Interview with Lorina Stephens, author of From Mountains of Ice

FMI_cover_144pixel1. What inspired you to write From Mountains of Ice?

That’s easy to answer: honour. More specifically, a man’s honour, what it means, how it defines a man, how it places him in his society.

That probably sounds pretty esoteric, angels on the head of a pin thing, but when examined from a larger social point of view, I think fairly relevant to modern readers.

We’ve been going through this whole feminism thing for decades, even a century now, and along the way somehow I cannot help but feel men have become stereotyped, boxed, so that I think a lot of younger men have difficulty defining exactly what it is to be male, and to feel comfortable in their roles, even finding their roles.

I’m putting forward the rather grey-haired notion that it’s okay for a man to be bound by a code of ethics.

As a vehicle for that rather broad theme I incorporated another fascination of mine, that of death and mourning rituals. All over the world people and cultures go to elaborate and sometimes extravagant ends in order to mark a death and sometimes on an annual basis to celebrate those who have departed.

While the connection of a man’s honour and funeral customs may not immediately seem apparent, I hope I’ve managed to connect some dots in From Mountains of Ice.

2. Can you briefly summarize this story?

From Mountains of Ice is a story of love, endurance and the meaning of honour.

3. Authors generally write what they know. Are the characters, Sylvio, Aletta and Vincenze based on people in your own life?

Writers, at least this writer, always draw from life. Having said that, the characters in From Mountains of Ice aren’t specifically based on any real or historical characters, rather an amalgam of characters, and so therefore completely new. Although I do hope people will find the characters familiar to some degree, enough that empathy can be felt.

4. What is your draw to Italian Renaissance?

The Italian Renaissance was a period of remarkable exploration, both geographically and intellectually, a very dynamic, politically charged era in which to live. Even though there were city states instead of the great Roman Empire, it was almost as though the people of the Italian peninsula woke to their heritage. The romance, the history, all of it lends itself beautifully to the story I wanted to tell.

From a personal perspective, I suppose it was in a way an exploration of my own roots, my father being an Italian immigrant.

5. Where do you draw your knowledge of history and bow making from?

My husband Gary has, among other arcane arts, pursued the art of the bow-maker, certainly not to the extent of the stunning Mongolian laminated C bows. His love has always followed his own heritage of a Gloucester-man and his Welsh ancestry, so he crafted several English longbows, one which is 110 pounds, which would be right in keeping with what an English longbowman would have pulled.

And just because he wanted to, he’s also made all his own arrows, right from log and goose-wings, although he had a skilled friend and blacksmith forge the

bodkin points. Oh, and in the novel when I speak of glue being an assault on the olfactory sense — that’s right from experience, when Gary took one of saucepans and sacrificed it to the making of hide-glue. Dear blessed saints what a stink!

6. The setting for this novel is very rich. How much research did you have to put in to get your historical facts correct?

From Mountains of Ice required less specific research than some of my other works, simply because I had already done the research in one form or another. There’s a benefit to conducting a lifelong quest for knowledge, whether academic or historical makes little difference. It’s all fascinating stuff. There’s just simply so much to know.

7. How long did it take you to develop this story?

Overall about a two years. Originally I’d started with a scene back in the ‘90s and I never returned to that scene until about two years ago when I started toying with the idea of a middle-aged protagonist who just wanted to get on with the tatters of his life. From there the story ballooned.

8. Carmelo is a very complicated, deep character. What inspired you to create his character?

I think some of the most interesting characters are those who are not utterly, cardboard evil, but those who suffer, who are human. In part I thought of the horrible tragedy of Jeffrey Dahmer’s life who pleaded with the judge to please execute him before he committed another horrific murder.

9. Did you find him to be a difficult character to write? IE. A fine balance between anti-hero and pitiable.

Actually, Carmelo was less difficult to write than you might think. All of us have the capability of such great good and great evil. All it required was to reach into some very deep wells.

10. Did you find writing about loss, abandonment and grief, such as Carmelo and Sylvio feel, difficult?

Difficult from the point of view of being emotionally draining, yes. It’s always hard to go to those dark places.

11. Do those feelings have a basis in your own life?

To some extent, yes. We write what we know.

12. Can you describe the premise behind the stregare?

The term strega, in Italian, means witch. I wanted my stregare to be women who were able to discern the truth of what people said, and because of that held in awe and respect by their society.

13. What inspired you to develop the idea of the stregare?

I wanted to create a rare form of magic, if you will, that although both feared and revered in a culture, were in fact women who had been trained to such a degree they are able to read nuances of speech and gesture, catch the import of what a person wrote.

14. Can you describe the premise behind the Bone Speaker and the Arcossi?

If I was to create a culture that reverenced and revered their ancestors, it was necessary to compliment that with a rare ‘magic’ (science) whereby an empathetic person would be able to hear the voices of the dead. The arcossi, which are longbows made with laminations of wood and bone, were to be an extension of

that, only created by a bone-speaker. The voices of the dead whose bones are captured in an arcossi aren’t necessarily audible to the archer, but certainly the archer is influenced. Further, because the bows then become somewhat sentient, they will not cause harm to their own people.

The bone-speakers themselves were based upon an ancient Gaulic/Roman legend called the cucullati. One version of the legend says the hooded and robed cucullati assisted the living to death, I suppose the first incarnation of what we know today as the Grim Reaper, although certainly the connotation around the cucullati was one of reverence and even peace, not one of violation and fear.

15. How did this idea come to you?

It wasn’t one great epiphany, rather an evolution of concepts, One thing lead to another. Ultimately I started with my protagonist, Sylvio, who is an unwilling hero.

16. Your characters are very diverse in this novel. One in particular stands out; Passerapina. What inspired you to write her character?

Passerapina was a gift, one of those rare things that sometimes happen to writers. She was meant to be a cast-away character, incidental, and when I started to write her into the scene I realized this wee bird of child held huge potential, and so she sort of bloomed like Venus from Zeus’ head.

17. How long have you been writing?

I’ve written all my life in one form or another. As a child I spent a great deal of my time alone, and fell very much into a world of make-believe to the point I’d get so emotionally involved in my tales I’d weep or laugh. No one else around. Just me and the pussy-willows, or roses, or the clouds on the horizon. I didn’t write these stories down for fear someone would find them. But I learned to have a very good memory because I’d pick up a tale day after day.

As I grew older I did record some work, but it wasn’t until I was 28 that I actually began to write my stories down.

18. What inspires you to write?

Quite simply, people. Everyone has a story. And it’s the complexities of human relationships, the great good and the great evil we can cause, that fascinates me, whether that story is set in the real world, a spaceship, the past, or in a fantasy realm.

19. What challenges do you face as a writer?

Time is the greatest challenge. There are never enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do. I constantly find frustration in the limitations of my own humanity.

20. How did you get your first break with writing?

Now that’s a funny story. I sold my first freelance article to a lifestyle magazine, and when asked if I had photos bluffed my way into the gig by saying I did. Long story short, the camera I had was utterly baffed. I had to purchase a new camera, which came to $100.00 more than I was paid for the article. But thereafter there was no stopping me.

21. How many books do you have published at the moment?

Five books. Two published through Boston Mills: Touring the Giant’s Rib: A Guide to the Niagara Escarpment, and Credit River Valley. Three through Five Rivers: From Mountains of Ice, And the Angels Sang, and Shadow Song. I guess that’s actually six, because I published a cookbook through Lulu: Recipes of a Dumb Housewife.

22. Do you have any other novels in the works?

I’m presently working on a new magic realism novel, The Rose Guardian. I don’t expect to have that finished until sometime in 2011, with release for the fall of 2011.

23. You seem to have a common theme among your stories: inner human struggle. Why?

I write about the inner human struggle so much because that’s what life can be about, a great deal of it. There are so many people with so many very tragic, sad stories in their lives, and it’s about people I write, whether those people are in a spaceship or a wigwam.

This is going to sound awfully cynical, but I’m always surprised by the terrors humans can inflict upon one another. I think we’re the only species that does that, that tortures our own kind for no obvious or logical reason, not that torture is ever logical.

And it’s this predisposition to tear down, to destroy, rather than to build up and create in so many people that fascinates me. I know there will be huge dissenting opinion about my statement, but I think if people are really honest, really look at their own lives, and the lives of people even within their own circle, they will see tragedy, ironies.

All of what I’ve said sounds as though it refutes the fact that I’m basically an optimistic person. It’s not really. I think all that’s required is to modify the statement by saying I’m a cynical optimist. I do very much believe in dreams, in hope, in the power of the positive. But I also know that up the road there will be problems, and those problems all require solutions.

aABOUT LORINA STEPHENS

In 1980 Lorina Stephens picked up the pen professionally and never looked back. She has worked as editor, freelance journalist for national and regional print media, is author of six books both fiction and non-fiction, been a festival organizer, publicist, lectures on many topics from historical textiles and domestic technologies, to publishing and writing, teaches, and continues to work as a writer, artist, and publisher.

She has had several short fiction pieces published in Canada’s acclaimed On Spec magazine and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy anthology Sword & Sorceress X. Her book credits include:

From Mountains of Ice, Five Rivers Chapmanry 2009
And the Angels Sang, Five Rivers Chapmanry 2008
Shadow Song, Five Rivers Chapmanry 2008
Recipes of a Dumb Housewife, Lulu Publishing 2007
Credit River Valley, Boston Mills Press 1994
Touring the Giant’s Rib: A Guide to the Niagara Escarpment; Boston Mills Press 1993

Lorina Stephens is presently working on a new novel entitled, The Rose Guardian.

She lives with her husband of three plus decades, and two cats, in a historic stone house in Neustadt, Ontario.

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