“I wanted to hear her story in her own voice”: Morgan Is My Name author Sophie Keetch on Arthurian legend, Monty Python, and women with a dark side

  • Jodie Sloan
  • September 29, 2023
  • Comments Off on “I wanted to hear her story in her own voice”: Morgan Is My Name author Sophie Keetch on Arthurian legend, Monty Python, and women with a dark side

Earlier this year, author Sophie Keetch released her debut novel Morgan Is My Name. A stunning retelling of Arthurian villainess Morgan Le Fay, Morgan Is My Name follows her as she fights for independence against the machinations of men, kings, and sorcerers.

We sat down with Sophie to find out a little more about the book, and the Arthurian legends behind it.

Let’s, of course, start with Morgan Is My Name – can you tell us a little about the book?

Morgan Is My Name is a feminist retelling of Arthurian legend from the perspective of perhaps its most famous villain, the sorceress Morgan le Fay. It’s the first in a trilogy, and follows Morgan’s early life, from her beginnings in Tintagel Castle, through the great halls and gossiping courts of the chivalric world, leading eventually to King Arthur’s Camelot. It is, among other things, about freedom and knowledge, love and hate, sisterhood, politics, a young woman’s quest for independence in a patriarchal world that seeks to control her, and both the power and cost of female rage.

What drew you to write about Morgan Le Fay? What’s the appeal of Arthurian legend to you?

Arthurian legend has always been a part of my life. It has deep roots in Wales, where I’m from, and I’ve always been fascinated with the myths. The sheer breadth of the stories and the huge cast of characters is a huge part of the appeal, because it feels so rich and full, with endless potential. It’s full of high drama with kings and battles, feuds and romance, but also feels like a story of people, living in extraordinary circumstances, and often dealing with their joys, sorrows and troubles in very human ways. It’s a fantastical world you can fall into, but at its core are enduring themes like love, honour, sadness and betrayal that remain powerful to this day. There are otherworldly aspects, but also deeply human experiences we can still identify with.

I was drawn to Morgan in particular because of her complications, her shades of light and dark, and the way her character was twisted into villainy as she was continually rewritten in the words of men. When I explored the less well-known events of her life, she leapt out as a character of very human wants and flaws, a woman whose actions and desires resonated strongly and were complex rather than simply antagonistic, and I wanted to hear her story in her own voice.

Could you tell us a little about the research process for a book like this? I’d imagine events vary across the different myths and legends; how do you navigate that?

Everything varies across Arthurian mythology and its sources — events, names, places, timelines, relationships — which is fascinating but can get quite overwhelming! For study (and my own pleasure!), I’ve always read broadly across Arthurian literature, but to write Morgan I had to find a way of forming a specific, coherent story from the events of her life present in the source texts, which also had to come from what I knew and felt about her individual character. Ultimately, the research process always consists of a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, and a lot of time spent in the character’s head and heart, using what you understand of their personality to figure out how they might react to things.

With Morgan, there were also many gaps in her story, so it was a case of bridging the events on the page in a way that felt true to the setting, mythology, and Morgan herself. For me, I have to understand as much of the larger context as I can, then take what I need from the chaos of sources to streamline down to the individual perspective, and keep examining it as I write. Though I read and brainstorm a lot before I start, research and writing is a dynamic, intertwined process for me, and somewhere out of that will (hopefully!) spring a fully formed story.

There’s a lot of Arthurian retellings and reimaginings out there, across all sorts of media – do you have any personal favourites of your own?

One of my all-time favourite Arthurian retellings has always been Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I first saw it when I was very young (probably too young!) and it’s been one of my favourite films for as long as I can remember. It’s clever, incredibly funny and so accurate in the way it portrays the quirky and more absurd side of Arthurian legend. The more I studied and learned over the years, the more I came to appreciate the deep knowledge behind the writing, and despite many viewings, I still get something new from it every time I watch.

My other ‘Holy Grail’ of Arthurian retellings is TH White’s The Once and Future King. There aren’t enough words to describe how much I love this book, or how much it has inspired my writing journey and continues to do so. Reading it showed me what was possible in terms of exploring these legendary characters within a novel, and afforded me the bravery to seek my own voice and interpretation within the stories that I loved. It’s also a masterpiece, and impossible to put down. Like Arthurian myth itself, it’s strange, highly romantic, humorous, sometimes imperfect and utterly beautiful. I am always somewhere in the process of re-reading it.

We’ve certainly seen a rise in feminist retellings of women across history and across various mythologies – and here’s to many more! Why do you think there’s been such an appetite for them?

I think the rise of female-led retellings and their popularity has happened for many reasons. Of course, it’s firstly addressing an imbalance in perspective that we’ve had in literature and mythology for centuries, and giving a new lens through which we can look at and think about archetypal, heroic narratives. Retellings, especially of classical subjects, have long been in existence — you only have to look at Shakespeare, Chaucer, or James Joyce — so we obviously like to see existing stories recreated to give new understanding within the context of our own time.

But to examine these tales specifically through the women, we get to see a viewpoint that has been historically sidelined, and hear voices that we never have before. In effect, it feels like we are experiencing new stories, and that the familiar perhaps has more to offer us, and that’s always going to be interesting.

Are there any other women – Arthurian or otherwise – you’d like to see get the same treatment? (Don’t worry, we won’t take this as a promise that you’ll write them!)

For now, I’ll keep the Arthurian ideas to myself in case I do plan to write them! But otherwise, I’m never sure what retellings I’d like to see because I love to be surprised. I like to hear about a book coming out and feel a bolt of epiphany, that sudden urge to learn about an interesting character or perspective that I hadn’t considered before.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I particularly adore anti-heroines. I’ll take all the retellings of complicated, maligned female characters with a dark side that I can get — the more difficult the woman the better. I couldn’t say specifically who I’d want to hear from, but a retelling of an unrepentant, outright female villain from mythology or literature would be my ideal read right now.

What’s next for you?

Writing Book 3 in Morgan’s trilogy. I’m excited to bring her story to a close, and sad to be saying goodbye to her, though we still have a while together yet. After that, we’ll see where my ideas take me!

And, finally, you recently posted that you’d finished writing your second book – congratulations! Hopefully this means you’ve got a little time to breathe – what’s your favourite way to spend a bit of free time? And do you have any recent reads/watches/listens you’d like to share?

As a full-time writer who loves her job, my brain is always switched on and running wild, so I find it a challenge to truly let myself rest. My favourite way to spend free time is usually still with words, reading a never-ending pile of books or exploring new ideas, but I also like to do the usual relaxing things like playing games, walking around castles and historical sites, and generally hanging out with my family.

After the non-stop pace of finishing Book 2, I needed a lot of calm to ease me back into the world again, so I re-watched Detectorists, which is a beautiful and gloriously quiet British comedy about metal detecting and our connection with the land and its history, and fell in love with it all over again. I’m also enjoying the current season of Only Murders in the Building, which is hilarious and has immaculate vibes. Reading-wise, I’m very much always catching up, but I recently adored Shark Heart by Emily Habek which, despite knowing the dramatic premise (a woman’s husband turns into a great white shark), really surprised me with how deeply emotional it was. It’s sad, joyous, illuminating, and an all-round wonderful book.

Huge thanks to Sophie for her time!

Morgan Is My Name is out now through Bloomsbury. Keep an eye out for a review from our Books Team very soon!

Jodie Sloan

Living, writing, and reading in Brisbane/Meanjin. Likes spooky books, strong cocktails, and pro-wrestling.