Thomas Archibald Barron is a science fiction and fantasy writer known for his Lost Years of Merlin series and Great Tree of Avalon series.
Spherical Time: Do you have a process when you write, and if so, can you describe a little bit of it? Do you do extensive planning and research before starting a work, for example?
TAB: Normally I need some sort of aerial photograph of the terrain of a quest. So I know the approximate beginning, ending, and the dangerous marshes or inspiring peaks in between. This means writing an outline, which you could call my trail map. Then I intentionally lose the map, so I can find out what the terrain is like on the ground. Often my characters tell me to turn right when the map says turn left. In such cases, I always listen to my characters. Then I rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite, researching whatever is required. In the end, the journey has included several surprises and experiences I would not have predicted.
When I was creating a tribe of Native Americans for the book The Ancient One, I had to spend time researching a dozen real American tribes that once lived in the Pacific Northwest. Learning about their life, their culture, their world. And long before I began writing The Lost Years of Merlin, I buried myself in all the Merlin lore I could find: Celtic myths, ancient ballads, the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the writings of T. H. White and others, even Shakespeare's references to Merlin.
Spherical Time: Many of your books, such as The Merlin Effect, The Lost Years of Merlin, and The Great Tree of Avalon are based on the Arthurian Legends. What inspires you so much about the Arthurian Legends, and where else do you find ideas?
TAB: Ever since my days as a student at Oxford, I have loved the character Merlin-his richness, his depth, his appreciation for both the weaknesses and virtues of humanity. And his love for Nature, his greatest teacher. When I was researching Arthurian lore to write Kate's undersea adventure, The Merlin Effect, I was struck by the fact that of all the thousands of stories about Merlin written over the past 1500 years, almost none are about his youth. He is the ancient wizard, the mentor of King Arthur, the co-creator of Camelot. But where did he come from? And what made it possible for him to become the greatest wizard of all times? That mystery got me going-although when I started out trying to fill in the gap of Merlin's lost years, I had no idea what a big project it would be. Here you had this wondrous tapestry of myth about him, woven over fifteen centuries, and it had a big, gaping hole: Merlin's lost youth. But the weaving needed to be delicate as well as bold; honoring tradition as well as original.
To make things even more challenging, I started out with a boy who washes ashore, with no home and no memory-the absolute opposite of a great, exalted wizard. For Merlin to grow in a believable way, from that humble beginning to his glorious destiny, required more than just three books. That's why my original plan of a trilogy swelled to five books. And that's also why it took me almost a full decade to write the five books of The Lost Years of Merlin.
Spherical Time: The character of Kate from Heartlight, The Ancient One and The Merlin Effect is both empathic and brilliantly characterized. Can you talk about the process of her creation, and how you made the choices that led to her existence?
TAB: All of us have an infinite variety of voices down inside of us. It is very difficult to hear those voices, and to respect them. The challenge of making the character of Kate feel true was enormous. To do it I had to find the voice of the young girl within myself-not easy for a man in his late thirties. The reward, however, was equally enormous. It has opened up a new side of life for me. What ever made me do such a thing? The credit goes to our first child, a girl named Denali. When she was born, I was working hard on Heartlight. I didn't know whether the lead character would be a boy or a girl, but I did know that the book would be about the idea that every life matters somehow. It was an idea I hoped that she might enjoy one day. So I made Grandfather's sidekick a girl. That decision was the easy part. Then I had to find the voice of the young girl in myself, and listen. Really listen.
Spherical Time: Can you say a few words about how your care and concern for the environment informs and affects your writing?
TAB: I grew up in places where Nature was always nearby, so I could explore a creek, climb a tree, pick an apple, or just cover myself with mud. The nearness of Nature shaped me profoundly. Not just in the challenging, adventurous ways you might expect -- in deeper, spiritual ways, as well.
For example, I remember a snowy day when I was very young. My mother dressed me in one of those big puffy snowsuits that made me look like a huge, waddling balloon, and took me outside. There was so much snow, the drifts were even taller than me. Then my mother patted the top of an enormous snowdrift, and said, "Guess what? Believe it or not, there are flowers under there. You won't see them until springtime, but it's true." I was astounded. Amazed. Flowers? Under there? She was telling me about the patterns of the seasons, of course -- but also about something more. Something like hope. Transformation. Renewal.
Or … another day, when my brother and I found a slab of petrified wood, over fifty million years old, on the hill behind our Colorado ranch house. Geologic time -- now there's a great way to gain some perspective on human ideas of time and mortality. And then there was another day, as I was walking through a meadow on the ranch, following some fox tracks, when I saw some geese flying overhead. They were so close, I could hear their wings whooshing as they flew. I realized that some of those geese had started their journey way up in the Arctic, in Alaska, and had flown over western Canada and the Rocky Mountains, all the way to our little meadow. And it struck me that their flight tied together some of the most beautiful places on this continent -- that, by the very beating of their wings, they showed how connected those places really are. And how connected I was, too, to those very same places.
So why is wilderness important? Because unspoiled Nature is the last, best place on Earth for people to stand upright and tall, dwarfed by the sweep of the stars or the sweep of time, and yet still part of it all -- connected to the changing seasons, the fox tracks, or the flight of geese. In Nature, we can feel both very small, and very large, at once -- part of the universe, the pattern, the mystery.