In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Matthew Johnson to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Fantasy Magazine, “Holdfast.”
The first thing that caught me by surprise when reading “Holdfast” was the initial scenes detailing the collection of dragon scat and the myriad of uses for this substance. I can honestly say I have never read a fantasy that mentioned such a logistical issue regarding dragons. What inspired this aspect of your story? How did you decide on the uses to assign this substance for this imaginary culture?
To be honest, I don’t remember where a lot of things in the story came from—this was one of those rare stories that just unfolds itself in front of you like a gift, so it’s hard for me now to look back at decisions I made. I can say that the notion of the farmers dividing up the pile of wormcast was inspired by a scene in an Icelandic saga where characters divide up a beached whale, an event which was specifically mentioned in Icelandic law.
The little songs and folk sayings peppered throughout “Holdfast” really brought an added dimension of realism to the culture in your story. How important are these kinds of little songs and folk sayings to a given culture? What do these songs and sayings tell us about the larger culture hinted at in your story? What, if any, real-world counterparts inspired your own songs and sayings?
Actually most of the songs and poems in the story are from English or American traditions, though there are a few that I made up out of whole cloth. In a largely oral society, as most were before the printing press, these were tremendously important as a way of remembering knowledge and passing it down from generation to generation, so they became part of the storehouse of things that everybody knew. It’s not a great leap from that to the situation as it is in the book, where these rhymes and sayings actually have magic power. (The one place where this is still held to be true is among children, which is why I drew heavily on Iona Opie’s books on the culture of schoolchildren in writing this book; the trick for stopping nosebleeds by tying a knot in a red cloth came from there.)
Knot tying is an important skill in your story. Why knots?
I knew that I wanted the magic in the story to be tied to concrete physical activities, and knot-tying was a natural one of those—like the rhymes you mention above, it was something that everybody knew how to do in pre-industrial societies. When I thought of that the whole story more or less appeared to me, because they worked so well as a metaphor in the various ways they’re used in the story—the wise knots Irrel teaches his son, the famous handfast he tied with his wife and of course the holdfast of the title.
Irrel states: “A wizard’s just a crafter who doesn’t make anything useful.” What does it mean to be a wizard? If in others’ eyes they don’t “make anything useful,” then what would be the point of being a wizard?
Well, those are Irrel’s words, not mine—and he says them in a very particular context, trying to get his son to give up on his dream of being a wizard. Clearly wizards do have status in the story, though I think they’re probably seen as a little bit odd and out of touch with humanity (not unlike our stereotypes of scientists and engineers.) The idea was that magic is, in this story at least, a lot of technology: you can use it for big things and you can use it for little things, and to Irrel the little things are more important. I think that’s true for a lot of people, that if we had to choose we’d rather give up the Large Hadron Collider than the cellphone.
So, what’s next for Matthew Johnson? Do you have any upcoming or recent publications you would like to announce for your readers?
I have two recent stories out that I’m excited about: “Talking Blues,” in the anthology Triangulation: End of the Rainbow, which is about what happens when all the jobs get outsourced to Hell; and “Written by the Winners,” in Timelines: Stories Inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which is about what it’s like to live in an occupied country whose conquerors took over by changing time. I published my first novel Fall From Earth with Bundoran Press in 2009 and I’m currently trying to sell my second novel Fire In Your Heart, which is about what it’s like to have faith in a world where God is not only real but comes to Earth to judge humanity on a regular basis. Finally, I’m working on expanding “Written By the Winners” into a short novel while also doing prep work for another novel and trying to find some time to do some shorter work on the side.