Last week, we announced the acquisition of The Stone Keep, the debut novel from Irish fantasy author, S. K. Marlay. In this interview, we catch up with Stella to discuss her writing career to date, her upcoming novel and the themes within, and the fictional worlds that have inspired her own.
What inspired you to write The Stone Keep?
SKM: A few years ago I had a run of traumas — my son almost died of meningitis at birth, then my mother died very suddenly, and a few weeks later I lost a job I loved when the company was sold.
In the middle of this grief, I went looking for some joy to hold onto. I remembered the joy reading fantasy has always brought me, and especially Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books as a teenager. That was when I decided to write a book, to try to find again that sense of joy and wonder in a story.
I’m from a deprived background, and when I was younger I did every kind of low-paid job under the sun, to try to make the money to get to college. In most of those jobs and then later, when I was in ‘better’ graduate jobs, I saw the same thing, over and over: how the powerful and wealthy sustain that power, by nakedly exploiting the energy and creativity of younger, poorer, more vulnerable people to the point of burnout. It was never talked about, simply accepted as an immutable fact.
Ever since then I wanted to write a story where that power structure, of exploiting people as resources to be drained, is more explicit even than in our world, and then explore the ways people survive within that system, the choices and the compromises they make, when it seems the only options are to be a user or the used. And, because in a story you can dream a bit, to ask the question, can the givers ever win, against those who only take?
What’s your writing process like? Do you plan everything out in meticulous detail or do you leave things open to develop as you write?
SKM: I had the main characters, their basic arc and how it would end in my head. In particular, thanks to a lonely childhood, I always knew I was going to write a story around a central character who knew the person she loved from a very early age — classic wish-fulfilment for child-me.
To actually start writing, I needed to come up with an opening scene that made me want to write it — a jumping-off point. That took a while, but when that finally fell into place, I wrote the first chapter very quickly and then kept going, working out each chapter as I went along.
What distinguishes your book from other fantasy books?
SKM: I’m onto a loser with that question! There are so many brilliant SFF books and writers I could never pretend my book is particularly distinguished from what’s gone before; everything I’ve thought of, some other clever person has definitely thought of it already.
I’d see myself more as not wanting to let down the proud tradition of SFF writers who’ve gone before, and to honour that. And because I’m Irish and we have this incredibly old, beautiful language, I’ve tried to work that in a bit, in the names, which are based on an ancient Irish tree alphabet, and in the places, many of which were inspired by real places here in Ireland.
Which authors most inspired your own writing? And are there any novels that you looked to when you were beginning to shape your own world?
SKM: Ursula Le Guin’s books completely shaped me, as I read her first when I was 11. I owned almost no books, but by random luck I was given a copy of the Farthest Shore that I wore the covers off, re-reading.
More recently, David Mitchell, Iain Banks and Terry Pratchett set the weather for me, in terms of my own writing. Also, more randomly I think the forest setting of the first Hunger Games movie reassured me I wasn’t the only one who still wanted to read/see stories in that kind of woodland setting.
And lastly, describe your book in one sentence.
SKM: A fast-paced story of love and sacrifice set in a beautifully realised world, that is also an exploration of power and exploitation.
The Stone Keep will be published by Heroic Books in November 2021.