Corridors of Communication

I reviewed two fantasy novels, The Godmother and The Godmother's Apprentice, awhile back. Now I have the great pleasure of offering up an interview I've done with the author of these fine works!
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has written many fine novels; you can find a full list at her website. She--in collaboration with Anne McCaffrey--produced three terrific science fiction novels. I look forward to reading two of her latest releases, Lady in the Loch and The Godmother's Web.
The interview that follows comes from e-mail messages sent back and forth between myself and Ms. Scarborough. I've filtered the interview down somewhat, but all with her approval. Enjoy!--XS
Note: images used with permission

XS=Xerxes Starfire, ES=Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

XS: First off, is Elizabeth Ann Scarborough your real name or a psuedonym?

ES: My real name.

XS: Have you ever considered writing under a psuedonym?

ES: I've written one short story which will be published under a psuedonym. I originally wrote the story under my own name, but it didn't suit the anthology I was writing it for. The editor suggested that with slight revisions, the story would be suitable for another anthology, but it was one in which I already had a story under my own name, so I invented a psuedonym for it.

XS: Gee, I guess it's more diplomatic use a psuedonym in that case.

ES: Coincidentally, the story was one that was rather unusually dark for me, so it was nice to have the "cover" of a psuedonym, too.

XS: I've heard that authors do that sometimes. Okay, what was your family life like for you as you grew up?

ES: I was brought up in Kansas City, Kansas, which was quite dull when I was growing up. However, I had grandparents and a great-grandmother on my father's side as well as great-aunts and -uncles, and they were all good storytellers. They treated my brother and I to family stories about relatives who had lived in the West while it was still wild, a Texas lawman, and Indian great-great-grandmother who was a sharpshooter, an Oklahoma "peacekeeper," a great-uncle who rode away from his family and property when his wife tried to poison him, and many other exciting stories.

XS: Wow! What a family tree!

ES: My grandfather had once met Jesse James, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp, who were all characters on TV shows at the time. On my mother's side, my Great-uncle Noah shared his Zane Grey books with me as well as a lot of 78 records. Mom loved to read and used to read aloud to me when I was little, and when I was frustrated with reading in school, tutored me so that before long I loved it as much as she did. She has a scrapbook of poetry she's kept since she was a young girl and I used to enjoy reading that. We read passages of books to each other and talked in the character's dialect when we were clowning around. Daddy is an epic storyteller and BS'er too.

XS: I guess that's where you got your love of stories.

ES: Yes, I think my family contributed a lot to my love of stories, reading, and writing.

XS: I'm very glad they did. So, aside from your immediate family, who was the biggest influence on your life?

ES: Writers. Rudyard Kipling, Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Agatha Christie, Paul Gallico, Harry Golden (essayist and editor of "The Carolina Israelite" and author of "For Two Cents Plain" among many other funny and poignant true stories of his own upbringing), Bill Vaughn (the "paragrapher" for the Kansas City Star--sort of the Dave Barry of his day), and Ogden Nash.

XS: How about anyone other than immediate family and writers?

ES: Well, I was also very heavily influenced by folk music and folk musicians. The first song I remember liking to sing was "Mule Train" and I loved to hear the singing cowboys, including Tex Ritter and Burl Ives, on telelvision. Later on it was the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, the Limelighters, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. Still later, I went back to the roots of the songs sung by the more popular groups and collected records by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Hoyt Axton, and many, many others. I also began collecting ballads in books. Fairy and folk tales have also been the kind of stories that have interested me since childhood and I've collected books of those as long as I can remember.

XS: I have to apologize, I only recognized two groups out of all of those. Now, what level of education did you complete?

ES: I obtained an RN from Bethany Hospital School of Nursing in 1968 and in 1987, after returning to college at the University of Alaska, got a BA in history with a minor in journalism.

XS: That's really impressive. I take it, then, that you were a nurse?

ES: Yes, but I was a soda jerk in high school to help earn money for nursing school, at the airport coffeeshop the summer before I went into training. From there I practiced nursing for about 15 years, about 5 years as an Army Nurse Corps officer, including a year in Vietnam. I first went to Alaska, which was my home for eighteen years all together, while in the army. After I got out of the service, I spent a year in Gallup, New Mexico working with the Indian Health Service, which was a fascinating job. When I returned to Alaska to live, I began to do other jobs than nursing, working variously as a janitor at the university, a salesperson in shoes and fine jewelry at JC Penney's. I also worked in tourist shops and bookstores and ran my own handweaving shop for about a year, Howling Woof Weavers. These days in addition to my fiction, I've written, designed, and published a bead pattern book, Beadtime Stories, for peyote stitch amulet bags.

XS: Talk about experiences! Were these the things you wanted to be when you were a child?

ES: When I was a child I wanted to be either a writer or a Hollywood costume designer like Edith Head. I also thought it would be cool to be a talent agent.

XS: Well, you've accomplished one of your childhood dreams, and done so splendidly in my opinion. What's your family life like now?

ES: My family life now, most immediately, is four cats and myself. I also have an extended family of friends where I live now and in Alaska, and Internet buddies, of course. My mom and dad and my brother and his family still live in Kansas City, and I go back and see them as often as I can.

XS: And where do you live now, if you don't mind?

ES: I live in a remodelled log cabin in a Victorian seaport town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The house has a solarium and a big yard for the cats to play in.

XS: A log cabin? I bet that's inspiring. Moving right along, though, what is your greatest dream in life, and what have you done--or are doing--to achieve it?

ES: I think I pretty much tackle one dream at a time. The one I had all my life was becoming a writer, and I've done that. I've also achieved the other to some extent, though not in a Hollywood costume department. Designing my bead book was great fun and I've also designed handweaving projects and so forth. My dream this year was the bead book, and I did that. I bore easily so I suppose that's why my dreams change often.

XS: What sort of awards or accomplishments have you acquired and achieved?

ES: My very best award ever was the 1989 Nebula for best novel for The Healer's War. I am not ordinarily a very competitive person so I don't enter into many contests that involve awards. I did graduate magna cum laude from the University of Alaska when I was 40 years old and I felt quite proud of that, but I never wished to join the Greek societies that only accept people with certain grade averages or IQ's. It seems too elitist to me.

XS: I couldn't agree with you more. So, how did it feel to see your first novel in print? That must have been a major accomplishemnt, too, right?

ES: I was really thrilled when my first novel came out, but you should understand about writing novels that "seeing" them isn't like seeing a painting one has just done--what you actually see is a lot of pages and a cover that was painted by someone who is not you. Unless you're Janny Wurts, who does her own covers. It's a long process and never quite feels complete, even when the book is in print, because then, of course, it takes everybody a long time to read it, and you never quite get a response that's equal to the amount of work and thought you put into it.

XS: I felt the same way about my master's thesis. Ah, but that takes us quite neatly into a new topic. I know about your fantasy and sci-fi works, and now Beadtime Stories as well. Are there any othe genres you'd like to explore, such as horror or mysteries?

ES: Lady in the Loch, my most recent book, has elements of both horror and mystery in it. I love mysteries, but I most particularly like those with supernatural and cross-cultural or historical elements to them. Lady in the Loch has both, but because of the location, pre-Victorian Edinburgh, also has lots of spooky bits to it.

XS: Sounds interesting. When's the easiest time for you to write?

ES: When the rest of my life isn't pestering me to tend to it. Sometimes that's late at night, sometimes it's first thing in the morning. First thing in the morning, when you're still fresh from dreaming, is a really good time to create, but unfortunately if I'm to do any business, it's also the time to do that. I live on the West Coast and the publishing houses, editors, agents, and packagers all live on the East Coast, so I can most easily contact them between seven and nine in the morning, and sometimes that is what happens instead of writing.

XS: It's worse when you're trying to do things from Hawai'i, believe me.

ES: Generally speaking, it's hardest for me to find the right time to write when I'm first beginning a project but as the project grows, it gains momentum and I write more and neglect everything else. But you can't neglect housework, grocery shopping, bill paying, or friends indefinitely and still have a life. So I tend to build up to a book gradually, write intensely for a month to six weeks, then play catch-up as soon as I've been paid and the book is being edited. A lot of times I also have another book out around the same time and am asked to do a certain amount of out-of-town travelling to publicize it, so that provides some break from being in the house writing also. I find I need to get out of the house at some point in the day even if it's just to poke around downtown. Otherwise I feel too isolated. I need to take in events, talk to people, see things, hear conversations, pay attention to my surroundings, go for walks, in order to have anything to turn into fiction. Otherwise it all gets stale.

XS: Does time of day affect you at all?

ES: Time of day is perhaps less an issue for me because for many years while working as a nurse I worked rotating shifts. I think it interfered with my internal time-clock. I don't really have a built-in sense of when I should be working, when I should be sleeping.

XS: I think my parents feel the same way about me. Where's the easiest place for you to write?

ES: In my office at my computer. All of my reference books are within reach and it's the space I've set up to work. I've tried writing while traveling and it doesn't work as well for me. Initially I wrote longhand when I went on walks ner my home in Alaska, but since my handwriting is very poor, I had to make up new prose to replace what I couldn't read.

XS: Oh, that really sounds familiar to me. Do you have any anecdotes about writing in a less-than-amenable location, such as in a taxi or...?

ES: As I said, I used to take a walk, sit down by ta stream, and write what I had decided to write on a notepad before heading back to my car. Unfortunately, I couldn't read most of it but it did make sure that writing got done that day. When I am very into what I'm writing, I can keep typing through remarks in a phone call, but mostly I need peace and quiet to work. When I'm traveling I write in my head or keep a journal that isn't intended to be a story but can be referred to later for "local color." If I take a laptop computer with me, I may send email diary entries to friends. Scraps of description and dialogue and anecdote do occur most easily when I'm taking in stimulating new experiences and am relaxed but these don't necessarily occur in the order I need them to in order to make a story of them. That has to wait until I'm back in my office. A lot of times I will get the beginnings of stories while I'm travel, though. It's the old mix of inspiration and perspiration, I suppose. Inspiration occurs most readily when I'm not worried about work but I have to work in order to turn the inspiration into a story.

XS: Doing research for your novels must take a lot of time.

ES: I love research. Learning something new with every novel is one of the most rewarding parts of writing for me. It does take a lot of time, yes, and sometimes when a novel takes me a year to create it's because six months of that is spent in preliminary research, or simply in gathering source material to use.

XS: What bit of information did you uncover that you are most grateful for?

ES: That's like asking what's my favorite drop of sea water. I love gathering all sorts of strange little facts and incidents and seeing how they fit together.

XS: Does your degree in history come in handy during the research process?

ES: Absolutely. It teaches you how societies work and move forward or fail to. Why they fight, how kingdoms are made and lost. I would say from my history lessons that you need to look into the economics behind the situation. Find out who benefits in terms of money or power and you get much closer to the true reason people are being punished, going to war, or having war visited upon them. That's a good thing to know in fiction as well as life.

XS: I'll keep that in mind. You grew up being told stories, but what first drew you into writing itself?

ES: Being read to, sung to, and told stories before I could read myself all contributed to making me love stories and wanting to tell them myself, I suppose. I wrote stories all through grade school and high school. I wrote some poetry (there wasn't time to write stories) while in nursing school and during my hospital nursing career. These days it seems to me tha most people who love to read also harbor at least some hope to write a story or book at some point in their lives. But the vast majority of people don't read at all but settle for having their stories completely fed to them by TV and movies. I love TV and movies too, but I get tired of them and want to create my own versions of things. The magical thing that people who don't read for fun don't realize is that reading, or even being read to, is the ultimate interactive creative form. Because there's only the words, your own mind supplies all of the images, all of the action, the depth of emotion. A writer must always love to read because writing and reading are the components of yin/yang, inhale/exhale relationship. So it's natural that a reader will also wish to write.

XS: Did you take any writing classes before--or after--you started writing?

ES: After, because I began writing before writing classes were offered to grade and high school kids. I took one class in creative writing while I was nursing to try to start a story I could sell, but I found the class discouraging and unhelpful. The most helpful thing to me while I was writing my first novel was having friends listen and comment on the book as I wrote it. The other most helpful thing was Lawrence Block's fiction writing column in Writer's Digest magazine.

XS: Has writing become any easier or more difficult since you started writing?

ES: Every project is totally different, I'm afraid. The hardest thing about writing a first novel is finishing it, having the confidence to send it out, worrying that no one else will like it. The easiest thing is that it's often the book you've been wanting to write all your life so the story is already inside you ready to boil out.

XS: What is the easiest thing about writing?

ES: I get to play with ideas all the time, get to try on thousands of combinations of identities and cultures and get to imagine a million different realities and follow them until I can reach some sort of conclusion about them.

XS: And the most difficult?

ES: The business end of things. The money is very unpredictable and takes a long time to earn while you are meantime getting in bills you're expected to pay every month, like most people. The other thing is when you put a year of research, love, hope, craft, skill, and devotion into a book you give your publisher, and the book is dropped onto the market with no fanfare, so that nobody knows it's there. Of course, years later, I see these books (usually bought from used bookstores) in autograph lines. They are brought by fans who loved them madly and wondered why I didn't continue that particular series. The answer is that because of the treatment that book received, it earned about $1.50. No matter whose fault it is that a book bombs, the publisher doesn't continue with something that's financially unsuccessful and if they won't publish it, I can't afford to write it.

XS: Now, you have many titles to your credit, but I'd like to talk about your "Godmother" books. What was the inspiration for these novels? Not simply retelling old fairy/folk tales/legends in a modern vernacular, I trust.

ES: It was more to draw a parallel between life back then and now, as far as the Godmother stories went. I just got thinking how fairy godmothers once played a role that is now played by social workers, for the first novel, and that the social workers I know are performing the peacetime equivalent of fighting in the front lines against such wrongs as child abuse, battery, poverty, etc. In The Godmother's Apprentice and The Godmother's Web that parallel isn't the point of the books so much as how a culture's icons of good and evil can still be relevant to current issues.

XS: How did you decide what stories to use with which novel?

ES: The plots of folktales and subplots for a novel aren't that different. It was just a matter of finding the folktale that fit the subplot or vice versa, depending on what needed to happen in the novel at any given point.

XS: How did you choose your character's names? "Felicity Fortune" is alliterative and eye-catching, but "Snohomish Quantrill" is a mouthful.

ES: Well, I wanted a girl to parallel Snow White. Sno's father is a rock star whose stage name at least is Raydir Quantrill because it sounds dangerous to someone from Kansas who knows about Quantrill's Raiders burning Lawrence, KS during the Civil War. Like a lot of rock stars, he names his daughter something strange--something to go with the locale. Snohomish is a Pacific Northwest Indian name and is a town in western Washington. It seemed as likely as any. At least he didn't name her Duckabush.

XS: Duckabush Quantrill? Uh-uh. Now, about The Godmother. What made you choose Seattle for your setting?

ES: I live in western Washington so it was easy to research. It's also a very trendy city and I'm familiar with something of the politics.

XS: Some of the fairy tales you incorporated were easy to pick up on, but precisely how many stories did you work into this novel? Snow White, of course, and Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Puss-in-Boots, and Sleeping Beauty, but were there others? I suppose there was also a rendition of the story of Bluebeard in there, though I might be mistaken.

ES: Bluebeard was intertwined with Hansel and Gretel. Red Riding Hood was in there briefly--just snippets and snatches in places.

XS: How much "fun" did you have on this novel? I mean, was writing for Felicity's character a challenge or relatively simple because you enjoyed it?

ES: I enjoyed writing Felicity because she was one of those larger-than-life characters. Sno was a little more difficult because I am not around people her age as much. I loved writing the animal characters because I live with animals.

XS: Were there any characters that were difficult to write for?

ES: In general, characters that say little or are very subtle are more difficult for me than outspoken or flamboyant characters.

XS: Now, same thing about The Godmother's Apprentice. What made you choose Ireland as the setting? I seem to remember that you stayed with Anne McCaffrey while writing the "Power" books.

ES: That's why.

XS: I had more difficulty identifying the stories. Could you...

ES: Besides the background stories of the mythic history of Ireland, which are in many ways all one story, I also used the pookah, the old story about the King of the Cats, a story that is not Irish about a Villa of cats, beliefs in mischievous house spirits, and in ravens as harbingers of the Morrigan, goddess of war. I would recommend that a reader get a copy of a good book on Irish mythic history such as Over Nine Waves or The Silver Bough and see what he or she can ferret out for him or herself. Isn't that the fun of books with unusual settings, that you learn a bit through the new story and it makes you want to go back and find out what some of the references meant in terms of the original sources?

XS: Hmm...I suppose. Was it difficult to write a sequel to The Godmother? I mean, did you sometimes find yourself essentially repeating what you'd written in the first book?

ES: I don't think so and certainly hope you don't either. It was a completely different book, in a different culture and instead of focusing on the same sorts of situations I used in The Godmother I foucsed on some particular Irish beliefs and problems which nonetheless had some universality. Of course, sequels are always a little difficult at the beginning because you do have to do a certain amount of info dumping to cue in new readers to what happened earlier. On the other hand, you can't tell so much that you bore readers who have read the ealier books or give away what happened in previous books to new readers who might want to go back and read novels 1 and 2 after they've read 3.

XS: I understand why you incorporated "older" stories, given the setting, but why choose darker ones?

ES: Aside from those versions heavily edited to make them suitable for young kids, fairy tales are essentially dark. Some of them probably began, like Bluebeard and Hansel and Gretel, as news of the day about serial killers (Bluebeard) and child abusers (the parents and the witch in Hansel and Gretel). They were also morality tales. In most of them, the story begins because someone didn't do as they were told, committed a wrong, refused to listen to good advice, and so forth. In fact, I didn't choose the very darkest versions of some of them, though I did allude to them. My good characters win out and the bad ones get payback. That doesn't always happen in the older versions of the stories.

XS: I recall hearing somewhere that Cinderella's stepsisters cut off toes and ankles to try to fit that slipper...

ES: The Irish fairy stories we hear over here have little in common with the way fairy stories are told in Ireland and Scotland. In fact, in Ireland, until recently at least, the fairies were a very dark force--the Sidhe were believed to be the remnants of the Tuatha de Danaan when they were driven underground by the next wave of people to come to Ireland. They were enemies of the people above ground and magic practicing enemies at that. Going into fairyland was depicted much like experiencing alien abduction is now. In fact, the Irish once spoke of fairies with almost the same reluctance with which the Navajos still for the most part speak of witches.

XS: Well, since we're on the subject of the Navajos and Native Americans, let's talk about The Godmother's Web. I recently found it on the paperback shelves--

ES: Yes, it's just been released in paperback.

XS: What can you tell me about it? Without giving too much away, of course, since I haven't read it yet.

ES: For Web I had to go back to the Southwest, where I lived 25 years ago and worked as a nurse for the Indian Health Service. I used some of the creation stories of both Navajo and Hopi people, the story that tells of the origin of the Snake Clan, Spider Grandmother stories, and the general belief in Navajo witches which is seldom spoken of except by non-Native writers writing about Navajos.

XS: I look forward to reading it. How about Lady of the Loch?

ES: Sir Walter Scott and Edinburgh are both fascinating subjects and lent themselves readily to a mystery with fantasy elements. Fairytales weren't the issue, but I did weave in several Edinburgh folktales that were also history...Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for one, and the body snatcher aspects of Frankenstein.

XS: I'm definitely looking for that one, then. What other projects do you have in the works right now?

ES: Right now I am helping Anne McCaffrey complete the Acorna series she began with Margaret Ball. I also just finished editing an anthology which will tie in with a novel about the possibility of scientifically acquiring the identity of a historical person to augment a contemporary personality.

XS: That's sort of deep for me, but it sounds interesting. What are your future plans?

ES: After completing the Acorna books, I'll then move on to my own solo projects--the book I mentioned above and another Scottish novel with Sir Walter Scott as the protagonist.

XS: I'd like to thank you for your time and patience in doing this interview. It's been most informative. I greatly appreciate it.

ES: You're welcome.

Communicating with authors is always an educational and enjoyable experience, and this one was no different. She has many books to her credit, and each one that I've read is a major gem. I hope you'll give them all a chance to shine and captivate you with their many facets. Be sure to visit her website at for more information on her publishing credits.

Comments? Suggestions? Just click here to send me e-mail.
Also, if this interview prompted you to read The Godmother or some of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's other works, then let me know. I appreciate knowing I made a difference in somebody's life.

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