Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Interview with Kersten Hamilton

In November I reviewed Kersten Hamilton's Tyger Tyger, a story steeped in Irish mythology. (You can read my review here.) Kersten has kindly agreed to an interview. To read more about Kersten and her writing, check out her website.

JC: Tyger Tyger has a Great Lakes setting with scenes in Michigan,Indiana, and Illinois. Why did you choose Chicago as the primary setting?

KH: Chicago has been very important to the Irish-American saga, of course. But the neighborhood Teagan lives in actually bled over into Tyger Tyger from a series of Christian MG historical novels I wrote—Caleb Pascale and the Peculiar People. When one of the characters was killed in a circus-on-circus rumble in the stockyards of Chicago, the logical place to lay him to rest was Rosehill Cemetery on North Ravenswood Avenue. The dearly departed could be carried to Rosehill along a spur of the railroad tracks, and lowered from the raised track into the cemetery by means of an elevator. I visited Rosehill to see the coffin elevator for myself, and not only fell in love with the cemetery (I adore old cemeteries. They are chock full of stories!) but the neighborhoods all around it. The atmosphere of the place came instantly to mind when I thought of Teagan’s house. So, although the street on which Teagan lives is completely fictitious, it certainly intersects North Ravenswood Avenue somewhere in my mind.

JC: What led to your interest in Irish mythology?

KH: My own roots are Celtic, and everything Celtic draws me—from the music to the mythology. The creatures in Tyger Tyger are a mix of Celtic mythology and reality. At one point in Tyger Tyger Teagan’s father quotes Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your

That’s true, and deep inside we know it. There is more to us and to the world around us than meets the eye.

JC: I like the way you weave Christian elements into the story. The family prays, attends church, and Saints Drogo and Patrick are mentioned. What do you consider the role of Christianity to be in this story?

KH: My spiritual roots are deep in Christian literature. Like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Charles Williams, and many, many others, my imagination was baptized by the writings of George MacDonald. Tyger Tyger is not a Christian allegory – but what Lewis called the “Deep Magic from before the dawn of time” certainly does inform the worldview.

JC: You made at least one nod to Beowulf. (Roisin's cat-sidhe is named Grendal.) What other mythologies did you draw on for your source material?

KH: Beowulf, yes! I also love the heroism of Nordic mythology. Gods and heroes who know they will not win, standing shoulder to shoulder against monsters just because it is the right thing to do….

JC: Where did the idea for Tyger Tyger come from? How long have you been working on it?

KH: The seed that became Tyger Tyger was planted when I was a child. A goblin crept out of the dark and slipped her paw into my hand. The creature’s name was Lina, and she came to life in a book by George MacDonald. Lina was a dog–like beastie with green eyes lit by amber fire, and a huge mouth with icicle–like teeth. Curdie, the hero of the story, could feel the real hand of any creature inside its flesh glove, and when Lina put her paw in his hand: “a shudder, as of terrified delight, ran through him…instead of the paw of a dog, such as it seemed to his eyes, he clasped in his great mining fist the soft, neat little hand of a child! The green eyes stared at him with their yellow light, and the mouth was turned up toward him with its constant half grin; but here was the child’s hand!”

When I read those lines I felt it. I felt the child’s hand inside a rough paw glove, and I knew I wanted to pull a child out of a goblin one day. Through the years, many stories, poems, myths and legends lent elements to the story growing inside me: the song of Tam Lin, a girl who musters all her courage to save her love who had been taken by the Sidhe; "The Lords of the White and Grey Castles," a fairytale by Frances Browne, Ireland’s blind storyteller; and even a hint of the goblin from Harold Monro’s poem, "Overheard on a Salt Marsh."

I have been working on the concept for many years – I actually first wrote it as a picture book called Loveleaves and Woodwender.

JC: Promises made in Mag Mell are different from those made in our world. Why the difference?

KH: Promises should be powerful and binding. Magic. And all magic is stronger in Mag Mell.

JC: Tyger Tyger is a single-plot narrative with Teagan as the sole point-of-view character. I can imagine the story with parts from perhaps Finn's perspective. Please talk about your decisions regarding the novel's narrative structure and point-of-view.

KH: You can tell a brilliant story in first person, but you do lose the subtly of inference and empathy, and the ability to play off of more than one character at a time. Third person is more difficult to write – you must ‘show’ what the characters feel, rather than ‘telling’ through internal dialog. But it’s fun because it has so many sub categories to pick and choose from, to mix and match.

I chose Teagan as the viewpoint character because she changes the most through the story arc.

I might tell a story from Finn’s pov one of these days – the story of the two old men who helped him learn how to live on the street, perhaps.

JC: When Finn, Teagan, and Aiden journey to Mag Mell for a second time, they discover that not all Goblins are irredeemably evil, and Teagan and Aiden learn that they are part Goblin. What did you want to communicate through these discoveries?

KH: I’ll let Tea and Aiden’s grandma, Mamieo Ida, answer that:

“All creatures,” Mamieo said, “from the moment they exist, set about becoming through their own free will. Some are becoming more of what they were meant to be, and some becoming less. The Dark Man . . . he’s had half of eternity to become less than he was meant to be.”

JC: When the novel ends, Teagan and company still have a lot of problems left to resolve and Fear Doirich is going to be one mad devil when he gets free of all that duct tape. Are you already at work on the next book? Any teasers?

KH: I am just finishing it! These books, like Blake’s poem "The Tyger," ask hard questions about the nature of good and evil. Let’s just say writing this has been very, very hard— and Tea will need all her courage to get through.


  1. Interesting interview! I think I'm going to have to check out the book.

  2. “Deep Magic from before the dawn of time” - nice. And references to Lina from The Princess and Curdie? I'm sold.