[This issue, we sit down for a surprise bonus interview with Adam Bolivar. The author has just released a new collection of intertwined supernatural/occult stories, The Ettinfell of Beacon Hill.]
ev0ke: You just released The Ettinfell of Beacon Hill through Jackanapes Press. Congratulations! First, the collection is set in Boston. Why that city? What drew you to writing a series of gothic adventures in Boston?
Adam Bolivar: That’s an easy one: Boston is my hometown! I live in Portland, Oregon now, but Boston is where I was born, grew up, and spent the wildest part of my adulthood. The city is imprinted in my brain and haunts my dreams. Maybe I was only able to write about Boston in depth after I had left and could reflect on it from afar — just as James Joyce spent the rest of his life writing about Dublin after he moved abroad.
ev0ke: The collection is also “interlaced” with ballads. How did you go about composing them? Do you have plans to work further with these ballads (for example, adding music and releasing them as a cd/lp/digital download)?
AB: I have been writing ballads for some years now. Something about the form lends itself to folkloric material, for of course there is a long tradition of folklore rendered as balladry — “Tam Lin,” “Thomas the Rhymer,” “Barbara Allen,” “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” “The Daemon Lover,” and on and on. The lines of a ballad are quite short, alternating between eight and six syllables, so you are forced to word things in a very compact manner. It’s like a puzzle. And iambic meter is very evocative, hypnotic to the listener. I think properly composed metered poetry is a lamentably overlooked art these days. Far from being constraining, it taps into hidden undercurrents of the subconscious.
How do I write them? Well, I’ve composed over 160 ballads now, so the form has become second nature to me. It’s hard not to write a ballad when I sit down to write poetry. I’m afraid I’m not very musical, however. I’ve been meaning to get a hold of a lyre so I can strum it in accompaniment to my readings. Then I can be a proper bard!
If anyone wants to collaborate with me in setting some of my ballads to music, I’m open to the idea.
ev0ke: John Drake, the protagonist and the Ettinfell himself, is a descendant of Jack the Giant-Killer. While the “Beanstalk” is the most well-known Jack tale, there are actually quite a few stories. Which is your favorite, and why?
AB: Like ballads, Jack is an obsession of mine. Almost everyone nowadays is familiar with “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but few know “Jack the Giant-Killer,” which is a different tale about a Jack who outwits a series of giants across Cornwall and Wales with a blithe manner and droll remarks. It was a supremely popular tale in the 18th century and much of the 19th — the equivalent of the Marvel movies of the time. Even Samuel Johnson delighted in Jack’s exploits and was breathless for the next chapbook installment.
There was an oral tradition of telling “Jack tales” in the Appalachian Mountains, an inheritance brought over by English and Scottish settlers and lingering in isolated hollers well into the 20th century when the tales had been forgotten elsewhere. In these stories, Jack outsmarts the giants, robbers, the Devil, witches (although in my versions he’s on the side of witches), and Death himself. Of the Appalachian tales, “Jack and the Heifer Hide” is my favorite — it’s absolutely hilarious. “Old Fire Dragaman” is a deeply intriguing one because it appears to descend from the same folktale that Beowulf is based upon. But “Jack the Giant-Killer” has a special place in my heart and my imagination, so I must place it at the pinnacle. Reinventing Jack as a supernatural detective in 1920s Boston is my contribution to the tradition.
Interestingly, the same families who told the Jack tales in the Appalachians also sang old ballads which had been lost to the wider world, and were famously collected by English folklorist Cecil Sharp in the 1910s. Ballads and Jack tales go hand in hand.
ev0ke: Where can readers find The Ettinfell of Beacon Hill?
AB: It can be purchased from Jackanapes Press here.
Alternatively, it can be obtained from the retailer named after a river in South America.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
AB: Recently, I was approached to write a poem in alliterative verse for an anthology being published by an academic press. Alliterative verse was the form used in Old English poems — like Beowulf — and in Old Norse eddas and sagas. Without getting too deep into the mechanics, it involves alliterating particular stressed syllables in each line. It was a challenge learning to compose a poem this way, but once I figured it out, I found the form very inspiring and wrote more. Eventually I hope to have enough for a collection.
I’m also writing more Ettinfell stories, and plan to come out with a second volume at some point. And I make marionettes and write and perform marionette plays at local venues (not so much recently, though, due to Covid). Those who have seen my performances respond favorably, but the audience, perforce, is limited. At the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival earlier this month, I met a filmmaker who is interested in helping me make a video of one of my marionette plays, which would make the shows accessible online. I would be thrilled if this comes to fruition!
Pictures of my marionettes and a bibliography of my published work can be found here.