Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Stone Circle, a historical fantasy novel by Kate Murdoch, which quickly became one of my favorite reads of the year. From beautifully vivid descriptions of the Italian landscape during the Renaissance, to an incredibly realistic system of magic, Stone Circle was by far one of the best cross-genre works I read last year and was one of our Staff Picks for November.
This month, we were able to speak with Murdoch about the publication of her first novel, where she gave us a great deal of writing advice, explained the writing process, and discussed her interests and background in art and history and how they influenced her work.
Read our full interview with Kate Murdoch below.
Melissa Ratcliff: I understand that your writing career began as a short story and flash fiction author. For those of us that are not familiar with your short form fiction, can you tell us more about it? Are there any specific topics or themes that you find yourself writing about more often than others? Are there any specific authors or works of fiction that have inspired your writing?
Kate Murdoch: I often write about outsiders, people who don’t fit the mold and are isolated as a result. Different kinds of loss—from losing innocence, to losing relationships. The fact that loss can simultaneously be a gain. I’ve written about love, that reoccurs quite a lot. I wrote a story about women’s equality and how we have to assert ourselves over and over throughout our lives. Spirituality is also a preoccupation. So my themes are quite diverse.
Similarly, the authors who have inspired me write in a variety of styles and genres. For magical realism and lyricism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho. For social insight and humour Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jeanette Winterson. For emotional layers M.L. Stedman, Hannah Kent and Kate Grenville. I also love reading Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami and Markus Zusak.
MR: Can you describe what the writing process was like while writing Stone Circle? Was the transition from short form fiction to full length novel difficult?
KM: Unlike my first (unpublished) novel which I wrote in eight months, I took my time with Stone Circle over a period of two years. I had the experience of the first manuscript, having redrafted and edited it extensively, which gave me the confidence to embark on another. The research was consuming but also satisfying. There were many details I needed to gain an understanding of the daily lives of Renaissance villagers. The society was very rigid and there was little chance of moving up the social ladder. So I wanted Antonius’s psychic ability to be the means by which he could reinvent himself and have social mobility. For me, long form originally felt more natural and I started to write in short form to challenge myself with a different skill.
MR: What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel?
KM: I’ve always been fascinated by history, by the idea that those living in different times and places shared the same fears, insecurities and hopes. When I write a historical fiction novel it’s an opportunity to immerse myself, to learn about a particular time and place and to create believable characters within that context.
MR: The atmosphere of Italy seems to be such a huge aspect of Stone Circle. You really go to great pains to describe different settings that Antonius explores throughout the novel, from the city streets of the Palazzo, to the caves and fields where the rituals are done. Did your background as an artist influence the historic setting in any way?
KM: Yes, in the sense that I’m an extremely visual person. I spent many years as a painter and creating a visual story is as important to me as the themes and emotions I’m trying to convey. I like to read novels that give me sensory and visual detail so the story plays out like a movie in my mind. So I suppose my approach to writing has reflected this, in that I’ve wanted the visuals to come to life, to place the reader deep within the scenes.
MR: While at its core, Stone Circle is very much a historical fiction novel that discusses class differences and lifestyles during the Renaissance, there are elements of fantasy and romance as well. Although it can be argued that the fantasy elements draw heavily off of spiritual and scientific pursuits practiced during the time period. Did you always intend for Stone Circle to be a cross genre work?
KM: No, in that I didn’t think a lot about genre when I wrote it. I think many writers, when they’re starting out, tend to write purely for pleasure. They don’t think much about marketing or genre. I remember wanting it to be a novel that had wide appeal, across ages and gender. Beyond that, I wanted to tell a story where the fantasy elements were grounded in reality. To that end, it was fortuitous that alchemy was being practiced at that time in Italy.
MR: One of the things that I absolutely loved about Stone Circle, aside from the love triangle, was the use of alchemy and the art of seeing as a form of magic, as they really felt relevant to the time period. There are a lot of historical fantasy novels that incorporate more popular forms of magic, such as spell casting or time travel, instead. What inspired you to write the fantasy elements of the novel? Did you always intend for them to be realistic in comparison to the time period?
KM: It was originally inspired by a dream I had, of two young men and an old man rowing in a canoe on a calm, glassy stretch of water. At that point, all I knew was that the old man was teaching them wisdom of some kind and the time period was long ago. Through research, I pinpointed alchemy as reaching a pinnacle during the Renaissance in Italy, so this gave me a clear direction for the story. I did want it to be as realistic as possible, and I think the scientific aspects of alchemy do give it more weight and grounding. For instance, when Savinus lights a fire as part of alchemical rituals or distills healing liquid. There is an earthiness to the practices that was intentional. I wanted to convey the characters’ relationship with their natural surroundings. In alchemy there is a saying ‘As above, so below.’ Antonius learns both higher philosophical concepts and the connection with nature and the elements.
MR: As an author that has written in a variety of different mediums now, from flash fiction and short stories to novels, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
KM: I would recommend writing as many short stories as possible, to find a voice and work out what themes interest them the most. Mastering short form helps with confidence—in many ways it’s just as difficult as long form because you need to create balance and resolution in fewer words. To persevere and overcome self-doubt by realizing that writers succeed by repetition. Sitting down and typing, mining their experiences, over and over again. Then having the courage to show the results to others. Most importantly, having the courage to fail and be vulnerable. There will always be ups and downs, winning and losing.
MR: Going off of that, are there any book recommendations that you could give us, whether it be something you read and recently enjoyed, or something that you are looking forward to reading in the future?
KM: I’ve just read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and loved it—her astute eye, her wit and her observations are beautiful and raw.
MR: We recently learned that you are going to be publishing your next novel, The Orange Grove, in 2019. Can you tell us anything more about your next work of historical fiction?
KM: The Orange Grove is about the intrigues of mistresses in 18th century France. It explores ambiguity within morality, obsession and madness. Against the rich backdrop of the French court a black mass takes place, poison is procured and a duel is fought. Alliances and divisions occur in a society where spiritualism is as common as lavish banquets, and status is a matter of life and death. I’m so looking forward to sharing it with readers in 2019.
Kate Murdoch’s first published novel, Stone Circle, is now available for purchase. If you want to know more about her short form fiction, she has flash fiction and a few short stories available to read on her blog.