The inspiration for MIRRENWOOD
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
When I first visited the Unicorn Tapestries back in 2007 I knew I was in the presence of something truly magical. To start with, Fort Tryon Park is a strange little wooded idyll caught somewhere between Harlem and the Bronx. A winding road leads you to a medieval monastery, as close to the real thing as you could possibly find in the U.S. The tapestries themselves—seven enormous panels, amazingly well-preserved—are gorgeous. Clearly they were designed and produced for a wealthy patron, whose initials are woven into the backgrounds, and even appear on the hounds’ collars—yet this original owner’s identity remains a mystery. That the tapestries survived to this day, through the destruction and pillage of two World Wars among other calamities, is a miracle. Then there is the magic of tapestry-making itself: the painstaking design, the expense of the materials, the countless hours spent weaving each of these works of art.
My question, as I moved from panel to panel back in 2007, was why? Why on earth would somebody hunt—and kill—such a beautiful, magical creature? Of course, there is a symbolic dimension to the tale, though I don’t think we can fully grasp the meaning anymore. People in 1500 may well have believed in the existence of unicorns—narwhal horns were often displayed as such. But even then these legendary creatures represented virtue, virginity, purity, and their horns were known to possess magical power, and to confer that power, and status, onto their owners. When I got back to Philly, I made some notes, asking who might be hunting the unicorn, and for what purpose.
They were notes for a future time. I was deeply enmeshed in another project: a historical novel set in 10th-century Spain. (I’ve always had a thing for the medieval, it would seem.) That novel was all-consuming, eventually sprawling to 800 pages—and I wasn’t even two-thirds of the way through. That manuscript grew beyond my control, and I never did finish it. Meanwhile, the unicorn notes languished. They stuck with me, though, through a couple of moves and a couple of computer changes. I believed in the unicorn. Whenever I was reminded of the Cloisters, or tapestries, or unicorns, I would think, “yes—one of these days.”
In the fall of 2019, I went to Manhattan to see the premiere of Richard Curtis’s play Quiet Enjoyment. Richard Curtis is a multi-talented author, playwright, editor, and agent, and he had agreed to represent my manuscript Amba, and had very generously, very patiently been working through another round of revision with me. When I told him I was planning on coming to see his play, he said, that’s all well and good, but I’d better be finished with Amba, and I’d better be bringing him a physical copy. When I walked into the theater space, he rushed toward me and snatched the manuscript from my hands, demanding “give me that!” It really made me feel like I’d brought something of value. After the play, he took me and a few others out for drinks, and we had a lovely conversation, and then a friend and I went to the Russian Samovar (Amba is set in the Russian Far East), where we drank coriander-infused vodka and watched Russian expats dancing to live folk music. Between the play and the hobnobbing and the vodka and Manhattan and—most of all—having finally delivered a manuscript I was proud of, I felt like I was on top of the world. (It wasn’t all the vodka, lol.)
The next day—mildly hungover—before driving back to Philly I detoured north, to the Cloisters, to have another look at the Unicorn Tapestries. Once again, those seven enigmatic panels captivated my senses and my imagination, transporting me back to 1500, where I stalked through the millefleurs forest alongside these strangely expressive hunters. (Some might even describe them as cruel-looking.) Asking myself what are we doing here? Why are we hunting this creature? Does it even exist? If it does, and if we can find it—how can we possibly bring ourselves to kill it? Once home, I dug out the old sheaf of notes and began adding to it, and the “whys” started to turn into “what ifs,” which I suppose is a good sign.
Then covid hit, and the lockdown. Suddenly I had more time on my hands than usual. Aware that this was a distinct privilege that was decidedly NOT shared by all—thank you, essential workers—I was determined not to squander that time. Richard wasn’t crazy about me switching genres, but Amba hadn’t sold yet, I didn’t have a publisher demanding a sequel, so I decided to dive into the project that appealed the most: the project I’d begun thinking of as The Unicorn Hunters. (In the end, that title sounded too much like Ghost Hunters, or Apartment Hunters, and seems to suggest a crack team of professional unicorn trackers, but that was my working title.)
I fleshed out the plot through the winter and early spring of 2020, drafted through the spring, revised during the summer, workshopping portions during the spring and summer sessions of Rittenhouse Writers Group, which I attend regularly. (While the group focuses on literary fiction, they’ve been very generous with me as I’ve delved into fantasy. I think we all agree that a good story must meet certain fundamentals, regardless of genre.) I sent it off to Richard, who told me he loved the first three-quarters but hated the ending—and he was right. Another round of revision, and then we were shopping it, along with Amba. In February of 2021 Crossroad accepted Mirrenwood for their fantasy imprint Mystique Press, and now, a year later, it is here. (We even tried a version of a cover that incorporated a detail from one of the Unicorn Tapestries—which, as part of the Met’s collection, are in the public domain—but it didn’t quite work. I’m very happy with the cover we landed on.) In the meantime, I’ve finished a draft of the sequel—working title Gothenburg—and I’m planning to have a final MS by the end of March, 2022.
If you’ve never seen the Unicorn Tapestries in person, I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in New York or the vicinity. Well worth the trip.