Q&A; with author Rafe Martin


When did you first hear the Brothers Grimm Six Swans story? What was it about the tale that resonated with you?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when I first heard "The Six Swans." When I was very young I didn't have many children's books. But my mother would read to me from the encyclopedia she had had when she was a girl. It was called The Book of Knowledge and was so old it had articles in it like "Edison Invents The Lightbulb." But it also had fairy tales, many of them Grimm's brothers' tales. "The Six Swans" was probably one of the ones she read to me. When I was in college and graduate school I read most of the Grimm's tales on my own. I read them because I liked myths and legends and fairy tales. I discovered later that "The Six Swans" was one of my wife's favorite stories when she was young.

A number of things in the story resonated with me. The first and most dramatic was the transformation of the boys into swans. I was fascinated with werewolves at one time and here were were-swans, boys who could fly! I always loved flying. I was born on an Air Force base a year after my father came back from overseas in WWII where he was flying search and rescue missions over the Himalayas into China, Burma, and India. Airplanes were a passion we shared. Every year we'd go to a little airport in Flushing NY (long since paved over by La Guardia airport), and, in a tiny open-door piper cub, have a pilot fly us over the Statue of Liberty and Empire State building. I loved it! One of my earliest memories is of watching my father "solo" in a seaplane over Brooklyn harbor. My mother was holding my hand and she was terrified, but I remember simply being excited. In "The Six Swans" these boys can fly; I wished I could, fly, too. (One of the reasons I motorcycle a lot today is because riding a motorcycle is so much like flying).

The other thing that resonated with me is that weird ending of the tale, where we find out that the littlest brother ends up with a wing. It's not a totally happy ending. It's like a piece of the story is left dangling and now goes wandering out, after the tale is done, into real life. I think I identified with that boy. He's different. He doesn't fit in. I felt like that, too. I spent a lot of my childhood climbing high up into treetops, and perching there up in the sky, dreaming and imagining. At some point I began to wonder what was that boy's story. I began to see that we've all received an unfinished shirt, and we;ve all got a wing. His story is our own.

Writing Birdwing was my way of finding out what happened to that boy and finishing his story.

Where did the character of Horse come from? 

Horse was called forth by the story. As I began writing Birdwing I realized that once Ardwin left on his own he'd need someone he could talk with, otherwise he'd need to think a lot or talk aloud a lot. Who could he talk with? Aha! A talking Horse! Plus, I always had been fascinated by the Paleolithic cave paintings of horses. I thought it would be fun to have horse be one of those ancient horses of a kind we can only see now in our imaginations and in stories. So I gave Horse the physical characteristics you can see in those paintings. Then I began to realize that little tangle-coated, humpbacked horses appear in many fairy tales, especially Russian and Celtic ones. To me those little horses somehow connected with the cave paintings and so, go far far back into our own imaginations. And there is a very important talking horse in the Grimm's fairy tale, The Goose Girl. So Horse also had an important fairy tale and literary connection to the whole world of stories and he clearly became central to the life of Birdwing.

Horse's character has another little twist. When I am home writing alone I also have an animal companion -- our cat, Marley. Like Horse, he is spunky and timid at the same time, bold and mischievous, playful and nervous, and also very brave. And like Horse, who is Ardwin's animal companion, Marley is mine. So his character become the model for Horse.

Where did you get the names for your characters?

Naming can be mysterious. The name Ardwin came to me because it sounded like "hard wing" and "hard won." It is hard to be alone and hard to have a wing. And everything in that winged boy's life will be hard-won; nothing will be given easily to him. Which is why we like a character. They remind us of our courage and perseverance in the face of difficulties. And Ardwin also sounds like "ardor" or passion, something a boy with the wing will need if he's going to find his own unique road in life.

Alene reminded me of "alone." She was lost and alone to start with. And I liked that it began with "a" - like Ardwin.

Evron was a mysterious name that just came to me. I named her but I didn't discover really why that was her name until I wrote her death scene when I, along with Ardwin and the readers discover that she is the "Ever One," who goes "Ever On." Hence, Evron.

Belarius, the wizard, sounded like "hilarious." It also reminded me of both ancient Greek and ancient Celtic names as well, so it had connotations I liked for this old-world kind of character.

What about the two robots, Stephano and Trinculo?

If you read one of my favorite plays, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, you will see where those two names came from.

Your other novel for children, The World Before This One, is rooted in Native American tales, and Birdwing draws on European folklore. What other traditions from around the world attract you?

I find I am drawn to stories that speak to the imagination. I love myths and legends and folklore. These give us an alphabet or grammar of the imagination, revealing hopes, wishes, dreams, fears and the consequences of thought and action that seem to be pretty constant around the world. In them courage always wins out over cowardice, kindness always, in the end, succeeds and triumphs, and cruelty always fails. Native American stories have been important to my own imagination. Living in Rochester NY, I have had the good fortune to tell stories with Iroquois peoples and storytellers. Because of some of my Native American inspired picture books, I have also been invited, for the last nearly dozen years, to share stories with the children and young adults of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. These are communities in which myth is still truly alive. So such visits inspire me. I also like stories in which animals figure prominently and again, this can be in a story from anywhere in the world. But, if we are speaking of cultures, I have also been drawn to stories of various Asian traditions. Perhaps this reflects the influence of my father's experiences in flying in WW II in China, Burma, and India. I grew up with many things from those cultures that my father had brought back with him, as well as with his stories. In my office, where I write at home, I still have a spear and a quiver of poison darts, which he got from the Naga people of India when he was there over sixty years ago. But perhaps I also like those stories because of their kindness, mystery, elegance, and the abundance of animal characters that might appear in them, especially in the stories of India.

And I really like the stories and myths of ancient Ireland, too. They are very mysterious, very imaginative tales and remind me of a kind of ancient science fiction with travels to the Other World, visits with the Ever-Young, as well as elements of time dilation and time travel. Some of my reading of Irish and Celtic myths and stories definitely affected the atmosphere of Birdwing. Plus, Ardwin and his father, King Lugh, both have names that resonate with the world of Irish myth.

Your father brought back stories from his war service in the Himalayas. What affect did those stories have on you?

Four things stand out to me. First, that flying was a great experience. Second, that Asia, where he was flying, was made of many fascinating and ancient cultures. Third that in war, destinies and lives could change in an instant. For example, man could put his foot in his boot and a poisonous snake, a tiny but deadly krait, could bite him, and in three steps he'd be dead. Or, as happened to my father, someone might miss an easy mission on a chance circumstance and on that flight everyone who went could be killed leaving the one who remained the sole survivor. Finally, fourth that stories when told in words - which is how I got his stories - would form pictures in your mind.

You've traveled widely as a storyteller and perform before audiences, but you're also a writer. How do the two forms differ for you, and do they inform each other?

When telling a story you have to make it live for the audience in front of you. It has to work for them. So, every time you tell a tale it changes, it reveals different aspects of itself. It "speaks" to that particular audience. Also, because of the immediacy of storytelling, the effects of the tale are more dramatic. Only the told tale can make you scream aloud or JUMP! In addition a told tale is built of gestures and voice tones as much as of language. Lastly told tales are social events. The audience is made of many people listening together.

Written stories are read alone or read aloud to a very small group at most. They have only words, and emphasize thoughtfulness and a story's shape or pattern. Characters, too, can become more complex, reveal more sides. And you, the solitary reader, can go back to books on your own over and over and discover new things. So the story has more than an immediate emotional level. Also, description, which would slow a told tale down too much and cause listeners to doze or wander in their imaginations, become central to the written tale where everything that is to be seen, must be shown and created by words alone - not voice tones or physical gestures and demonstrations.

Telling stories helps me understand the needs of an audience and the need for dramatic moments that bring a story to life. Writing reminds me of the power of words themselves and of our interest as readers in exploring complex worlds in our own imaginations. I think that doing both helps me be both a better writer and a better storyteller.

As a child, what was your favorite Brothers Grimm tale?

I think it might have been Bearskin, the story of the soldier who returns from the war down on his luck and through his hardiness and kindness and courage and faithfulness, triumphs. And also there is a great young woman character in the story who he marries, who is also courageous, kind, faithful and true. And like Cinderella, she has two mean sisters who get a very severe and eerie punishment. But I also remember really loving Hansel and Gretel, King Grizzly Beard, Rapunzel, and Rumplestiltskin.

Do you have a different favorite tale now that you're an adult?

Yes. That would be The Six Swans.

What's your wing? Do you have a curse that you now find a blessing?

My imagination. As a child I was a dreamer imagining all sorts of things. I never saw how I would fit in. Now I see it as the greatest blessing. With my imagination I can create anything, have any adventure, make any wish come true - in a story.

Alene left her adoptive parents to go with Ardwin, and then discovers her true identity and her real father again. What happens with the parents she left behind?

Well, she has two sets of parents. Her real father is the crazy king Ulfius who is cured of his madness when his lost daughter, Alene, is found. Unfortunately, her mother died of grief when she was stolen away.

Alene's adoptive parents have a better time of it. They come to her wedding and I think they were delighted to find out that their little lost girl was a princess in reality, and that she had found the right husband. I also think that her adoptive father was relieved that her real father, Ulfius, was now sane and would not attack his country. Maybe he also saw that one good turn deserves another. Because he took in the little lost girl out of kindness and made her his own daughter and not simply a servant in the palace, he got rewarded. Ulfius was now his ally, and not an enemy. I think her adoptive mother was especially happy. Her little girl was happy at last. I'm not sure about her sisters. What did they think of Ardwin and his wing? Were they happy for her? Were they jealous? Or did they, like Conrad, simply think that Ardwin was weird. Hmmm. This could be a whole other book. Maybe one of Birdwing's readers would like to write that one.

You've said, "Even though I've written the book I don't claim to own the story." Who owns a story?

The story belongs to everyone who loves it. The tale belongs to anyone who finds that the story awakens his or her own imagination. But in the end, like Horse, who owns himself, the story is its own owner. We just receive the aspects of its truth we're ready to recognize. But the story remains itself, and not even the author or reteller (if it's a traditional tale), can claim to own it. Once the story is written it goes out into the world and lives its own life. And sometimes it is the readers who may understand some aspect of a story even better than the writer. For the story simply goes along in its own way, saying nothing more, and at the same time, saying everything. But not by explaining. Its language is the language of events and actions; the language of what happens - or what we wish might happen, if wishes could come true.