A chat with Caitlin Sweet, author of The Door in the Mountain

Caitlin SweetPlease welcome Caitlin Sweet to the blog! She kindly stopped by to talk about her new fantasy, THE DOOR IN THE MOUNTAIN (ChiTeen), and much more!


Caitlin, will you tell us a little bit about your new book The Door in the Mountain, and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve loved Greek mythology since I was about five years old, when my father would tell me bedtime stories that starred a dazzling array of mortals, gods and goddesses, monsters: Perseus and Medusa; Zeus and Hera (and Europa and Leda and Ganymede and so many more); Persephone and Hades; Ariadne and the Minotaur…

In 2009, after I’d finished the first draft of my third book, The Pattern Scars, I panicked. Unlike many other lucky writers out there, I find story ideas incredibly difficult to come up with—so I spent months desperately combing through old writing notebooks. Years and years before, I’d tried to write a book set in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. I’d done all sorts of research about mainland Greece and Crete, Egypt and Anatolia (see my answer to question 3 for more on this)…but nothing came of it. Looking back, though, the world I’d tried to create still felt appealing. I was far enough away from my original concept that I could re-imagine it, think of the big picture, rather than the details that had tripped me up before. This brought me back to the myths my dad had told me, and I thought, “Okay, so it’s Greece…it’s some combination of mythology and history and fantasy…it’s…the Minotaur as a shape-shifting boy? There’ll be a girl, too—it’ll be Beauty and the Beast via Minoan Crete…??” (My actual notes look a lot like this.)

thedoorinthemountainAnd that’s pretty much what The Door in the Mountain turned out to be. What I didn’t expect was that it would end up being a story I’d tell in two books—but the lead-up to Theseus’s arrival ended up taking me far more words to describe than I’d imagined it would. And I’m glad about this. I realize that some readers will be impatient with the first book because it doesn’t include the well-known events of the myth, but I hope they’ll bear with me, and appreciate my take on the story behind these events.

Why do you think readers will connect with Ariadne? What did you enjoy most about writing her character?
I’m not sure all readers will connect with Ariadne! I started out thinking she was going to be the Ariadne of most versions of the myth: a young, beautiful, innocent princess who helped Theseus with his Minotaur-slaying mission, only to be unceremoniously dumped on the first island they came to after their escape from Crete. But once I’d written a couple of chapters, I got stuck. Ariadne was just too young, beautiful, and innocent to propel the kind of story I wanted to tell. There was nothing for it: I had to turn her into a horrible, scheming, bitchy character. But she didn’t end up being only that. I tried to work in some reasons for her horribleness, and I tried to have her show a teensy bit of remorse, on a couple of occasions. I think it’s these motivations and moments that might allow readers to get into her head and understand her, even if they absolutely can’t like her.

As for what I enjoyed most about writing her: all of the above. Unambiguously good characters can be extremely boring to write, as can unambiguously bad ones. Complexity’s much more fun—so Ariadne was a joy!

What kind of research did you do for the book?
As I mentioned in my first answer, I tried, a long time ago, to write a book set in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. I’d never done so much research before. It was so seductive, so addictive: I could read books and articles, fill index cards with notes, then colour-code them; I could print out maps and photos and spread everything out on the floor to examine—and I didn’t have to write! “Nope—not writing yet—just doing the research…” Except that I never did make headway with the actual writing. The research smothered the story.

This time, wracked with superstitious fear, I did almost no research. I had some vague memories of what I’d read about Minoan history, and I looked back at images of Knossos and Crete for inspiration—but that’s all it was: inspiration. A sense of place that helped conjure up the kind of wonder I needed to write.

For a much wordier account of my profoundly ambivalent relationship with “worldbuilding”, drop by artist John Howe’s website and read this.

thepatternscarsWhat supporting characters did you most enjoy writing?
Icarus (who takes on a much more central role in the sequel). He’s another pretty complex character: totally in lust with Ariadne, but friends with the half-brother she hates, and with Chara, the slave she torments. He’s conflicted, not fully in any one camp—and that goes for his physical as well as his emotional state. He’s part-boy, part-bird, apparently condemned to be neither, fully. Trying to capture this slightly freakish physicality was enormously enjoyable.

What is your writing process like?
From the time I was about thirteen until I finished The Pattern Scars in 2009, I wrote longhand. At 13 I wrote on 3-ring binder paper; in 2009 I wrote in a series of notebooks, carefully selected for their size, colours and design (they were spiral-bound, so I could flip the covers inside-out—if that makes any sense!). I chose my pens with an equally obsessive degree of care. I wrote only in public places: classrooms, the streetcar, cafés, pubs. Once I’d finished a handwritten section (i.e. when I arrived at work after my writing stint on the streetcar), I’d immediately type it into the computer. And once I was done a chapter, I’d print it out. I’d handwrite my revisions, too, and stick those pages in with the printed-out ones. The written draft was almost illegible, and the edited drafts were messy to the point of chaos, but that was how I worked, and it worked.

Almost all of this changed, with The Door in the Mountain. I got my first laptop. I swore this wouldn’t make a difference to my writing process, but it did. Not only did I start writing directly on the computer, but I started writing at home: on the front porch; in the backyard; in bed. And all of a sudden, I wasn’t writing a linear story: I was jumping around from scene to scene, which was also unprecedented. I thought, more than once, “What am I doing, messing with my process like this??”—but I think it also worked. I hope it did, anyway.

You’ve been writing from a very young age. What was one of your favorite books as a child?
The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander. A friend gave it to me for my 7th birthday, and I read it without understanding much: I had no idea that it was book two in a series. Once I figured that out, read the first book, and re-read The Black Cauldron, I was hooked. And that book remained my favourite of the five.

blackcauldronAlthough you asked for only one favourite book, I’ll cheat a little and mention that, waaaay before The Black Cauldron, there was Goodnight Moon. I have vivid memories of this picture book being read to me: the muted colours, my parents’ voices, the pages I insisted on turning. In 2006, I was asked to do a reading at 3:30 a.m. at the first Nuit Blanche event held in Toronto. It was magical: a candle-lit room full of people, all sitting on cushions or reclining on couches. The authors had been asked to read something of their own, and something they associated with bedtime. I read Goodnight Moon. At the end of every line, the audience filled in the rhyme.

“Goodnight nobody…Goodnight mush…Goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘Hush’….”

Magical.

What are you currently reading? Are there any books you’re particularly looking forward to in the near future?
My day job, my night job (teaching creative writing at the University of Toronto), and my family take up so much of my time that I can only read for pleasure on the subway to and from the day job. (I read reams of student stories, and pieces of stories, every week—but I have to critique this too, so it’s work.) To give you an idea of the oddball choices I make, I’ll tell you that right now I’m finishing Peter Benchley’s Beast—and that before it, I read J.G. Ballard’s short story collection, The Disaster Area. The ridiculous and the sublime, both plucked from the shelf in my husband’s office. (Though I must admit that I’m finding Beast, published in 1991, surprisingly prescient on the whole climate change front—and I’m learning some pretty fascinating things about the history of Bermuda.)

Once I have some non-public-transit-related reading time, I’d love to dive into Lev Grossman’s Magicians series.

What’s next for you?
About a month ago, I finished the first draft of the sequel to The Door in the Mountain. After I’ve finished the edits and it’s out of my hands again for good, I’ll do what I did back in 2009: panic. Or maybe it’ll be more like simmering trepidation than panic—because I might actually have some ideas. I could take on another myth, set in my own godmarked version of ancient Greece…I could stick closer to home and write a ghost story set in contemporary Toronto, which would involve lust, murder and mayhem in the nasty Toronto Central Prison of the late 1800s…

Stay tuned! And thank you so much for letting me drop by.

Keep up with Caitlin: Website

About THE DOOR IN THE MOUNTAIN:
WE ARE ALL MONSTERS

Lost in time, shrouded in dark myths of blood and magic, The Door in the Mountain leads to the world of ancient Crete: a place where a beautiful, bitter young princess named Ariadne schemes to imprison her godmarked half-brother deep in the heart of a mountain maze, where a boy named Icarus tries, and fails, to fly—and where a slave girl changes the paths of all their lives forever.

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