Today I’m talking to Catherine Wilson, author of the historical fiction When Women Were Warriors Trilogy.
Tell us a bit about yourself, why you write, what makes your books unique, where your ideas come from and so on.
I am a 72-year-old white woman whose family has lived in the United States for almost 400 years. You would think we would have had all the benefits of the folks who got here soonest, but the men in my family died off at an incredible rate, leaving widows and orphans to struggle along as best they could. As a consequence, I am descended from a long line of very tough women, while the absence of men in our lives was a given.
I grew up with my mother and my grandmother, my mother’s mother. As a war widow, my mother was not considered a ‘single mother’— a bad thing in the 1950s — and when I was teased (we call it bullying now) for not having a father, a loud “He was killed in the war!” would shut them up. Nobody dissed war heroes in those days.
I had the good fortune to be born to a woman who loved books and who was convinced I was going to write one. At the age of 4 I was dictating stories that she wrote down for me. At 5 I was writing them down myself. And I was constantly reading. My mother bought me my first wallet to hold the only thing I had to put in it: my library card.
So I grew up in a matriarchal family that hated war and loved to read. And that’s why my trilogy, When Women Were Warriors, is an attempt to explore how women might run the world differently than men have run it these many millennia.
As a child I preferred books about adventurous people. The only March sister I found not stupefyingly boring was Jo. I went for ‘boy’ books. My heroes were King Arthur, Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island, Turi of the Magic Fingers, a hunter/gatherer boy who invented cave painting. I loved anything that began with, Once upon a time. Every hero’s journey story I read had a male protagonist, and I saw myself in the part every time.
In college I read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and I lived in that book for the next 20 years, until I started working on my own fantasy world. In my version women were the people in charge. But I didn’t want it to be a fantasy, because that would imply that women can be powerful only in a world that doesn’t exist.
Then I discovered that in Europe in the Bronze Age and earlier, societies existed in which descent went through the female line and women really were warriors. The Mabinogion, although written down in patriarchal times, preserves the memory of inheritance — of name, title, land, and wealth — through the mother. And then there is Boudica, still a powerful symbol of resistance to oppression.
So when I began to write, at the age of 52, the obvious thing was to write a hero’s journey story with a female protagonist set in the real world of Bronze Age Britain.
What kind of person would like your books best?
Young people have been enthusiastic fans of the trilogy. Most are young women, but quite a few young men have written positive reviews and sent me fan mail. Older readers have found the first volume a bit ‘teachy’ but I tried to put in lessons I wish someone had taught me at 16 and they often get an appreciative mention by young folks.
That said, I have fans of all ages, for various reasons. Older women find the women-in-charge theme refreshing. Political people enjoy watching my protagonist navigate real-world hazards with intelligence and relationship skills, rather than by force of arms. Gay people, especially young gay people, appreciate that same-sex relationships are as normal in my world as opposite-sex ones. Unlike in so many contemporary stories, sexual orientation just isn’t an issue.
And all that said, one of my favorite fan letters came from a fellow in Kansas who sounded, well, no longer young. He said he only reads Westerns, but he came across my free book (Book I of the trilogy is permafree) and read it, then bought the other two, read them, and said, “When I was done with the set I thought, wow, what a love story this was…” Sometimes your audience will surprise you.
Why did you choose the indie route to publication? Did you ever try the traditional route?
Um, well, OK, here’s the thing. I finished the book in 2006. It was 1000 pages long, loaded with lesbians, and I was an unpublished nobody. What were the odds?
Good point. One of the things I love about indie books is that they often fall well outside the box.
But in 2006 Kindle hadn’t happened yet and self-publishing was vanity publishing. I spent a year querying agents, over 80 of them, while also studying up on how to publish the books myself. I spent 2007 learning everything I could about self-publishing from Dan Poynter’s books, obtaining and learning the software I would need to typeset a paperback, and in 2008 I published the trilogy through Lightning Source. By then ebooks were a thing, and mine went on sale in December that year.
What writing advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Most of the writing advice you will get from writers consists of “what worked for me.” And what worked for someone else may not work for you. In fact it probably won’t work for you.
By all means learn craft. A good craftsperson knows how to use the tools of their craft, even the ones they don’t often pick up. For writers those tools are spelling, grammar, and syntax. As your English teachers said, you should know the rules before you start breaking them.
So I don’t give writing advice (unless you want to know what worked for me) but I do try to give encouragement, and the most encouraging thing I can say to a writer is: No one else can tell your stories! We are all unique. We are all different. And the work we produce should be as unique as we are.
Good advice! Thanks.
If you could have one wish granted what would it be?
To spend one more day with my mother. She died in 1992.
What is the most unusual object you possess?
My mother’s dog tags from her service in World War II.
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