By Nancy Bilyeau
One of the frustrations of my new life as a novelist is not having enough time to read for pleasure. Those precious hours I've carved out for my book series must go to writing and reading for research. I used to buy novels on impulse at the bookstore, walk out of libraries with arms aching from the vertical load, and, most recently, download an intriguing title on my kindle. How I miss that kind of voracious reading.
During a break between my finishing The Chalice and starting my work on The Covenant, I vowed to return to my old life. I bought Shadow on the Crown, the debut novel of Patricia Bracewell. All I knew was that I liked the look of the cover, I'd heard some pleasant buzz about the book on Facebook, and the subject was an 11th century queen named Emma of Normandy.
From the first page, I was hooked. Shadow on the Crown is a lovely read that kept me turning pages, eager to find out what would happen next. I learned a great deal about a period in English history I'm interested in--the early medieval age--while caring deeply about these characters. Emma, the daughter of a duke of Normandy, became the second wife of King Aethelred of England at the age of fifteen. The novel is about that turbulent marriage, which includes a brief kidnapping by Viking leaders and royal infidelities. Emma is the only queen known to have married successive--and rivalrous--kings of England. Her next marriage will be the subject of Bracewell's follow-up novel.
Happily, Patricia agreed to an interview on her fascinating novel. She grew up in California, where she taught literature and composition before embarking on her first novel. And, best of all, we will meet in person at the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference, where I will no doubt pepper her with even more questions!
Nancy Bilyeau: How did you “discover” Emma of Normandy?
Patricia Bracewell: It happened over a dozen years ago, and it was the first of a number of fortuitous events. I was noodling about on an on-line history bulletin board and I ran across Emma’s name mentioned in a series of posts. I found myself reading about a woman who had been wed to two kings of England and was the mother of two kings, and because I thought myself fairly knowledgeable about the names of English queens, I wondered why I had never heard of her. I started to dig and I grew more and more fascinated. Interestingly, I was never able to find that internet history board again. (Cue spooky music.)
NB: Although Emma of Normandy has had such an eventful life, she hasn’t been written about in historical fiction nearly as often as queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth Woodville. Why do you think that is?
PB: I think there are two reasons. One is that Emma of Normandy is not exactly a household name. Graduate students in Anglo-Saxon or Medieval History will have run into her, but most people have never heard of her. You can’t write about someone you’ve never heard of. That’s only part of it, though. Look at Lady Macbeth – one of Emma’s contemporaries. Thanks to Shakespeare, we all know about her, yet few historical fiction writers have placed her at the center of a book. Maybe it’s because until recently, the early medieval period was considered a hard sell. Hopefully that is changing, but it does raise the question: have there been other novels written about that Scottish queen, or even about Emma, that no one was willing to publish? We’ll never know.
NB: How much contemporary documentation is there on Emma’s life? Were you able to unearth little-known facts on her and the other principals in the book?
PB: If one looks only to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is where I began my research, there are only two mentions of Emma’s name in the period covered by my book. Even the manuscript that Emma herself commissioned late in her life, called the Encomium Emmae Regina by scholars, makes no mention of any events before about A.D. 1013. It doesn’t even mention King Æthelred. Historians have had to glean information about Emma from charters, from wills, from the records of gifts made to various churches and from later historians, like 12th century William of Malmesbury who added some juicy rumors to what the Chronicle had to say. So there is very little contemporary evidence for what her life would have been like. I had to look at the general knowledge we have about that period, and apply it to an English queen.
NB: I watched the entire season of “The Vikings” on the History Channel and I’ve also seen “Thirteenth Warrior” and the 1958 Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film “The Vikings.” The Viking rulers in your book are not as crude and bloodthirsty as those in films and TV series. Do you think there is some stereotyping in the depiction of Vikings?
PB: Yes, and that stereotyping began very early on. What we know of the Vikings comes from what was written about them by the victims of their raids – who never had anything good to say about them – and from 13th century Icelandic sagas which are stories meant to glorify deeds of heroism and, of course, violence. (The History Channel’s “The Vikings” is based on Ragnar’s Saga.) The Scandinavians had no written history until after the 11th century, so there are no contemporary annals by the Vikings themselves to balance the perceived image. Historians of late have tried to emphasize the role of Vikings as traders and explorers, which was significant, as opposed to their reputation as bloodthirsty raiders. My own story is set toward the very end of the Viking Age, two hundred years after events depicted in any of the films you mentioned above, and a great deal happened to the Scandinavian countries in that time, including Christianization (something that did not happen overnight or all-at-once, mind you). Where is the truth? Well, not everyone born in Scandinavia between A.D. 800 and A.D.1100 boarded a ship and went out to savage his neighbors. That being said, the Viking Age was a brutal time, no matter where you lived.
NB: In your study of literature and your teaching career, did you ever imagine that a medieval queen would be the subject of your first book?
PB: I did, but the queen’s name was Guinevere. I was completely entranced by the Arthurian Legend for many years, and I always thought that I would someday write about the Matter of Britain. I’m only off by about 600 years!
NB: Did English queens ever have a harder life than during this time period? I’m thinking of not only Emma but her husband’s first queen.
PB: I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘hard life’. As a queen and peaceweaver, like so many other medieval queens, Emma was a foreigner, thrust into a court where she had no family or noble allies close at hand to support her. So yes, it would have been hard for her to make her way in that world. She would have had to forge those ties from scratch. As for what happened behind closed doors, between husband and wife when there was nothing to bind them but the demands of religion and state, historians do not say. It’s up to the historical novelist to peek behind the bed curtains. Did queens in later eras have it any better? Ask Ann Boleyn.
NB: For you, what is the line between fiction and fact? Are there fictional characters in Shadow on the Crown?
PB: There are fictional characters in the novel, but all of them are in supporting roles. I created them where necessary to flesh out the story. As for the line between fiction and fact, I set out to write a story, not history. Every step of the way I asked myself if what I was imagining was plausible, given the available facts. Often I had to depend upon conjecture. Historians do this, as well, but they make certain that any conjectures they make are specifically identified as such. The novelist doesn’t have that restriction. The Author’s Note, though, is the place where the writer can discuss any deviations from known facts, and I think they are almost as much fun to read – and write – as the stories themselves.
NB: Your book has a passionate romance in it but it also depicts rape within marriage. How hard was that to grapple with as an author?
PB: Any scene that is intensely emotional – whether it is passionate, violent, or sad – is difficult to write. I struggle with all of them. Technically they are difficult because you want to portray physical events that are occurring, and at the same time you want your reader to experience not just the physical but the emotional turmoil that your viewpoint character is experiencing. To do that, the writer has to place herself right there, in that moment – be that character – not just once, but as many times as it takes to get the balance between the physical and the emotional absolutely right. It is, quite simply, hard work and emotionally draining.
NB: Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?
PB: I think that depends on us, the writers. The more that we demand excellence from ourselves and from each other, the better our books will be and the more recognition we will receive from the literary community. The very fact that there is now a Walter Scott Prize honoring the best historical fiction published in the U.K. is an enormous step forward. I’d like to see a similar prize awarded in the U.S.
NB: Did you see these books as a trilogy from the beginning? How hard was it to stop where you did?
PB: I always conceived Emma’s story as a trilogy, and I always knew where the first book would end, so stopping wasn’t difficult. I simply turned around three times and began working on the second book. Now that I’ve finished what I hope is a decent draft of that second book, I have to admit that the writing of the final scene this time around was very difficult, and the book ended at a place not originally of my choosing. I’m learning that a novel sometimes has a mind of its own. (Cue spooky music again.)
Thank you for a wonderful interview!
To learn more about Patricia and her work, go to:
Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Chalice is now on sale.
Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Chalice is now on sale.
|On sale $2.99, Kindle and Nook|