She says that is “possibly that’s why I am so in love with words and communication, having come out of that city that is so improbably associated with silence. I was born there and lived there for the first seven years of my life: I spent the rest of my childhood in various parts of the British Midlands. Between the ages of 7 and 38, I just kept on moving, backwards and forwards across the centre of Britain -‘ I’ve lived in Dublin and Cardiff, Bangor and Leicester and Nottingham. But since the early 80s my sense of home has been tied to the city of Cambridge and that is where I live now. I’m a transplant, a migrant, a graft into the East Anglian landscape. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I end up writing about characters who are rootless or displaced.
I’m mongrel, a mixture of Welsh and English: my ancestors come from North Wales and the Southern Welsh mining valleys, Herefordshire and Shropshire and Somerset and Birmingham. I have grown my roots into Cambridge, a city to which my ancestry has no ties. Home is where my partner and my cats and my (too many) books are.”
I’m a historian. I have a PhD in mediaeval British history and my first career was university lecturer. While my specialisation is early mediaeval Wales (that’s the period between around 400 CE and the Edwardian Conquest in 1283), I’ve also worked on early mediaeval Ireland, on Anglo-Saxon England and on the Vikings. Other than that, I’ve been a barmaid, a tax officer, an administrator, a charity shop worker and a Personal Assistant.
I’m a fan – of books, of science fiction and fantasy, of Hong Kong cinema, of folk music and Hindi films and manga and swashbucklers. I am a creature of obsessions: I love to learn, to explore, to immerse myself in new subjects and passions. Wherever and whenever I am, I am always in the grip of some new fascination. I have books on Chinese history and language, on film theory and printing, on the Arthur stories and on France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on Alexandre Dumas and silent movie stars. I’m interested in clocks and swords and orreries and architecture and travelling, in prison-camp memoirs and ferrets, cats and sharks and the Welsh language. There is always something new and fascinating to find and study.
And I’m a writer. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to create stories. I wrote my first “novel” when I was 8, and illustrated it, too – it was eight pages long and about ponies. In my teens I wrote new adventures for my favourite characters from books and television and films: somewhere I still have my tale about Sir Gawain written in an excruciating imitation of the style of Sir Thomas Mallory. I started writing original stories in my late teens, which is when I also started my first attempts at novels. My obsessions and my training, my personal history and the histories I’ve studied all feed back into my writing.
I live in Cambridge, England, with my partner and (currently) three cats. He is tolerant of and patient with my eccentricities and foibles. The cats are resigned.”
Tell me one little-known fact about Kari Sperring.
Last winter I skied the 2 km Piculin black run in Italy, which has an average steepness of 1 in 4, and whose steepest section — which is about 500m, has steepness of 48 degrees.
I didn’t fall over.
Given that I’m an intermediate level skier, I still don’t quite believe I let Phil talk me into this.
I was hoping for something along the lines of ‘I’m the lovechild of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but here are so few of them about these days.
First real question:
What started your interest in all things Celtic?
Prufrock? Certainly not. I’m the lovechild of Anne of Green Gables!
As to the Celts… I am one, or around 75% of me is. My mother is Welsh, my father is of Welsh descent on his mother’s side, and comes from Herefordshire which has been mixed Celtic-English at least as far back as the 6th century. My real surname is attested back to the 7th century as the name of a mixed Welsh and Anglo-Saxon population group in what is now the Shropshire borders and the area around Brecon. I grew up with Welsh folk tales told me by my mother and her sisters, and, to the age of 7, spent a great deal of time with the Welsh side of the family (after that, sadly, we moved away from where they were settled). So, even though I was born in Coventry, I’ve always had strong ties to Wales and the Welsh.
Which came first, the history or the fantasy?
The fantasy, definitely. My first ever favourite book, aged 3, was Alice in Wonderland, and by five or six I’d discovered C S Lewis. From there, I moved on to Alan Garner, Tolkien, Lynette Muir, Roger Lancelyn Green’s collections of myths and Andrew Lang’s fairy books, — any book with magic or a fantasy feel was a must read. I was also an sf fan from an early age, courtesy of Dr Who, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Star Trek — I loved Andre Norton, Hugh Walters, Heinlein’s juveniles, John Christpher and John Wyndham. In my teens I discovered wider sf — Clarke, Asimov, McCaffrey, Zelazny, Delany, along with the early fantasy writers like H Warner Munn and William Morris (and Sir Thomas Malory). I set out to become a Celtic philologist, in fact, under the influence of Tolkien — he was my pattern for how to become a fantasy writer. But I discovered at university that while I could do the philology, I enjoyed the historical material far more, and in the end, that’s what I specialised in.
What led you into writing?
I don’t know. I’ve wanted to write — and have been writing — for as long as I can remember. I learnt fairly early on that books — which were magical — were produced by people called authors and I made up my mind that that was what I was going to do by the age of around 5.
When and what did you first submit, and to whom?
The very first story I submitted was a short piece called Autumn Is The Dying Time, to a small press magazine that my mother had seen advertised somewhere, which was asking for fiction by women. I was 17: the story was rejected, but nicely, as I remember. I’ve long forgotten the name of the magazine.
And where/when was your first publication?
My very first publication was a little thing called ‘Cynan ab Iago and the killing of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’ in Cambridge Mediaeval Celtic Studies 10 *1985). But I suspect you mean first professional fiction sale, which was a story called ‘Strong Brown God’, in the anthology Glorifying Terrorism, ed. Farah Mendlesohn (2007).
How long from your first sale to your first novel sale? And tell me about the journey to that landmark.
Ah, now that is complicated.
I’d written the first version of Living With Ghosts in 1990-91, while I was living in Dublin, and revised it extensively between 91 and 94, when I started submitting it to publishers. It was bounced as not commercial enough by several UK publishers and one US one, and sat unresponded-to with another US publisher for some years. In the mean time, I concentrated on non-fiction. In around 1999 or 2000, my friend Lisanne Norman introduced me to Sheila Gilbert at DAW, and said very, very supportive and nice things about LWG, which Sheila asked to see. I sent it to her, and heard nothing for some years (though Lisanne kept asking them about it). In 2008, I dug LWG out of a drawer, reread it, rewrote some parts and sent it to small press publisher Immanion Press, on the grounds that I knew them, I liked the sort of books they did and I thought it might fit. They accepted it, but asked me to write to the two larger publishers who still had it to let thewm know I was withdrawing it. One never responded. The other –DAW– asked for two weeks to look at it, which Immanion kindly granted. At the end of that time, they made an offer. Immanion very graciously told me to go with the bigger publisher. That was in May 2009. So this book owes a lot to other writers — Lisanne, who introduced me to DAW, Ian Watson, who pushed me to go back to fiction writing in 2006, and Storm Constantine of Immanion.
Do you write fantasy exclusively now?
I haven’t written a book-length work of non-fiction since 2006, but I still write articles on the Celts, on Dumas, and other things that are based on my academic background, Right now, along with rewrites on my 3rd book, I’m working on a piece on the poet Carol Ann Duffy for poetry magazine Stone Telling, for interest. And I’m writing a mystery novel, set in 9th century Wales as a blue-skies project.
What about short fiction?
I don’t write a lot of short fiction, but I have done a few stories, all for anthologies, including Fabulous Whitby, Myth/Understandings, After Hours: Tales from the UR Bar; The Modern Fay’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, and, most recently, The Feathered Edge.
What fiction/writers influenced you to being with?
Above all, Alexandre Dumas pere, who is my all time favourite author. The Three Musketeers is the book of my heart, and the book I always go back to. Otherwise, the usual suspects, I suspect — Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Delany, Tanith Lee, in terms of genre. In terms of style, several rather out-of-fashion writers – above all Rumer Godden, who to me has the most beautiful, lyrical prose style, Elizabeth Goudge, and the poet T S Eliot. (I read him in my teens and he won’t go away.) Oh and some mediaeval writers, too: Sir Thomas Mallory, the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the author(s) of the Mabinogi. As as historian, my influences are my PhD supervisor, D. N. Dumville, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Frank Barlow, and the great Peter H Sawyer, all of whom taught me in one way or another to write clean, clear, complex prose.
What other media inspires or influences you?
I’m not one of those writers who writes to music and builds play-lists for particular books — I find music distracting when I’m working, in fact. I write to BBC Radio 4, which is a consequence of working for years in universities, which are noisy — you can hear people talking all the time and I’m used to them.
Having said that, radio is something of an influence: every once in a while a sentence will catch my attention or wind its way into my head and inspire an image or an idea. And I learn a lot about all sorts of random things, too, which can be surprisingly useful.
Otherwise, there are songs which cued something for me about a character or a story sometimes — Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’ was the cue song for the character Gracielis in Living WithGhosts, for instance, and the Sandy Denny song ‘Late November’ has an atmosphere to it that is the sort of thing I’m aiming for in my book-in-progress.
And then there’s film. I’m a lifelong film fan, though I prefer older Hollywood films to the more recent ones (I love old black and white melodramas and any kind of swashbuckler). I particularly love swordplay films — Hong Kong makes the best ones — and I’m very influenced by the image of the honourable swordsman fighting against the odds and the system, like d’Artagnan or Scaramouche.
You mention Sandy Denny for atmosphere – do you think you would write very different books if you moved out of the UK?
I don’t think so, given how little my books are affected by where I live. I was living in Dublin when I wrote the first draft of Living With Ghosts, and it’s more French influenced than anything else. Grass King is influenced by a whole mixture of very diverse things, from academic folklore studies to Chinese wu-tang films to the Alhambra to book-keeping to the French revolution. My current new project is Welsh-inspired, which is a bit of a first for me (I regard anything to do with Celtic and Gaelic cultures as part of my other work, usually), but that’s more to do with an image that occurred to me, rather than a conscious move.
If you could choose any place, and time, in which to live what would they be?
Either Paris under Louis XIII (I always wanted to be musketeer), or else the imperial court in Tang dynasty China — there were women historians in its internal hierarchy.
Now, some whimsy to finish.
You are on death row, convicted of murder (wrongly, of course) but tomorrow you hang. What is your final meal?
Food doesn’t interest me that much, alas. I’d probably want a family size package of good quality cheese and onion crisps, a glass of dry pink champagne and some houmous.
If you were an artist in any other discipline (actor, painter, singer etc.) and you were to be a one-hit-wonder what is the single work of art for which you would be proud to be remembered?
I’ve never wanted to be famous, so in a way I’d like to be one of the myriads who are ‘anon’, and for a beautiful embroidery of some kind — a wall hanging, perhaps.