To celebrate the new paperback release of By These Ten Bones, author Clare B. Dunkle is taking on a blog tour, and my stop finds her answering a few questions.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the story was the setting; it was richly drawn and heightened the story’s tension. I’m curious: superstition and intolerance have left a mark worldwide, what was it about Scotland that made it impossible for the story to take place anywhere else? (And it really did; I couldn’t see Maddie and Carver anywhere but there.)
I’m so glad you liked the setting! Honestly, it was a happy accident—although as I think about it, the accident did have to do with superstition. I wanted to have both a witch trial and a mention of a person who had been burned for heresy in the book, and to sum up a hundred years of epic battle in a couple of sentences: In most parts of Europe, this would be impossible. The first event is largely a Protestant phenomenon, while the second is largely (but not exclusively) Catholic, and at the time, the wars triggered by the Protestant Reformation were so devastating that to have both events experienced by members of the same community would have been unlikely. I discovered that both events could take place in the Highlands, though,
where the Protestant Reformation didn’t raise more than a few volleys. That’s why the story landed there.
But once it landed and I started my research, I was thrilled. The Gaels of Ireland and Scotland were … well, we’d call them superstitious, of course, but I see it as more of a positive than a negative and envy them their generous worldview. Their world was alive with all sorts of magical possibilities—ghosts, devils, angels, fairies, monsters, demigods—and all of it, from primitive magic and pagan mythology to Christian religion, seemed to coexist in perfect harmony.
On this subject, I particularly like the story of St. Columba and Manannan Mac Lir. St. Columba’s chalice broke, and he sent his servant off to have it mended. Along the way, a handsome stranger mended it with magic and sent the servant back to St. Columba to ask if he (the stranger) would ever get into heaven. Without the least surprise or hesitation, St. Columba said that no, the stranger was obviously one of the old gods, and they were demons doomed to hell. When the stranger learned this, he became understandably indignant.
A Catholic saint quarreling with an ancient sea god. To the Gaels, it was business as usual!
By These Ten Bones is not a typical werewolf story. What prompted the unique portrayal of werewolves found in the book? Research? Or the intent to create a different mythology for a canonical creature?
That unusual portrayal comes from my longstanding fascination with the parallels between
werewolf legends and the symptoms of rabies. I’m convinced that the dark core of werewolf folklore comes from thousands of years of human dread of this deadly disease. Think of the similarities: rabies often came to humans through infected dog or wolf bites, and it drove bitten humans into frenzy, confusion, and uncontrollable aggression (“wolf behavior”) as their brains succumbed to the inflammation. Consequently, my “werewolf” is more like a disease parasite lodged in a host and less like the “wolf” of legend.
An aspect I was fascinated by was the folklore: the Water Horse, the Churchyard Watcher. They’re woven so well into the fabric of By These Ten Bones. Did you seek them out or come across them and know that they had to be incorporated?
They fell into the book naturally, and I tried to accord them the respect they deserved since these things, so alien to me, were as real as stone and water to my characters. The rules of the Churchyard Watcher, for instance, were so important to people across the British Isles that bitter fights would break out about it as late as the early 1900’s whenever a graveyard was declared full and abandoned. The next of kin grieved quite sincerely over the thought that their relatives were stuck watching that churchyard till the end of time.
I read several books of Gaelic and Celtic superstitions, and I also read well-researched
nonfiction books where Highlanders speak or act from their superstitions. One book that I really loved and that really shaped my book is FATHER ALLAN’S ISLAND, by Amy Murray (Harcourt, 1920). It’s a folklorist’s glimpse of the locals on the small island of Eriskay. Ms. Murray found that the people she met there spoke of supernatural events as naturally as if they were speaking of the weather. She found that even the priest’s house had no windows on its west side, “for on that side the Sluagh pass by night, … the Host of the Dead, whose feet never touch on earth as they go drifting on the wind till the Day of Burning.” Indeed, superstitions (or alternate ways of seeing the world, at any rate), abound on every page of that wonderful book:
“Nor would I be praising the night to them as I came in, for when that [the night] chances fine, the drowned may come ashore. But only let someone be saying, ‘It’s a fine night this!’ and back into the water they must go.”
Learning from such books as these how deeply ingrained the folk beliefs were in yesteryear’s Highlanders, I found incorporating such items as the Water Horse, the severed head, the cross on the earth, and the Churchyard Watcher to be seamless. In each case, it was a simple answer to the question: “What is this character thinking of now?”
Which character came to you first: Maddie or Carver? Did either change or grow from your initial vision?
They came to me together, actually: the first scene of the book I imagined is the climax of
the book, almost at the end. But I did feel out Carver’s personality first. I tried to imagine just how isolated and traumatized such a young man would be after the horrific events he’s lived through. Then I tried to imagine the kind of girl who could manage to pull him out of his shell. Maddie can’t have been the first girl to try to befriend the handsome boy, but she has the curiosity, persistence, and optimism to succeed.
One last fun one: If you could go into any book (not your own) and spend the day with a character, which book would it be and which character?
I’d opt to enter the world of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and spend a day with the colorful bard, Fflewdur Fflam. That’s because I’ve harbored since childhood the sneaking suspicion that Fflewdur is the author’s self-portrait. Now that Lloyd Alexander has left us, a fictional day with his character Fflewdur Flam would be as close as I could come to spending time with that gentle, wonderful man himself.
Thank you, Clare!
A mysterious young man has come to a small Highland town. His talent for wood carving soon wins the admiration of the weaver’s daughter, Maddie. Fascinated by the silent carver, she sets out to gain his trust, only to find herself drawn into a terrifying secret that threatens everything she loves. There is an evil presence in the carver’s life that cannot be controlled, and Maddie watches her town fall under a shadow. One by one, people begin to die. Caught in the middle, Maddie must decide what matters most to her-and what price she is willing to pay to keep it.
Next stop on Clare B. Dunkle’s blog tour: WORD for Teens