Susan MacGregor talks about The Tattooed Queen

Alberta author, Susan MacGregor’s, final novel in the The Tattooed Witch trilogy, The Tattooed Queen, releases December 1, 2016. Susan was kind enough to talk to Five Rivers’ publisher and editor, Lorina Stephens, about the forthcoming fantasy novel, Susan’s creative process, and what’s coming next.

Susan MacGregor
Susan MacGregor

LJS: The third and final novel in The Tattooed Witch trilogy, The Tattooed Queen, releases December 1, 2016. It’s a vastly different novel than the first, having transported Miriam, Joachín, and the Tribe across the ocean to the New World. Was that a metaphor for not only the evolution of The Tribe, but for Miriam herself? New World=New Understanding.

SJM: I want to address the first part of that statement, that The Tattooed Queen is vastly different from The Tattooed Witch and The Tattooed Seer. Yes, it’s different in that the settings are different. The first two books take place in Spain, and the last one covers Miriam and her Tribe’s adventures on the Great Ocean Sea (the Atlantic), then sets them in Xaymaca (Jamaica) in the Caribbean. The Tattooed Queen is different because the new settings are different. There is also a shift in the balance between fantasy and romance. Books one and two explore relationships – Miriam’s love affair with both Joachín and Alonso, her becoming the matriarch of her Tribe, etc., set within a magical world. In The Tattooed Queen, however, the fantasy element takes precedence, outweighing the romantic elements, which are still there, but which step back somewhat. Which is also why I consider the trilogy more of a historical fantasy than a historical romance. All that said, The Tattooed Queen remains similar to the prior two books because the characters develop and grow, and because of the themes I initially introduced.

Was Miriam’s journey to the New World a metaphor for her own evolution? All good characters should evolve, and evolve she does. Like most of us, life knocks off our edges, makes us see things in grey, rather than in black and white. I think that’s an apt description for the changes Miriam goes through. She starts out with some fairly fixed ideas about morality and faith. Her morals, initially rigid, become less so – much like Joachín’s approach to life, where he is forced to become more conscious of right and wrong. (Personally, I enjoyed exploring that switch). As for her faith, or her lack thereof, Miriam realizes the world is a much bigger place than what only five senses and logic can show you. I suppose you could say that the journey to the New World mirrors her growth, which is a metaphor, although I didn’t plan it to be so.

LJS: You flirt with and explore Voodoo culture in The Tattooed Queen. What was the reasoning behind introducing a new magical construct?

9781988274188SJM: The original religion in The Tattooed Witch reflects an antagonism between a patriarchal and repressive institution and that of a personal faith. That I chose to make Miriam’s introduction to the Diaphani religion as one augmented by magic, is actually beside the point. We each need to find our own way, our own spiritual approach (or lack thereof) without the dictates of a repressive and controlling body that may not have our best interests at heart. For the Diaphani faith, I incorporate a lot of pagan elements – faith in a goddess and a god. Voodoo or voudou (depending on where it’s based), is also a religion of many gods or lwa. Knowing that I was moving the plot into the New World, I had to do the research – see what African religions were brought there through the slave trade. What excited me were the similarities – a belief in multiple gods or spirits, similar to what I had already established in the first two books. In the trilogy, Lys is a goddess, represented by the sea, her elements being water and air. She is personal, more intimately involved with her followers than Sul, the god. I was delighted to find counterparts in voodoo – Damballah, the universal serpent, is similar to Sul as the creator of the universe. La Sirene, goddess of the ocean, is similar to Lys. Discovering these similarities was serendipitous.

So, new magical constructs? Not really. They were reflective of the ones I had already established. Which theme-wise was also important. I think it’s better to look for similarities, what we have in common with people who are not like us, rather than to focus on the differences. Jamaica (Xaymaca in the book) is a nice metaphor for that. There, the tribes mix, become heterogeneous. In terms of basic hopes and dreams, most of us are not so different from one another. We need a place to belong, to feel safe. We want to take care of our families and contribute to our communities, no matter what colour or sexual orientation we happen to be.

LJS: Having achieved recognition as Matriarch, and a considerable power, Miriam’s ascendancy takes place without a tattoo imbued with the power of her people, but rather through bonding with the spirit-god of a snake. Why have Miriam make this break with tradition and a magic she already knows so well?

SJM: I think my response, above, explains that somewhat. A new tattoo wasn’t necessary for Miriam. Alonso, as a disembodied spirit, is also part of her original tattoo magic, and it is he who helps her handle the snake situation. I wouldn’t say Miriam bonds with Damballah, the spirit-god of the snake, at all. In fact, she worries she may have misrepresented herself in that very aspect. As for tattoo magic, Joachín’s sub-plot deals more directly with his tattoos, and how they combine and evolve, making his requirement to tell the truth into a serious talent for determining what is real and what isn’t. Rana, one of Miriam’s rivals, also continues exploring her own version of blood magic, through scrying. So, no breaks, or switching from one magical tradition to another, but the evolution of those original abilities.

LJS: You deal with the horrors of the slave trade in this novel. What was the reasoning for exploring that dark stain on history?

SJM: In 1550, slavery in the New World was big business and a horrific fact of life. There is no story during this time, that doesn’t include this part of New World history. The slavery was encompassing. Not only were black people from Western Africa captured and imprisoned, but the indigenous tribes were forced to work, only to be wiped out by smallpox, syphilis, or other terrible diseases. Indigent whites who populated the jails of Europe, or those who roamed (gypsies), were also caught, shipped, and forced into servitude. It’s important to remember the sins of the past so we fight them as they occur today, and thwart them in the future.

LJS: Was there an element of this particular story you found a challenge? Or did the story unfold relatively organically?

SJM: Mostly organically, but there were challenges. I think the biggest one I had to deal with, mainly in The Tattooed Seer and The Tattooed Queen, was plot. I had The Tattooed Witch’s story line mostly decided upon, and I knew some of the highlights I wanted to cover in the second two books. I also knew how the trilogy would arch and end, but as for actually getting to points a, b, c, and d, there was a lot of ‘fill’ I hadn’t worked out. For The Tattooed Seer, the geography and remnant cultures in Spain after the racial cleansing in 1492 offered ideas – Jews in hiding (the Olivares), Moslems appearing to embrace the state faith (the al-Ma’din’s), etc. Both the history and the geography led to some interesting research and helped fill those gaps.

The other challenge was the research, especially for The Tattooed Queen. I’m a prairie girl. When I started The Tattooed Queen, I knew next to nothing about sailing, about historical ships – galleys, naos, and what have you, how they were constructed, manned, how long a trip to the New World took from Spain, where the likely ports of call would be along the way, how they were victualed, where poor women passengers might have to sleep – all that. The same goes for piracy and voodoo. I had to learn these things, and go over a number of aspects several times to make sure I had the details right. (Next time, I’ll keep much better notes!) This meant a great deal of reading in order to prepare, as well as checking and double-checking things as they came up along the way. But that’s what a historical writer does, and I enjoyed doing it. I don’t think after researching and writing The Tattooed Queen, that any attempt at a historical novel will daunt me.

LJS: You’ve based the cultural construct of The Tribe on the Roma people. What is it about that culture that attracted you?

SJM: This trilogy had its earliest beginnings in my own family history. My relatives on my mother’s side used to tell a story about how the family was kicked out of Spain. Supposedly, we were nobility and didn’t get along with the king. I questioned the story which started me on this path – who were the people who were forced out of Spain? Of course, that’s pretty obvious to anyone who has a basic understanding of European history. In 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand ousted the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada, unifying the country under a Catholic monarchy. In that same year, all Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or to leave. Anyone caught practicing the Jewish faith after that was termed a heretic and dealt with by the Church. Moslems were treated a little better, allowed to stay for some time afterwards, but eventually, they were also forced to leave or convert. Even as conversos or moriscos (converted Jews or Moslems), these groups were looked upon with suspicion. As for the gypsies, they were disparaged because they roamed. The first wave is mentioned to have appeared in Barcelona in 1492 – not the best year for them to arrive. It’s more than likely my family were Jews forced to convert, because we were also – according to the family mythos – well off. (If you were accused of heresy, the Church could confiscate your property without recourse. Many people chose to leave before such charges arose.) We eventually left Spain for Eastern Europe, where we settled in Austria, near the Ukrainian border. One of my relatives, Ivan Franko (Franco, in Spanish, which happens to be a converso surname), became a poet-laureate of the Ukraine. As well as his books, he wrote many supportive essays about the Roma people – a strange thing for him to do considering how maligned they were. It’s hard to say what my family’s original roots actually were. I’ve always felt an affinity for both Jewish and gypsy (Roma in eastern Europe/Caló in southern Spain – Andalucía) cultures.

LJS: What’s next for Susan MacGregor?

SJM: A new book, potentially a brand new series! I’m already doing the research and getting excited about it. I don’t want to say too much because I believe in jinxes, having jinxed myself before with talking about projects prematurely. But I will say this. It will likely be a historical fantasy set in England around 1910. In tone, it will be much lighter than the trilogy. I’m hoping it’ll be a lot of fun. We’ll see. It just may be that my dark side will win out and the book won’t be the amusing jaunt I have planned after all.

Either way, it’s bound to be a challenge. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The Tattooed Queen releases December 1, 2016, in both trade paperback and eBook.