Interview: Sherryl Jordan talks about Winter of Fire
Originally published in New Zealand 25 years ago, Winter of Fire has been awarded many accolades and has been recently re-published. Author Sherryl Jordan talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Winter of Fire and what inspired you to write this book?
This book was a gift. It began in 1989, with two characters who arrived in my mind as real, complete and charismatic people. Within one second I knew what they looked like. The young woman wore a dirty, hand-woven robe, and was of humble origins, possibly a slave. The elderly man with her was black-skinned, noble and kingly. I knew the woman was physically marked in some way that caused people to distrust and hate her; I suspected the mark was scarring from fire, but wasn’t sure. I knew the old man had a telepathic ability that gave him tremendous authority, but didn’t know what that ability was. I also knew that the woman learned his ability and used it to rise to a position of power but, because of her physical scarring, had to overcome a great deal of prejudice. That was all I knew. The rest of their story totally eluded me.
At the time I was writing two other books. But for almost six months these two people haunted me. One morning, while I was having a cup of coffee, their presences again were very real. For the hundredth time I tried to think up their story. I couldn’t. I told them to go away; they wouldn’t. Exasperated, I said to God: “I’m tired of these two. I’ve spent six months trying to think up their story. I can’t. They must be here for a reason. If there is a story about them, please give it to me now. Or else get them out of my life.”
Then an astounding thing happened. I saw what I can only describe as a scene from a stunning movie. It came from outside myself, zooming into my mind with such startling visual force that I spilled my coffee. I saw a winter world where the sun had not been seen for five hundred years. All the trees had been burned, and only coal kept people alive. The coal, called firestones, was more crucial than food. And the old man with the telepathic ability was a diviner for new coal seams underground. He was the Firelord, without whose divining power the coal would run out, fires die, and people would not survive the cold. He was the only diviner, and the most powerful person in that world.
The next scene thundered across me: endless rows of slaves going down into the mines to get the firestones; a slave race born and bred solely for work; a race called the Quelled, controlled by the Chosen who owned the mines and ruled the earth. The Quelled were considered animals, branded and doomed to work in the mines until they died.
And the next scene: Elsha — the young woman — a slave, but with a vision for her race. She was called by the Firelord to be his handmaid, and in her time with him discovered she could divine. On the movie went, astounding scene after scene, until I knew the entire story. It was the most awesome giving and receiving of a book that I have ever experienced, and Elsha was the most compelling character I had ever met. She was given to me for a reason.
By the time I had finished the two books I was working on, my wrists and arms were very painful and I often woke up with numb, paralysed hands. I was writing each book by hand a chapter at a time, then typing it out on a typewriter. Often each novel was typed four or five times during the various drafts. I was also working long hours, so absorbed in my work that I ignored my body’s messages of fatigue and strain. I was told by a specialist that I had Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS), and would never write again. Many months passed, and various treatments failed. One night in desperation I prayed again, and heard a quiet voice in my mind saying: “Write your next book.” The next day I sat down with a pen. Behind me stood the young woman, Elsha: committed, steadfast, invincible . . . and I wrote one line. My hands were so weak the pen felt as heavy as a brick. I dropped it after that line. The writing was large, uncontrolled and scrawling. But I’d done it. I’d started my next book.
In those early days I could write only a line or two a day. I spent hours meditating and believing in healing. Friends prayed with me. And I lived shoulder-to-shoulder with Elsha, whose spirit burned like fire, and who would never give up. Within a week I was writing for half an hour a day. Within three months I was writing for two or three hours a day. Within six months I’d finished the book, Winter of Fire.
Looking back, I see why I was given Winter of Fire, and Elsha, at that specific time in my life. We needed each other. Without the disability of OOS, I couldn’t possibly have understood what it was to fight — really fight – to accomplish a goal. I needed to fight against a hopeless prognosis, against my own fear and grief. I needed to fight just to pick up the pen and write one wobbly, painful line. And because I had to fight, I knew what it was for Elsha to fight her huge battles against slavery and prejudice. Without OOS, I couldn’t have written her story. I wouldn’t have needed her fire. But because I had to fight, I was given Elsha, and I leaned on her strength, on her incredible determination. We were sister-warriors together, fighting side by side in our separate battles against the impossible.
What is it like having a 25th Anniversary edition out?
Elsha and I are both awed, and very grateful. I owe a huge thanks to my editor at Scholastic, Penny Scown, who worked with me all those years ago when the book was first published. It is due to Penny’s hard work, and belief in the story, that this anniversary edition exists. Also, I am extremely happy with the revised cover. Originally the cover had Elsha in vivid sunlight, wearing a pink dress (she never wore pink!), with a black plastic cape instead of fur. As there was no sun in her world, and no plastic, I had never been happy with that cover. I love the new cover, with its corrections; it’s very dramatic and true to the story. It gives me more pleasure than I can say, to hold this new edition in my hands.
Also, it amazes me that readers still admire something I wrote 27 years ago. It makes the hard battle to write the book worthwhile in every way. Thankfully, my hands are fine now. I have learned to work sensibly, with a timer ringing very loudly every 40 or 50 minutes, reminding me to take frequent breaks from the keyboard. I’ve written 22 novels since Winter of Fire.
What’s the secret to writing a book that endures many years later?
It’s not a secret any writer knows, or every book would be a classic. I think it’s a mixture of the way the world and society develop, and whether the book says something that still speaks to people years later. The issues in Winter of Fire, such as human rights, climate change, slavery, freedom of speech - all these are still issues in today’s world. The term “climate change” was not even mentioned 25 years ago, but today is a hot topic. I guess I am blessed that the things that intrigued me 27 years ago, when I wrote the story, remain relevant. Also, every one of us is fighting a hard battle, one way or another; and perhaps many of us need the inspiration of a sister-warrior like Elsha. I think she is the force in the book that is timeless.
What do you hope readers will take away after reading the book?
That is not for me to say. When a book is published, that’s the end of my part in it. I’ve given the gift; the rest is up to the reader. Each person reads a book through their own eyes, their own experiences, hurts, hopes, and dreams. What speaks powerfully to one reader may not be noticed by another. However, I will say this: I hope my stories – not just this, but all of them – are not only entertaining, but also uplifting, encouraging and inspirational. I write about people I admire, people I learn from, since I spend many months in their company while I write their stories. I hope my book people show us not only the way we are, but what we may become.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
While I was writing this book, and having to take long breaks between short periods of work, I discovered music by Yanni. The CD was called The World of Private Music, which doesn’t sound inspiring, but there were tracks titled Santorini, Unusual Climate, Tibet Suite, and Ancient Dreams, which were the perfect background music for Elsha’s life and journey. The music gave me strength when mine ran out.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
I have never thought about this, and have no idea. To me Elsha is Elsha, and I suppose any strong young woman with a bent nose and eyes that don’t quite meet, could play her part. If a book is filmed, the author doesn’t have any say about who plays the characters.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I’m re-reading (for about the tenth time!) Mary Stewart’s amazing King Arthur trilogy. Also, I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, and discovered a strong, visionary woman who would have got on well with Elsha.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Last year I wrote a book set in Medieval times, about a thief and a young woman accused of witchcraft. Called Wynter’s Thief, it’s being published in October by OneTree House. This year I wrote The Nightingale, about the white slave trade and the Ottoman Empire, in the 15th Century. The book is based on historical events, although I set it in a mythical world. It will take several months to polish The Nightingale and make it as perfect as I can get it.
I read each book countless times, changing and improving and polishing, before I am satisfied. However, I have no doubt that while I’m working on the final draft of The Nightingale, other characters will burst into my mind and demand that I write their story. And, as with Elsha and the Firelord, I will have to do as they say.
Sherryl Jordan, July 2019