I’ve raved about Michelle Zink‘s Prophecy of the Sisters before on the blog as one of those really pleasant surprises. She kindly answered some questions about the book and future plans having just come off tour in the US.
What inspired you to write Prophecy of the Sisters?
Many of my ideas begin with an old myth or legend, and Prophecy is no exception. I read a biblical legend about a legion of angels called the Watchers that were sent to watch over mankind. In the legend, the Watchers fell in love with mortal women and so were banished. After that, they weren’t called the Watchers anymore but the Lost Souls. That was really the seed of the idea for Prophecy. I was curious about the angels, of course, but I also wondered what would have happened to the women in the story. With that in mind, I fast-forwarded the legend a couple thousand years and asked what would happen if the descendants of those original mortal woman had to pay a price for their ancestor’s relationships with the angels by participating in an ancient Prophecy that would mean the end to mankind – and an end to any freedom the women themselves might have – unless the Prophecy was finished once and for all.
What attracted you to the Gothic and what challenges did you find using the genre, given its relative ‘popularity’?
I’d never written a Gothic novel before, but I admit to having a short attention span and sometimes being easily bored. This means that I’m always trying new things! Prophecy is deeply rooted in supernatural horror, but I also wanted to create a foil for that horror. The Gothic genre was perfect, because it allowed me to play up the scariest elements of the story while contrasting them with the sensuality – velvet, silk, gowns, corsets – of the era. That said, it was all an experiment! I didn’t even know if I could do it successfully, but I alway enjoy trying something new and make it a policy to never allow fear to stand in my way – of my writing or anything else I want to do or try.
Are you conscious of combining the European and American traditions of the Gothic?
Not really! I suppose it’s natural, because some of the best examples of the Gothic genre come from the European side of things. Yet, I’m an American, so I suppose it’s natural for that to work it’s way in as well. It would be disingenuous, though, to say I’d planned it all out. A lot of writing is organic for me. I get an idea, become fairly obsessed with it, and then run with it and see where it leads. Then, I spend a whole lot of time after writing the first draft just tinkering and fine-tuning things that “feel” wrong to me.
When Amalia discovers that she is the Gate, she makes the choice to avoid her ‘fate’ unlike her sister, which reminded me of a Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Is evil blindly following a path without questioning it, using destiny as a justification?
I think there are many definitions of and reasons for evil. One is the one you just cited (i.e. blindly following a path without questioning and using destiny as a justification). Another – and the biggest for me – is acting out of pure malice or for the enjoyment of seeing others suffer. This might be what makes it difficult to outright despise Alice. She does terribly things, but she does them in search of her own brand of safety not simply to watch others suffer. At times, she actually begs her sister to come to her side, because she doesn’t enjoy putting her in harm’s way, but in the end, her own desires override her love for her sister. Is this, too, a definition of evil, or simply self-centeredness taken to the the extreme? See? Now I’m asking YOU questions!
If we take the Gothic as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalist philosophy, then what do you think the Gothic offers for the 21st century? Given its recent comeback as in YA fiction, what you do think it says about the culture or society it is written in?
Truly, I think the return to the Gothic genre in both film and literature is a reaction to the very rational world we’re currently living in. Information on any topic at all is available at the touch of a finger, and while this proves useful and even fun at times, I also think it removes some of the magic from everyday life. When everyday life becomes too much (and in this day and age with economic concerns, war, and personal freedom debates raging at all corners of the globe, I think it DOES sometimes feel like too much), I think it’s human nature to seek escape. The Gothic is escape at its most elegant, beautiful, and mysterious. It takes us to a place in which shadows still lurk in the corners of candlelit rooms. It takes us to a place in which age-old questions must be researched, pondered, debated, because we (or our favorite characters) can’t simply Google the answer. It takes us to a place in which mystery still lives and breathes. I think all of these things are tremendous offerings to the 21st century reader.
Why do you use the first person narrative? Is it to make the reader question what they are being told, since it can be unreliable?
I know it’s often used that way, but in the case of Prophecy, not so much. Honestly? I wanted the reader to be on Lia’s journey with her. I wanted them to see only what she saw and feel only what she felt. I wanted the reader to have to puzzle things out and see if they could figure the Prophecy right along with Lia. Writing first-person present tense means that at any given time, the reader only has as much information as Lia. I had never written from that POV before Prophecy, but I think it was the right decision in making Lia’s journey feel more immediate and urgent to the reader.
Lia appears to echo the “New Woman” to a certain extent with her self-reliance and refusal of James until she is ready. Are you considering trying to update the New Woman for your readers?
To be frank, I don’t work too hard to make a political statement in my work. Sometimes it sort of happens out of a subconscious train of thought, though, as was the case with Lia. I have noticed of late a throwback to a weaker heroine in popular YA books. As the mother of two daughters (one of whom is fifteen-years-old), it does concern me, because while I think it’s fine to escape into a romantic fantasy to a point, many girls are reading these books at a very young and impressionable age. I’d like to think I’m doing my part to offer up strong, intelligent female characters with whom young woman of today can identify. As you know, there IS romance in Prophecy, but the romance isn’t THE story. It’s an aside to the story, which is essentially Lia and Alice’s struggle with the concept of pre-determination versus free will. The story is Lia’s identity and her fight to be the person she believes herself to be instead of the person she is dictated to be by society and the Prophecy. I’d like to think that the “New Woman” is STILL today’s woman; one who is strong enough to choose the life that she wants for herself, whatever that may be.
Given the recent ‘panic’ over Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels and its content, do we have the same expectations of YA fiction and should its readers be sheltered from the real world? Should writers bring the real world into fiction or sanitise it?
This is definitely a matter of opinion, but I think there is room in the genre for both. If a writer wants to tell a gentle story that will allow readers to escape to a kinder time or place, than by all means, that writer should feel free to write that book. On the other hand, if a writer feels it is his or her calling to write from a realistic viewpoint, there is absolutely a very important place for that story in the YA genre as well. Different teens respond to different things. They NEED different things at different times (and don’t we all?!). The biggest problem I have is when someone else tries to impose their idea of “appropriate” on my children or someone else’s children. Writing a story is an art form, and no one should be allowed to dictate to the artist how they choose to express their art. If someone doesn’t like it, they can not buy it or check it out from the library, but they don’t have a right, in my opinion, to tell everyone ELSE’S children they can’t read it. In short, I’ll parent my own children, thank you very much!
What do you have planned for future books?
I’m already finished with book two (Guardian of the Gate) in the Prophecy series and am at work on book three. I’m enjoying the challenge of creating complex, three-dimensional characters, especially in Lia and Alice. As the series moves forward, I hope the reader will continue to struggle with conflicting emotions when it comes to Alice. Readers already have a very complicated relationship to her as a character. They abhor the things she does. They’re frightened by her behavior. But they also say they feel sorry for her. They sense her loneliness and feel how lost she is. At the same time, Lia struggles more and more with the darker parts of her nature as the series continues. I’m hoping that when it’s all said and done, the reader will not be able to put their feelings about either character into a neat little box.