Kiersten White on Winter Kids’ Indie Next List Pick “The Guinevere Deception”

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Indie booksellers across the country have chosen Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception (Delacorte) as one of their top picks for the Winter 2019–2020 Kids’ Indie Next List.

Kiersten White headshot

The first installment in the Camelot Rising Trilogy, The Guinevere Deception follows Princess Guinevere, a girl who has travelled to Camelot to wed King Arthur. Only Guinevere isn’t the real Guinevere at all—she’s a changeling sent by the great wizard Merlin to protect Camelot from the magic that is trying to claw its way in.

Kayla Roy of An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Massachusetts, called White’s book “absolutely stunning.” Said Roy, “This fantastic, original retelling will have you hooked as you journey alongside Arthur and Guinevere to root out the dark magic creeping into Camelot’s borders. But reader, beware! Appearances can be deceiving, titles are not always telling, and sometimes you have to be your own knight in shining armor. Kiersten White throws twist upon epic twist into this classic Arthurian legend to create a Camelot all her own. White is a force to be reckoned with.”

Here, Bookselling This Week discusses Arthurian legends and worldbuilding with White.

Bookselling This Week: What drew you to the world of King Arthur? Did you have experience with the stories in your childhood?

Kiersten White: I’ve always really liked Arthurian legends—the romance of Camelot, the tension between old and new, and magic and order. I watched The Sword and the Stone as a kid, and different miniseries and movies, too, and I wrote papers about Le Morte d’Arthur in college. The Arthurian legends were always very much on my radar, and it’s a set of stories and storytelling tradition that I really enjoyed. And I liked all of the adaptations of it, but most of them had the same issues that I have with a lot of things, in that they don’t treat their women characters very well. That’s participating in a long tradition of Arthurian stories. The originals didn’t treat the women characters very well, either. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I knew I wanted to do fantasy. I was watching King Arthur Legend of the Sword, which is just a fun nonsense mess of a movie, so I loved it, but it had that same problem that so many of them do—it only had two women characters, and one of them didn’t even have a name. And they left Guinevere out entirely. That bugged me.

So, I wanted to tell a story that’s about Guinevere, one where she’s not the side character, she’s not the love interest, she’s not the one who is there to ruin everything, but she’s a real person with feelings and with choice. I really wanted her to represent that bridge between magic and order, the old and the new, because I feel like so many women exist in those liminal spaces, because we understand what it is to move through the world but never fully belong to it. When we’re working in spaces, typically, they’re dominated by men. I thought this was an interesting setting to explore that, and Guinevere was the perfect person to explore it with.

It’s also a really interesting world to play in as a writer because in the past when I’ve done retellings, they’ve been very, very specific retellings. But with Arthur, even when the original stories were being written, they were all basically fan fiction. They all picked this king who may or may not have existed, and made up stories about him. It was really this tradition of storytelling where people would just jump in and add their sequence, their characters. I loved that as a writer, that, for whatever reason, we have been telling stories about Camelot and King Arthur for centuries, and it hasn’t stopped. It’s really fun and it’s really exciting for me to get to participate in that.The Guinevere Deception cover

BTW: This book follows a very different Guinevere that readers familiar with the King Arthur myths might know. How did you create her character?

KW: It’s so fascinating, because in the original stories Guinevere is very much a postscript. She didn’t have much of a role, until Lancelot comes in and we’ve got the whole adultery scandal, which is also very interesting because even in those myths, Arthur fathers several children out of wedlock, but that’s not a big deal. It is a big deal when Guinevere falls in love with somebody else.

There just isn’t really that much on her. There are the later stories where she has a sister at one point that comes to Camelot and causes problems, but you also never see her interacting with other women. It’s always just, “and then Guinevere.” So, I really wanted to create a Guinevere that had agency and was more than just there to marry Arthur. And because I like the play of magic versus order so much and what it represents in the Arthurian cycles, I knew that I wanted her to come from that world and from that background. So much of what Guinevere is is about identity—she’s the queen and that’s all she is. And so, you feel compassion for her when she falls in love with Lancelot because she didn’t choose to marry Arthur. She was married to Arthur. When she finally finds love, it ends up destroying everything. She’s painted as a villain in a lot of ways, but I have a lot of compassion for that.

BTW: How much research went into creating this book? Did you know how much of the original stories you wanted to keep and what you wanted to change before you started writing?

KW: The nice thing about retelling Arthurian legend is there is no canon. There is no one thing where you can say, this is the Arthur legend, these are the characters that matter, and these are their relationships to each other, because depending on which one you read and which one you study, they’re all completely different. Like, sometimes Mordred is related to Arthur, sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he is Arthur’s son with his sister, sometimes he isn’t. Lancelot doesn’t even come into the cycles for at least a few hundred years—he was a late addition. The whole aspect of Arthur being emasculated by Guinevere, that was a late addition as well. As more and more people started writing about more and more other knights, they had to make Arthur matter less in a weird way.

Because Arthurian legends are such a sprawling mess, I realized I could deep dive into them and never surface. I decided I was going to take the archetypal characters, the ones that I thought were interesting, and go from there. In the end, I wanted to do Camelot and Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. I wanted to explore those characters without getting bogged down in the original stories. The original stories are fascinating, but they’re also super, super episodic, there’s not a lot of coherency. They’re just messy. That was one of the best parts about choosing an Arthurian setting, was getting to choose the aspects that I loved and these archetypal characters that I loved—the king that is noble and just and moves through the world like a sword; there’s good and there’s evil and he’s going to cut through the middle of it. The queen who has big feelings and recognizes that things are more complex. The super loyal knight. And the magic that’s always going on in the background.

I was a lot more flexible with this retelling where I picked the things that I liked and ignored the rest because I could. And the great thing about Arthurian retellings is that even in their earliest days, they were already anachronistic, and they were already wildly historically inaccurate, so if I make any errors, I can just say I’m participating in the long history of Arthurian anachronisms. 

BTW: This book also immerses readers in the rich world of Camelot; when Guinevere first arrives, she notices the stark contrast between the stone, man-made structures of the city and the wilderness she grew up in. How did you craft the setting?

KW: So much of the Arthurian stories are about taking control—of the wilderness, and getting rid of the traditions of Paganism and magic and putting in Christianity and order. I really wanted that to reflect in Camelot. So, you have these wild forests that are beautiful and also dangerous; they have a lot to offer, but you can’t have a society that thrives in them. So, the idea of cutting those back and building this city of order, but it’s a stone, lifeless thing. People could go and live there, but they couldn’t sustain themselves there if they didn’t have this land to work off of either, which I think is always the push and pull of cities.

BTW: Magic plays a huge role in the King Arthur stories. We see Guinevere use knot magic, scry, and play with fire. How did you decide to incorporate these elements? How much of it comes from the legends?

KW: Almost none of it comes from the legends because in the legends, it’s like, “And then there was magic!” I decided I wanted to have two kinds of magic: the wild, elemental kind of magic, and then I wanted to have a very human sort of magic, which was the knot magic, where it’s finite, contained, and meant to serve a specific kind of purpose. The human magic is limited; there’s only so much you can do with it, and there are rules.

The knot magic is actually based very loosely on a book from the Middle Ages called the Malleus Maleficarum. It was written by a witch hunter, who was this man who made it his profession to hunt witches and to teach other people how to recognize witches so they could also hunt them and kill them. It’s an evil book that was used to persecute and kill women, and the magic in it is so stupid. It’s like, if you find these knots in your horse’s mane, it means that your neighbor is a witch and she’s mad at you. Or, if you go up into your attic and find ropes tied up, it means that someone is cursing you. A lot of it was related to knots, so I thought, I’m going to take that back. I’m going to take that from him and not let him have that anymore.

Also, it’s such a feminine thing; with sewing and embroidery and creating, you’re making order out of chaos. That’s what these knots do, they bind magic to a very specific task, and I thought that was a very feminine way of looking at it. It’s this sly way of doing magic, too. You can knot magic into your cloak and no one is going to be able to know that it’s there unless they know what they’re seeing. I feel like a lot of groups that have to fly under the radar have to have those things, where you don’t know what you’re looking at unless you know. So, I really liked developing that very intimate, specific magic set that is nowhere near as powerful as the natural, elemental ones, but allows women to create order out of chaos.

BTW: An important aspect of this book is the idea of deception—not only Guinevere’s deception, but that of many of the other characters in the book as well. Why did you choose to tackle this topic through the lens of King Arthur?

KW: I feel like everybody pretends. You pretend to fit in until you do, you pretend to know what you’re doing until you do (or sometimes you never do), and I feel like so much of the teen experience is wanting to be something and faking it until you are, or until you decide that you don’t want to be that anymore. I like that sense of, “This is who I want to be. I’m not that person, but maybe if other people think that I am, I will be able to be that person eventually.” It’s very true to my teen experience, at least. But then there’s also the sense of, if these people only like me because I’m pretending to be this thing, will they actually like me if they find out the truth?

It’s always hard when you’re writing YA because these characters are running a country, they’re queen and king. Finding those elements that really root the story in moving through the world, unsure of who you are, trying to figure out who you’re moving toward and who you want to be, is always important. They’re hallmarks of young adult literature. For me, the deception aspect of it, the pretending to be something that you’re not for good or for bad reasons, was true to my teenage experience.

BTW: What would you want readers to take away from this story?

KW: My last few books were very intense and very dark. I was exploring ambition, anger, rage, manipulation, and all of these things, so when I sat down to write this book, I thought, I want wonder. I want magic. I want a Camelot that feels real and that has real stakes, but also magic and knights, and it’s awesome. I want readers to find an escape, and I want them to just fall in love with the romance of Camelot. That was really my goal.