Behind the Scenes of Daughters of the Storm

Q&A with Kim Wilkins

How did you research the book?

Even though the book is fantasy I wanted it to feel like a historical novel, and so I chose a period in history that I'm borderline obsessed with: the Anglo-Saxon period (which is sometimes called "the Dark Ages"). I read everything I could about the period and acquired dozens and dozens of wonderful books about weapon-making, craft, seasons and festivals, and I even found an Anglo-Saxon cookbook. While I was researching the novel, an amateur treasure hunter in Staffordshire in England happened upon a hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver, and I went to see that at the British Museum and also visited a series of Anglo-Saxon barrows at Sutton Hoo. I made friends with re-enactors and watched them fight in armour on a sweltering hot Brisbane day. I used all of this as a basis for my world, and then built on it as I needed to. Obviously, women didn't have the agency in the Anglo-Saxon period that they have in my story, but that's why fantasy is so great: you can let your imagination run free. The Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity a little earlier and more readily than my characters do, as well. It was like rewriting history in ways that I found interesting so that I could tell a really strong, page-turning adventure story.

There is a strong sense of place in the book: is it inspired by anywhere specific?

The setting is based very heavily on England. It's called Thyrsland, which means the land of the giants. Some evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxons saw the ruins that the Romans had left behind and because they had no idea how they were built, they assumed that giants must have left them. There's a wonderful poem called "The Ruin" that deals with this idea: "The city buildings fell apart, the works / Of giants crumble". But what I hoped to capture was some of that deep, mythic Englishness that I saw in the Anglo-Saxon literature I read, but also in English literature more broadly. Luckily for me, this necessitated some very enjoyable research trips to the United Kingdom. I climbed Glastonbury Tor and lay in the sunshine making daisy chains. I tramped through woodlands, skimmed stones in crystal streams, walked the medieval walls in York, sat under ancient yews in churchyards, ate wild blackberries off the vine. I could only put in about a tenth of the description I wanted to, otherwise it would have sounded like a travel diary.

Tell us about learning old English and how did Beowulf influence the book?

My interest in all things Anglo-Saxon started with my having read the literature as part of my degree in English literature, and circled right back there. I had learned Anglo-Saxon language, or Old English as it's more commonly known, as a master's student in the 1990s. I picked up my books again when I started researching Daughters of the Storm and I formed a Beowulf reading group at University of Queensland where I work. Our goal was to read the entire poem (and it's very long!) in original Old English, something that ultimately took us eighteen months to do. I can't tell you how influential the language and the literature have been. I grew to love the kennings; for example, "bone-house" is a kenning for body, "sword-juice" is a kenning for blood, "whale-road" is a kenning for the sea, and tried to come up with a few myself. But the language was also helpful in terms of naming places and ideas. Now, I'm standing in the very long shadow of Professor Tolkien here, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. While reading Beowulf, I became aware how much The Lord of the Rings had been influenced by Old English. Theoden, for example, is just the Old English word for chieftan, while Eowyn means the joy of horses.

The most interesting part of learning Old English was the words in OE that we have no direct translation for. For example, seledreorig means literally "hall-sad" or to be sad and longing to be back at your Lord's hall; dustsceawung means "the contemplation of dust" or to think about your mortality; and meadodream means "the joy of drinking mead". These concepts must have been important, because they bothered to come up with words for them, so I think that tells you a lot about their culture.

Was there any particular inspiration for the characters of the sisters, especially Bluebell?

It was very important for me that this was a female-centred narrative and in a way all five sisters have literary antecedents. The unwise lover, the schemer, the pious woman, the oracle. But usually they are written about in terms of how they appear in men's narratives: as women to be fucked or avoided or saved or turned to for divine wisdom. I wanted to write all these characters from the inside, and there's something very intimate about that. I began to think of this series as my "intimate epic", with all of the scope and story of fantasy but with that very close, very female-centred heart and guts.

Bluebell is a special case. She absolutely has a history in literature, but more in Old Norse literature. You could say she's a version of the skjaldmeyjar or shieldmaiden in the sagas, but I'm so tired of women only being allowed to wield a sword if they are also virgins, so she's not really a maiden as she does quite like a bit of a roll in the hay. Ultimately, she's more like a female version of the male characters in the heroic sagas, who are more like superheroes. Not quite gods, but capable of strength and endurance beyond mere mortals. Bluebell is in that space, really; and we see the other characters telling the stories about her that spread the rumour that she is unkillable. And again, I get to write about her from the inside. Let me tell you, she was the funnest character EVER to write.