from an interview by Philip Martin
July 21, 2001


[In this interview, Franny Billingsley talks about the writing of The Folk Keeper (1999), her novel that won the 2000 Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award.]

Where does a book like The Folk Keeper come from? How do you write a book that resonates with readers? Part of what I do is just really hang in there – draft after draft after draft. I don’t lose steam when perhaps other people might; I don’t settle for publishing it at an early stage. I am really a very dogged person.

When I started writing The Folk Keeper, my initial idea was just to work with the selkie [seal-person] legends. I had read a lot, and I thought, okay, my heroine is going to be half-selkie and half-human. She doesn’t know who she is. She looks like a human. She has no seal skin, but there will be all these weird things about her she can’t explain, that she’ll keep secret.

And her emotional journey would be towards discovering who she truly is, then trying to find her seal-skin. Ultimately, her decision would be one of identity. Is she more human? – will she embrace her life on land? Or is she more of a selkie – will she return to a life in the sea?

But when I tried to write that book . . . it really didn’t have a lot of oomph. I knew something was wrong. It was really static – sort of boggy – but I didn’t know why.

But I wrote many, many drafts for about two and a half to three years before I sent it to my editor. And she wrote me back and she asked me the key question. She said, you know, the main thing is that we don’t know what Corinna really wants.

That was the galvanizing thing for me. I thought, Oh, yeah . . . if you give your characters something they really desire, then they’re going to out and try to do something to try to get it. And that creates narrative energy. Which is exactly what the story had been lacking.

To that point, I had tried to capture the reader’s attention through mystery – having her sit around and dream about the sea and look at it – drink salt water and stuff like that. But there was nothing happening. There was no action; there was no promise of any action that was exciting.

A couple of things came together at the same time.

I had been reading a very good book on writing novels, called The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall, and he quoted Ray Bradbury as saying something like: Give your character a compulsion that cuts through the plot like a hawser.

And I also subscribed to The Writer magazine, and I happened to read an article by a woman who was a science-fiction writer, and she talked about giving her character a job, some kind of fantastical job.

And so these three things came together for me: My editor saying to give her something she wants, and Bradbury’s quote about elevating it to the level of compulsion, and the article about giving your character a job.

So I decided to give Corinna a job and to make her compelled to do it—even though it’s really a dangerous, creepy sort of job. And that’s where the idea of the Folk Keeper came from.

Then I had to invent a history to explain it. Most people wouldn’t want to be a Folk Keeper, so I made her want power more than anything else. And I gave Corinna a history that explained why she wanted power so much – she’d grown up in this succession of foundling homes and had been essentially disenfranchised and marginalized all her life.

And being a Folk Keeper gave her a measure of power because it was such an important job.

I kept some images from my early drafts, but from then on, it was mostly new writing. I did four more revisions before I had a completed manuscript.

So a lot of the challenge is figuring out what is the key thing that is going to make your story work. This is hard, but once you see what that is, then you just stick with it until you’ve written the best book that you can. Often, that key bit of advice comes from somebody with an outside viewpoint. In my case, my editor helped me get past that point, but it could as well have been somebody in a writing group.

In the first draft I submitted to my editor, Jean Karl [at Atheneum], I did have some “folk” in there, but they were just household spirits that floated around. They didn’t really propel the plot forward. They were just there for atmosphere.

But then the Folk came to me. It was one of those “light-bulb” kind of moments.

Where they came from, I don’t really know. What I can tell you is that a book that I adored as a kid was a story The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. It was so spooky and magical when Curdie goes in the mountains and discovers the goblins.

I felt the same in The Hobbit when Bilbo was in the cave with the Gollum. I loved those underground, eerie scenes. Another book I adore is called The Perilous Gard, by Elisabeth Marie Pope, another version of the fairy folk living beneath the ground, stealing away children.

And as a kid I had read lots of Scandinavian tales about goblins and trolls. Those were the kinds of things that had filled me up. All that stuff was just there, waiting to propel the Folk into being.

I also did a lot of reading in a wonderful book called The Encyclopedia of Fairies, by Kate Briggs, originally published perhaps in the 1890s. It’s a wonderful, huge book, mostly about Celtic creatures, with references to Thomas the Rhymer and The Wild Hunt and things like that. You can look up fairies, or trolls, or goblins, or Puck, and get lots of literary and folkloric references.

I didn’t model the folk particularly on any single creature in there. But I modeled them on an amalgam of fairies and trolls and whatnot, especially in the kind of charms used to protect yourself against them. For instance, fairies are often averse to cold iron, or salt, or bread.

That’s where I got the idea of Corinna wearing the necklace of nails, and sprinkling bread around her in a circle – the idea of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. The Folk can’t come near because they’re pagan.

And the idea of the Last Word [used to resist the Folk] is in there. I was leafing through and saw a reference to some sort of underwater demon. But when as it comes up and tries to pull a boat down, the fishermen or somebody on the boat can best the demon by spontaneously rhyming rhymes.

So the Folk sort of sprang from everyplace and no place.

At first I tried to describe them. And then I thought – you know, it’s going to be so much more powerful not having them really described.

Because the thing you don’t see is scarier than the thing that you do. The reader’s vision is going to be much scarier than anything I could describe. I would just limit the reader’s imagination.

So I took out all the descriptions that I had started to put in.

And when you write something, you don’t know what will be the thing that sticks with people. But in every review, they mention my description of the Folk as all “wet mouth and teeth.” Everyone picked up on that phrase. At the time, I never knew that was going to be something that made people say . . . “Oooh.”

Writers of fantasy have to work hard to depict a world that’s so complete that their reader can enter into it and not stumble. I suspect that a writer of realistic fiction may not have to do such a complete job of setting up their world; the reader can fill in more of the background.

But if the reader doesn’t know what a world full of selkies [seal-people] or “Folk” looks like, I need to make sure I don’t leave any gaps that the reader can stumble into, which might wake them from what John Gardner called the fictional dream, the dream that you never want your reader to awaken from.

So I try very hard to establish a world that seems real and solid; where all the magical rules are absolutely 100% consistent with themselves. I do that by doing a lot of research.

I decided to model the island of Cliffsend on the Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland. I got guidebooks on the Orkneys and looked at pictures of the gigantic cliffs rising from the sea, so I could describe them for myself, since I live in Chicago and I don’t have anything remotely like that near me.

I read about the birds that were there so I could fill my fictional air with their cries.

I found out what the weather was like. I discovered there are very few trees there, because the air is so salty and the wind is so strong.
All that goes into creating a world that’s internally consistent.

And then I overlay my element of magic.

For instance, it’s also a rocky world – the kind of place, I decided, where the Folk would thrive – just the right place for my geographical world and my magical world to intersect.

I also did a lot of research on the sea, much of which I didn’t use. But I learned that the tempo of life beneath the sea is slower than the tempo of life on land. I found out how incredibly dense a medium water is, something like 800 times as dense as air, almost as dense as our own body, which is why it holds us up, of course.

I learned about seals: that they close their ears when they dive, that they exhale all the air from their lungs when they dive. I learned they use their whiskers down below on the sea floor where it’s dark to feel currents in the water, to alert them that a fish might be near, or if they’re going to bang into something.

If you read the passage when Corinna jumps off the cliff to try to rescue Finian, in about a page and a half, you’ll see that all those research elements are in there. It took me an incredible amount of research to write that page and a half.

But that’s an important scene, that needs to be as real as possible, because that scene explores the magical side of Corinna. What does it feel like to have the kind of power she has? What’s it like to be able to exist beneath the water for longer than any other human being could ever do?

So I try to paint a picture of a magical world that seems so real that you feel that you must be there.

To create the geography of the manor, I did more research. Personally, I need something real to go on. I had chosen a place, then I had to choose a time. I set it roughly 225 years ago, late 18th century, and I got a book on English country houses, to research houses – what they looked like, what was in them. I sketched out little diagrams of the house, what the wainscoting would look like, what people would wear.

And when I got to writing, I didn’t use most of it. But I just could put in little details to evoke the whole feeling of the place.

After many drafts, I added the caverns and the whole cellar and all that stuff beneath the ground. To get the feeling for a spooky, underground place, I got a book on caves, all about bats and spiders and underground fishes with no melanin, everything white because there was no sun.

I couldn’t go into a cave, so I would just go into a basement and ask myself, what did it smell like? What is the smell of wet stone? What do you feel when you put your hand on the wall?

Same with describing the sea. I don’t live near a sea but I live in Chicago near a big lake. It doesn’t have salt water or tides, but in some ways it is like the sea. You can stand on the edge of it not see the other side. It has a sense of infinity. And it has a tremendous temper.

And I knew the moonlit shining over Lake Michigan on a calm, summer evening surely would look life the moonlit shining over the sea on a similar evening. So I would take myself to real places and collect data to use to describe the sights and sounds and smells of the sea or the cellar.

She’s very strong. I ended up being so happy with the way Corinna turned out. When I started, I knew I wanted Corinna to have a fabulous first-person voice. My first book, Well Wished, is in the third-person. But I wanted to write a first-person book. Some of my favorite books are works like Jane Eyre or David Copperfield – those long, Victorian books with wonderful voice. I adore voice.

But Corinna was a pretty passive character at first. Because there was nothing for her to do. She would just moon around and look at herself in the mirror and admire the tapestries and think beautiful thoughts – but that was about it.

So I decided to mold her into a “spunky character” – with a capital S. And she turned into such a brat. I showed it to my writing group and they said, “God, we can’t even stand her.”

It’s not that you need to like a character. Characters are more interesting when they are somewhat unlikable. And it gives them room to grow.

But this was too contrived. I was just pasting this layer of spunky, hard-edgedness onto her, and there was nothing below to support it.

But then, when I gave Corinna her job and her compulsion to do it, then she suddenly started to speak in a new way. It’s not as if it wasn’t a terrific amount of work to write it.  But from that point on, I always knew what she would do. I always knew what she would say, or what her reaction would be when she encountered something new.

And so she really had a voice that felt true.

It took me a little while to see that it was happening. I was well into my first draft – I write long-hand – and when I typed it out, I said, “Oh! Oh! Look at her!” I was so happy.

She was passionate. She had something she wanted and then someplace to go, and it made her into the person she was. That old Corinna just had no place to go; she was too perfect, in her bratty way.

I tend to start out with the idea for the complication for my book. I know I will have a girl, half-selkie, half-human, that she’s going to discover who she it, she’ll try to find her skin, she’ll try to go back into the sea.

That’s where I start, but I don’t know yet how to get her into the trouble. And I don’t know how to get her out.

I tend to just jump in with both feet. And I love books like those written by Robin McKinley, wonderful fantasy adventure romances. So I knew I wanted a romance.

When I started, in my very first draft, Corinna lived near the sea. And she went inland. Instead of living inland and then going to the sea. So I started the wrong way around. Then it turned out she was going to be the daughter of the King and the heir to the throne – the same kind of mechanism I ended up using, but at another level, that of a kingdom.

In those early drafts, I was struggling to give the story some tension. Because once Corinna knows who she is, then she has something to go for. Then she can engage in a struggle. But if your character is ignorant of the thing that she truly wants, which is where I wanted Corinna to start, to start in ignorance, then you have to superimpose something – something organic to the character, but giving her something else to struggle with.

So I gave her the struggle with Sir Edward. It was a sort of a substitute, until she discovered more about who she really was. In fact in very early drafts, I had the Sir Edward character be more suspicious of her. Somehow he recognized she looked a lot like her mother, and various things tipped him off to the fact that she must be part-selkie, therefore the heir to the kingdom.

I was going for that kind of narrative tension, but for some reason it didn’t work.

But as Corinna’s character developed, and the Folk Keeper job emerged, I left these other sub-lots there and they eventually found their place as the novel developed.

That’s the thing about novels. Novels don’t imitate life. The best ones are artfully crafted. You end up with this kind of weave – it’s like a web, where every strand ends up intersecting with every other strand. Or they should.

So, Finian’s struggle with Sir Edward, that whole struggle about the manor, had to intersect with Corinna’s story. Otherwise the reader would have felt a little bit of a vacuum.

But in a good novel, everything is a circle around everything else. That’s one of the really complicated things in writing a book: taking all the threads and making sure that, in an organic way, each touches the other. That there’s no thread that is dangling out on its own, not woven into the whole.

For me, that’s a function of lots and lots of revisions. We think at first that the story of the manor and who will inherit it is a disconnected story. But then it ends up connecting.

Somebody told me that you’re striving for that “Aha!” reaction. The reader at some point understands the secret, and they say, “Oh, of course.” So it’s surprising, but inevitable. That’s what you want. Ideally, you don’t want them to have guessed it before they get there.

But you want your reader to have been so prepared, in some way, because there’s been enough information, so they say, “Oh, yeah, why didn’t I see that?”

I love that in a book.

I grew up with ballads. My dad would sing to use children every night. He would come in and sit at the foot of the bed and say, pick two songs. And he would sing them, every verse.

He is a real Renaissance kind of guy. He’s a mathematician at the University of Chicago, so a very theoretical kind of person, as a young man he got interested in Scottish ballads. So he bought all the volumes of the Childs ballads, and he got records and learned them, and then sang them to us, in accent. He would sing these long, romantic, often tragic, haunting, melancholy songs. And I think those sort of got into my blood in a way.

This is what I grew up with. I think that is why my books are a little melancholy, and have a kind of savage edge to them, as those Scottish ballads often do. I remember clearly the ballad, “Mary Hamilton.” There’s a verse in there where she kills her baby. And they find her dear little child; it was lying in a pool of blood. At first, I was eight or nine, I really didn’t take it in, and then one night he was singing it to me and I realized, “Oh my god, she killed her baby!”

There’s some that are absolutely savage, just awful – in a really fabulous way. They all have a strong narrative tradition and strong patterning. The language is beautiful, and the imagery for all that savagery is beautiful, and the tunes are haunting and melancholy, and I think this shaped some of the rhythm of my language.

When The Folk Keeper came out, it was reviewed very nicely in the New York Times by a folklorist and educator, Betsy Hearne, and she said all these nice things, and she pointed out, there’s not only poetry in the language but there’s poetry in the structure. She said that Corinna is reborn three times: once in stone, once in fire, once in water.

I read that and I said, “Oh, my god,” because I did it completely unconsciously, not realizing there was a folkloric pattern at work. But it’s those kind of things that I heard in the ballad songs, again and again and again.

Like the song of true Thomas. He looks at the road to wickedness, which is paved with primroses. And he looks at the road to heaven, which is pretty thorny. And then he looks at the road to fairyland. Always three things.

I think these patterns sunk just so deeply into me that I was able to put them in my book without really even striving for it or recognizing it.

My editor also told me in that first letter, the manuscript was really too long for the story I was telling. So what I sat down to see what I could take out. I tend to overwrite terribly in the beginning. But as I’m revising, I try to pare it down into the most elegant and efficient piece of machinery, if you will, that I can.

You don’t want a complete description of everything. That just serves my ego as the author. It just gets in the way. Even as the reader is looking up to say, “Oh, that’s really nice,” he or she is distracted from the story. I’ve done my story a disservice. And I think it’s all about the story.

So what I really try to prune it down as much as I can.

I have some tricks I try to do. For instance, somebody said, see if you can take out one word each sentence. All right, when you look at your writing in that kind of left-brain, analytical way, you can take out one word. And then one word leads to three.

Or let’s say you’re looking at your manuscript on the computer monitor, and you see you have five lines in a paragraph, and the last line is short, see if you can condense so that that little tail line disappears, and you only have four lines.

So I set about to really condense it, to just give your readers just a whiff of it, because that’s all they need. Because then, they create a whole world for themselves, and they’re off. But you have to do it in just the right place, and with a strong enough image to lodge their understanding in. That’s what I try to do, and it was often what the old ballads did, to create a whole world based on just a few simple, strong images.

The ballads had a wonderful brevity. They could have lots of verses, but they had to be short lines, and the lines have their own restrictions: they can’t be more than a certain number of syllables, and they have to follow certain patterns and have to rhyme. They had to be really economical, and choose their words wisely to achieve the kind of effect they wanted to achieve within those constraints.

Economy and brevity like that doesn’t come easily.  I work really hard to craft my images. I will go out on May Day and look at the dandelions and write my observations down on notecards, looking for image that’s palpable, that you can feel and hear and taste and touch.

I remember the moment that I found a voice for myself. It was in January of 1988. I had started to write in ’83, and I wrote several competent, but plain Jane, sort of manuscripts, three of them actually. They weren’t artful, they were linear, one event leading to another, not this web that I was talking about. The prose was competent, but there was nothing there.

I had been writing for five years and I just wasn’t getting anyplace.

So I sat down and I did a whole lot of different things. I did exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. I read John Gardner’s book, The Art of Fiction. He had exercises in the back; I did some of those. I read a wonderful book by Dorothea Brandt, On Becoming a Writer, a very old book but a very wise book. She talks about noticing things, about being a stranger in your own street.

We don’t notice stuff because we’re too familiar with life. She encourages trying to become a kid again. Don’t just notice that a car is green. Is it bottle-green? Is it emerald green? Does it smell like anything? Does it feel like anything? What does a car feel like when you put your hand on it? She was really encouraging me to work with all of my sense.

So I was doing all these exercises, exploring writing from different points of view. And then I started writing a new book, based on one of John Gardner’s exercises, and that turned out to be the first chapter of my first draft of my first published book, Well Wished.

That was when I discovered my voice: it was the lyrical, fantasy voice. I had to work to refine it; it was overdone at first and self-indulgent, but that was a huge breakthrough for me. All those exercises, all that right-brain stuff, freed me up a little bit enough to help me find it.

My editor said some things to me about fantasy, in her first letter to me about The Folk Keeper, that the thing about fantasy is that it’s often more real than our perceived reality. What she meant is that you can take a problem that has only a mental or an emotional reality in the real world, and give it a concrete, physical reality in a fantasy.

This is true about the issue of identify, which is a lot of what The Folk Keeper is about.

In non-fantasy stories, the question of identify is somewhat abstract. But I was able to have Corinna wrestle with the issue of her identify, not just by giving her this job that she thought was the right job for her – but it wasn’t – but also by giving her a skin, a real physical skin. It could become a physical piece in the book that plays an important part of the plot. Where is it? Will it fit? Can she take it into the sea? Can she get it off of her?

But also of course it’s a symbol of who she is. I’m going to put on the skin. I’m going to try on the skin. I’m going to see if it fits.

That, to me, is the absolutely fantastic thing about fantasy. You can take abstract issues and give them concrete reality in a fantastical world. You can explore anything you want.

That’s the wonderful thing about fantasy.