yet. There weren’t even many books about the Sidhe when I started writing the Rebel Angels series, but there are plenty now – maybe that will change things in the movie world, too.

What is your writing process like?  Do you outline or just see where a story goes, do you tend to write quickly and revise a lot or write more slowly, etc., etc.?

On the whole, I do that writing-by-the-seat-of-my-pants thing. I put off becoming a professional writer for a long time because I was quite convinced I wasn’t a ‘proper’ writer, since I didn’t plot in any detail. I thought real writers had a whole detailed plot in their heads, and only had to sit down in the morning and type it out. If I’d known earlier how many writers don’t plot, I’d have started trying a lot sooner. When I finally decided it was now-or-never, I thought I’d just do what I’d been doing in my head since I was young – start telling myself a story, and see where it went. And to my amazement, it worked. (Eventually.)

On the other hand, I do like to know roughly where I’m going – it’s good to have destination in mind; it’s just that I don’t mind how I get there, or how long it takes.

Was having a teenage boy as your protagonist a particular challenge (versus any other kind of protag, I mean)?  Was there any intention in this being classed as a YA novel while you were writing it?

A teenage boy is my favourite fictional voice. That’s something else I discovered quite by accident – the first time I did it successfully, in a book called Crossing The Line, it just felt like a natural fit, and I could hear Nick in my head. I’m not so good at teenage girls, funnily enough. I couldn’t just hear Seth in my head – he nearly deafened me.

I didn’t really have any target audience in mind when I was writing Firebrand – it was the story that I felt I had to tell. In the UK, though, Strident felt it was appropriate for the YA market; Tor preferred to aim it at the adult audience.

The novel is being released in the US after having success in the UK. Is the launch process different for you this time?

It feels similar in some ways, but very different in others. Strident and Tor both promoted the book widely to newspapers and blogs, but obviously it’s been to US blogs this time, which feels even scarier than the UK versions (and those were pretty frightening)! A new development this time is that Tor have made a fantastic trailer for the book, which was hugely exciting.

What is up next for you?

I’m writing the fourth installment of a series as the fictional author Erin Hunter – she is famous for Warriors, a series about cats living in the wild, and I’m involved in a new project with the team, Survivors, which is about dogs living in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s been huge fun, and I’ve loved every minute. I’m going to be in the US in May doing a promotional tour for Book 2 (I did a US tour for Book 1 in September and had the time of my life).

For the same company, I’m also writing a fantasy adventure for children called Rookery Island – that’s next on my list. I’m doing some rewrites on Bloodstone (Rebel Angels Book 2) for publication later this year, and I also have to work on Book 4 (Icefall) for the UK publication in 2014. Finally I have a draft that I’m working on for a contemporary crime book, provisionally titled Spitting Distance, and I’m keen to get back to that. So it’s a busy schedule right now! But that’s the way I like it 🙂

Catch up with Gillian on the web!


Twitter: @Gillian_Philip


About Elena Nola

Elena Nola runs things here at BookSpotCentral. She is also the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire. On Twitter @MoffElena