Ari Berk is an award-winning writer, folklorist, artist, and scholar of literature, iconography, and comparative myth. Deeply dedicated to interdisciplinary writing, teaching, and research, Dr Berk holds degrees in Ancient History (BA), American Indian Studies (MA), and Comparative Literature and Culture (PhD). The former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer N. Scott Momaday, he has studied at Oxford and travelled widely, making friends in many parts of the world.
Born and raised in California, he now lives in Michigan with his wife and son where he is Professor of English at Central Michigan University.
For further information on Ari's books, visit www.ariberk.com.
How old were you when you first starting writing?
I am sure I began telling stories long, long before I started writing them. I do remember I rather detailed epic I wrote in the third or fourth grade about the Loch Ness monster. The story involved getting to Scotland via winged-horse. I may never write a story that good again …
How did you get interested in folklore, myths and legends?
Some of the earliest stories my parents read to me were myths and fairy tales, and when I got a little older, I sought them out for myself. I have always felt very at home in the world of folklore for some reason. As a teen, I was into monsters in a big way and spent a lot of time drawing them and coming up with my own stories about them. The best sources of information about monsters, I found, were in myths and legends. My family also camped a lot and stories were told around the campfire after dark. Inevitably, many of those stories came from myths. My father also liked to tell legends about places we were camping, which always really brought the landscape to life for me.
How to you decide which creatures from folklore to include in your ‘Secret Histories’ series?
The first book was easy, because the earliest stories in myths so often involve giants. They are the folk who make the world, shape the mountains, dig out valleys and the like. Going from land to sea just seemed like a natural progression. Sea lore has long been an area of fascination to me and it was really fun to explore it for the mermaids book. In the most recent volume of that series, I wanted to present what was once the most common kind of folklore: the tales of hearth and home. Stories of hobgoblins, or hearth folk, go right back to the origins of human culture from the first moment our ancestors built roofs over their heads and cooked their meals. I also think this area of folklore, with its emphasis on hospitality, mutual respect and the honouring of the home is especially relevant to our society now.
Why, do you think, that folklore and myths are so popular at the moment?
Hard to say, because really, I think they have always been popular. Such stories explore the frontiers of human creativity, of delight, of wonder. Such stories are maps, showing us to get along in a sometimes dangerous world. They show us where the boundaries are and allow us to get close to complex, sometimes scary ideas. Of course, the Harry Potter books sure didn't hurt the popularity of folklore and the fantastic!
Where do you find your inspiration?
In the stories themselves, by entering in creative conversations with the characters in them. I also find a great deal of inspiration in the land and its stories. I am also constantly seeking out objects from the past, ancient things - carvings, old stones, early books and drawings, engravings, curios and artefacts - things shaped by human hands that have become a little mysterious over the passing years. Such objects inspire me tremendously. As I write, I am always picking up little artefacts, letting them take me on an imaginative journey. But really, I find inspiration sometimes in very unlikely, or very common places. Once I overheard a conversation two people were having in a market and there was a line in it that between the inspiration for a new character in story I was writing. The human language never fails to fascinate me.
You write poetry and draw as well as write, do you have a favourite, why?
I don't think I have a favourite, though I think, at this point, I can get my message across more clearly in words than in pictures. For me, poetry is often the beginning of everything, a small line of words rising and falling across the page, are really just word-sketches in a sense. It's often from poems or little odd phrases that I then flesh out other writing. I think of poems as the bones of bigger things.
You say you are a ‘lore hoarder’ – what is the most interesting piece in your collection?
That is a very hard question to answer, because I find different objects, different stories, more interesting depending on what I'm working on at the moment. I have some very strange books though, that's for sure. Currently, I am enjoying sifting through a 17th Century household account. Some of the 19th Century publications of the Folklore Society are absolute treasure troves. Right now, I am really enjoying a little 1909 history of London by Sir Walter Besant, not because it's especially rare or anything, but the red leather binding is so beautiful with its gilt edges … the book is just such a pleasure to hold. I'm reading that one for old, odd tales of the city for a novel I'm working on. There is also a six thousand year-old flint axe that never leaves my writing table.
Tell us more about ‘The Secret Histories: Hobgoblins’ …
It is a book about the hidden and most mysteries of the Secret Folk, those that live along side us in our own homes. The book tells what to look for in finding the Hobs in your house. It also present arm-loads of lore about their origins, many curious adventures, information about their magic and ancient customs, and warns about what can happen when the compacts of mutual respect between Hobs and humans are forgotten. There are many rare stories as well. The wonderful thing about Hobgoblin lore, I think, is that it still has so much say about living a peaceful life and about making a peaceful world. Kindness, consideration and hospitality are key to good relations with hobgoblins and, generally speaking, everyone else. In this book, the most hallowed of all lore is explored, that of home and hearth.
The Secret Histories series presentation is quite different, a mixture of pictures, drawings and writing – how do you decide on the layout?
Really, it's developed as the book develops. It is an ongoing conversation between myself and the books designer, Will Steele, and my editor, Emma Goldhawk. I am extremely fortunate to be working with such talented people. Each book begins with an outline from me about what I'd like to include and what I'd like the topics for the chapters to be. Then we have lots of conversations about art before descriptions and sometimes historical references go off to the artists. When the art comes back, I revisit the text because sometimes (often!) the artist will "hear" something in the text and emphasize that particular element in the art, an angle I hadn't considered. So I'll go back and say a little more about that in the text. Of course, the last step is the whole book must be approved by the Order of the Golden Quills' Council of Historicity and Good Taste for authenticity and the highest possible quality of content.
Do you have a favourite folklore / myth / legend tale? Why is it your favourite?
Favourites changes as I get older. At the moment though, it would have to be the myth of Orpheus because of its suggestion that art and memory and love might conquer anything, even death. True, it didn't end so well for Orpheus, but we artists have to keep trying, don’t we?
You’re an award-winning writer and have had your work translated into several other languages – do you have any literary ambitions you’d still like to fulfil?
I was lucky to be able to tick off a couple boxes in the last year. I had always wanted to write a screenplay. I got to do that with friend and film-maker Elizabeth-Jane Baldry. We wrote Sir Lanval, an adaptation of a 12th Century legend by Marie de France. This was a collaboration with the Centre de l'imaginaire Arthurien in Brittany and will premiere in France and England later this year.
I have also wanted to write a novel and I did this last year. It's the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Undertaken’, about ghosts and a town where the limbos and afterlives of the world intersect. The first book, ‘Death Watch’, comes out in 2011.
Do you have any advice you can give our budding young writers?
Only two things: read and write. Everything else will find and take its own course. You can't write unless you work to inspire yourself through the writing and works of others. Good writing is always a kind of conversation. The more you read, the better you will write. The more you write, again, the better you'll write. Writing takes practise. Don't be afraid of revising, revising, revising! Don't be precious about your writing. They're just words. Edit and cut like there's no tomorrow. You can always make more words. Just keep writing.
What do fans of Ari Berk have to look forward to from you in the next few months?
Well, as I've mentioned, there's my novel coming out next year. Also a picture book called ‘Astraea, Star of Peace’, or, ‘The Angel Who Fell To Earth’, illustrated by Virginia Lee who is one of my favourite artists. There are few more illustrated books I am writing now and another novel waiting until the current trilogy is finished, but these projects are under wraps for a bit yet. You'll just have to wait and see!
Can you sum up ‘The Secret Histories: Hobgoblins’ in 3 words?
HOME HOLDS WONDERS.
The Secret Histories: Hobgoblins by Ari Berk
Published by Templar Publishing
Published on 1st August 2010
(Book review by Lynsey Evans)
Firstly, the book just looks exciting and appealing before you even open it! It’s almost magical to look at, with its tassel, ‘gem’ stone inset in the cover and foil leaves pattern. The very good news is that when you open up the enticing cover the book doesn’t disappoint.
What I love about this book is the presentation, the pictures, snippets of info and flaps make it so much fun to read, you almost forget you are learning about creatures from folklore!
Learn about the Hobgoblins’ ways, how to see them, what dwellings and laws of hospitality mean to them, other Hearth Folk and their ways, their allies and enemies, their magic and their beliefs.
This is a great book, engaging, interesting, fun, educational and a lovely addition to any bookcase, or ‘founte’ as the Hearth Folk say.
Now I’ve finished reading this very enjoyable edition to the Secret Histories series (‘Giants’ and ‘Mermaids’ are also available from Templar Publishing and all good bookshops) I do feel that I’d like to search for a Hag Stone and see if I can see the Secret Folk with my own eyes …
Recommended for readers 9+