Song of the Sparrow is a beautiful verse novel about Elaine of Ascolat, a character who appears in the Arthurian legends. I was so taken with this book that when I saw that author Lisa Ann Sandell was going to be at BEA, I asked if I could interview her. Luckily, she was able to make time for me, and we met at the Scholastic booth on Saturday afternoon after her autographing session. I recorded the interview on my iPod and then transcribed it from the recording.
This is your second novel in verse. Why do you write in verse?
I don’t only write in verse. But for this book it felt very natural. It felt natural first, because of the canon into which it is going to live, and second, I wanted to evoke this sort of dreamy world, and a world where nature is really important.
Your bio says that you’ve been interested in the Arthurian legends and tales for a long time. How did you first get interested?
That’s a good question. I remember watching the movie The Sword in the Stone when I was a little kid, and the romance and the adventure of it really stayed with me. Then in college I wrote my thesis on Lancelot.
What did you write about Lancelot?
The thesis was Thomas Malory’s infatuation with the tragic hero. It was more academic than that, but in doing the course, I read a lot of the texts.
I found your afterword really interesting. I’m glad you put that in because I really learned a lot from it. I always think of there being the Arthurian stories but reading what you wrote I really realized that there are many different versions.
That’s interesting, because when researching this book, I read a lot of history books, and some of the ancient ones. It was very interesting to see the way that Arthur is represented so differently from text to text.
That actually ties in to one of my other questions. I thought it was very interesting that you represented all the elements in a historical way, and tried to have a way that they could really have happened, like Merlin putting the sword into the earth. It was very realistic and seemed like it could really have happened that way. Why did you decide to cast it that way?
I got so wrapped up in the research—I love doing research; it’s a great way to procrastinate. I was really interested in trying to make it as historically accurate as I thought it could be, given the fact that nobody really knows if Arthur really lived. I was so intrigued. We really know so little about it.
Which is fascinating, because there’s so much written about it…
I think that the mystery allows us to imagine, and it makes it a really rich period to mine for stories. It gives us a lot of room to make stuff up.
And I guess there are themes in the Arthurian stories that are timeless.
Arthur is a figure that people have loved for centuries and he’ll continue to be that kind of figure, because he represents everything that is good and everything that can give people hope. Another thing that struck me as I was doing the research and trying to plot out this book, was that that was a time of war, and this is a time of war, and people want to look for hope and ideals to get behind and believe.
There’s a lot of imagery of trees in the story and the trees seem to play an important role. What’s the importance of the trees?
I wanted to evoke nature in Elaine’s life. I mean, she lives outside, she doesn’t live in a house. Being the only girl in the camp, I think, gives her a sense of loneliness. And trees are always there and they’re solid and they’re sturdy and a battle isn’t going to take them down. I think that they represent a sense of security and validity that she doesn’t have in her everyday life. But, there’s also the basic fact that they’re there and she’s there too. Her life is outdoors.
Having read all of these Arthurian legends, I’ve seen the women be treated really unfairly. They never get to be heroes and they never get to do anything really meaningful. They’re either waiting to be rescued or they’re bringing down the whole show. I felt like they deserve a better story. I chose to write about Elaine because of the John William Waterhouse painting of her that I love. She’s so luminous and beautiful and I just wanted to try to do better by her, to give her a more important part to play. And throughout the various texts, this character, who is known as Elaine of Astolat, or the Lady of Shalott, she usually falls in love with Lancelot and she gets rejected and then she dies. That doesn’t actually happen to women! Because I was placing the story in a more historical context I wanted to write a more realistic story.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me!
It was so nice to meet you! Thank you very much!