WHO THE FOLK is Sarah Woodbury?
‘WHO THE FOLK’ is my new regular feature for ‘WHERE THE FOLK’ in which I interview various experts and everyday people from around the country regarding Welsh history and folklore.
For this interview however, I look at what influence Welsh folklore has across the Atlantic and speak with Sarah Woodbury from Oregon, author of more than forty novels, with over a million books sold to date. All of her books are set in medieval Wales and are based on Welsh history and mythology, with much of her own imagination thrown in to form modern works of fiction. Sarah first visited Wales when she went to university, but her Welsh heritage goes way back- she is even a descendant of Welsh royalty!
I call her over Zoom after I finish work one evening, when her day is just beginning…
RW: Hello there. “Good morning” for yourself, I suppose!
SW: Yes, good morning! The day is just dawning for us.
RW: Well thanks for agreeing to a chat with me today…
SW: No problem!
RW: I’m just gonna’ start recording, by the way- in case you say something interesting and I miss it!
SW: Sure thing…
RW: Okay, so… do you want to start by telling us a little bit about yourself? Your career as an anthropologist, how you got into writing…
SW: Of course … so I went to Cambridge for “prifysgol” (that’s “university” in Welsh). My ancestry is Welsh, as well as being from all over the British Isles. There’s some Scottish there, some Irish, some English… but I remember falling in love with Wales, going to Conwy Castle with some friends and running across the battlements, thinking, “I can’t believe this place exists, it’s so amazing!”
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so while the Native Americans were here for ten thousand years before recorded history, there’s nothing left on the landscape, nothing that old… I mean, we have one of the oldest houses in our town and it was built in 1897!
I got my PhD in Anthropology. My research was done in Belize, which is a former British colony, but also had kids on the way. Once they were old enough, I started homeschooling and never actually took a job as a professor. When my youngest child turned 2, I decided that I needed something for myself that was not just kids so I started writing. That was on April 1st 2006, sixteen years ago.
RW: And you’ve done so much writing in that time, as well! I had a look at your website- over forty books published and about forty more on the horizon, from what I saw in the “Coming Soon” section!
SW: I know! It’s a full-time job. My husband actually quit his job in 2014 and we work together with our little publishing company. I don’t know if you also saw that we have a YouTube channel with about 150 videos on Welsh history…
Here's the Woodbury's video on the castle in my hometown of Caernarfon:
RW: I was gonna’ ask you about that, yes- I didn’t know there were so many videos, mind!
SW: We call it “Making Sense of Medieval Britain” and we started it because I had so much information about Wales that never makes it into the books. I wanted to share that with my readers.
To continue the story … back in 2006, there was no such thing as being an indie author. The self-publishing thing meant selling books out of the trunk of your car… or the “boot”, rather! I spent five years trying to get a traditional publishing contract. I actually have a big, high-powered New York agent, but just couldn’t sell my books. I have a slide when I do presentations that explains the difference between Wales the country and actual “whales”, the mammal. It’s very hard to get your book published when it’s based in what many consider to be an obscure location.
RW: Oh well, well done for getting an agent in the first place- that’s a huge achievement, right there!
SW: Thank you! I actually had two agents. The first one up and quit without telling any of her clients, me included, so at that point I had to start over. The second took me on in 2009/10–but then the economy crashed. I heard that one major publisher didn’t buy a book for six months. Whatever the reason, because of the economy, or “the Wales element” which they didn’t know what to do with, or because they just didn’t like them, I received hundreds of rejections. My books have literally been rejected by every publisher in New York!
RW: Well you’ve resilience, I’ll give you that much!
SW: I know, right?! But it was the best thing that ever could have happened for me- I wouldn’t take a publishing contract now. They couldn’t pay me enough money to make it worth my while, not with a million books sold on my own.
RW: Yes, I did see that- that’s amazing!
SW: So anyway, in the fall of 2010, my agent handed me back the book he was trying to sell, which was The Last Pendragon, and said “I can’t sell it. Do you have anything else?”
So I was like, okay, it can either live in my laptop forever, since every publisher had seen it. It was over, it was done! Or… I could sell it myself. The indie author thing had started by then. There was the Kindle, the Nook, Apple devices … so I uploaded my books to Barnes and Noble, which is an American bookstore, and made them available for free online. In the fall of 2010, I gave away ten thousand copies in three months.
RW: Oh, wow!
SW: Yeah, and I was like “Okay, this is happening!” I was receiving fan mail… I mean, I wasn’t making any money, but after five years, I just wanted someone to read the thing! Then in December I got an email from a reader that said “I loved your book; I would have paid for it please don’t give your books away for free anymore.” That gave me the push I needed to become an indie author.
I published my books myself in January 2011. That first month, I sold 22 copies: 3 to me, 3 to my mom, 3 to my aunt. Then in February, having exhausted my family connections, I sold 52. In March it was 272. Then I brought out Daughter of Time, which resonated with people even more. I sold over a thousand books in April and 30,000 by the end of the year.
… and entered what is often called the “Wild West” of self-publishing… you’ve self-published a couple of books yourself, right?
RW: Yes, I have, yes.
SW: And are they fiction?
RW: They are, my most popular being based everyday life and drama set in small Welsh communities. I mean, I’m from Caernarfon- they say you should write about what you know, right?
SW: That’s great! Both my parents were historians, and I grew up loving history and historical fiction. After university I began reading books on Wales, and medieval Wales in particular. That’s what we do, right? We research!
My flagship series is the After Cilmeri series, based on the true history of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the native last Prince of Wales, who was ambushed at Cilmeri, after which Wales fell. That would be December 11th 1282. There are few moments in history when so much pivots on one moment. Llywelyn’s decision, which seemed like a good decision at the time, to come out of Gwynedd and travel down to Cilmeri… do you know much about this ambush, by the way?
RW: I do, yes- I visited the actual spot last year, funnily enough!
SW: Right, so he was lured into this ambush by his nephews, who were Mortimers. Up until then the Welsh had been winning battle after battle. There was some thought that Edward might give up, particularly if the Mortimers defected. I asked, “What if Llywelyn had lived?” The answer to that question is what the After Cilmeri series is all about.
RW: Something I’m sure about which many a Welsh nationalist has wondered at some point!
SW: Haha, I know, right? People don’t tend to think of Wales as England’s first colony, but it is. The books are a bit of alternate history, a bit of time travel. In Book 1, I send two American teenagers back in time to save Llywelyn’s life. That’s Footsteps in Time, which was also the first book I wrote that was based on Welsh history. The prequel to the series is Daughter of Time, which is about their mom. There are 20 books in the series now. My newest one is Hidden in Time, which comes out May 17th. Time-travel and historical fiction.
Initially, I had written only the first couple of books, and when no publisher would publish any of those, I pivoted to write The Last Pendragon, which I told you about earlier. That one, more than any of the others, is rooted in Welsh mythology. It’s set in the 7th century, during the age of Welsh independence, post-Arthur, when there was a lot of conflict with the Saxons.
Within Welsh mythology, you’ve got Christian and Pagan influences, working side-by-side, often at the same time…. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Welsh bard Taliesin…?
RW: Yes, I know of Taliesin, yes.
SW: Right, so Taliesin is basically Merlin. He isn’t called Merlin, but he fits within a lot of the lore. He was writing around the 6th Century. To give a sense of the timeline, the Battle of Mount Badon, which was a great victory for King Arthur, was around the year 500. Taliesin was writing shortly after that. His tales of Arthur are very mythological, blending pagan and Christian elements. In one, Arthur leads a group of warriors into the Welsh Otherworld, even though he’s Christian. That blend is what I try to evoke in the world of The Last Pendragon.
In addition, I have another series set during the time specifically of King Arthur, called The Lion of Wales series. My husband and I are giving a talk next Thursday to a university class and one of the things we will talk about is how he was a Welsh hero that the English stole, very deliberately.
We will also discuss the possibility that Arthur was a real person. Several other bards, in addition to Taliesin, wrote about him. One such bard, Aneirin, from the 7th Century writes, in reference to one of the warlords at the Battle of Catraeth, that he “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.
Gives me chills!
RW: That’s fascinating!
SW: So what are you looking for in interviewing people about Welsh folklore, exactly?
RW: Well, one of the main reasons I began writing this blog was because a lot of Welsh people either didn’t know a lot of these stories, or believed the common misconceptions about them, some of which you’ve already touched on. So I thought I’d interview a few experts to perhaps shed some light on the truth… as an American, you can perhaps give us an insight into how many people know about these tales across the Atlantic, and how they are perceived…
SW: That’s great- I mean, I work a lot on “reclaiming” these tales for Wales, as it were… like you said, a lot of them have been lost. But, you know… Last year we were in the village of Nefyn in North Wales where Gerald of Wales, in the 12th century, claimed to have found some of Merlin’s writings. Then, in the 13th century, after his conquest of Wales, King Edward held a tournament there in the spirit of King Arthur. He even had a round table built and gave names from the Arthurian legend to his barons while he played the role of King Arthur. He also went to Llyn Cwm Dulyn, where legend said Arthur’s sword (Excalibur, or Caledfwlch in Welsh) was found, for his 45th birthday–all to claim King Arthur for himself.
In any case, we were looking at the field where Edward held this tournament when a woman walked by and asked what we were doing. We told her we were looking at Edward’s field, which is known locally as “Cae Edward” to this day. She immediately became irate and said, “We don’t want to have anything to do with him around here!”
I came closer to ask, “Dach chi’n siarad Cymraeg?” which she did, and thankfully we were able to rail against Edward in Welsh for five minutes, which seemed to calm her down. 800 years later and she’s still mad about this. So although people have forgotten or may not know about a lot of these old legends, there is still a strong energy and passion present about events that have happened in the past.
RW: Haha! I know plenty of people still arguing over things that happened hundreds of years ago, trust me! And I’m very impressed with your Welsh pronunciation, by the way!
SW: Oh! thank you … wyt ti’n siarad Cymraeg?
RW: Yndw tad…
(WE CONVERSE IN WELSH FOR A BIT, BUT FOR THE SAKE OF MY READERS, I SHALL CONTINUE IN ENGLISH)
SW: I began learning Welsh about a year ago through the website, “Say Something in Welsh”. They have 75, 30+ minute podcasts that teach you Welsh. Then, during lockdown, they added a Zoom component, which means every week I can speak Welsh with other Welsh-learners and one teacher for an hour. Initially, my son and I learned Welsh together, but it became necessary for him to pick a foreign language to learn in school, and unfortunately, Welsh wasn’t an option. There aren’t many Welsh tutors in Oregon, funnily enough!
RW: How difficult do you find learning Welsh?
SW: It is unlike any other language I’ve ever encountered. I also speak French and Spanish…
RW: … as does my girlfriend, actually!
SW: As a tourist, I struggle to find anyone who can speak Welsh in South Wales. Up north, it’s totally different!
RW: Well they can often pick me out with my accent, let me tell you!
SW: I was so excited to speak Welsh on our trip to Wales in October 2021, and we’re coming to Wales again in May this year, for two weeks.
RW: Oh yeah? Where are you headed?
SW: Caernarfon, actually. And also to the south. As it turns out, ten years ago to the day, we were in Crickhowell for the Queen’s 60th jubilee. Now, on her 70th jubilee, some friends have invited us to the celebration in their village. (Believe me, I see the irony here). I love having the opportunity to speak Welsh. Actually, this time, I’m meeting with a couple of my readers who speak Welsh.
RW: You meet up with your readers? That’s lovely! Very nice! So are most of your readers Welsh, then? Or are they from America?
SW: No, no, the vast majority are American. I mean, America has 300 million people in it. Wales has 3 million. My audience expands with every passing year, however. Particularly, the first book in my newest series, The Welsh Guard Mysteries, is set at Caernarfon Castle, and I have found it has attracted more Welsh readers compared to my other books.
RW: Tell you what, I’m getting more tips on being a successful author in this interview!
RW: So tell me more about your Welsh ancestry- how far back does it go, and how did you learn about it?
SW: Back in the nineties as part of a homeschool project with my daughter, we did our genealogy. My parents had heard that we had some Welsh ancestry–not that Woodbury, is a Welsh name. It’s as Saxon as it gets. However, John Woodbury, my direct ancestor and one of the founders of Salem Massachusetts in 1624, originated in Somerset. It seems he married a Welsh girl. Also in Salem were members of the Morgan family- obviously Welsh–two of whom married into my family. I traced them back to Sir Rowland Morgan in the 1400s, a fact which I posted on my website. Then a reader, a genealogist, got in touch and gave me information on a dozen more generations, all ancestors of Sir Morgan, including King Owain Gwynedd, the Lord Rhys, and King Henry I of England.
RW: No way!
SW: Yup! As it turns out, the illegitimate daughter of Robert of Gloucester, who was the illegitimate son of Henry I, married Gruffydd ab Ifor Bach, Lord of Senghenydd.. You must have heard of Gwenllian, the daughter of Owain Gwynedd who married the King of Deuheubarth and was hanged from the battlement by the English in 1136…?
RW: Of course- the “Welsh Boudica”, the warrior princess…
SW: Right! So I’m a descendant of her. I guess my sons are princes of Wales too!
RW: That’s amazing! And you’ve given your children Welsh names, haven’t you? Are they named after Welsh princes?
SW: Our daughter’s name is “Brynne”, which is a feminine version of “Bryn”. My eldest son is “Carew”. Carew Castle was built by the Normans and it was named after the nearby river. I think it was originally “Caerhiw” which means “fort on the slope”, or something like that. Then we’ve got Gareth, who was one of Arthur’s knights, and Taran, a name which comes from the Welsh God of Thunder, “Taranis”, the equivalent of Thor.
RW: Oh, wow! That explains the origins of the Welsh word for “thunder”!
RW: See, before I started writing this blog, I had no idea about all the old Welsh gods, and most Welsh people don’t! It isn’t something you’re taught about in school, nothing you ever come across…
SW: They don’t!
SW: Everyone knows Irish mythology, right? It’s all mixed- Welsh mythology, Irish, Nordic… there’s the Loki equivalent, Efnysien, who’s a real piece of work…
SW: Have you read Harry Potter?
RW: I haven’t, but seen a few of the films…
SW: At one point Harry is looking for what effectively translates as the thirteen treasures of Britain. Rowling actually incorporates some Welsh mythology into her books.
RW: So how important do you think it is to keep these old legends and stories alive, then? How important are they to today’s society?
SW: I live history, right? And I think it’s important to remember history so we can learn from it. These stories and their morals are just as important as lessons from history. Also, knowing these tales and their links to various locations makes visiting these places all the more enriching.
My husband worked for 13 years on an Indian reservation here in Oregon and they have their own mythology, and it influences the way they live here now. Even if we don’t believe it literally, it can teach us something, right? My husband’s friend developed an entire natural resources programme based on their myth of First Foods. He’s organised the natural resources department around it as a way of managing and preserving the land and resources.
RW: Well thank you very much for your time Sarah, what a fascinating interview! Give me a shout if you’re ever in Cardiff, anyway, whether you want to visit some historical landmark or just go for a pint!
SW: Oh thanks. Will do! Good luck with your book!