Exclusive interview: Natania Barron, author of QUEEN OF NONE

QUEEN OF NONE is a feminist epic fantasy novel in a lot of innovative ways. It approaches the Court of Camelot from the perspective of Arthur’s sister, and hones in on her role and relationships at court. What inspired you to bring a feminist epic fantasy approach to this classic medieval romance?

I “discovered” Anna when I was studying medieval English in college. Right there, in some of the earliest manuscripts, she shows up. After all the complexity with Merlin getting Uther Pendragon to sleep with Igraine, it says they had two children: Arthur and Anne/Anna. It struck me as so odd, because of course, I knew Arthur’s half-sisters–Morgaine, Morgause, Elaine, etc.–but I’d never heard of Anna Pendragon. I put the idea aside and started pulling ideas here and there until, eventually, about ten years ago, I began starting to write what would become Queen of None. Historically, women were often married as young girls, scarcely teenagers. And I spent a lot of time thinking about myself at that age, and what it would be like to be in your 30s and have a child in their early 20s. It really collapses generations, but it’s also a uniquely feminist window into the complexities of Camelot. She wouldn’t have been given a sword, she might not have even been educated. But I wanted to create a story in which power doesn’t always mean the sword, something that is so predominant in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There were also other versions of this story that featured women, but so often still cast them either as young, or as purely sexual foils for Arthur and the knights. I wanted Anna to come into her power after her initial story, after she’s been sold off, essentially, to the highest bidder. Her strength isn’t in her physical prowess, it’s in her long game, in her alliances. Though, for much of the book she is very much alone, she learns just how important she is as part of the longer tale of the women before and after her. 

More than all of that, I think, mothers just don’t feature in stories very often, aside from side-characters at best, or caricatured villains at worse. Having children is a part of being a person, but it is not the defining factor. The story isn’t over with the wedding; it’s just beginning.

The Pendragon Family is much more complex than most people even realize. What can you tell us about the Pendragon Family Tree?

Family trees have always fascinated me, whether it was in The Lord of the Rings or my own. The Pendragons, the Orkneys, and many others, are interrelated. And as I said before, because of these collapsed generations, an uncle and nephew–like Arthur and Gawain for example–can be much closer in age and experience than we’d imagine. The role of nephew in Celtic myth is also very important, and as such, Anna’s own children (Gawain, Gareth, and Gaheris), are not just the closest to the throne, but they’re also the closest to Arthur’s heart. His own child is born decades after them, so in some ways, they are surrogate sons. 

Fosterage is also a long-held tradition. All of Anna’s sons are sent to court to be fostered by Arthur and Gweyn in this story, and that’s pulling directly from the tradition. I also had Lanceloch foster with Vyvian, the Lady of the Lake and Anna’s aunt. And he is step-son to Anna’s eldest sister, Elaine. Although, don’t get me going on Elaines. Arthuriana is absolutely infested with Elaines! Remarriage was also common, so after Anna’s first marriage, she has another child… This intertwining is just no end of fun to play with. And it all begins with Merlin’s prophecy: he, in this case, interprets a prophecy that says the child of Uther Pendragon and Igraine (who is married to Gorlois, the father of Anna and Arthur’s half-sisters) will be king of all England. That required a lot of scheming, a lot of magic, and plenty of fallout. I think I was always drawn to Arthuriana because it doesn’t end happily. It’s about loss, betrayal, and progress, but not always in that order. And though there are great spells and powerful swords, it’s also about the choices each person makes.

It’s not news to suggest that the intense homo-social relationships of Medieval Romances seem to allude to a lot of Gay. Was there anything specific in your research that inspired you to write what is, to my knowledge, one of the few big, gay epic fantasy King Arthur books?

One of the reasons I decided to create a mirror version of Camelot in my book is because I wanted a little more freedom around sexual preference, not to mention avoiding getting too bogged down in the meager historical facts, as they are, and the religious overtones. However, that doesn’t mean that one’s sexual preference doesn’t come without struggle. Arthur is, in my story, absolutely queer. And, I believe at some point Anna makes the point that though he has no issue with such thing in his court, it is something else altogether for a king to be without a wife. Because women are power, and heirs represent the future. His father abused him for his sexuality, and this has given Arthur a very broken idea of love. He is starved for attention, but only the attention he wants. But his preferences aren’t really the issue: the kingdom is. Power isn’t always about having what you want, and I think Arthur’s journey in the book alludes to that greatly. He wants to be a modern ruler, but he also wants to follow his heart. Which is often telling him the opposite of what Merlin is, or what his knights are. He must appear the goodly king at all costs. But, even if you’re not an Arthurian scholar, you probably know how that turns out.

There are other queer characters, and queer narratives in the story as well, but they are all different shades of the experience. Anna, herself, I would consider bisexual–but she isn’t fully aware of it. In that, I certainly followed my own personal experience in this matter. Not everyone even understands their own sexuality right away. So, as you follow her story, you can note Anna often comments on the beauty of women, even though she is also very judgmental of them. When she encounters Gweyn’s sister Hwyfar, who is a rather unabashed lesbian, she is both intrigued and discomfited. 

“Coming out” stories certainly have their place, but that wasn’t my aim here. It was to try and show people as they are, or could be, in a sense, through a more diverse lens. And I could go on and on about the queer narratives in medieval literature! The medieval mind was far more forgiving than we think about gender and sexuality, and there are dozens of extant stories that cover everything from trans narratives to fiercely feminist tales. I’m not rewriting, just unearthing what is already there. I

What else can you tell us about your life and work, Natania? 

This year has been truly strange, so it’s almost hard to remember who I am outside of a pandemic. But I am a life-long learner and passionate storyteller–I’ve been writing novel-length works since I was 11. I typically write fantasy, and it’s often historic in nature because I absolutely adore clothing and customs. Right now I’m writing a queer version of Pride and Prejudice with a lesbian Mr. Darcy… who is also a witch. My historic fantasy novellas, These Marvelous Beasts, released just before the pandemic this year. And the sequel to my first book, Pilgrim of the Sky, called Gods of Londinium, will be out next summer. I’ve also got two other books that are about ready to go… so this is far from the last you’ll hear from me.

When it comes to life at home, I’m an avid painter, hiker, baker, and musician. I almost never sit still. Which makes particularly sense now, as I did learn this year that I have ADHD. I’m very grateful, in some ways, that the strangeness of this year has given me more insight into myself. I think being neurodivergent is mostly a relief for me, and I find that I’m gentler on myself after almost 40 years of fueling my progress with a lot of bad self-talk (which is very common for women). When I’m not traipsing around the woods with my dogs, I’m at home with my kids–my son Liam is now almost six feet tall, but when I started writing Queen of None he was still in diapers. I know what Anna experiences when she looks up at Gawain after not seeing him for a few years! My husband Michael and I dream of a mountain cabin someday in the future, where I can write and paint and we can be in the trees. I’d say it’s become quite simple. I love quiet moments, good tea, and cheese. 

Where can readers find your work on-line and off-line?

You can pre-order the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound! 

Is there a specific bookstore that you’d like readers to use to order their books, from your own community? What’s your local bookstore?

If you’re in the Raleigh/Durham area, I highly recommend Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. 

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