Q: As a critically acclaimed author of historical fiction, what inspired you to create this medieval mystery series?
SKP: This was an example of something positive coming out of a negative experience. By the time I'd finished researching and writing When Christ and His Saints Slept, I was in danger of burning out. For the first time in nearly two decades, my boundless enthusiasm for the Middle Ages had begun to flag. So I decided I needed a change of pace, and since I am a long-time mystery fan, it occurred to me that a medieval mystery might be fun to write. Once that idea took root, it was probably inevitable that I'd choose to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine, surely one of history's most memorable women.
Q: What aspects of the research and writing of this novel presented the greatest challenges to you?
SKP: In my historical novels, I was constantly trying to keep faith with known historical facts; if I occasionally had to take creative liberties, I made a point of alerting my readers in my author's notes. So the mysteries represent a break with a twenty-year-old tradition. While I strive to stay true to the historical shadows of Eleanor or her son John, I can let my imagination soar with purely fictional characters such as Justin de Quincy or his duplicitous lady love, Claudine. This unexpected freedom is both daunting and exhilarating!
Q: What initially drew you to work in genre of historical fiction and what keeps you coming back?
SKP: I stumbled onto the story of Richard III, probably England's most controversial king, and from that initial fascination with one of history's great puzzles came my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour. By the time Sunne was completed, I was hopelessly hooked on the Middle Ages. Not that I'd have wanted to live back then; I am much too fond of creature comforts like indoor plumbing and central air conditioning. But the medieval era offers unbounded riches for a novelist.
Q: How do you balance the demands of crafting a good story with the demands of the historical record?
SKP: I think I rely upon instinct to a certain degree. I can immediately recognize it when I'm in danger of straying too far afield. For example, I would not feel comfortable creating a character who was utterly at variance with his historical personage, i.e., turning a warrior king like Edward I into a military misfit or depicting the strong-willed Marguerite d'Anjou as a shrinking violet. An exception, of course, is a historical figure whose motives and nature are still being hotly debated, as is the case with Richard III. If I did choose to give my readers a characterization that defies tradition, I would feel obligated to give my readers an explanation, too, for my decision to blaze a new trail.
Q: Are there lines (in terms of historical accuracy) that should not be crossed in the pursuit of a good story?
SKP: Most definitely. I might feel free to switch scenes from one castle to another, or to make a minor change in the time line. But I would not stake out a position utterly unsupported by historical evidence or academic interpretation. I could not create a medieval country that was radical in impulse, democratic in thought, tolerant of dissent. Pacifism, feminism, nationalism--these are all concepts that would have totally different shadings and subtleties in another century. I'd never want to write a book that could be tagged as "the Plantagenets in Pasadena."
Q: While Justin de Quincy is a fictional character of your own creation, is he based on any real-life figure(s) you have encountered in your research?
SKP: No, he has no historical counterpart. I wanted to create a character who has an outsider's viewpoint, one with the skills necessary to survive at the royal court and upon the mean streets of London. From this need came Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of a bishop, educated above his station in life, not truly belonging in either of his worlds.
Q: Justin has been likened to James Bond. How do you feel about this comparison?
SKP: Bond...Justin Bond. No, I don't think it has the same ring to it. Better that we keep both men in their own times.
Q: All of your readers and reviewers comment upon the richness and vividness of the historical detail in your books. How do you go about researching your books?
SKP: After researching and writing seven novels set in the Middle Ages, I feel very much at home there. When I read a novel of another age, I am curious about the details of daily life, wanting to know what the people ate and wore as well as what they believed and feared. So I try to provide that mixture of the mundane and the exotic in my own books.
Q: Is it difficult to render legendary figures, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, human and accessible? How do you do it?
SKP: I think it is definitely more challenging to depict a well-known historical figure, for then readers bring preconceived notions to the book. Someone familiar with the Robin Hood legend, for example, might be surprised to learn that King John was neither an incompetent king nor a moral monster. And mention Eleanor of Aquitaine to anyone who has ever seen The Lion in Winter, and Katharine Hepburn inevitably comes to mind! But the process of creating a character remains the same, whether that character comes from the pages of history or my own imagination. When writing a scene, I attempt to get inside the character's head and see things from his or her point of view. Rationalization and self-justification are universal human traits; even outright villains will often see themselves as the ones wronged. Once I take up residence in a character's soul, it is usually fairly easy to identify with his needs or her yearnings. In fact, it was a bit unsettling to discover how readily I could relate to neurotic malcontents like George, Duke of Clarence or ice-blooded adventurers like the Flemish mercenary William de Ypres!
Q: Why do you think the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II and their Plantagenet dynasty in Britain remain such a compelling subject for so many writers and artists such as yourself?
SKP: When I do readings, I often joke that I consider Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children to be the ultimate dysfunctional family, and there is probably as much truth as humor in that observation. Henry was one of England's greatest kings and Eleanor probably rivals Cleopatra in her hold upon the public imagination. Yet as parents, they lurched from one blunder to another and have the dubious distinction of producing four of the most self-centered, shallow, or warped sons in the history of the Plantagenet dynasty. We might not be able today to identify with those larger-than-life medieval monarchs, but who couldn't empathize with a father's pain, a mother's regrets?
Q: What would you most like your readers to understand about the status of women and the human condition in general during the Middle Ages?
SKP: That the men and women of the Middle Ages are not so alien to ourselves. Obviously their beliefs and superstitions and biases were shaped by factors foreign to us. But I don't believe that human nature has changed drastically or dramatically down through the centuries. Their expectations might have been very different from ours, but their emotions flowed from the same river that runs through our lives today. Also that medieval people were no less complex or contradictory than they are now. Personalities must always be factored into the equation. The most definitive study of the legal status of women in medieval France does not explain a Joan of Arc or an Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Q: The issue of language during this period is a fascinating one which you use to great effect both in this book and its prequel, The Queen's Man. Why is French the official language of the English court at this point in time? When does this change?
SKP: French became the official language of the English court as a result of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, in which William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English king, Harold Godwineson. In the period of my mysteries, English was the language of the conquered, French the tongue of the aristocracy. It would not have been surprising if English had eventually died out under such adverse circumstances. But it showed an astonishing vitality, an unexpected resilience, and over a period of several centuries slowly gained back the ground it had lost. The Norman-French aristocracy engaged English-speaking wet-nurses and caretakers for their children, and by the mid-thirteenth century, many people were bilingual. Edward I is believed to be the first English-speaking king since the Conquest. By the fifteenth century, the setting for my novel Sunne, English had fully regained its supremacy. To complete the linguistic mosaic, Latin was the language of the educated, the voice of the Church, and Welsh remained the mother tongue of Wales, even after the loss of Welsh independence. So I have to be careful in my writings--if Justin de Quincy eavesdrops upon a key conversation, it must be in a language he can comprehend!
Q: Melangell's Welsh heritage figures prominently in this story. Could you discuss the nature of the conflict and tensions between the English and the Welsh?
SKP: Medieval Wales was divided into three principalities, each ruled by its own house. From the time of Henry II, the Welsh accepted the English king as their liege lord, although never willingly, and border skirmishing between the English and Welsh continued to erupt during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was not until the reign of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd that a Welsh prince succeeded in uniting his people against the English. Llywelyn was the first Prince of Wales. After his death in 1282, Edward I appropriated the title for his eldest son and heir apparent, a tradition that continues to this day.
Q: The concept of sanctuary is a fascinating one. Could you talk about the origins of this practice and how widely it was used?
SKP: The concept of sanctuary is an ancient one, existing as far back as the times of the Greeks and Romans. It has equally venerable roots in the Christian religion. The first laws conferring sanctuary upon a church date from 392 a.d., so the tradition was well established by the Middle Ages. The custom gradually lost favor with civil authorities and was officially abolished by King James I in the seventeenth century. Sanctuary's intriguing corollary, Abjuration of the Realm, was of Anglo-Norman origin and peculiar to England.
Q: For the geographically and historically challenged, could you tell us what region today constitutes Eleanor's beloved Aquitaine?
SKP: Eleanor's Aquitaine consisted of Poitou and Gascony, a vast, rich region in southwestern France, more than one-quarter the size of modern France. Eleanor's domains were therefore more extensive than the lands under the control of her first husband, the French king Louis VII.
Q: What are your future plans for Justin de Quincy?
SKP: I am sending Justin de Quincy into Wales in my next mystery, Dragon's Lair, where he'll find himself matching wits and crossing swords not only with John and his personal nemesis, Durand de Curzon, but with the young Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, who figured so prominently in my novel Here Be Dragons. And of course the Lady Claudine will continue to complicate Justin's life, as will the father who refuses to acknowledge him.
Q: Will romance bloom between Justin and Nell?
SKP: I am not being evasive, but I honestly do not know. I once read a marvelous quote from another writer--I am reasonably certain that it was E. M. Forster--in which he said that his characters were galley slaves, obedient to his will. Mine are less biddable and much more inclined to go off on tangents of their own. A perfect example is Davydd ap Gruffydd, brother of Llywelyn, in Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. Davydd was originally intended to be a secondary character, but he would have none of that and was soon stealing scenes with all the panache of a natural-born actor. So even if I reveal my plans for Justin and Nell, they've yet to be heard from.
Q: What will your next project be?
SKP: I am currently working on Time and Chance, the next book in my Saints trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. If Henry and Eleanor continue to cooperate, always a precarious proposition with that pair, I hope to have it completed in late autumn, with publication scheduled for the year 2000. Then I will do Dragon's Lair, Justin's foray into Wales, and after that The Devil's Brood, which will deal with Henry's civil war with his own sons.
Q: How does the writing process work for you?
SKP: I do a chapter at a time and don't sit down at the computer until I have it playing out in my head. I don't do numerous rewrites; I stay with a chapter until I am satisfied with it. I also read the chapter aloud to see how it strikes the ear.
Q: What was the best piece of advice you have ever received regarding your craft?
SKP: I think the best writing advice came from my father. He said I should heed my own inner voice and trust my instincts.
Q: What writers have most influenced you?
SKP: I am not sure if my writing style has been influenced, per se, but there are a number of writers whose work I admire. Anya Seton's Katherine and The Winthrop Woman were great favorites of mine. A more recent historical novel that I enjoyed enormously was Larry McMurtry's brilliant Lonesome Dove. And anyone who appreciates historical fiction ought to be reading Margaret George.
Q: What works would you recommend to a reading group?
SKP: I have eclectic taste in mystery writers: I read James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Anne Perry, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Elizabeth George, Sharyn McCrumb, Joan Hess, Elizabeth Peters, Elmore Leonard, Daniel Woodrell, Sharan Newman, Margaret Frazer, Ellis Peters, Linda Barnes, and Edward Marston, among others. I highly recommend Janet Evanovich's zany mysteries about the star-crossed Stephanie Plum and the Elizabethan mysteries that Patricia Finney writes as P. F. Chisholm. And the top of my list would have to be crowned with Dana Stabenow, whose Kate Shugak mysteries offer such a haunting portrayal, in dark and bright, of Alaskan life and the human soul.
© Copyright 2013 by Sharon Kay Penman. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.
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