It’s Wednesday, and it must be time for another edition of Author Wednesday. Today we’ll take a step back to the 14th century with author Glen Craney as Kind Edward I attempts to steal Scotland. The Spider and the Stone: A Novel of Scotland’s Black Douglas chronicles the story of James Douglas as he attempts to thwart the king and keep Scotland safe from the intruders. The historical novel has been described as “A thrilling historical epic of star-crossed love and heroic sacrifice set during the Scottish Wars of Independence.” The book has received several awards, including first place Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction. It is a great honor to have Glen join me today to talk about The Spider and the Stone.
Hello, Glen! Welcome to Author Wednesday. Let’s start with your life as a writer. I’m always curious about the moment when writers first discover they have a ‘voice.’ When did you first discover your voice as a writer?
I came to fiction later than most novelists, following stints as a trial lawyer and a political reporter. Several years ago, I had a flirtation with the movie business after winning the Nicholl Fellowship, an award given by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences for best new film writing. Readers often tell me my novels have a cinematic quality. Perhaps that’s because I learned the craft of screenwriting first. I soon discovered it’s difficult to get any movie produced, but particularly an intelligent, sophisticated one that stays true to historical events. The original writer’s vision usually gets lost in the shuffle of multiple writers and studio demands for taking dramatic license. So, I decided to write my historical stories as books.
You’ve had a rich career. I love it when what we’ve done before coalesces into the creation of something more. Sounds as if that’s just what happened for you. Rachel Carson (Silent Spring author) said she never chose a subject because as a writer, the subject chose her. Has this ever happened to you?
The inspiration for my first three novels came in dreams. In the dream that led me to The Spider and the Stone, I was a mounted knight caught in a death struggle along a stream with a black-robed hag who attacked me with a sickle. The scene then shifted to a celebratory photograph of seven knights standing around a seated monarch. Below this tableau, a caption appeared: “Americans Aid the King at Bannockburn.”
I awoke and wrote the dream down, even though none of it made any sense. If I had heard of the Battle of Bannockburn, its significance had long since been lost to my school days. The caption and photograph were even more bizarre. Robert the Bruce won his unlikely victory against the English in 1314, nearly five hundred years before the United States was even an idea.
Two months later, I was in Scotland walking along the burn of Bannock with Stirling Castle looming in the distance. That stream looked similar to the one that had appeared in my dream. Eventually, I also came to understand the meaning of the caption suggesting that Americans aided King Robert at the battle.
That’s an incredible story. Of course, you had to write this novel. I’ve had dreams where names and scenes came to me, but nothing quite as graphic as yours. What a lovely gift given to you from somewhere! So you have the dream and some of the things start appearing in reality. That’s still a long way from writing a full-fledged epic novel. How did you make the story leap from your imagination onto the page?
After that first trip, I traveled to Scotland twice more to visit the sites I would write about in the novel. I had assumed Robert the Bruce would be my main character. But as I drove from castles to battlefields, I began to learn more about James Douglas, the Bruce’s best friend and war lieutenant, and Isabelle MacDuff, the woman who defied her clan to crown the Bruce. These two Scot patriots took hold of my story. On my flight back to Los Angeles, I began outlining the novel. Twelve hours later, I walked off the plane with every chapter and scene planned out.
I’m impressed. The subject not only chose you, it grabbed you and held you hostage until you told the story! I see that you write mostly historical fiction. Are there certain messages or themes you try to put in every novel?
Before I tackle a subject, I apply a three-pronged test: 1) Is it a great story? 2) Will it reveal or develop some new aspect about the period or person? and 3) Will it deal with issues relevant today? If I can satisfy two of the three conditions, I know I have a novel worth writing. If I get lucky and find all three present, I’m hopeful for one of those rare books that will stand the test of time.
In my opinion, there is no higher calling for a historical novelist than to rattle the cages of the powerful and expose history’s encrusted myths and hagiographies. I prefer to accuse the victors and comfort its losers. And I never let myself forget Shakespeare’s admonition: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in’t.”
That’s so true no matter the genre of fiction. Speaking of genres, will you continue writing historical fiction?
Historical fiction will always be my favorite, but I’ve also written mystery-thrillers with historical themes. My most recent, The Virgin of the Wind Rose, is a dual-period thriller in which two global conspiracies, half a millennium apart, dovetail to expose the true identity of Christopher Columbus.
That sounds very interesting, Glen. Let’s talk about reviews now. What’s the best thing said about one of your books by a reviewer?
A Vietnam War veteran posted an Amazon review for The Spider and the Stone. Paraphrasing doesn’t do his words justice, so I’ll quote from his review:
“Now you must understand, moving me to tears is difficult because I am a battle hardened veteran who led the platoon credited with killing the most enemy in the 25th Division in March of 1969. No brag – just fact… but it left me somewhat emotionless. This scene touched my Scottish-American warrior’s heart.
“Glen Craney writes some of the most lucid, plausible accounts of battles whose histories and the ground often do not make sense. His accounts not only make sense but are some of the most exciting reading I have ever done. He seems to understand the relationship between battle buddies more than most authors. He beautifully presents The Bruce and The Douglas as battle buddies from their first youthful fistfight to Bannockburn. I believe him. Thank you, Glen!”
A review like that makes all the years of toil worth the effort.
It’s a fantastic review, and I’m sure it inspired you to continue on this path. Do you listen to music when you write?
While writing Spider, I listened to Loreena McKennitt, the talented Canadian musical artist who plays upon Celtic themes. I soon began to hear a movie score in my head. Each important scene fit perfectly with one of her songs: The Mummer’s Dance for the start of the Battle of Bannockburn; The Prologue for the rescue attempt at Roxburgh; the threading of Raglan Road across several incidents. I even envisioned her as the perfect choice to play Morgainne, the raven goddess who appears throughout the novel. I sent Ms. McKennitt a copy of the book with a note of thanks for the inspiration and received a nice response.
I can see this in movie form now with Loreena McKennitt providing the soundtrack. I’ll have to check her out while I’m reading The Spider and the Stone.
About Glen: Glen Craney is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. He holds graduate degrees from Indiana University-Indianapolis School of Law and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After practicing trial law, he joined the Washington, D.C. press corps to cover national politics and the Iran-contra trial for Congressional Quarterly magazine. His books have taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, to the Scotland of Robert Bruce, to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, to the trenches of France during World War I, and to the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.