An Interview with Donnita Rogers about: Faces in the Fire

Jun 21, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Tell us about yourself

I am a 73-year-old woman, happy in the roles of mother (4 adopted children), grandmother (to 6), teacher (now retired), artist (mostly watercolor), and writer.My writing life began during elementary school when I started keeping a five-year diary. I loved school and became an avid student, all the way through earning an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Minnesota. I retired from teaching Creative Writing at high school and junior college ten years ago in order to write Faces in the Fire.

I’m an active Quaker with the heart of a pagan. I revel in sensory experiences: food, music, art, beauty, travel to foreign lands. I delight in the riches life provides. I want readers to have a similar experience when reading my novel.

2) Why Beowulf?

During my years of teaching Beowulf I came to love its grim beauties, its evocation of a more primitive time and place. (Personally I’m attracted by wildness. On my travels about the world I have felt most at home on the banks of the Amazon River and in the dry, red heart of Australia, where aboriginal art struck me full force, with a kind of primal blow of recognition.)

Beowulf himself is a magnetic figure in his story, a hero who has been called “sublime in his simplicity.” Duty-driven, willing to sacrifice himself for others, possessed of outrageous physical strength, yet riven with insecurities – his seeming “simplicity” is composed of many layers.

The epic in which he stars is a bare-bones narrative, giving the “who, what, when and where,” but rarely the “why” or “how.” For example, why is Unferth, a publicly branded ‘kin-killer’, given an honored place in King Hrothgar’s court? Why does Ingeld burn down Hrothgar’s mead hall after marrying Hrothgar’s daughter? Finding a few clues but no definitive answers in recorded documents, I decided to write my own history, providing plausible answers to these and other questions.

3) Why Women’s Issues?

Beowulf is all about men and monsters. I wanted to balance the one-sided gender depiction of life in Beowulf’s world. Except for two speeches by Queen Wealhtheow and one appearance by Queen Higd, the women in Beowulf are largely invisible. I wanted to put faces on names – especially Wealhtheow’s daughter Freawaru – and give each woman a voice, a life. History is full of “buried” women. I wanted to unearth a few of them!

4) Why study mythology?

Although no specific mention is made of gods and goddesses in Beowulf, (after all, it was probably written down by a monk and designed for a Christian audience), the epic is permeated with the fatalistic weltanschuung of Norse mythology.Modern students are routinely taught Greek and Roman mythology, but other world mythologies are largely ignored or relegated to the status of video game material. ( A notable exception is the work of Joseph Campbell.)

Myths embody the ideals and institutions of a whole society. That world view is then reflected in their literature. To enter the world of Beowulf is to enter a world in which one-eyed Odin stalks the battlefield, Thor the Thunderer grapples with giants, and the doom of Ragnarok awaits gods and men alike. Experiencing that world gives students a vantage point from which to examine the myths of their own culture.

5) What are some of the general issues in your book ?

Revenge: it permeates Viking society. I wanted to examine and explore the effect of this ethic on both men and women. Although feuds are a constant in Beowulf’s world, their effectiveness in settling old scores is seldom questioned. My novel provides scope for a wider range of reactions to this deadly mindset. I also want the reader to reflect on 21st century attitudes about the efficacy of revenge.

Paganism: I also want to envelop readers in a non-Christian environment, to expose them to a pagan worldview, without making overt judgments about its validity. I want to give them a “What would life be like IF…?” experience. To do so, the beliefs contained in Norse mythology had to be expressed in everyday life.

6) How did you go about researching the background and history for this novel?

Researching the background for this novel involved extensive literary detective work. First, I read, read, read critical and historical works on Beowulf specifically and Viking culture in general. Then, I went to the actual physical locations of events. For Book One this meant a trip to Denmark. At Lejre Research Center near Roskilde, Denmark, thought to be the original site of Hrothgar’s mead hall, I found vivid sources for scenes in the novel – e.g. a sacrificial bog hung with rotting horse heads, a grave site outlined with stones in the shape of a great ship. At Trelleborg I leaned my back against the timbered walls of a reconstructed mead hall and inhaled the smoky ambience. At Roskilde harbor I joined the crew of a replicated Viking ship to pull on long oars and taste salt spray on my lips.

Then, back to the books to read, read, read. Five years passed in such delightful pursuits.

Another five were spent actually writing Faces in the Fire. Now I’m at work on Book Two, as yet untitled, but set in Sweden, where Beowulf himself becomes a more prominent character. The focus, however, is still on the lives of the women – those strong, hardy Viking women.

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