Ruth Long is an Irish author (and Dublin native) who’s written romantic fantasy as R.F. Long and YA as Ruth Frances Long. Her latest novel, A Hollow in the Hills, is the second in a YA trilogy (the first, A Crack in Everything, came out last year) set in Dublin, and starring a cast of mythical beings—and Izzy Gregory, the teenager who gets mixed up with them.
In the spirit of national chauvinism and because she bought me a drink, I decided to ask Ruth a few questions this week.
Well, okay. Also because I rather appreciate her YA novels.
LB: Standard opening question! How do you think women—whether as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. What has been your experience?
RFL: I’ve been really lucky. Coming from a background in romance I have a tremendous group of amazing supportive women writers behind me, primarily in the shape of the Romantic Novelists Association. As a professional organization for writers I cannot recommend it highly enough. It also taught me that though writing by women is generally not given the prestige that writing by men is, that doesn’t matter a whole lot so long as you have your people with you. I find the writers around me here in Ireland to be similar—always supportive, happy to offer help and advice, and sometimes just a hug when needed. So many women work in publishing.
I think it’s very clear to me that men’s writing is generally taken more seriously than that by women but I also believe that is changing. In the past perhaps we were expected to write light, fluffy, delicate works of fiction that weren’t terribly important, but that isn’t what turns up on the page now. YA in particular is no holds barred. And I’ll happily argue that writing romance is, in itself, a feminist act—an entire genre aimed at, written by and starring women.
In SFF I see less problems than, for example, in the literary world. Personally, I’ve experienced less issues than many others. The fandoms I find myself interacting with are there because they love something so much they want to share it–a wild and crazy positive joy. I believe things are changing and a lot of it has to do with new generations of fans coming up with different attitudes and thoughts about norms than has been prevalent in the past. I sound like the optimism bunny here, perhaps, but so many barriers have been broken down, I can’t see us going back and rebuilding them. Not intentionally, anyway.
LB: Second question! Your Izzy Gregory novels (A Crack in Everything, A Hollow in the Hills) are set in Dublin (and surrounds) and use and adapt quite a bit of local colour and mythology. What’s the attraction of telling a local story? Do you ever feel there are downsides?
RFL: I’ve always been a folklore fan, and I love local stories. Folklore is always planted very firmly in place, especially Irish folklore. It’s not like the grand mythological stories. More often than not an Irish story goes something along the lines of “see that hill over there? Don’t go there at night. Let me tell you what happened to my brother when he did…” Over the years that has morphed into urban legends—stories that happened to a friend of a friend, usually supernatural, terrifying and lethal. So growing up I was always hearing local legends and stories. I’d been reading Urban Fantasy and it was always set in the US or London which irked me a bit because here we had all this amazing stuff linked directly to the city and country around me. And then on my birthday in 2009, I was walking down South William Street in Dublin and I came across an amazing piece of graffiti—a black and white angel—on a pair of double doors over an alley entrance. She was absolutely breathtaking. I still have the photo I took that day. And that kicked off the whole story—seeing that angel, filling in the background with Irish legends, and not being able to get it out of my head.
As a writer I am really interested in details. I believe that in order to write fantasy well you need to ground it in an absolute sense of reality. You create that on the page. You’re already asking a huge amount from a reader to go with the fantastic elements so in order for that to work you need to make the “reality” of your world (whether real or not) feel completely solid. I find the best way to do that is to get the details, research them thoroughly and make them as real as possible. So I am, in effect, obsessed with research. One of the really handy things about writing about Dublin and living here is that I can easily go and find the places and check out all those details, niggle around until I find the right place. I drag my poor family on research trips up mountains and through ancient monuments. They know the National Museum like the back of their hands. The great thing about Dublin is that no matter how well you think you know it, there’s always something new. It seems to change all the time–whether roadworks, or street art, or alleys you never knew were there. It has over a thousand years of history and some of it is pretty bizarre. There are awesome place names like Wormwood gate and Misery Hill. Even the now defunct World’s End Lane (sadly renamed the more pedestrian Foley Street). And that’s just in the immediate environs of the city. Once you spread out into the county you’ve got millennia to draw upon right back to the earliest inhabitants of the island. We’ve visited the Casino in Marino, the Leprechaun Museum, the Hellfire Club and many more. And of course we’ve all grown up exploring Killiney Hill and Dalkey.
Irish legends have always been a bit wacky as well, to say the least so it’s great to delve into them and give them a modern slant. Many of my fae people of Dubh Linn [the fae city alongside the mundane Dublin in the Izzy Gregory books –LB] are city dwellers through and through and hate the idea of the countryside, so they’re a far cry from their ancestors. Fae creatures are always portrayed as incredibly old, but I wondered for example, what happened with their children who would be only teens by human terms, how they viewed the world. I love the thought of how these beings, some of them immortal or as good as, some of them so very young in comparison, would interact. I also wondered how they might have developed and changed over the years as the world moved on.
As for drawbacks, well, I guess there is the fear that I will get things wrong. If something is incorrect, someone will notice and call me on it. But fixing that is down to research and edits. I also worry that someone will get annoyed with me because I had my characters do something awful in their place of business but no one has complained yet. (Fingers crossed). Hopefully it’ll bring them more visitors.
LB: As a Dublin local myself, I’m interested: tell us about your favourite (real) places that are locations in the book? Dublin isn’t as iconic as London or New York…
RFL: Favourite place… that is actually a really difficult one. There are so many.
For an idiosyncratic note probably the tiny house on Dame Street—it’s a real oddity, a strip of redbrick building between two completely different grey fronted buildings. No windows, just a door with a white plaque above it depicting a ship. The roof isn’t connected to the buildings on either side and it looks really odd. [This is the house Ruth means –LB] In reality I believe it’s a part of the one of the other buildings, possibly part of the offices of the Central Bank. But it just looks… so different to everything around it. Apparently the plaque depicts a ship which sailed from Dublin with a lot of local investment and cargo and vanished. People waited for years for it to return but it didn’t, so in the end they wrote it off as lost at sea. The plaque was put up to commemorate it. But then, the ship arrived back, with tales of pirates and adventures and sailing the seven seas. Or so I heard. I can’t remember the source now, or find it, which kind of makes the story even better. In A Hollow in the Hills the door here is a gateway to a Sídhe safe space, called a Liberty, an idea based on the Liberties of Dublin, an area of medieval Dublin with their own jurisdiction, laws and freedoms.
Another favourite place, altogether more open to visitors, is the Chester Beatty Library, in the grounds of Dublin Castle. Not just because it’s a gorgeous museum, in a lovely setting, but also because it houses an incredible collection of books and manuscripts from all periods of history, including some of the oldest surviving Gospel fragments, and one of the most important Qu’ran collections outside the Middle East. But of course I’m a librarian by day, so I’m biased. (But it really is a must see if you’re ever visiting Dublin. Also a lovely building and a super restaurant. This message brought to you by Irish Tourism…)
And then there’s Killiney Hill and Dalkey, the area where I grew up. Dalkey is just gorgeous, full of character. And Killiney is a beautiful pocket of the wild right on the edge of Dublin. It features more in A Crack in Everything than in A Hollow in the Hills, but given it’s where Brí [one of the fae characters in the novels –LB] lives, it’s a really important location in the books. The hill even has its own little step pyramid, the Wishing Stair, where local tradition says if you climb it, circling each step at a time, and then sit at the top looking towards Dalkey Island and make a wish, it will be granted. I’ve done it many times. Does it work? Well… I couldn’t possibly say.
LB: You’ve spoken a little bit about folklore. But what else has influenced you—or who? Are there any writers you’d name as influences?
RFL: Gosh, so many things.
Music is a huge influence on me. I make playlists for the books as I write, again as I edit and usually a final one. There is at least one song that sums up the theme. It can be pretty eclectic.
Myths and legends, obviously, and a total childhood obsession with Robin Hood and King Arthur. I read everything I could lay my hands on.
In terms of writers—Susan Cooper is a total hero of mine. I don’t know how many times I reread The Dark is Rising series. It just stays with me all the time. Also Alan Garner. I remember seeing an interview with him where he talked about his home as the place where he learned the rockness of rock and the treeness of tree. It stuck with me because I have places like that.
I read the Lord of the Rings a ridiculous number of times as a teenager. I love the aesthetic of Alan Lee’s interpretations of Tolkien’s world. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are other writers I enjoy, especially Good Omens, which I think contains one of the best interpretations of the ineffability of God ever written. The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea was also a big influence on me, because here I first encountered Irish legends as things that could be played with, adapted, and made new. It opened up a world of story telling, oral tradition and reinterpretation to me.
Celticism in general is fascinating to me, along with many pre-Christian and “Dark Age” cultures. History has the best stories, often so much stranger than fiction. I studied Celtic Civilisation for a year in college, and also a lot of Old and Middle English while doing my English degree. And I continually drag my family on field trips to “interesting” places when we’re on holidays. My favourites so far were Carcassonne; a Templar Commanderie in Arville, Brittany; and Wayland’s Smithy. (To look for a gate. I was in the final edits of The Treachery of Beautiful Things at the time and couldn’t remember if there was a gate—or where it was. I was sure it was there, but couldn’t find out online, or by contacting people. So we went there. Right where I thought it was, there was a gate!)
LB: So what do you read yourself these days?
RFL: My reading has slowed down a lot of late, but I have been reading Celine Kiernan (her latest, Resonance, is an Irish gothic wonder), Liz de Jager (the Blackheart trilogy—can’t wait for the last one, Judged), and I’m about to start in on my friend E. R. Murray’s middle-grade The Book of Learning, once I’ve finished sobbing over The Shepherd’s Crown.
LB: Final question! What are you working on at the moment? What are your ambitions for the future?
RFL: Primarily I’m working on the third book in the trilogy, after A Crack in Everything and A Hollow in the Hills. At the moment my main ambition is to get it right! It’s a tough one, actually, and there are some very dark themes running through it at the moment that I need to capture correctly. I put my characters through the mill in the first two books and there have to be repercussions. So that’s fun!
I’m also working on a timeslip with a more classic feel, and a space opera, because who doesn’t love space opera?
Not sure what ambitions I have as such. It’s been a rather amazing year, between receiving the European Science Fiction Association Spirit of Dedication award for best creator of Children’s Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the two Dubh Linn books. Of course, I could say I’d love to make bestseller lists and have a swimming pool full of money! But I really just want to keep improving my writing, telling the best stories I possibly can. I hope they find readers who love them. That’s the most important thing.