Exclusive Interview: “Rhymer” Author Gregory Frost


As I’ve mentioned many times before, and will again, Arthur C. Clarke famously said in his book Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry Into The Limits Of The Possible that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in Gregory Frost’s sci-fi-infused epic fantasy story Rhymer (hardcover, Kindle) — or is it a fantasy-flavored sci-fi story? — it’s an advanced race that is mistaken for magic creatures. Which is just one of the oddities at work in this story, a fictional take on a real-life prophet who’s Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus. In the following email interview, Frost discusses what inspired and influenced this genre-mashing story, and how it’s the first of three.

Gregory Frost Rhymer

I’d like to start with some background. Who was Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, a.k.a. Thomas The Rhymer? What did he do? When and where did he live?

So, just to get us started, we have here Sir Thomas, a.k.a., True Thomas, a.k.a. Thomas The Rhymer, and while we’re at it, Thomas Lindsay Rimor de Erceldoune (or some variant, which has evolved into the current-day town of Earlston in Scotland). He is also called Thomas Learmont or Learmonth or Learmouth…and I still probably haven’t covered all the variations. Given the aliases, I’m surprised he doesn’t come with a book of mugshots. And because I am riffing on Robin Hood in the second book of Rhymer, I couldn’t help noticing the same scenario of multiple identities in play, as in “count the innumerable ‘real’ Robin Hoods.”

As a historical figure, he ostensibly lived from 1220 to 1298, was a Scottish laird, and a prophet many of whose prophecies seem as difficult to parse and as freely interpretable as, say, those of Nostradamus. Apply as you see fit. But he is also the subject of song, notably “Child Ballad #37” for those who want to look it up. In that song, he is carried off by the Queen of Faerie and given a nightmare ride across hell to her land.

And you might as well look up “Child Ballad #39A” while you’re at it. That is the ballad of Tám Lin, which takes place in an area called Carterhaugh just a few miles from the “Huntley Bank” where the Thomas The Rhymer ballad begins. The two songs were written or set down anyway in different centuries, but Tám Lin (a character who also comes with a plethora of aliases) is effectively a sequel, in which a beautiful woman named Janet falls in love with the captive Tám (or Tom) and learns from him how to steal him away from the Queen Of Faeries if she has the nerve for it. She does and love triumphs, and the queen goes away right vexed.

And then what is your novel Rhymer about, and when and where does it take place?

The novel Rhymer takes place in 12th century Scotland, in and around Ercildoun. It is a mashup of these ballads, or maybe more accurately my invented story on which such ballads came to be based. Here, Thomas is damaged goods, an idiot savant of sorts who babbles out his riddles during seizures. Some people think he’s cursed, some believe him divine. It doesn’t really matter to him…until the day he encounters the Queen (in this case) of Elves, called here the Yvag. Except the elves are in fact an alien presence. They are nearly immortal, an ancient race, and they are in the process of trying to turn our world into one built for them. The Queen takes pity on this damaged “mayfly” as she calls him, and “fixes” his seizure-prone brain, a small act that has ripple effects she can’t even imagine. She creates in essence her own nemesis.

So did you set out to tell a new story about Thomas The Rhymer and Rhymer is what came to mind, or did you come up with a story and then realize it would work even better if the main character was Thomas The Rhymer?

The central character was always Thomas The Rhymer. This all started out as a novella, “T. Rhymer,” which was co-written with Jonathan Maberry for an anthology called Dark Duets. I first-drafted it and then Jonathan came in and revised and polished, and we ping-ponged it until we were very pleased. That novella is set in the current day, with Thomas still battling the elves he’s been fighting for 800 years. So, we wrapped up that novella and both of us went off to other projects. In Jonathan’s case, I think that was maybe a hundred other projects. Initially, I had tried writing an origin story of Thomas for that anthology, but it was just too big a story and would not be reduced. It also continued to call to me while I was ignoring it and working on other projects. It just wanted to be written. So I got Jonathan to green-light my taking possession of Thomas for now, and I wrote the origin story, mixing real historical details with impossible fantasy tinged with a little sci-fi.

Why did you want to write a story about Thomas The Rhymer, and especially one that isn’t historically accurate?

The main thing I did not want to do was retell “Thomas The Rhymer.” That’s already been done to perfection by Ellen Kushner. If you want that story, you’ll find no better rendition. This is more reinterpretation of some elements of these ballads. But there’s a lot of historical accuracy in Rhymer as well as invention: this is a time period where towns as a concept of organization were forming and the king, David, decided who got to be one; Melrose Abbey, which features prominently in the novel was being constructed; the mercenaries of the period, the political turmoil of the period — these and a lot more figure into the book.

And where did you get the idea to have Thomas The Rhymer fight alien invaders that people mistake for elves and fairies?

That came from the collaboration with Mr. Maberry. He was looking for something zombie-like for the fae; I went with the idea of a race who had outlasted the collapse of their universe and come to a new one: ours. In their realm time does not run as it does in ours (a recurring theme with faery realms), and the idea of taking millennia to make the world just right for them is a trivial thing to them. They have “all the time in the world.” Besides, they just like screwing with humans.

So, do people mistake the aliens for elves and fairies, and the aliens just go with it; do people mistake the aliens for elves and fairies, and the aliens don’t know or are not happy about it; or are the aliens intentionally misleading people into thinking they’re elves and fairies?

Really, the Yvags don’t care what we think about them. They’ve been snatching humans for centuries to be their tithe or teind, and quite successfully until Thomas intrudes. A lot of tales of the faery realm include it having two courts: The Seelie and the Unseelie, often with two opposing queens. I bent that so that the Yvags we deal with are the Seelie court and they harvest the teind to sacrifice to the Unseelie…in this case, an unseen enemy. If the elves are nasty, imagine what the Unseelie must be for the elves to capitulate and sacrifice their own kind (and humans disguised as their kind). But throughout, some humans see the elves as demons, as products of witchcraft, others as elves or fairies. I recently heard an academic explain that Tolkien wrote The Lord Of The Rings in part because there was no standardized definition of elf. He intended to fix that. It’s to an extent about overlapping Medieval views of the supernatural.

Also, why did you decide to have the elves and fairies be alien invaders instead of just having this be about elves and fairies who want to take over the world?

Mostly elves and fairies who want to take over the world didn’t interest me. Sort of akin to Sean Connery in Dr. No going, “World domination, that same old dream…” No, needed something else.

All of this makes Rhymer sound like it’s a sci-fi-infused epic fantasy story. But it could be a fantasy-infused sci-fi story. Or a science fantasy story. How do you describe it?

I would prefer not to categorize it. Let the readers decide for themselves. I will say that Thomas is something of an “eternal champion” in the Michael Moorcock school, but even Moorcock’s various paladins slide through both fantasy and sci-fi, so I don’t mind the company.

Now, unless I’m mistaken, Rhymer is your seventh novel, though you also have a short story collection called The Girlfriends Of Dorian Gray out now, with a second, Beyond Here Be Monsters, in the works. Are there any writers, or stories, that had a particularly big influence on Rhymer, but not on anything else you’ve written?

I’m sure Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Fritz Leiber heavily influenced Rhymer, but I don’t know if you could say they’ve had no influence on anything else I’ve written. The major influence, I suppose, is “T. Rhymer,” the collaboration with Jonathan. In there we forged rules that I had to adhere to (for the most part) in constructing the novel.

Two books were influences on Rhymer and nothing else I’ve written. One is a piece of research I used in constructing some of Thomas’s riddles, A Feast Of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs edited and translated by Craig Williamson. The other is The Art Of Ian Miller. I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at Ian Miller’s breathtaking city and castlescapes and his fabulous characters. I lot of the “spikiness” of the Yvag is my reaction to his black and white art.

You also used to teach undergrads in the writing program at Swarthmore College. How, if at all, do you think working with other writers may have influenced how you wrote Rhymer?

No question that working with other writers in both college workshops and peer-to-peer workshops is a great way to stay sharp. Other writers have always read something you haven’t or are trying out stylistic experiments that you might not have otherwise considered, or even encountered.

Thanks to the cover, we know Rhymer is the first book in a trilogy called the Rhymer Trilogy. What was it about this story that made you think it not only couldn’t be told in just one volume, or being ongoing, that it needed three parts?

Baen editor Toni Weisskopf is the reason this comes in three volumes. Arguably, the series could end up being a dozen books. In effect, Jonathan and I wrote a novella that can be seen as part of a final volume to the saga. Between Book 3 and the novella there could be any number of others, or none at all. Thomas lives through time, so he could go right on intruding upon actual history in his pursuit of elves.

Do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they’ll be out?

The books are planned to come out, one book a year, for the next three years. Each incorporates a different time period, and so each is a stand-alone adventure. You won’t gain anything treating it like a limited episode TV series.

All of this makes it sound like Rhymer could be a good movie. Or maybe a TV show. Do you concur?

Well, I admit I’m prejudiced here, but I think it would be a natural for a Netflix or Apple TV sort of limited series. With each book, you have a different time period involved, different characters, a different adventure. With each “season” the only constant is Thomas.

And if Netflix or Apple wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Rhymer?

A young Rufus Sewell [The Man In The High Castle]. And being that’s not possible, then an older Rufus Sewell as the character of Alpin Waldroup.

Though I can easily imagine someone designing a video game and shaping the Yvag and their realm of Ailfion in whatever grand and grotesque way they like.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Rhymer?

It hits the ground running and never stops. It’s a love story as well as an adventure. It includes a guest appearance by none other than the poet Taliesin. And it lays the groundwork for the next two volumes, but unlike a trilogy does, where the middle book has nowhere to go.

Gregory Frost Rhymer

Finally, if someone enjoys Rhymer, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?

If you enjoy Rhymer, you would certainly enjoy Shadowbridge and Táin, the latter a retelling of the Irish epic “Táin Bó Cúailnge.”



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