Friday, July 01, 2011

Author Interview: Kevin Hearne and the Mythology of the Iron Druid Chronicles

Kevin Hearne is the author of the Iron Druid Chronicles, a new Urban Fantasy series (Hounded and Hexed are out already, and Hammered will be out on Tuesday, with another three in the works!). Of COURSE I had to read his books, seeing as the main character Atticus is constantly finding himself in fights with living breathing gods and goddesses in modern day Arizona. In HOUNDED, he faced the Celtic Tuatha Dé Danann and in HAMMERED, it's looking extremely likely--thanks to a tousle with some witches in HEXED--that he'll be toe to toe with the Norse gods, including Thor. How can you RESIST? Besides which, Atticus (accompanied by his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon) is pretty hilarious, and written with a fantastic voice.

Kevin was kind enough to chat with me about what he's doing with gods and goddesses and druids in his books and here are the results of that interview! Mostly, I stuck to topics concerning the mythology he's creating, updating, and revisiting, and for those of you who love mythology in your fiction, definitely get reading!

Be sure to come back to the blog on Tuesday for information on a giveaway-- Hounded and Hexed, and if all goes according to plan, Autographed! Now, to the interview (and if you happen to be hopping over here from GeekaChicas, you can go ahead and skip down to the first bolded question!). My questions are in purple, and Kevin's answers are in black.

Amalia: Since Mythology is kind of the thing around these parts, let's start with that! Demons, werewolves, vampires, the Virgin Mary, Norse gods and Irish gods, witches, and references to other pantheons, all seeming to inhabit the same world. Can you tell us a little bit about the mythology behind The Iron Druid Chronicles and the myth-multiverse you've built?

Kevin Hearne: It started out with just the Celts, but once I realized that I was treating myth like history—or at least closely related to history—the question that I simply had to answer was, why treat only the Celts this way? What if everything were true, to some extent, and the gods are still with us, albeit hidden? So that's what I'm exploring here. And I'm not limiting myself to "dead" gods, either; current religions are treated in the same way—those gods are all real and empowered by our faith in them.

A: Can you give us a general rundown of the major Irish deities in your books? Just a quick who are they and what do they do? And can you suggest any good primary or secondary sources to learn more about them (mostly this is for me, I'm not going to pretend otherwise. Nothing like going back to the source material!)?

KH: The deity that everyone seems to know is The Morrigan, and she appears in various tales in one or more of her three forms. One is that of a crone, one is that of a young seductress, one is the infamous battle crow. I've only presented her in the seductress and crow forms so far. She's the Chooser of the Slain, a role very similar to that of the Valkyries in Norse tradition, but she's handy in battle herself and something of a wild one in bed. Aside from her, I'm using Brighid, goddess of Poetry, the Forge, and Fire; Bres, a god of agriculture who's married to Brighid; Aenghus Og, god of love; and Flidais, goddess of the hunt. I really like her because she's so different from her Greek counterparts; she has an insatiable libido and isn't afraid to show it. Some of the other Irish gods will show up in later books, like Manannan Mac Lir, Fand, Ogma, and Goibhniu.

In terms of source material, you want the Dictionary of Celtic Myth by James MacKillop as a starting point. Though he tends to skimp a bit on the Scottish stuff, he's great with the Irish. You'll probably have to pick this up used somewhere, but it's not that hard to find. Also get yourself familiar with The Annals of the Four Masters and the Ulster and Fenian Cycles of Irish legend. Great stories in there.

A: Aenghus Og as the god of love-- Is your interpretation of him as more about the vengeance and the darker emotions that come with love direct from the myths, or is this an interpretation you've read into them (like with Ratatosk)?  

KH: It's based at least partially on his own actions. Those allusions in HOUNDED about Aenghus tricking his own father out of his home, etc. are straight from the old Irish stories. To be fair, he does some noble things in the old stories too, but Atticus kind of ignores those and focuses on the possessive, vindictive side of love that Aenghus exhibits to him.

A: What drew you to the Irish mythology, both in general and as the primary mythology in this series? Related: Why a Druid, and what kind of research did all this require?

KH: Part of it was interest in my own Irish background, and part of it was an appraisal of the marketplace. I'd been reading a lot of urban fantasy, and I noticed that the Irish stuff was wicked cool, but the extant fiction always featured either the Morrigan or the Wild Hunt, and that puzzled me. The rest of the figures are so interesting—why not have fun with them too? I realized after a while that it might come down to nothing more than the names. It's easy to say "the Morrigan" or "the Wild Hunt," but many people look at the rest of those Irish names and get intimidated by them. So that's why I put those no-pressure pronunciation guides in the books, to let people know that it's okay to pronounce 'em any way you want, but if you DO want to say the names semi-correctly, here's how. As far as why a Druid specifically, it's also a two-pronged answer: the market niche was there—I think there's only one other Druid series out there and it's completely different from mine; compare that with how many series there are about vampires—and since there is so little concrete information on the Druids, I got to make a lot of shit up. Druids are blank canvases compared to vampires and werewolves. The research required was much of what I already listed above, along with some examination of accounts by Caesar and Tacitus.

A: In HEXED Atticus says that most Celtic artworks are spells. Is this something you made up for the books, or something based on your research? (Because it is super cool!)

KH: I made that shit up. See? This is why I picked Druids!

A: Who is your favorite god? Both from those in your books, and from mythology in general?

KH: I think I already gave away that I love Flidais more than is probably healthy. She fully embraces her wild side but she's also a fierce steward of the forest, if fierce stewards are not an oxymoron. I think nature could use more fierce stewards; it certainly has more fierce exploiters than it needs. Generally speaking, I loooove the various versions of Coyote that are celebrated throughout Native America.

A: In the opening chapter of HEXED, Atticus tells Leif (an Icelandic Vampire) he doesn't want to kill Thor, because even if he takes out Version 1.0, Comic book Thor might descend to smite them. Can you tell us a little bit about this theology? Are there infinite versions of every god running around in Atticus' world? (Also, does comic book Thor live in comic book Asgard? Or do they all live together in the same place? -- it would explain the 540 rooms in Bilskirnir!)

KH: Ah. Well, yes and no, and, um, yeesh. Complicated. OK. Atticus was messing with Leif because he didn't want to do this. Comic book Thor can't do jack because he's not empowered by faith the way the original is/was. But is there a comic book Thor? Undeniably. We all went to see the movie, yes? And now we all have that vision of Thor in our heads. He's out there because we warp and change the universe by living and thinking in it. And 7-11 year old boys have a vision of Thor in their heads, too, that they read in their monthly comics. But they probably don't really believe in him or worship him any more than American moviegoers do. The old Norse, however, really believed in Thor. They wore little hammers around their necks to compete with the Christian cross. They thought Thor smote the frost giants every winter and caused the spring to return and the sun to shine again. The original Thor, therefore, is the most powerful, and the comic book Thor is kind of a wuss. Faith is the motor driving gods. And you see in HEXED that the widow's formidable faith allows the Virgin Mary to visit Tempe and bless some arrows for Atticus. Are there infinite versions of the gods and the planes they live on? There are as many as there are conceptions of them in human minds—all unique, yes? No two people conceive of any god in precisely the same way. But like Schrodinger's cat, at some point, those gods have to stop being multiple things at once and settle on a single state when they want to walk in our world. That's what we see in The Iron Druid Chronicles—one form for each god chosen from a vast number available. You're going to see a specific example of that in HAMMERED, where a modern god chooses to manifest in a form that most people aren't used to.

A: So, kind of a one-god-many-aspects thing, for each of the gods within a pantheon? Well now I'm wondering if that opening in HAMMERED where Atticus talks about Middle Earth is just a big tease too. Or does Middle Earth "really" get to exist because Tolkien meant it as a mythology? 

KH: They all exist if people believe in them. Some are just sketchy and weak compared to others. Tolkien's Middle Earth is richly imagined and adored by millions of people, so it's a much stronger plane than an imagined heaven a single tribe of thirty people believed in ten thousand years ago. These infinite universes are out there—and I'm not the only fella who's played around with the idea. I'm just coming at it from a fantasy perspective instead of a sci-fi one. Try Heinlein's Number of the Beast. That was a trip!

A: According to what I've read on your website, a good portion of HAMMERED takes place in Asgard. Does this mean we'll be getting to know some of the Norse pantheon in addition to Thor (and it seems like maybe Idunn)? 

KH: Well, some of them you won't "get to know" very well, and I don't want to give away too much, but here's who shows up in HAMMERED: Thor, Odin, Vidar, Tyr, the Norns, Ullr, Freyr, Freyja, Idunn, Bragi, the Valkyries, the Frost Giants, and Ratatosk. I keep the Valkyrie numbers fairly low because I had trouble finding a definitive number for them. Even more of the Norse show up in later books.

A: Which of the Norse gods is your favorite and why?

KH: Loki is my fave—I just like tricksters, I guess. But he won't show up in HAMMERED because he's bound by the entrails of his son until the beginning of Ragnarok.

A: Any chance we'll see Olympus one day? Or is Greco-Roman mythology something you mean to steer clear of? 

KH: I'm not afraid of them! :) Bacchus shows up in HAMMERED and the central conflicts of TRAPPED and HUNTED involve the Greco-Romans. They scare the bejesus out of Atticus because they're truly you-can't-end-my-existence immortal, unlike the Tuatha De Danann and the Norse, who are just eternally youthful.

A: We get a glimpse of Ratatosk (the squirrel of the world tree in Norse mythology) in the preview of HAMMERED at the end of HEXED, and I love the reasoning behind your (and Atticus') interpretation of him. It really is all in the texts! What kind of research did you do for HAMMERED (re: Norse myth) and can you suggest any good resources?

KH: Heck, I'm probably just doing what everyone else is doing; I'm reading the Prose and Poetic Eddas online and hoping to Hel that the translation is a decent one. The thing about the Norse body of myth is how much fun you can have with inconsistencies in the cosmology. I just spotted that Ratatosk thing by accident—he never uses Bifrost, yet he can scamper from the top of the tree to the bottom, so how does he do that? Another thing I had trouble with is figuring out whether Hel is in Niflheim or in her own realm? Are there nine worlds or ten? How do we make any of that Yggdrasil business work with our present understanding of how the universe works? I lay down my own interpretation of things in HAMMERED and even drew up a map of Asgard because damn it, somebody had to!

A: Do you have a favorite Mythical Creature?

KH: MANTICORES! Creepiest one I've ever seen in a story is the one in The Books of Magic trade paperback called Bindings. Gave me the heebie-jeebies.

A: Atticus seems to find himself surrounded by femme fatales, from witches to goddesses, and all of them seem to have their own agendas for his future. Is there any chance that Atticus is going to meet up with a love interest who wouldn't be just as happy to see him dead? (The romantic in me had to ask...)

KH: Well, you're going to find out in HAMMERED that Atticus had a pretty amazing relationship centuries ago, and he hasn't really been the same since it ended. However, Atticus does have a romance looming on the horizon, though right now he's fighting it.

A: It seems like none of the goddesses we've seen so far are very um... warm. For the most part, they're pretty distant and cool in regard to humanity in general, fellow gods, and Atticus. Is this a product of their immortality? Or something else?

KH: Yeah, you're touching on something I'm exploring in the series. Wouldn't long life give you a different set of priorities and cause you to look at the short-lived a bit differently? And if you were a product of an extremely different culture—bronze age, iron age, or even antebellum America—wouldn't you seem odd by today's standards? I'm having fun contrasting the gods with Atticus, and then contrasting him in turn with sort of middle-of-the-road characters, like Leif and the werewolf pack.

A: Speaking of products of immortality, Atticus is a pretty grounded guy for having lived 3000 years, especially in contrast to some of the other ageless characters. Is this part of his being a Druid? Or would you say it's been more motivated by survival instincts to blend in and keep his head down?

KH: Yep, Atticus's fugitive status has ironically been what's kept him grounded. To blend in, he has to immerse himself in his surroundings and live in the present. He keeps himself tied to humanity, forms relationships and stays abreast of current events.

A: I know you've discussed your take on Thor widely, between your blog and your other interviews, but being that his character is so close to my heart, I have to ask: How do you reconcile the villain you've built with Thor's extreme loyalty to his friends and family (even when they abuse him, as Loki does frequently) in the Eddas?

KH: I know I'm messing with Thor's image in the Eddas, but I feel it's plausible for an avatar of violent weather to descend into sociopathic behavior over time, especially when he can supposedly die only at the fangs of Jormundgandr and that prophesied day keeps refusing to come around on the calendar. Atticus knows that Thor is generally reviled, but he won't find out the specifics of Thor's shenanigans until HAMMERED. Now, is that reconciling the behavior? Eh, perhaps not. But I can see Thor turning into a villain over time, whereas I could never picture Odin that way.

A: Really? I'm curious about why Odin doesn't seem like someone who might become a villain? (I have a hard time reading about him that way, myself-- that was one of the things that bothered me about AMERICAN GODS, in fact. But I had no trouble believing it in GIANTS OF THE FROST by Kim Wilkins.)

KH: Can't speak for anyone else, but for me wisdom and evil are mutually exclusive. If I'm going to accept that Odin is wise, then he simply can't be bad. I can accept bad guys as evil geniuses, you know, brilliant people who are "wicked smart," but I can't think of them as wise once they become selfish and destructive.

A: And finally, I love Hallbjörn Hauk, Atticus' werewolf lawyer. He really grew on me in HEXED, and usually werewolves are a tough sell for me!  Especially now that you have the next three solicited, (congratulations!) will we get to learn a bit more about him and his history in future books? 

KH: You'll actually learn a bit more about Hal and the pack in HAMMERED because they have a beef with Thor too, but going forward from there the Tempe Pack will play a smaller role simply because Atticus will be forced to leave Tempe.

Thanks so much to Kevin for the interview! Hopefully you'll all be intrigued enough to pick up copies for yourselves! 


  1. Manticores are my favorite too! They give me the creeps :P

    And definitely curious about the books. I'm going to have to find them now :)

    Great interview!

  2. Great interview! I love when different mythologies come together in a story. I'm definitely intrigued! :)


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