While working together at Book Riot, Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington bonded over their love of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga. Now, they bring their enthusiasm for stories of the once and future king to Sword Stone Table (Vintage, July), which PW’s starred review praised for its “breathtaking breadth, depth, and creativity.” Here, the editors of the inclusive anthology discuss the enduring appeal of Camelot and what happens when you tell a cross-genre assortment of authors, “Do whatever you want with it.”
When did each of you first discover the Arthurian tales?
Krishna: We used to take family trips to India in the summers and I would only be able to bring x number of books, because e-readers weren’t a thing yet. So I’d always bring the biggest books I could. One summer I took Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, the hardcover that’s like this big, with me. I read it that summer and then I never stopped reading it.
Northington: I would tear through the library as a kid, constantly running out of books. And then the librarians would say, “Here, take Bulfinch’s Mythology. Take T.H. White.” I read a couple of other Arthurian series retellings, and then when I hit Mary Stewart, I was like, “Oh, this is the stuff!” And it’s so male, it’s so European-centric, but even so, it was the feelings of those characters that really caught me.
How did the anthology come together?
Krishna: The way I approached this was, “Here’s a pen, here’s the subject of King Arthur: go forth and write something.” I wanted to know what different people had to say among different genres. We didn’t restrict people necessarily, but we asked them to tell us the characters they were writing, because we didn’t want 12 Merlin stories. We wanted people to explore different parts of the legend. Other than that, we just asked, “What about this legend, or what about this myth, intrigues you?”
Northington: I wanted it to be not just inclusive in terms of ethnic background or sexuality or gender, but also in terms of genre. We knew, for instance, that we really wanted a mystery/crime story, and we approached Ausma Zehanat Khan, who writes both fantasy and crime. But otherwise, it was, “Do whatever you want with it.” And we were so surprised to see some of the stories that came in. It would never have occurred to me to ask for something like Maria Dahvana Headley’s muckraking, yellow journalism, labor union story. And Alexander Chee—I would never have asked him to write a story set on Mars.
What was the thinking behind organizing the pieces into “Once,” “Present,” and “Future”?
Krishna: Jenn, me, and our amazing editor at PRH, Anna Kaufman, had a really long email chain on, “How do we want to do this?” It clicked for all three of us at the same time.
Northington: We saw how distributed the timelines were—we had a bunch of historicals, a bunch of contemporaries, and then we had some that were future-y—so we said, “He’s the once and future king! Let’s just go with that.”
Why, hundreds of years later, do writers continue to find inspiration in the Arthurian legends?
Krishna: These characters—it’s Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, it’s the hero’s journey. Arthur is this tragic figure—there’s the mythical Camelot, the hope, but also the downfall. It’s a compelling story no matter how or when it’s told.
Northington: There’s this huge cast, and there are so many different ways you can approach how they all fit together around this central figure, who is a classic underdog story. Arthur is like an OG underdog, and how all these supporting characters interact with that—it’s so ripe for exploration and reinterpretation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Anna Kaufman's name.