A Q&A with February GSFF author Sharon Emmerichs

  • 26.02.23
  • Harveen Khailany
A Q&A with February GSFF author Sharon Emmerichs

1. What was the inspiration behind Shield Maiden?

I'm a professor of medieval and early modern literature, and I teach Beowulf all the time. The book was inspired by some questions that the original poem leaves unanswered. The text tells us that a nameless slave discovered a cave full of treasure and stole a goblet. He'd been exiled from his master's house and thought the goblet might convince the lord to take him back. Unfortunately, the treasure belonged to a sleeping dragon, who woke up and was mightily angry at the theft of its goblet, and so caused some havoc before Beowulf finally brought it down.

I always wondered who this slave was, what he'd done to get exiled from his master's house, and why he stole the goblet specifically. And, since the poem did not answer any of these questions, I wrote the story myself!

2. Folklore and mythology retellings tend to focus on someone that already exists in the story. What prompted you to create a new character in Fryda as Beowulf's niece?

Well, I decided to make her the reason Theow was exiled. "Getting a little too frisky with the lord's daughter" seemed a good motivation behind the conflict between the slave and his master. What I didn't know when I first created her was that she was going to completely take over the story until I finally realized I had to rewrite the book with her as my main character. I got so completely caught up in her story that it shifted the entire focus of the book!

3. From the start, we are told about Fryda's injury that led to her disability. Was keeping true to that while her own power grew something that you were conscious of while writing the book?

This was one of the most challenging parts of writing this book. I needed to represent the difficulties her disability brings to her daily life while also demonstrating how she can overcome things like shame, embarrassment, stigma, and physical limitations, and that balancing act took a lot of writing, rewriting, and even more rewriting. I was extremely conscious of how to faithfully represent the experience of living with a disability while giving her an avenue to overcome it. It took a lot of work!

4. Fryda has some amazing allies in Hild, Theow and Bryce with their own unique history. Did any of these characters change significantly in the process of writing?

Hild was always there because I needed to portray the diversity of early medieval communities. Unfortunately, white supremacists have tried to co-opt the early medieval period in England and Scandinavia and argue that they were exclusively white spaces...which is not even remotely true! It was important to me to show that. However, Bryce, like Fryda, grew from a very minor, ancillary character into one of the emotional driving forces of the novel. I didn't plan for that to happen, but...I fell in love with him. So he changed from a character who showed up maybe twice to one of the pillars that held up Fryda and Theow, and I gave him a tragic, twisty story of his own.

5. The dragon lurks in the background of this book for most of it. What are some of your favourite books featuring dragons?

I was always a big fan of Anne McKaffrey's The Dragonriders of Pern novels--I grew up on those and I think they were a deep influence on me from a very young age. Tolkien, of course...I adored Smaug. When I was very small, my mother used to read me a book called Everyone Knows what a Dragon Looks Like by Jay Williams and illustrated by Mercer Mayer, and that captured my imagination and never let go. I adored Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, and Jaspar Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer series. And then, of course, the critically acclaimed Dragons Love Tacos book!