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Caiseal Mor

WHAT DO YOU CALL SOMEONE WHO WRITES FOUR BOOKS IN LESS THAN THREE YEARS, and has number five close to finished? And if in that same time they record four albums, with most of the songs original compositions? And if they design every book and album cover, and illustrate the texts? And in their spare time set up a personal web site on the internet which receives some 1500 "hits" a week?

Driven? Multi-talented? Productive beyond the call of duty? All qualify, but the simple answer is Mor. As in Caiseal (Gaelic for "circular stone fort", it's pronounced Cash'l) Mor, 37, author of historic Celtic sagas, Irish harper, creative whirlwind.

An Australian son of Irish immigrants who became cattle stationers in far west Queensland, he grew up, he says, "in isolation amid an elementally constrained, dysfunctional" family. His first language was Gaelic, for which he has never forgiven his parents ("I think it was very selfish of them - it was a misbegotten romanticism which did not prepare me in any way for life in Australia"); he was taught young to play the Celtic harp by his grandmother, for which he is now grateful. She was also an old-school storyteller determined he would "learn the lore". He resented it then, rebelling against it at 12; the irony that 25 years later it feeds his life's work doesn't escape him.

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The terrace Mor and his partner recently moved into is newly-painted but largely unrenovated. Near but not on the harbour in Sydney's fashionable (if endearingly rough-edged) Glebe, it is a sunnily tidy shrine to things Celtic. Here in a cupboard-sized office above a steep narrow stairway, Mor Inc has its nerve centre. His work may be forged on the legendary, but it is wrought via state-of-the-art computer technology. Text, designs, artwork and pr are all honed on the pc and delivered as a print-ready disk to the publishers.

A compact package of energetic intelligence, Mor speaks carefully. Polite, friendly, alert to nuance, he's obviously wary in a "once-bitten" way of the press's tendency to dismiss fantasy writers as sideshow material. He's also all coiled enthusiasm; he just can't help himself, bounding up here to show a book poster, there to demonstrate a song on his harp. Such unalloyed vitality is very winning.

His pre-writing cv read boarding school, boredom as a Brisbane-based clerk, escape overseas for five years. During several visits to Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, he began to bowerbird Celtic stories, songs and music from the old folks, "for the love and liveliness of them". On his return to Sydney, he took a degree in performing arts, found work playing an English soldier at Old Sydney Town ("my ancestors would have been spinning in their graves"), taught drama and art at a private school, jammed with a band of friends, hosted traditional story and music celidh nights.

A chance social meeting with agent Selwa Anthony was the catalyst. He'd recently resigned from teaching and was at an employment crossroads. He mentioned a couple of classic tales. "I probably had in mind one day to write them down as a collection of Celtic folk stories but Selwa said 'no, no just weave them all into one narrative for me'."

So he did. Twice, in four months. That became The Circle and the Cross, which sold and sold. Once he'd started, he couldn't stop. "It flows so easily - I have all these traditional motifs and tales in my mind and I just put them into a different context ... like a Celtic knot, it all tangles eventually into one tale.

"I create characters and historical perspectives, but there's so much material to draw on I suspect I'll never have to make up my own stories." There's also the 12-hour days, every day, since Day One, spent in detailed research, or writing (he does 5000-8000 words a day), planning, drawing, composing ...

Book two in The Wanderers trilogy was followed last year by the non-fiction Scratches in the Margin, compiled from notes scribbled by Celtic scribes in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Last month he completed the trilogy with The Water of Life. Next May comes The Moon and The Lake, an evocation of Celtic spirituality, in August a novel set during the time of the Crusades, The Tile-Cutter's Penny.

Then there's been the albums, composed to complement the trilogy, plus another CD of traditional Irish and Scot tunes, The Loom of Music. (Mor and a friend custom-built his instrument, based on the 14th century Queen Mary Harp. Wire-strung and played with the finger-nails, it's made of Tasmanian blackwood and western red cedar and inlaid with bone and semi-precious stone. Mor also carved its traditional designs.)

He laughs when I suggest burn-out from hyperactivity. "When you mention it all together, it does sound obsessive. I'm very cognisant of how lucky I am - not many writers or graphic artists have had such opportunities. Even less are paid to do the things they love doing.

"But it's not work for me. Certainly, it all went berserk after The Circle and the Cross was launched. My life changed dramatically, and I haven't stopped since. Fortunately I've had people around to keep me solidly earthed from the hype. The whole thing is a great learning process, which is an extra positive for someone who is easily bored."

The books require increasing research as far as the historic setting goes: "I've had to delve into the source. It was a revelation. I knew the English had written of the time from their perspective but I also found that the Catholic Church had suppressed a lot of information, or even adapted the traditions as their own - the trinity, for instance, is a totally Gaelic concept first preached by the church in the sixth century.

"But the fifth century, in which my work is based, was a time of great upheavals. In the main, information relies on the verbal tradition, although there are some new translations of old Irish manuscripts appearing done by Irish speakers."

Who reads the stories, I ask? History freaks, the candles-and-cloak brigade, Goths, Trekkies? Judging by the 300-plus readers who have emailed him, Mor says, readers "range across every strata, from 11-year-olds through to an 87-year-old, from lawyers to labourers, and across cultures - I have Jewish readers, Aboriginal ... some have even contacted me from Alaska, Singapore, Germany."

As to the why of it, he puts it down partly to "a deep feeling of loss of spirituality in our society", of people reacting against an overemphasis on the material and yearning for echoes of the Greek idea of the Golden Age, "that there was this time when there were heroes and everything was cut and dried ..."

"The feedback I get is that readers like the reality I create, which is different from a superficial reality, and different also from what most fantasy or historical writers are doing. There's also a strong interest here in what Celtic culture is, its values and morality, and the scope it gives for being in touch with the elements, with the land.

"That's echoed in the early Australian ethos lauded by Banjo Paterson, for instance. So much of our culture is rooted in the Celtic tradition. People seem to want to get back to these earlier values and certainties, to find alternatives to the pointlessness of materialism."

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As a genre, fantasy tends to curl the literati lip. Hardly kosher. But how many "literary" works get 15,000 copy first print runs as a matter of course? And the market for it is voracious, and loyal. The Australian's sf/fantasy reviewer Terry Dowling is one not overly impressed with the home-produced product. "Generally, Australian fantasy is derivative, hidebound ... a long way from the freshness of a Tolkien." Yet he cheerfully acknowledges that "sales figures appear to indicate I'm out of step - it seems a lot of people today ... want some magic, to create a responsive universe in which they feel empowered."

Our top-selling fantasist is Sara Douglass, an alias of a La Trobe academic, whose Axis trilogy has moved 100,000 copies here and has just been picked up in the UK. That makes Mor's 50,000-and-still-rising copies sold of The Circle and the Cross an impressive stat; when figures are in for his completed trilogy, he could be a contender for number one. Next year, The Wanderers will be released to Germany's huge fantasy-buying public, as will the albums; there's even talk of American interest. Anyone reading such runes would have to discern they were Mor propitious.

This story was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1997


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