Interviewed by Tamela McCann
Welcome to my inaugural historical fiction column! I’ve always loved historical fiction and it’s my hope that with this column, I can share some of my favorites I’ve read over the years and learn of even more from you guys. Though my favorite subject is British history, I’ll pretty much read anything historical. If it happened in the past, it’s bound to pique my interest.
In this first column, it is my delightful honor to bring to you an interview with Elizaberth Chadwick, author of some of the very best historical fiction out there. I’ve been reading Ms. Chadwick’s novels for years and can tell you she’s only getting better with each novel. Any time anyone asks for a good historical fiction author, she’s my go-to gal. I even make it a practice to turn her books facing outward on bookstore shelves because I believe everyone needs to be reading her works! Her novels are generally set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England and most of her newest novels involve real people and situations. Beyond being a terrific writer, she’s also very warm, witty, and open.
TM: Your latest novel, To Defy a King, (available in the UK) is about Mahelt Marshal Bigod. What surprised you most about her?
EC: I wasn’t so much surprised, as very interested in the way that different family dynamics played out. At home Mahelt was the beloved firstborn daughter. A real daddy’s girl who had a fine sense of her own worth and who had been a little spoiled being for a while, the only girl among four brothers. She was about seven before her next sister was born. Even while children, especially daughters had to do their duty and marry where they were told, and even while there were boundaries, nevertheless, there was leeway within those parameters, and Mahelt had been indulged. When she married and entered a family where the world no longer revolved around her, and where rules were more rigid, she had a hard time adapting, especially as she was also at that difficult adolescent stage. So it was fascinating to see how she coped (or didn’t) with her new circumstances, and the same for the family she married into. Some of them, especially her father in law, found having her live with them, rather like having a firework exploding in a library!
TM: Your latest novels are based on real historical figures–John Marshal, William Marshal, Roger Bigod. Why did you begin to focus on actual people rather than those you created yourself?
EC: There were two reasons. One was a commercial decision. In the mid 90’s, historical fiction hit the doldrums and my sort of historical adventure fiction went through a difficult time. I was still keeping my head above water, but I saw a lot of friends sink at at that time. However, biographical fiction suddenly took off, The Other Boleyn Girl being the forerunner, and I recognized that this was the future. I had also been considering writing biographical fiction for some time of my own accord. I wanted to get my teeth into something meatier as my career progressed. It was just a matter of having the confidence to do it.
TM: Do you have a personal hero/heroine from history? And is there someone you’ve discovered that you absolutely despise? Why? And who is the strangest person you’ve encountered?
EC: This is going to sound odd, but I don’t think I actually do have a personal hero or heroine. There are people I deeply, deeply admire in history. William Marshal and his father John – I have written about both. The Empress Matilda and Adeliza of Louvain, who are my subjects at the moment. There are aspects of their stories that show me what remarkable women they were. However, there are so many stories untold or yet to be discovered and so many people, often unsung who have done the most amazing things, often filled with self-sacrifice and devotion to their fellow humans. The strangest person would probably be Ralph the Farter, a character who appears briefly in To Defy A King. His lands were held from the king for the task of coming to court every Christmas and performing ‘a leap, a whistle, and a fart’ for the king’s entertainment.
As to a character I despise. Well, that’s a bit too harsh a word, but if there was one I’d rather not spend time with, it would be King John. I know he probably had his good points. He was a keen reader for one thing, and I’m sure I could have a lovely conversation with him about nice jewellery because he was all for gems and bling, but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Other than his reputation for having murdered his nephew and having hounded and starved to death Maude de Braose when she accused him of the murder, it’s good enough for me that the great William Marshal (who’s sons John took hostage) told John’s heir, Henry III, that if he ever behaved as his father had done, he wished him a speedy death. As some readers may know, I use the Akashic Records as part of my research, http://www.elizabethchadwick.com/akashic.html. My investigations into the personality of King John via this medium have corroborated William Marshal’s opinion.
TM: Your novels typically take place in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. What is it about that era that intrigues you?
EC: I became interested in the period in my teens when I fell for a knight on a TV programme and it’s a passion that has stayed with me and deepened as I’ve continued with the research. My first ever attempt at historical fiction was inspired by Keith Michelle in The Six Wives of Henry VII, and it was a Tudor story. If the knight hadn’t come along, who knows, I might have been ahead of the game in writing Tudor biographical fiction. I also considered writing Regency at the start of my career when I had a passion for the novels of Jane Aiken Hodge. I now have almost 40 years of research under my belt with reference to the 12th and 13th centuries, so to start again in another time period, I’d have to do a lot of reading to bring myself up to that standard of research. I might consider going earlier or later by a hundred years either side, as these timescales are within striking distance of the research.
TM: You say your novels have soundtracks (blog site: http://elizabethchadwicksoundtracks.blogspot.com/). How does that work? Does the song or the story come first?
EC: Music has always had a strong pull for me. Right from the moment I wrote my first novel as a 15 year old, I have used songs as a way of understanding my characters and getting into and developing their emotional lives. Songs in themselves tell stories - frequently of deeply or strongly held feelings and I harness the resonances in lyrics and music as part of my creative process. I had popular music soundtracks to my novels long before film makers started using them regularly in blockbusters, on TV and to sell cars and insurance! Indeed, I was rather miffed when the Heath Ledger film A Knight's Tale came out, because it had pinched my way of marrying the medieval story with the medium of the rock song!
As to which comes first: It’s a blending of strands. So for example, I used Kiki Dee’s “Amoreuse” as the main lovesong in To Defy A King. The lyrics and the ambience exactly suit the moment. I played it over and over to fix it in my subconscious, and I took the image of some of the lyrics like a colour on an artist’s pallete, to write a scene for the couple filled with light and clarity. When all the barons were fighting for position and the country was going to hell in a handcart over the Magna Carta crisis, I happened to hear Seether’s “Fake It” (the uncensored version) and it so suited the mood of the moment that it had to go on the soundtrack.
TM: What are you reading now? Anybody you’d like to promote to historical fiction lovers?
EC: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and absolutely loving it. It has a flavour of M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavillions. There is a lot of slang in the dialogue, which I thought added to the texture, but some readers might find it a bit much. But with that caveat (which doesn’t bother me in the least), I think it’s wonderful. It has definitely won a place in my ‘Historical fiction hall of fame.’ I have also recently enjoyed Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, and the wonderful Sourcebooks re-issue of Cecelia Holland’s Great Maria. I really relished that one.
TM: I’m so excited that your books are now starting to become available here in the U.S.. Any news on which ones may be released here soon?
EC: For the King’s Favor is published on September 1st by Sourcebooks (it was titled The Time of Singing in the UK), and To Defy A King comes out next March. Then there’s another title, as yet undecided for the autumn. If all goes well, Sourcebooks will continue to publish more. They will also be available on Kindle as Sourcebooks publish them.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s blogs:
Check out the following titles by Elizabeth Chadwick: