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Southern Cross Interview

March 2006 Interview with Peter from La Cruz del Sur (The Southern Cross) - Argentine publication


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A slightly-condensed version of the following interview with Peter Berresford Ellis (conducted by Twyla Racz) appeared in the Historical Mystery Appreciation Society's "Murder: Past Tense" Journal. We present the original questions (and complete answers from the author) here:

I know that Sister Fidelma originally appeared in short stories. Did you find the transition from short stories to novels difficult, or did your experience as "Peter Tremayne" ease the way?

As Peter Tremayne I published my first novel in 1977. I initially published in the fantasy and dark fantasy genre, using mainly themes deriving from Celtic myth and legends.  I also wrote a Raffles pastiche, as I liked Hornung’s character. Then, of course, I wrote eight thrillers as Peter MacAlan, and two historical novels under my own name.  So by the time I launched the Fidelma novels in 1994, I was already an 'old hand’.  I’m afraid that the profession of scribe runs in both sides of my family. One ancestor, who became clerk of the Irish Parliament in the 18th Century, used to lend money to a fellow student a Trinity College, Dublin, called Oliver Goldsmith! My father, who started his career on the old Cork Examiner daily newspaper (now the Irish Examiner), wrote extensively for the `pulps’ in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the first writer in the family, on my mother's side, was the brother of my 11 x great-grandfather. He was Thomas Randolph (1605-1635) the poet, playwright and friend of Ben Jonson.

Did women in seventh-century Ireland truly have rights we have only recently gained?

I have to admit to some amusement when I see those reviewers who think I am fictionalising the position of women in early Irish society.  Initially I was irritated by their remarks me but then I realised they thought I was merely a fiction writer who had probably read a couple of lightweight books on the period and made up the rest of it. This was why I put into the stories a lengthy historical note to point out that what I put in the books was based on fact. But the simple answer to your question is - yes; women did have such rights and it was not theoretical. I have not even gone into the nine legal conditions under which they might obtain an immediate divorce on equitable terms from their husbands or the laws on sexual harassment. There is nothing in the books that is fictionalised either in the depiction of the social system or the laws in ancient Ireland. And we do have the surviving law texts and attendant evidence.

Let me put my position into perspective: I did my degrees in Celtic Studies. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and have held various senior positions on Celtic educational bodies. I have lectured at universities in Ireland, the UK, Spain, France, Canada and the US as a 'guest lecturer’ in Celtic Studies. So I do have some reputation in the field. Among the books in the field that I have produced is Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature  (Constable, London, 1995 - published in the USA by Eerdmans in 1996).

Over the years, I have made a special study of the Laws of the Fénechus, what we popularly call the Brehon Laws (from the Irish breitheamh, a judge), that is the ancient Irish law system.  Nothing is quoted in the Fidelma books that cannot be found in written form in the laws.  As I point out in my historical note in the books - the oldest complete text of the law system survives in an 11th Century manuscript books but there are many earlier individual textual remains.  We not only know the names of female lawyers and judges but we know women wrote some of the law texts. I could take up all your time by discussing the position of women in all walks of life in ancient Irish society. However, I will sum up by saying that the books are reflective of life in 7th Century Ireland in all its forms and, above all, are supposed to be entertaining murder mysteries.

One historical mystery author who writes of a nun has said that much of the reader's satisfaction with religious protagonists lies in the feeling that a Higher Power is looking out for us. What are your thoughts about this?

I try to avoid calling Fidelma a nun as it conjures up a wrong image of her time and culture.  She is a religieuse simply because most of the professional classes in Ireland at this time had become religious just as a few generations earlier all the professional classes were Druids. It was not until the 8th Century when the Celtic Church adopted the ideas of religious orders following rules - when Mael Rúain  (d. AD 792) of the monastery of Tallaght formed the Céile Dé (the servants of God, Anglicised as Culdees). In Fidelma’s time, the religious attitudes were miles apart from the concepts of Christianity as taught at Rome. The Celtic Christian philosopher Pelagius, considered a heretic by Rome, was merely representing the Celtic cultural viewpoint, when he argued with Augustine of Hippo and said that nothing is ordained or pre-determined and that man and woman are in control of their destinies. Pelagius believed that Augustine idea, that people’s ultimate destination in heaven or hell was pre-determined before they were even born, abrogated the entire moral law. Augustine’s idea would prevent people from striving to do good because it was argued that things had already been decided whether they did good or evil. So there is no `Higher Power’ taking care of things in Fidelma’s world. She is responsible for things turning out for the good or bad and her attitude is based on Celtic moral attitudes.  This brings her into conflict several times with the New Faith (Christianity). That’s why she is often questioning the Roman concepts as represented by Brother Eadulf. Fidelma is very much a reflection of a person of her time and culture.

The mysteries Sister Fidelma unravels are very intricate. How do you balance settings and plots?

If I were honest, I would have to say that the balance is achieved purely automatically. I never work out the plot before I start writing (I am sure this revelation will cause some gleeful critics to load up their fountain pens). But it is true. I set off and let the story take me wherever it is heading.  It seems to work, judging by the success of the books - not just among English readers but in the various languages into which the Fidelma books get translated. Only once have I seen a reviewer say `well, of course, it was obvious who did it all the way through’.  I find that amusing, as even I don’t know until just before the end of the story.  Usually, in the last chapters, there are several possibilities. So Fidelma works through these possibilities and finds out who really is the culprit.  I suppose I am subconsciously aware of the structure and pace needed in a mystery thriller because I have been an avid reader of them since I was a child.  From Conan Doyle to Chandler, from E.C. Vivian (Inspector Head novels of the 1930s) to Colin Dexter, from Simenon to Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Alllingham, Patricia Highsmith and so on. I apologise to Agatha Christie fans because she was one writer I found impossible to settle down with. However, reading is such a subjective business, we all have our likes and dislikes.  

How do you know where to draw the line regarding the inclusion of research?

I hope I know when to draw the line. So often I so fascinated by the detail of the finer points of the law system, by background information, by examples that we written down by old texts, that I could go on for ages.  But then instead of an entertaining novel we would doubtless wind up with a score of tomes of analysis and comment on the Brehon Law. In fact, what you are seeing in the book is just the tip of the iceberg of the research. You provide enough information to allow the reader to follow the storyline. However, the reader should trust your word that the information you supply is correct - and apart from on or two critics this is generally so. When readers take the trouble to write in, I am quite prepared to supply them with references and a few have taken the trouble to do so. Perhaps now that The International Sister Fidelma Society have launched their magazine The Brehon it might provide a platform to discuss sources for the stories.

The settings and geographical detail in your books are very vivid. How much research must you do?

I never set a novel in a place I do not personally know and those locations I have chosen outside of Fidelma’s home territory of Munster in Ireland, like Whitby, Rome, Santiago di Compostella, Pembroke and so on, I have visited and know well. My wife worked in Rome, for example, and we have been there many times over the years. I grew up in a thoroughly Celtic atmosphere - my father was Irish, my mother was born in England but her mother was a Breton. I was surrounded by a host of aunts, uncles and cousins who were Irish, Breton, Welsh and Scottish. I suppose that’s why I chose to specialise, in my masters degree, in Manx Gaelic, feeling that the Isle of Man had been left out of my Celtic background. And in 1967 I went to live in Cornwall and wrote my book on The Cornish Languages and its Literature (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974) which, despite its faults now apparent to me, is still regarded as the definitive work on the subject and for which I was honoured by being inaugurated as a bard of the Gorseth Kernow (Cornish Gorsedd).  You could say, all my life I have been researching matters Celtic and still am. Someone made a joke that much of my research must come by way of osmosis. Perhaps! My wife and I spent a lot of time in Ireland, especially in my home territory of Co Cork, and so I am always on the look out for locations and old tales that can be utilised.

How do you decide on the setting? Does the plot dictate it?

There is no doubt that spirit of place is essential to the Fidelma books.  But the plot of each book presents itself to me in different ways.  For example, I spend a lot of time going through the ancient Irish chronicles and annals and texts. You have probably noticed that Fidelma is in a very strict time period.  So when I sometimes look at the entries relating to Fidelma’s time, say, for example, in the Annála Ulaidh (Annals of Ulster), I saw an entry for the month of January AD 666 about a battle.  That entry sparked off the plot in The Subtle Serpent. On another occasion I was considering the conflict arising during this period between the liberal native Irish law system and the incoming `Penitentials’, a Roman system being brought in by Roman religious whose punishments were harsh, introducing capital forms and so on. They were totally at odds to native Irish law. That provide the starting point to developing Our Lady of Death (due out in the US later this year).  Another occasion, it might be some reference in a law text, a text on a judgment or simply the Fidelma herself could dictate the plot by her character and realising how she would act in a certain situation.

Any organization hints for writers?

None: coming from a writing family, I had no illusion that a writer’s life was easy.  In spite of my father trying to dissuade me from being a writer and remaining in the academic world, I knew I wanted to write from the age of ten years old. A memory that remains fixed in my mind was the crime writer Edgar Lustgarten, a friend of my parents, was visiting us when I was a crass young teenager and I told him what I wanted to do. Writing is one- percent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration, he told me. I realised what he meant. In other words, you have to go into your study and face that blank screen or paper and fill it with words. But you are alone. Each person has to come to that `moment of truth’ alone and any hints on organisation or how to approach things might be fine for one person’s character but not for another. I am at my desk at 8 or 8.30 a.m. and break for a brisk walk about midday, then return from 2 p.m. breaking no later than 6 p.m.  I try to balance a work of fiction by following it with a non-fiction work. These days I am asked to do a lot of reviewing (mainly in the field of Celtic Studies or Irish history) and I also write regular columns for two Irish newspapers usually on Irish historical subjects. I suppose I am a workaholic. I find myself asking for deadlines and then keeping rigidly to them. I’m afraid that if I don’t do things (like I have to answer letters immediately) I will simply be submerged in a sea of demands that I cannot keep up with.

Last, for my own curiosity: is yellow plague yellow fever? I have been researching this but have not found the answer.

Yes, you are right.  Medical historians agree that the descriptions of The Yellow Plague, referred to in the Irish records as Buidhe Connaill, point to it being a virulent type of jaundice in which the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes are a result of excess bilirubin in the blood.  Its devastation of Europe in the 7th Century as well as Ireland points to warm climatic conditions at the time as it is usually transmitted by the bite of the female mosquito. Then, of course, large numbers of Cromwell’s army in Ireland in the 17th Century went down with malaria passed on by mosquitoes and the English soldiers had to ship in large quantities of rice as part of their diet to counteract this.