by Brenda Rickman Vantrease
St. Martin's Griffin
Brenda Rickman Vantrease lives in Nashville, Tennessee. The Illuminator, her first novel, was a Booksense Pick in hardcover and is being translated into eleven languages.
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Q: What inspired you to write The Illuminator?
BRV: The story of The Illuminator began with two documents. The first was Revelations of Divine Loveby Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write in the English language. I was fascinated by the life of this anchoress and mystic: What would cause a woman to go voluntarily into a kind of tomb and give up all human contact, never to see the sky or smell the flowers again? Originally, I thought the book would be all about her, but as it turned out, the other characters just kind of bubbled up and took over.
The other document was the first original illuminated manuscript I had ever seen: The Book of Kells, at Trinity College in Dublin. To think that those brilliant colors and exquisite detail had survived since the ninth century gave me chills. I could almost hear the scratching of the pens on the vellum as the monks labored in their ancient scriptorium to complete the gospel in time for the dedication of their new monastery at Kells. It has 680 pages and we are told that only two have no color. It is thought by many to be the finest example of the illuminator's art in Western Europe.
Q: What is it like mixing fact with fiction? Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, Bishop Henry Despenser, and John Ball are all historical figures. How did you go about inventing your other characters?
BRV: It's a wonderful challenge --- like taking two textures, silk and linen, and trying to weave them into a whole that has integrity and beauty. Sometimes I feel a little bit frightened, thinking that I'm taking too much liberty with a historical character, but I hope not; I try to stay attuned to the reputation and the character that person established in history. With the fictional characters, I try to conjure the people who might have interacted with these historical figures, mere silhouettes at first, then gradually they emerge for me like ghosts in a darkroom. That's the way Finn and Kathryn came. Occasionally, almost magically, a character just pops onto my computer screen fully formed, shoving and pushing her way in, and will not leave. The character of Magda, for example, was not planned; I never intended for this little urchin to develop her own subplot. I opened a door seeking a piece of furniture for my kitchen hearth and wise little Magda was there, seeing visions and colors and soul-lights; she was a gift. Half-Tom was the same. He was never intended to have any other use than to introduce Finn to the reader.
Q: Were any of the characters based on you?
BRV: None of the characters is based on me. The only connection I have with Kathryn is the miserable migraine headaches that plague her --- and perhaps a little bit of the controlling personality that brings her such pain. It is much more fun to write about imaginary characters: I don't have to worry about is representing a person who actually lived and breathed and exerted influence on others, though the research into their lives is very stimulating to my imagination. And therein lies the danger, I suppose.
Q: How did you go about researching The Illuminator, and what did you find particularly interesting or surprising?
BRV: I have always been a castle prowler. I love poking around cathedrals and old medieval ruins of castles and abbeys, and I love reading about them. A friend and I once got lost in the Doges' Palace and wound up in the dungeons, and another time I talked my way into Cardiff Castle after it had closed, just me and the peacocks and a few ghosts.
Since first seeing The Book of Kells, I've seen a lot of original manuscripts in museums --- some books no bigger than a human hand. I think the most interesting thing to me is how varied the illuminations are, how much they reflect the personality of the artist, some pious and conventional in the pictures painted in the marginalia and some quite playful. And also how very expensive they must have been.
Q: What do you think about the role that organized religion plays in society, both at the time of this book and in the present day?
BRV: In many ways, organized religion has given us the gift of civilization. Great art, music, architecture, even universities, which were sponsored by the Church, came out of the very period when the Church appeared to be so corrupt. So, organized religion has done much in our civilization --- in Western civilization surely, and I think also in Eastern civilization --- to further all good things.
At the same time, some people point to the fact that a lot of evil has come out of organized religion. In this book I am dealing with one of the most corrupt periods in the Catholic Church, and I think that's a warning to all of us: when any institution, whether political, religious, or corporate, becomes too powerful, it can act like a magnet for human frailty and become an instrument of evil rather than good --- or, as John Wycliffe might say, a tool of the devil. History records such abuse of power. We witness it today in government and corporate scandals and atrocities committed in the name of religion.
Q: Why do you think there has been a renewal of interest in Julian of Norwich in recent years?
BRV: I believe her emphasis on Jesus as the "Mother God" has appealed to the feminist movement. It's not that Julian ever said that Jesus was a woman --- far from it: she was just talking about how the love of Christ was most like a mother's love in nature. But I think the idea of a Mother God appeals to women who sometimes feel shut out by the strictures placed by the traditional church.
Q: Who are your favorite heroes or heroines in fiction? In real life?
BRV: I don't know that I have a favorite hero in fiction or real life. Maybe that's why I created Finn: my idea of the hero. But the most memorable characters are the ones who are tragically flawed in some way like the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I love survivors, like Defoe's Moll Flanders. In real life the persons I admire most are those who can transcend self-interest in a way that most of us ordinary humans can never do --- like the medics in Doctors Without Borders or Mother Teresa. We usually never even know their names.
Q: If you could meet any writer, alive or dead, who would it be, and what would you like to talk about?
BRV: William Shakespeare. He wrote about historical figures, lifting many of his characters from Holinshed's Chronicles, a history book published in 1578. He also wrote to please the crown --- constantly sucking up. I'd like to talk to him about the artistic tension between representing history accurately and distorting it to please his patron, especially in the historical plays. The character of Macbeth, for example --- Shakespeare really does a number on a man some historians believe was a good king. And I would especially like to ask him about the character of Sir John Oldcastle, the prototype for Falstaff, who figures hugely in my next novel. I know Shakespeare felt the pressure keenly. As it turned out, Sir John's descendent was the minister of entertainment at court and complained bitterly that the Bard had turned his illustrious ancestor, who died a Christian martyr, into a cowardly buffoon. Oops! Feeling the heat and not wanting to give up this wonderful character, Shakespeare hastily wrote a disclaimer and changed the name to Falstaff in his next play.
Q: Before becoming a novelist, you worked as a teacher and librarian. How has that influenced your writing?
BRV: Obviously, books and history have been a common theme in all of my endeavors, but beyond the subject matter, I believe that teaching has given me a sense of compassion for the human condition. I have seen children --- young children, older children, adolescents --- lead very difficult, tortured lives, and I've come to understand that we all have a struggle, whatever our age. I like to think that watching these children as they develop and face their particular challenges has helped me to understand human nature.
Q: Is imagined narrative as powerful as narrative based on factual experiences? Less powerful? Less true?
BRV: It is my opinion that the best fiction offers more truth than the best nonfiction because true fiction opens a window into the soul of the writer, revealing truths we as writers may not even know about ourselves. The pot simmers. The writer's subconscious bubbles up and a character emerges of whom the writer had no conscious awareness. Don't blame it on the muse. That character/event/emotion --- glorious or monstrous as he or she or it may be --- came from the heart and mind, the truth, of the writer. An intimacy exists between reader and writer in the best fiction because the writer exposes his soul or at least what lives in his imagination. And if the writer doesn't expose his soul, his fiction will be lacking. Like poetry, narrative provides a language that explains those metaphysical aspects of life that we cannot explain with facts. The quickest way to the heart is through the imagination.
Q: How do we find and shape the story inside us? What are its elements?
BRV: We find the story much in the same way Michelangelo found his subject in marble. We free it. But before we can free it from the stone of our conscious mind, we must first discover it by finding a way in. It can begin with an image. C. S. Lewis says that his famous classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, began with a picture in his head of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. It can begin with a scene, a question, a character --- something hardly more than a spark, but if William Blake is to be believed that's a divine spark. Then we chisel away. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes it takes a lifetime; think of Michelangelo's prisoners only half sculpted, half freed from their marble blocks. We find it by playing with the elements of narrative.
Excerpted from The Illuminator © Copyright 2013 by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.
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