Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kirsty Logan writes about The Gracekeepers from Crown Publishing.
The Gracekeepers is a story about love, home, belonging, duty, death, secrets, the sea and circuses. I did a lot of reading on a lot of subjects before I wrote the book, though to be honest it feels a bit grand to call it ‘research’. Mostly I wandered the stacks of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, pulling out any books that looked interesting until I had a stack so big I could barely carry it, then hiding in a study carrel and browsing through them until I found parts that interested me. Here’s what I learned, and how I used that new knowledge to build the flooded world of The Gracekeepers.
Most of the characters in the book are named after places. Callanish, one of the two protagonists and the gracekeeper of the title, is named after a place on the Scottish island of Lewis. Jarrow (the ringmaster), Veryan (Callanish’s mother), Bero (the circus firebreather), Ainsel (the circus horse-performer and Jarrow’s son), Whitby and Melia (the acrobats) are all named after places in the British Isles with some sort of mythic connection. The exceptions are North and her bear; the glamours, Mauve, Teal and Cyan (who are named after colours); and the clowns, Cash, Dosh and Dough (who are named after slang terms for money).
Avalon, the ringmaster’s wife and the novel’s antagonist, is also named after a place: the legendary Isle of Avalon (meaning isle of apples) where the sword Excalibur was forged, and where Arthur was taken to recover from his war wounds. At the beginning of the novel Avalon is pregnant, and the circus crew gossip that the ringmaster is not the father. Anyone familiar with Arthurian legend won’t be too surprised to learn who the real father is. Although the novel isn’t a strict Arthurian retelling, it’s not too much of a leap to see Jarrow as Arthur, Ainsel as Lancelot, and Avalon as Queen Guinevere, whose affair with Lancelot brings about the end of Arthur’s kingdom.
The circus boat is named the Circus Excalibur, and it was only when I was quite far through the book that I remembered that my primary school was called Excalibur. Our school jumpers were sea-blue and the school’s logo was a hand emerging from a lake clutching a sword. No wonder I grew up to be obsessed with myth. Every year we danced around a maypole as part of the spring festival — in The Gracekeepers, the maypole becomes a sensual, genderqueer, androgynous performance, with all the circus performers’ bodies wrapped tight in ribbons.
I read so many things that I wanted to incorporate into the book, but couldn’t: that in Arthurian legend, the forest was an irrational, female land of dreams which represented danger and the untamed, a land where you could hide; that a belief in witches came about because the Virgin Mary represented only good, and there needed to be a negative side of the feminine; an old Irish superstition that if you cut a strip of skin all around the outline of a dead man, then lay it around a sleeping man, that man would wake and fall in love with you — but you had to be very stealthy, because if he woke midway through the act, he would die.
One major spark of inspiration came when I read the theory that the first circus tent was devised by a sailor and made from a mainsail — which I promptly stole, as the striped silk of the Excalibur’s sail also becomes their big top.
The vast and poetic array of circus slang (‘star-backs’ to mean the more expensive seats, ‘voltige’ to mean tricks performed on horseback, ‘trinkel’ to mean an acrobatic support) encouraged me to be creative with my own use of language. In The Gracekeepers, the people who live on land are called ‘landlockers’, while those who live at sea are ‘damplings’. I gave myself licence to be a bit creative with the sensory descriptions, too: the sea “chutters and schwaks”, while a bereaved woman speaks in “fummels and haffs”.
In my reading I learned that circus acts over the years have included a woman nursing a kitten, a girl making dogs dance, a talking pig called Lord Byron, and a 45-foot-long snake, as well as hundreds of horses, lions, tigers and bears. This focus on animals made me want to include one in the novel, so I made the protagonist, North, a bear-girl — meaning she performs with a bear, a very rare animal in a flooded world. In circuses of the past, unusual animals were brought back by imperial colonists and explorers, and often circuses were the only place that ordinary folk could see such exotic creatures. All the characters in The Gracekeepers are marginal in some way, so this also suited because historically the animal trainers were slaves or foreigners, or other mistreated and marginal people.
I must have spent a solid week reading every single word of Peter D. Jeans’ Seafaring Lore and Legend and taking pages of notes. Many myths spoke of The Deluge, a long-ago whole-world flood; or of the Encircling Sea, which surrounded a small disc of land in the middle which served as a raft. I also stole several bits of bizarre seafaring lore, such as the story that in September 1860 in the waters between Australia and Antarctica, the crew of a whaling ship saw a wall of ice break open to reveal a ship slowly emerging from a chasm of disintegrating ice. Its decks were wreathed in ice and its sails were in tatters, and on the deck stood seven men, long-dead, encased in ice. The last entry in the captain’s log was May 1823 — meaning the ship had been encased in ice for 37 years.
I also learned that small boats can be made from reed, skin or bark; that winds are named for where they come from (a westerly breeze is from the west), but currents are named for where they’re going (a westerly current goes west); that there’s a sailor’s phrase, “Our blue sky is their black storm” because there’s always a storm at sea somewhere.
Again, there were many things I wanted to use, particularly the story that in 1967 a Scottish sea-captain claimed to have landed on the fabled island of Hy Brasil, which was inhabited by gigantic black rabbits and a magician in a castle.
At its heart, The Gracekeepers is a story about moving beyond a binary. There are several binary conflicts: land/sea, male/female, gay/straight, security/freedom. By the end of the book, I hope that the characters (and maybe the reader) have begun to feel that the world is not just a choice between two things: there is a third path, even if we have to mark it out ourselves.
I read a lot of books, articles, tweets, comics and blogs about feminism, gender theory, and queer issues — far too many to offer an exhaustive list. I don’t agree with it all (because, shockingly enough, there is no grand feminist or lesbian hive-mind), but it all makes me think. If you only read one book on gender, make it Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary edited by Riki Anne Wilchins and Clare Howell. I think about it often, and it was a huge influence on the genderplay in The Gracekeepers.
I don’t know if I can say that all this stuff was research for the book, as I would have read it even if I wasn’t writing a book, and I will continue to read it now that the book is finished. It’s more research for my life, my continuing education, the constant confrontation of my own prejudices and assumptions. It’s the way I try to make myself a better citizen of the world.