Interviews in Sherwood

ELSA WATSON

Conducted and transcribed by Allen W. Wright

Elsa Watson has a degree in Classical Studies from Carleton College and has served in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Currently she lives in Washington State, USA, writing full time. Maid Marian is her first novel and was published by Crown Publishers in 2004. Her official website is at http://www.elsawatson.net/

This interview was conducted over the phone on June 1, 2004.

AWW:    Where did you first encounter the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

Author Elsa Watson, picture supplied by Ms. WatsonEW:     I have enjoyed the Robin Hood story since I was a little girl. We watched all of the movie versions, at least the ones that were available here, when I was a kid. I saw the Errol Flynn version several times. Then when the Disney movie came out with the foxes, I watched that, absolutely. And I was always interested in Maid Marian and always sad that her part of the story was so small. You know, in some of those old renditions, she's almost a tool - something for Robin Hood and his band to work toward and save and rescue. She didn't have a lot of story of her own.

And I remember when I was in school going to the school librarian and asking for the definitive of Robin Hood because I wanted to know what the real story was. And of course, they didn't have one to give me. She didn't even have any Robin Hood versions to give me because it was a small library. But that was when I first started understanding what folklore meant. What it could be -- what a mess it could be. And how futile it was to look for any kind of definitive story.

AWW:   The author whose name comes up repeatedly on my website, and I can tell by a few of the names in your novel that he was an influence on you, was Howard Pyle [author of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood]. I think Marian only gets two offhand references in Pyle and that's about it.

EW:    Exactly. Well, I read those. Some of them I had come across before. But I read those before I started writing the story. I got all the Pyle work that I could get my hands on. It was very helpful, because I feel that a lot of his stories are the ones that we recognize, the ones that we all know. Little John on the log bridge and the story of carrying Friar Tuck back and forth across the stream. Those are the stories that we recognize, and that's what I was looking for when I was getting ready to write Maid Marian. I knew her experiences wouldn't be anything recognizable, but I wanted to add in parts of the Robin Hood background which would fit with people's memories.

AWW:   I have read any of the other modern novels that have dealt with Maid Marian and her point of view?

EW:    A few, but not as many as I would like. I haven't read Thomas Love Peacock's book [from 1822], except for a small part that I found online. A few of the young adult novels about Maid Marian, I think there's one called The Forestwife [by Theresa Tomlinson] that might be a trilogy. But not as much as now I wish I had read. At the time I was writing Maid Marian, I didn't want to read all those other stories, because I didn't want to get someone else's plotline in my head and disrupt my own ideas of what I wanted to happen. Now I would like to go back and read more. It's challenging to clear out the clutter of other people's stories.

AWW:   One of the approaches of some books is to almost make Marian a pseudo-Robin Hood and she is essentially another member of the Merry Men and does what they do. Yours, aside from her learning the quarterstaff, is generally not like the other Merry Men.

EW:    That was intentional. Of course, one of the stories I read describes Marian as a forest archer and she has a competition with Robin Hood and she barely loses. But I wanted to go about it differently. Because a lot of the Robin Hood story to begin with is the notion of all these outlaws living together in the forest. It's unusual and it takes a little while to wrap your mind around it. What's even more unusual is if you add a noblewoman to that mix. And instead of making her one of the band, leave her a little bit separate. And that's exactly what I was looking for. Leaving Marian outside the group left me open to create a little more tension between her and the band, between her and Robin, between him and the members of the band. That's the sort of thing I was looking for. Also because I had the Maid Marian story begin in Warwick Castle in her noble realm and I knew at the end of the story it would finish outside of Sherwood Forest. I didn't want to make her essentially tied to Sherwood Forest. I wanted her to be someone who travelled in and travelled out when it was time for that.

AWW:   With Marian coming in and out of the band, it seems like that she is, to some extent, a domesticating influence on Robin. She inspires him to give up the outlaw life. I was wondering what you were going for there, and what you think about that as perhaps resembling her role in the legend.

The cover to Elsa Watson's Maid Marian, jacket design by Deboarah Natoli featuring 19th painting The Princess Out of School by Edward Robert HughesEW:    I wanted two things to happen during the time that Maid Marian and Robin Hood are falling in love. I wanted in the backdrop of the story that the life of the outlaws of Sherwood was coming to an end through a lot of inevitable forces, things that weren't under their control. It was hard for them to get enough money to survive. The number of troops around the forest was increasing. Life was just becoming more and more dreadful in Sherwood Forest.

At the same time, I thought about what it might be like to be Robin Hood and gone through maybe a decade to maybe a decade-and-a-half of running this band this band of outlaws and then meet a woman who offers him something new and interesting. Someone who he can talk to about the ideas he has. Someone who thinks about the same sorts of things he does - how to take care of the little people, what the obligations of leadership are. He would be attracted to that because he also saw that the life of the band was starting to deteriorate. From his perspective, becoming domesticated might not seem so bad.

I also wanted to throw in their a few qualms for Marian saying "won't this be hard for you to change over?" At a few different points -- and I may not have done this enough -- she says "won't this be a challenge to leave the forest and eventually become a noble yourself?" And Robin Hood answers no. [Laughs] Every time. Because I think he's the sort of person who is always interested in the next challenge and isn't going to spend a lot of time on regrets.

AWW:   Because a lot of the classic Robin Hood stories happen offstage (like Gisborne) or have already happened, you needed to create your own villains like Lady Pernelle. What went into creating a unique rogue's gallery for Marian?

EW:    I wanted to give her some female villains to combat. Part of what I was already doing was focusing on Maid Marian instead of Robin Hood and taking a more female line, and because I had already decided to give Queen Eleanor a major role instead of King Richard. It seemed like a natural fit to come up with a female villain like Lady Pernelle. And once I decided that Marian was going to have a husband when she was very young, then the mother-in-law fit right into place, because it's easy to pick on mother-in-laws. [Laughs.] Maybe not entirely fair, but there it is. I liked having Lady Pernelle in the story, because she often operated also behind the scenes. When Marian's in search of that letter between Queen Eleanor and Lady Pernelle, Lady Pernelle is driving the action but she isn't actually present. She was very handy as a character, as someone who could make things happen in Marian's life. I also liked the idea of leaving Robin Hood to his own villains and letting Marian to have some of her own. I didn't want Marian to sail into Sherwood Forest and be the person who is suddenly able to help Robin Hood vanquish Guy of Gisborne or anything like that. I wanted to do those things by his own merit and by his own skill, which he was perfectly capable of doing. And I didn't want Marian to muck up the waters.

AWW:   When you used Eleanor of Aquitaine as the royal figure for Marian, she seems ... pragmatic to me, rather than strictly good or evil. Marian and Robin have a bit of a debate on the monarchy, based on the merits of "good King Richard". So, what were your thoughts along those lines?

EW:    Before I wrote Maid Marian some of the research I did was on Eleanor of Aquitaine. I read several biographies of her, and I was interested in the arc of her life. She begins in France, married to the king of France. Then, she settles back into her own land, Aquitaine, as the ruler of that entire region. Then, she brings in all kinds of poets and troubadours and has this great, complicated courtly life that she is completely in charge of and has created for herself. And then she has this entire second life when she's married to Henry [Henry II, King of England] and moves up north and fits into England. Because I found her life so interesting, I didn't want her to be purely evil or purely good. I wanted her to be an experienced ruler, and I think an experienced ruler would be very practical. She would think carefully and plot things out and do what she had planned.

AWW:   I know you use a lot of classical allusions in the book. But they seem to me to be very similar to the kind that Shakespeare uses, such as the potion - which I know has a classical source - but seems very Romeo and Juliet as well. Was Shakespeare a large influence?

EW    I must admit that I never thought of it quiet so clearly until you mentioned it. But I did read Shakespeare every morning as I was writing. I read Shakespeare and Jane Austen to try to influence the language I was looking for. That's very interesting. Actually I was reading A Midsummer Night's Dream and bit of Hamlet. But I'm sure, I'm sure that the Romeo and Juliet potion was in the back of my mind.

The potion part of the story, I think, plays into one of the two things I was going for. I was trying to give the story a historical footing, so that it seemed real and was set in actual times. But I also wanted to play up some of the aspects of legend and fairy tale. That's where the potion comes in. It's something a little more fun and less serious. That and all the disguises.

AWW:   I was going to say that is the other thing that strikes me as somewhat Shakespearean, although it's very Robin Hood too.

EW:    I first wanted to have it because it plays such a big part in the Robin Hood story. It seems to me that this whole idea of dressing up in disguises gets at part of what's interesting about Robin Hood's character. You have to have an awful lot of chutzpah to put on a disguise and think you can walk through the world and have everyone believe you. I think that's a lot of what we like about Robin Hood. And so it seemed fun to let Marian try her hand at it too.

AWW:   How do you see Maid Marian as a role model, or do you see her as one?

EW:    Do you mean the Maid Marian I created or Maid Marian in general?

AWW:   I was referring to the one you created, but either actually.

EW:    That's easier. The Maid Marian I created was meant to be a thoughtful person, and someone who is also very brave, even if she doesn't recognize it in herself. I wanted her to be someone who is willing to take her life into her own hands and steer her own ship and navigate for herself. And that, I think, is an empowering idea for girls to run across. When I was a girl, I was really interested in Maid Marian. But I have to be honest, I didn't find her to be too much of a role model -- beyond the fact that she wore pretty dresses and that might be a fun thing to do. The Fox Maid Marian, the Disney version, was more spunky and more interesting for that reason. But I never found much of a role model in Maid Marian when I was a kid. I was frankly more interested in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. At least he got to swing around on chandeliers and fight with people and do fun things. So, I suppose you could say that I purposefully gave my Maid Marian larger qualities. Bigger things for her to be interested in.

AWW:   What response have you had to the novel so far?

Maid Marian author Elsa Watson signing autographs, picture provided by Ms. WatsonEW:    For the most part, it's been both good and surprising. I've been struck by the number of young women who have been interested. And by the number of people who say they got the book for their daughters. And I find that encouraging and surprising. I didn't expect that to happen. The criticism ha been levelled at what I call the fairy tale side of the story. Parts of the plot may not be completely realistic, and some readers take issue with that. Understandably, because that's what they were looking for. It's not what I was looking for. And I've also been surprised by the number of men who have read it. I expected it to be more of a women's book and for the most part, it is. The artwork on the cover draws more women than men. But a number of men have read it and enjoyed it, and that's a surprise for me.

AWW:   Is there any chance of a follow-up to this story?

EW:    To this one, I don't think so. I considered for a while taking the story further and maybe adding in a child. But I don't know, I have mixed feeling about doing that. Also, part of what I love about writing is the opportunity to research time periods that I don't know very much about. So now that I've already done that time period, it's hard not to go on to something completely different. Face a new mountain of research, wander into a whole new land. The book I wrote right after Maid Marian was actually set in the Dark Ages. It was very exciting researching. I had a great time learning about that.

AWW:   What's that book called?

EW:    Now it's called Rhigan's Maid, and it's about Igraine, King Arthur's mother, and Uther Pendragon and ... you know the story.

AWW:   Has that got a publisher?

EW:    It hasn't found its place yet. But they've just started shopping it around. So we'll see. I've got my fingers crossed. Now I'm working on a book about pirates in the 1700s in the Caribbean.

AWW:   Both are still on historical and adventure themes.

EW:    You're right about that. And still women as the main part of the story. These are female pirates. Well, a few of them are.

AWW:   Well, that was basically all my questions. Is there anything that you would like people to know, anything you'd like to add?

EW:    I think we've covered most everything. My only last thought is I've noticed a few readers responded to say that they were upset because the book didn't meet their specific expectations. That's something I absolutely understand, because as a reader you want a lot of things out of the book you sit down to read. And it's very rare for a book live up all of one's expectations. But a couple of people were surprised that the book wasn't purely about Maid Marian's life before she met Robin Hood. A few others have been surprised that it didn't all take place in Sherwood Forest. I just want to make sure that readers know that this is not supposed to be any official version of Maid Marian's story. This is my version. It's my addition to the whole Robin Hood legend. And you'll see all of those things. Both Maid Marian alone and with Robin Hood. Inside and outside of Sherwood.

AWW:   It seems to me that you tried to meet both wildly divergent expectations.

EW:   Interesting. Well, I knew what I wanted to read when I was writing the book. I definitely wanted to have both. There was no way I wanted to read the story if Robin Hood wasn't going to be in it. So, that was a given.

AWW:   Thank you very much.

EW:    Thank you for calling. I've been reading the stuff on your website for a long time. And it's exciting to think that I'm going to be a part of it.

MAID MARIAN by Elsa Watson. Read the very novel we've been discussing.
Buy Maid Marian on Amazon.com
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk


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