I shall not say how I became, at the age of eighteen, the lover of the Queen of Elfland. I lasted no longer than any of the others.
I've had The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations on my shelf for as long as I can remember — I expect it was a present, the kind of present you give a bookish child. When I was young my mother knew I loved reading, but she found it difficult to buy me novels because she never knew what I'd already read. (There was also the time when she bought me the same novel for Christmas that she had done the year before.) So sometimes she'd buy me interesting reference books instead.
Dictionaries of quotations are fun to dip into. I've often browsed through the pages of the Concise Oxford, and some of the quotes have seeped into my memory. One day in April 1998, barely a year after I'd decided I wanted to become a writer, a particular quotation — for no conscious reason — resurfaced in my brain.
HARRIETTE WILSON 1789-1846
I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.
Memoirs, First sentence
And my mind reconfigured this quotation as the first line of a story:
I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the lover of the Queen of Elfland.
With this inspiration I quickly bashed out 1,300 words describing a vivid scene that popped into my head. That scene isn't the first scene of the completed story, but it does occur further in, exactly as I initially imagined it. The first sentence stayed as the story's opening line, albeit with some minor editing — principally to increase the protagonist's age to adulthood. Nowadays, society is more sensitive about underage sex than it was in the Earl of Craven's era.
The Queen of Elfland appears in the ancient ballad of Tam Lin, which like all the best old stories can be — and has been — retold in many different ways. (I particularly recommend the novel Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, which sets the action at an American university in the 1970s.) My own novella takes the basic element of the Queen of Elfland's dalliance with a mortal man, and uses it as a starting point to explore themes of magic and immortality.
I often found it frustrating to read stories in which Elfland (or Faerie) nominally featured, yet most of the actual action took place in the mundane world, with only a brief glimpse of the magical realm beyond. It can be an effective strategy to merely hint at magic and marvels, but I also feel that it's rather a lazy strategy, which relieves authors of the trouble of doing a full description. What is Elfland really like? What kinds of magic does it contain? What are the wonders and the terrors of the perilous realm? The challenge of answering these questions, of conveying the full experience of living in Elfland, drove me to write "Strawberry Thief". About 95% of my story takes place in Elfland, with a single scene in the mortal world for contrast — reversing the typical proportion for such tales.
The second theme arose from the first. Elfland contains elves, obviously, and they are immortal. What is immortality like? Why does the Queen want a mortal lover? There are many possible answers; the story puts forward my interpretation.
Fantasy and science fiction are often called separate genres, or sub-genres, but my feeling is that the similarities between them far outweigh the differences. The two genres are connected in many ways. Sometimes the genre of a story is only a matter of presentation, of setting. Utopian fiction is normally considered the domain of SF (if it is considered as genre at all), with the utopia located at some remove of space or time. But if Elfland is a realm of magic and wonders, inhabited by beautiful immortals, isn't it a kind of utopia? If you somehow arrived there, would you ever want to leave? I find Elfland and utopia to be powerful metaphors for each other, and I hope to write further stories that examine the infinite glittering facets of the shining realm.
"Strawberry Thief" was originally published in the magazine Weird Tales. It is now available as an ebook for Kindle: details here.