Interview with Nancy McKenzie
Of all the classic tales handed down from the past, those of King Arthur and his court are perhaps the most beloved - and the most frequently retold. A simple list of the versions on the shelves of Waldenbooks at any given time includes some of the most popular books of our time. Now add to that list the name of Nancy McKenzie, author of The Child Queen.
McKenzie's first novel is an in-depth look at Guinevere, one of the most central figures of the Arthurian cycle. Arthur's queen has always been something of an enigma - as she was at first to McKenzie.
"I decided to write about Guinevere because I never understood her," the author told Hailing Frequencies. "I wanted to make her into someone a 20th-century person could understand."
At first, she had no thought of publishing her story. Only after her sister Meg urged her to try sending it out did she find an agent, and then a publisher.
Her inspiration came mostly from modern treatments of the legend, especially her personal favorite, Mary Stewart. One crucial decision was to set the story firmly in the period in which it originated. "I had always objected to having the story set in medieval times. I was never comfortable picturing Arthur in full armor, complete with lance. If he lived, he lived in the fifth century, and I've tried hard to avoid putting in details that didn't exist at the time. I've tried to make the story understandable for 20th century people. I feel it is easier to do that by placing it in the time at which it was supposed to occur, but making the people comprehensible to me. They might not be comprehensible to a 5th century Celt, but there aren't any of them around to read it..."
As the title indicates, The Child Queen covers the story of Guinevere's early years. While McKenzie is not a great fan of T.H. White's Once and Future King, she gives him credit for the idea of beginning with her heroine as a young girl. "I had a clear picture of who she was, and I thought that showing her in childhood would help to explain how she reacted in the later events of her life." Those events are covered in the second volume, which Del Rey will publish early next year; the probable title is The High Queen.
McKenzie has finished the draft of a book which picks up at the end of The High Queen, "...while Lancelot and Guinevere are still alive. My sister suggested I finish up their story, so I did that through telling the story of Lancelot's son, Galahad. I've got kind of a new twist to the quest, but it's basically a story about a boy growing up and how he changes. In the course of that book we find out what happens to Lancelot and Guinevere."
As with many writers, McKenzie began by making up stories about popular TV characters and writing them for her friends. "I had eight or nine volumes of these things, stuff that I wanted to see on TV and probably never would." A philosophy major in college, she also took creative writing courses, which she feels taught her to edit herself. "I still write down exactly what comes into my head, and I'm usually very verbose, but I'm much better than I ever used to be at going back and taking things out."
Among her own favorite writers she lists "all of Mary Stewart, not just her ones about Arthur," J.P. Marquand ("I just love reading his sentences"), George Eliot's Middlemarch ("one of my favorite books"), and P.D. James. In between reading and writing, she runs a freelance desktop publishing business.
Originally printed in Waldenbooks "Hailing Frequencies"
Sci-Fi & Fantasy Review, #14, 1994