Sheila Lamb received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University. Her stories have earned Pushcart and storySouth Million Writers Award nominations. She’s also the journal editor for Santa Fe Writers Project. Sheila has traveled throughout Ireland and participated in the Achill Archaeology Field School. She loves Irish history, family genealogy, and is easily distracted by primary source documents. She lives, teaches, and writes in the mountains of Virginia. Once a Goddess is the first book in the Brigid trilogy. Sheila’s work previously appeared in JMWW, so we welcome her back!
Once A Goddess is described as “set in a time when myths were reality.” Can you tell me a bit about what that means?
Myths, I believe, were based on things that happened before written records. Stories were told orally and, like in the game of telephone, events changed, became exaggerated, over time. Some part of the myth is based in truth. For example, I believe there was a king named Dagda. There was a woman named Brigid.
Even though there are characteristics of fantasy, Once A Goddess seemed more focused on plot and characters than magic. How do you balance story and fantasy elements?
I began this trilogy many years ago, with the intent of researching St. Patrick’s story. This was way before I decided to write a novel. I was toying with a possible Irish history-related thesis and deciding whether to go to grad school for Irish studies. I wanted to see what was out there, what was plausible.
I was really curious how Ireland converted from paganism to Christianity, relatively peacefully. St. Patrick was kidnapped from Britain and forced into slavery. Later, he escapes, becomes a priest, and then returns to Ireland. It’s an amazing story and even more amazing how he was accepted by the Irish people. Part of the acceptance, I believe, was from his connection to Brigid. I found many legends and Christian hagiographies with interactions between Brigid and Patrick (all of this makes up the second book in the trilogy, Fiery Arrow).
I began to research Brigid, too, and found her pagan and druid background. Enter the fantasy elements. It seems that any time a druid is thrown into the mix, the story is considered “fantasy” though I argue that it’s not. If druids believed in past lives or ritual magic, etc. is that fantasy or is it reality? It’s their reality, whether you or I believe it or not, correct? Do we place magical happenings of other religions into a fantasy category?
This research led to Brigid and the Tuatha de Danann. The very first pages I ever wrote (handwritten, yellow legal pad) was her background in Chapter 2 of Once A Goddess. I treated the myths as I would historical record. I felt I was writing a novel based on that past, stayed true to some of the major elements, fictionalized where a story needed to be told. The Tuatha de Danann were, according to myth, shape shifters of some sort. They controlled the weather, for example, but they also fought bloody battles.
The Brigid trilogy came first. I’ve been working on it for over ten years, if you count the research and reading, before I set pen to paper (I always start with pen and ink). At first, I was curious about Brigid. Who was she? Was there more than one Brigid? What was her role in Christian and pre-Christian history? It wasn’t my intention for it to be a fantasy. It turned out that way because of the Tuatha de Danann myths. I entered a realm of Celtic legends that were terrific to read and then the characters, Brigid especially, began to speak.
How is it different seeking publication for fantasy pieces vs. non-genre writing? Or is it?
It’s all about finding the right home for the piece. I also edit the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly (new! we’re moving to the quarter system under new exec editor Kyle Semmel) and I read lots of submissions. Many are good but they aren’t right for the journal. I’ve read romance pieces or science fiction, and it just doesn’t fit. I always describe the publishing process like dating. It’s very subjective. A story clicks or it doesn’t.
There are many small publishers, literary presses…going back to that genre label. I knew Once a Goddess wasn’t a fit with many literary publications. So, I guess this is where genre labels do help? Perhaps its more helpful if we could define “literary fiction?” Is it elevated language? Contemporary setting? Character focused? Whatever the label is, it doesn’t fall into the literary category. As an aside, in one historical fiction online critique group I was in, years ago, pre-MFA, I was told that my draft of Once a Goddess was “too literary.” 🙂 Go figure.
Did your MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte ever discuss genre writing? Were the instructors and students welcoming of genre writing?
Queens was a literary focus. In fact, I had good conversation with Fred Leebron, co-director of the program. He warned me that if I wanted to write solely genre fiction that this may not be the place for me. But when I applied to MFA programs, I made it clear that while I am most drawn to historical fiction, I wanted to expand my writing, push myself beyond my current boundaries. I wanted to take two years and focus on literary fiction. Fred and I talked about this and Queens turned out to be the right decision for me.
Do you feel that labeling books certain genres helps or distracts readers from finding the kind of books they enjoy?
Overall, I think its distracting though it may be more of an issue for writers rather than readers. No one wants to be defined or labeled. However, when we walk into a bookstore (remember those?), we want to find the historical fiction or science fiction or non-fiction sections rather easily. When we scroll through online bookstore, we tend to look under certain labels – literary, paranormal, historical.
On the flip side, I’ve always had problems finding Morgan Llywelyn books because they are scattered throughout science fiction/fantasy (why are those two paired together?) or historical fiction or general fiction. Red Branch, Bard, and Druids have druidic/Celtic elements, I suppose, though her more recent works, 1921, 1972 are straight historical.
The same is true for Diana Gabaldon books. She writes, in my opinion, historical fiction but because the Outlander series has the time travel element, it’s sometimes thrown into fantasy. She won the Quill Award for A Breath of Snow and Ashes, which is for science fiction/fantasy, and horror.
I just looked up The Time Traveler’s Wife, another one of my favorites. Literature & Fiction/Women’s Fiction/Domestic Life. Really? The guy is time traveling all over the place.
In my writing, I was very much influenced by Mary Sojourner. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and taught writing workshops out in Flagstaff, Arizona (where I lived for five years). It was in one of her workshops that I wrote the first Patrick and Brigid confrontation scene (a scene now about halfway through book two, Fiery Arrow).
Mary writes about the southwest, environment essays, but she’s also written one of my favorite novels, Going Through Ghosts. It’s paranormal/mystery (the main character works with the ghost of a murder victim to solve the crime — label that one!). More importantly, I think Mary’s work has shown me that many authors write broadly and it’s okay to read broadly.
For example, currently on my nightstand I have Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk, Diana Gabaldon’s An Echo in the Bone, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.
If a book club were to pick Once A Goddess, what kinds of conversations do you think they would have?
I hope that they would talk about the problems Brigid faces. Was her family right in arranging her marriage to Bres? What choices did she have? How does Bres play as a character? Can we sympathize with his situation? How does Eiru’s story play into the tribe’s hypocrisy? Is there such thing as soul mates? What’s the difference between the Irish anam cara and perhaps our modern, romantic view of soul mate?