Monday, February 11, 2008

[Interview_3] Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor's memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007) has been described as a “a beautifully constructed and often profound piece of work” which “stands as a fine testimonial to man whose life was a mystery.”

Taylor has written two academic books, Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003) and has co-edited the collection of essays, Figures of Heresy: Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800-2000 (Sussex Academic Press, 2005) with Dr. Andrew Dix.

In this, the last of a two-part interview, Taylor speaks about Take Me Home, how it got published and how has been received by readers.

Who is your target audience?

I would say my target audience has various layers.

Obviously, people who have experienced Parkinson's disease or dementia in their family (or in themselves) are central to who the book is for.

The book is also for carers, and intended as a way of encapsulating the experience of care in a realistic way; I don’t think there are many books of this kind which deal with the subject in an experiential and personal way.

In more general terms, the book is for people who enjoy reading literary memoirs and biographies. There are elements to stories like mine which everyone can associate with: family secrets, hidden histories, illness and mourning are, of course, universal concerns.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

I chose the publisher, Granta, primarily because they published at least two of the books which influenced me the most: Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am Again?, and Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Granta specialise in this kind of work, and they were always my first choice. I was overjoyed when they accepted the book, and they have been great ever since really looking after me and the book. Ian Jack (ex-editor of Granta) went through my book word by word, editing it with me, making the book much better than the original manuscript.

How would you compare Take Me Home to the other books you have written?

Before Take Me Home -- up till now -- I've only written academic books -- works of literary criticism. These really helped in learning how to write in a flowing style. Writing formally is a really useful discipline -- it forces you to listen to every sentence and make sure everything links up "logically."

My next book is in very early stages at the moment, but I'm trying to write a novel which is partly based on my own experiences and partly fictional. Years ago, one night, I was rather, shall we say, drunk, and I invited a homeless person back to the house I was living in at the time -- to feed them everything in the fridge. On request, we then listened to some Debussy together. I never saw the person again, but the experience forms the basis of the novel I'm currently trying to write.

How did you go about writing Take Me Home?

I wrote Take Me Home over a number of years, constructing chapters out of fragmentary memories, and working out ways of turning isolated experiences into a narrative. At the same time, I was doing a lot of research -- interviewing relatives, contacting people who'd been "lost" for years, and searching for documents about some of his experiences.

There was so much that had been lost, hidden or forgotten -- a whole life in the Isle of Man, Oldham and afterwards which was shrouded by mystery. I really got caught up with the research. Then I suppose the majority of the actual writing was done in 2005.

Were you writing everyday?

When I was in full flow with Take Me Home, I was writing almost every day.

Coincidentally (and luckily), I got a sabbatical from my day job (lecturing) in 2005, so I had the chance to really get to grips with the book. I was sitting down at 8 am every morning and writing 1,000 words before lunch -- and then, after lunch, doing other jobs or editing what I'd done in the morning.

Although I'd written substantial amounts of the book before (and continued to redraft after) the sabbatical, those six or seven months of solid writing were essential. Otherwise, I don't think I'd ever have got it done.

I'd done a great deal of ground work before this period, so when it came to sitting down and writing, I found it relatively easy to write in quantity -- it flowed surprisingly easily, possibly also because I always felt there was something compelling me to write it. Somehow, I had to get it on the page. So, at that time, it wasn't hard to write at all.

Having said that, I never really believed I might finish the book: it felt like such an Everest. Even in the final rewrites, oddly enough, I felt utterly daunted by the magnitude of the task.

I suppose the problem here was the same thing that made it easy to write: I knew exactly what I wanted to get down, so I was daunted by getting to the end of a story I already knew.

My experience of writing in 2005 isn't representative -- normally, I find it very difficult to sit down and write at all. There are always other things to do: carpets to hoover; lopsided shelves to put up.

I think writing works best when I've got a substantial amount of time -- at least a week -- in which to sit down and write every day.

I do sometimes write in the evenings, or at times, around my job, but this is very difficult to do and often results in "bitty" work. It's suitable for short stories, but for longer work I really need proper periods of solid writing.

Generally speaking, I write all but the most first of first drafts on the computer. This isn't because I like computers(!), but because word processors are helpful for editing. I'm a very painstaking writer, and I like to edit the sentence I've just written over and over again -- and a word processor is useful for that.

How has the book been received so far?

I've been overjoyed how the memoir has been received. Most importantly, all members of my family and friends have loved it.

I've also had various letters and emails from carers who have associated with various elements of the book. Those reactions are clearly more precious than any formal reviews. But it has also received really good reviews in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Times Literary Supplement and on Oneword Radio.

I never expected to receive this kind of feedback, and have, of course, been overjoyed and surprised in equal measure.

All these people seem to understand what the book attempts to be: an honest literary memoir about my experiences and my father’s illness.

Inevitably, I’ve also received a few more negative reactions, for example, on I expected this – I mean, if you write a book like this, then you're opening yourself up to criticism. I am myself more than aware of the ethical questions surrounding what I’ve done, and have wrestled with them continually. I believe, though that many of the negative reactions are because people have misunderstood the genre of the book, thinking its some kind of medical textbook rather than what it is: a literary memoir, an exploration of personal experiences.

Related articles:
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, February 7, 2008
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, August 10, 2007

Thursday, February 7, 2008

[Interview_2] Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor has written and published a memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007).

In addition to Take Me Home, he has written two academic books, Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003) and has co-edited the collection of essays, Figures of Heresy: Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800-2000 (Sussex Academic Press, 2005) with Dr. Andrew Dix.

Taylor is also co-founder and co-director of Crystal Clear Creators, an arts organisation and not-for-profit company, which records, publishes, produces and promotes new writing, particularly for radio.

Currently Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester where he specialises in prose writing, memoir-writing, radio writing and literature of the nineteenth-century.

In this, the first of two interviews, Jonathan Taylor speaks about how the process of writing Take Me Home helped him understand his experiences as an informal carer as well as his relationship with his father.

What motivated you to start working on the memoir?

I always felt there was a real imperative behind my writing it -- when I was writing it, I just felt I had to do it.

I wanted to write something which could help me understand what had happened to my father and my relationship with him -- something that (retrospectively) would help me understand the "story" of his illness.

There were so many hidden complexities in his life and illness that I wanted to unravel them, and I thought writing the book would help me do that. I also wanted to write the kind of book which I would have liked to have read when I was caring for him -- the kind of book which would have helped me to understand my experience and conflicting emotions as a carer.

Did writing the book help you understand these emotions?

I think it helped by making sense of what had happened to us and what the illness meant.

If nothing else, I learnt that certain elements of his illness had names. Putting names to things sometimes helps, I suppose.

At the time it was happening, I just saw the symptoms and didn't understand -- or often thought he was being deliberately irritating. For example, he suffered from Capgras Syndrome, which means that the sufferer becomes convinced that a "significant other" isn't him or herself, but is a someone impersonating him or her.

My father became convinced for a long while that I wasn't me, but was being impersonated by an old colleague at work whom he hadn’t got on with. At the time, I just thought he was angry at me, and the disease had made him forget who I was. But retrospectively, I came across an academic research paper written about my relationship with my father, which said that he suffered from Capgras Syndrome. Being able to put a name to his inability to recognise me helped me to understand what had happened.

I suppose the difficulty is that it also made me feel bad for being so impatient with him; when I realise that so many of the things I got cross with him about (repeating things over and over, misrecognising me, repeating actions over and over) were real symptoms and recognised conditions, I can't help feeling guilt about my impatience with him at the time.

So, that understanding is a two-edged sword in some ways.

All carers, I think, have to deal with guilt over how they behaved, what they did.

Impossible standards for carers are set in the media and on television, and they suffer terribly from guilt when they're not always patient angels, but human beings who get cross, frustrated, impatient and so on. I wanted to show that that's normal -- that a carer can't be 100% happy and patient all the time.

The guilt is an inevitable part of the process, but it helps (hopefully) to know that other carers feel the same, that other carers get cross too.

Another way in which writing the book was both a positive and a "negative" experience in one was that a lot of what I uncovered didn’t really add up. I realised that my father would remain a bit of an enigma, however hard I tried to find more out. For example, the father that I knew and the father that my half-brother knew as a boy seem to be two wholly different people, and it’s impossible to reconcile our views of him as children. I had to come to accept that my father was a hugely complicated and contradictory person; that was the "conclusion" to the book -- that there was no conclusion, no simple way of understanding him.

How old were you when you started caring for your father?

I suppose it was round about when I was 17ish that I really started looking after him (in 1990).

What did your duties involve?

I used to take over from my mother (who was his full-time carer) for a few days at a time, when she went down to Torquay to visit her parents (who were themselves ill). The responsibilities and duties changed radically over time, but they obviously involved 24 hour care -- everything from feeding him, organising the medication, moving him about the house, putting him to bed, picking him up when he fell, toiletting and so on and so forth. Every single part of the day was devoted to a particular job or routine.

How did this affect you?

I think it had a deep effect on me as a person, though it’s hard to know what without having something to measure it against.

On the one hand, I felt proud to look after him -- I felt I was doing something important, something that needed to be done -- and I loved him very much. On the other hand, it exposed to me all the worst parts of my nature at the same time. I suppose care often does that.

All I can say is that, since his death, I have missed caring for him terribly -- because very few things feel as important or worthwhile, however well or badly I did it back then.

Do you feel you had adequate support?

The whole family supported each other -- we all took up different roles "round" my father, caring for him in different ways (for example, my sister is a doctor, so she dealt with many of the medical matters, and, indeed, saved his life on one or more occasions).

Outside the family, we saw the best and the worst of the modern health system. There were some wonderful individuals who helped, but the institutions (such as hospitals) were often very poor. They don’t cater well for Parkinsonians, or people suffering from degenerative disorders. On a simple level, for instance, Parkinson’s sufferers often have complicated pill regimes -- but the pill regimes often don’t fit into the hospital routines, and pills are forgotten or switched around for no good reason.

Hospitals, I think, deal well most of the time when things are at crisis point, but slow, degenerative disorders often meet with institutional neglect and a general malaise.

When did you decide you wanted to write about these experiences?

The very first inkling I had that I could write about my experience was way back, in 1998, when I discovered that I had a half-brother I'd never heard of. At the same time, I found out that my father had been married before.

As these revelations started, I remember my mother turning to me and saying, "Gosh, it'd make a good book, wouldn't it?" That was when I first thought about it.

Then I first started working on the memoir seriously in 2001, when my father died. In that sense, the memoir is a memorial to him.

How did you find out about your half-brother?

One Christmas (1998), my mother sat me down at the kitchen table and placed a series of letters in front of me. One of them was from the Salvation Army tracing service. Colin (my half-brother) had decided to trace my father after 30 years of not seeing him.

Did your mother know about his previous marriage?

Yes -- in fact, I’ve gradually realised that most people knew apart from us (his children from his second marriage)!

How did these revelations make you feel?

I wasn’t totally surprised, I suppose, in that we had always wondered where he’d been before he met my mother. There were years of his life he didn’t talk about, so (as an imaginative kid) I used to make up all sorts of fantasy stories about that time. It’s also possible that, because of the trauma of his first marriage and, indeed, because of the Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) he may or may not have had after his first nervous breakdown, that it really was all blotted out.

I’ve got to know my half-brother well now, and that’s been a real delight -- he is the spitting image of my father, looks-wise. So it’s been a strange, but positive experience. I also understand why my father didn’t talk about these things, why these things were hidden. After all, we were young children and wouldn’t have understood -- and then, by the time we would in the 1990s, he was very ill, and probably couldn’t talk about them very easily.

Related articles:
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, August 10, 2007
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_3], Conversations with Writers, February 11, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

[Interview_3] Brian Wainwright

Historical novelist Brian Wainwright is a full-time author.

So far he has published two novels, The Adventures of Alianore Audley (Bewrite Books, 2005; Jacobyte Books of Australia, 2002) and Within the Fetterlock (Trivium Publishing, 2004).

In this, the last of three interviews, Wainwright speaks about how his books evolved; how he got published and about his plans for the future.

How did The Adventures of Alianore Audley come about?

I wrote quite a lot of comedy when I was young. It got me into trouble at school where there was a lot to parody and ironise. It took me a long time before I realised there was no reason I couldn't put comedy and historical fiction together.

Believe it or not, Alianore was originally going to be a serious novel about Richard III. I did some calculations to see whether Constance of York could have had a (fictional) granddaughter active at the time of the Wars of the Roses. (I didn't want to use a real person for this one.) I found that by taking on a youngest daughter to the Audley family, it would work. I wrote about five lines, and they lay untouched on my computer for about four years, like a seed waiting in its packet.

Then Alianore found her voice! A very unusual voice at that. Normally I write and rewrite, and then edit, but Alianore is pretty much an edited first draft. I'm not sure that I wrote the book at a conscious level. It seemed to stream out, page after page, day after day, until it was finished. If Alianore had been a real person I'd have suspected that her spirit was channelling through me, but as it is I must suppose it came from whatever deep crevice of the unconscious mind creates stories.

It was great fun playing around with the stereotypes of historical fiction, using whatever crazy idioms came into my head, and allowing Alianore to do what she liked, poking King Edward IV in the balls, dressing up as an archer, vaulting onto warhorses -- you name it.

How easy was it to find a publisher for the book?

Originally I self-published, because the book was for myself and a small group of friends who shared my weird sense of humour. I didn't expect it to have general appeal, but I got rid of the rest of the print run through an advert in the Richard III Society magazine, and was surprised when the odd enquiry arrived from booksellers when it was out of print.

After some prodding from people who had read it, I had an agent lined up for the book, but ultimately it wasn't taken any further. I suspect it was hard to place an eccentric novel by an eccentric and unknown writer. I decided to try again and submitted it to Jacobyte, who were inviting direct submissions. As it happened Meredith Whitford at Jacobyte was interested in Richard III (and indeed has written a Ricardian book of her own) so I suppose the seed fell on fertile ground.

How has Alianore Audley been received by readers?

I've seen the book categorised as everything from Historical Romance to Fantasy, but I suppose it's really a parody or spoof of historical fiction. I hope it's an affectionate parody of a genre I love.

I'm surprised it's sold so well, and obviously very pleased that it has. It's been quite a success in the USA, which I suppose nails the old English canard that Americans don't 'do' irony. Inevitably some people don't get the joke, and someone even asked me if it was a translation from a real chronicle! On the whole though people seem to love it, so maybe my humour isn't as weird and twisted as I thought.

Part of the success is probably down to Richard III -- people still want to read about the guy, and my version is very different from the rest.

The Adventures of Alianore Audley has been re-issued or re-published by BeWrite Books. How did this happen?

Bewrite took over from Jacobyte the titles it was most interested in, including mine. As a result, a completely new edition was prepared, with a new cover that was a great improvement on the old one.

Bewrite has certainly managed to achieve a greater level of publicity for the book, and they have a very effective marketing strategy, which means that it is available from a much wider range of outlets. This has led to far better sales, so the changeover has been very positive as far as I am concerned.

How did you choose a publisher for your second book?

My second book, Within the Fetterlock tells the story of Constance of York, an English princess who lived in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV.

Constance is a relative unknown in English history but I found her fascinating and so I had to write about her. It took at least ten years to write, including research, though the truth is I re-wrote it several times and the published version is something like Mark VII.

The novel was released in 2004 by Trivium Publishing in the USA. The publisher chose me!

What challenges has this presented?

Trivium is a small outfit and the main problem is that they don’t have a massive advertising/publicity budget. I have had to learn to publicise myself to some extent, though it’s not an aspect of authorship with which I am particularly comfortable, being naturally reclusive.

What was the most difficult aspect of the work that went into Within the Fetterlock ?

The research for the book was simply huge. I probably did far too much, but I kept being intrigued by new snippets that came up. In fact I was still putting in new facts as the manuscript was being edited.

It was hard work to reduce this into a manageable novel that would be of reasonable length. I cut out massive chunks before submission and working with Tamara Mazzei at Trivium, there was some fairly drastic editing of what remained. All this made the work stronger, but to be honest, I think if I were doing the job again, I’d want to be even more drastic.

Paradoxically, I did enjoy the research. It almost became an end in itself, which is a danger for writers of historical fiction.

The greatest thrill, though, was seeing the book come to life, through the final editing process -- it was something I’d never experienced at that level of complexity, and it gave me a tremendous buzz.

In what way is Within the Fetterlock different from the other things you have written?

It’s very serious, very intense, with more tears than smiles.

It’s similar to the others in that, well, it’s historic, and I do try to research my novels, even the funny ones.

What will your next book be about?

I have got three projects in hand, as well as a couple of whimsies, and it very much depends on where my mood takes me as to which will be completed first. If someone comes along and says they want X, and here’s Y pounds as an advance, then that will get precedence. Otherwise, I’ll just go muddling along in my own merry way until something pops out.

The likely winner is a novel about Richard III, as quite a few people have said they want to see my take on him. The problem is that I want to come at the subject from a different angle to all the previous novels on this subject and because of my deep interest in Richard, I want the book to be worthy of him.

Related articles:

Monday, February 4, 2008

[Interview_2] Brian Wainwright

Novelist Brian Wainwright has a deep-seated interest in the middle ages, especially the 14th and 15th centuries; the House of York and the era of Richard II.

He has published two novels, The Adventures of Alianore Audley (Bewrite Books, 2005; Jacobyte Books of Australia, 2002) and Within the Fetterlock (Trivium Publishing, 2004).

Currently he is working on several other book-related projects.

In this, the second of three interviews, Wainwright speaks about the factors that pushed him towards becoming a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to write?

Very early in life; even as a young child I enjoyed making up stories and writing them down. However, it took me a long time before I thought of writing as something that could be done for an audience, as opposed to just for me. It was even longer before I plucked up the courage to submit something for publication. For many years the idea of doing so scared me stiff.

Who influenced you most?

A wide array of writers; if I wrote them all down it would be a very big paragraph. Among writers of the past, Robert Graves and Philip Lindsey spring to mind. Current writers I admire include Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon K Penman.

What do you admire most about these writers?

I don’t think I have ever read anyone who could write first-person historical novels as well as Graves. He’s always absorbing, and he always convinces, introducing historical detail without making a tedious show of it. I Claudius and Wife to Mr Milton are probably my favourites.

Philip Lindsey always wrote with passion, and you could sense his love of history. He was a great inspiration to me when I started writing. I think his London Bridge is Burning is the one I remember best; it was rather a disjointed tale, but there were some wonderful characters in there, and some unusual aspects of medieval life.

I can bracket Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Penman together. First, they write beautifully, but also they go to a great deal of trouble with their research and it’s rare if ever that I’m hit with the shock of an anachronism. Penman’s The Reckoning is an incredibly powerful novel about the ending of the Welsh Wars of Independence. It’s not an easy read in some ways -- there’s a lot of tragedy in there -- but it grips all the way to the end.

Elizabeth Chadwick just goes from strength to strength. Her book about William Marshal, The Greatest Knight which came out a couple of years back, is simply one of the best historical novels I have ever read.

Have your personal experiences influenced your writing in any way?

Not consciously, but I suspect there must be some sub-conscious influences. For example, I worked in the Education side of Local Government for a long time, and that taught me everything I ever need to know about court intrigue, backstabbing and betrayal.

Do you write everyday?

No, I don’t write every day.

At present I am rather idle and intermittent in my work; downright unprofessional in fact. I write when I feel like it and go on until I’ve had enough. This could be ten minutes, or all day.

One of the things I am trying to persuade myself to do is work a little more regularly, establishing more of a routine. I haven’t quite got into the attitude of treating writing as a job (which it now is) rather than just a hobby.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

My own nature -- my tendency to go haring off after interesting side lines in my research instead of sticking religiously to the task of writing and getting a project completed.

I deal with this by slapping myself mentally around the head, reflecting that it would be nice to have published more than two books, and that I ought to damn well get on with it!

Elsewhere you have said you think history has misjudged King Richard II. Why is this?

Richard came to the throne at 10. That’s a bad start in itself, but the country was practically bankrupt, and engaged in what had become a losing war with the French. They were raiding the coast, and planning invasion. Even an adult taking over at such a point in history, even the greatest sovereign imaginable, might have struggled just a little.

Richard wanted peace with France, which was very much against the grain of the times. The trouble was that most of the nobles and gentry wanted war (they thought that they could profit personally from it) but at the same time they didn’t want to pay for it. There really was no way of squaring that circle. Effective wars cost big money – even back then. The English Crown was not rich, the government of Richard’s senile grandfather, Edward III, had run up massive debts, and Richard’s extended family were always looking to take more out of the pot for themselves.

Richard was only twenty when he faced an outright rebellion, led by his own disloyal relatives, the so-called Appellants, that almost deposed him and resulted in the judicial murder or exile of the majority of his advisers. From that point onward he slowly rebuilt the position of the Crown, trying to do what Tudor monarchs are praised for by historians, putting the nobility in its place. He at last achieved a 28-year truce with France, and he was also one of the very few Englishmen (and I think the only English sovereign) to fight a successful war in Ireland. His foreign policy was advanced, and praised even by historians who don’t otherwise rate him. Although not an intellectual himself he was a patron of the arts, and his court was possibly the most cultured in Europe. Although he is sometimes accused of ‘tyranny’ his political executions were few and far between, whether you compare him to the Appellants or to his successor, Henry IV (Bolingbroke).

Richard was once approached by a soothsayer, who predicted that unless he changed his ways he would be deposed. Richard laughed at him and sent him on his way. A few years later the same man approached Henry IV, and told him pretty much the same thing. Bolingbroke had him summarily executed on the spot. Nothing better defines the difference between the two cousins.

I’m not trying to suggest that Richard is up there with Elizabeth I. At the end of the day he was not a ‘great’ king, and he had many personal and political flaws. But I like him! And I think he’s underrated. Most of the things he was accused of at his deposition could have been said of his successor, or indeed of any English medieval king. I think it’s telling that within three years Henry was at least as unpopular as Richard had ever been, facing rebellion at home and with fighting going on in France, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all at the same time. It was not an easy business, running medieval England. The difference is, frankly, that Henry survived. With a great deal of luck along the way, he even managed to die in his bed.

Related articles:

Friday, February 1, 2008

[Interview_1] Brian Wainwright

Novelist Brian Wainwright made his debut as an author with the publication of The Adventures of Alianore Audley (Jacobyte Books of Australia, 2002), a humorous story about an intelligence agent in Yorkist England.

Alianore Audley was followed by Within the Fetterlock (Trivium Publishing, 2004), which tells the story of Constance of York, an English princess who lived in the reigns of her cousins, Richard II and Henry IV.

In the first of three interviews, Wainwright speaks about his writing.

How would you describe your work?

Historical fiction. Within that there are two strands, the serious HF and the comedy projects. My two published novels demonstrate these two sides to my writing.

My main focus so far has been England and Wales in the 14th and 15th centuries. I think this will always be my main area of interest, if only because I know the period so well and so don’t have to run around doing masses of new research every time I write a paragraph.

However, one of my current projects is set in 11th century Spain, and I don’t rule out the possibility of doing some contemporary writing in the future, especially if there’s demand for it.

Who is your target audience?

To be honest, anyone who’ll buy the books! Probably they will be people with quite a serious interest in history who don’t need everything spoon-fed to them.

From feed-back, I gather that the majority of my readers are women, so I do have to bear that in mind. Women tend to like strong heroines -- fortunately so do I. I try to make my leading medieval women strong (as they often were!) but without any anachronistic feminism.

How do you define feminism?

I would define feminism as a philosophy that believes in the complete equality of women in all spheres -- political, personal, economic, employment, education, whatever. This movement can be traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote a seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in the late 18th century.

In the middle ages, why would feminism have been anachronistic?

Medieval women did not have access to this philosophy, or indeed any other aspect of Enlightenment thinking, and lived in a society which, I think, it is fair to characterise as deeply conservative. I sometimes read historical novels where the characters seem to be much like modern people, with modern attitudes, in fancy clothes, and for me, at least, that does not work.

There was however an early ‘feminist’ writer, Christine de Pisan, who came from Italy but lived most of her life at the court of France. She was pretty much a contemporary of Constance of York, and the first woman, certainly in the West, to make a living from writing.

Christine’s works emphasise how women can do more within their particular sphere (she mentions various levels in society) to fulfil themselves and add more to the world. However what she never does is question the social hierarchy -- if anything she emphasises a woman’s duty to defer to and obey her husband. Had she done otherwise I suspect she might have been accused of heresy, since the whole social structure of the middle ages, including family relationships, was underpinned by the teaching of the Church.

However, this does not mean that medieval women were china dolls. Far from it. Depending on their position in society they influenced politics, managed great estates, ran convents, operated businesses -- sometimes on their own account -- or laboured endlessly, like many Third World women do today, to feed their families.

They nearly all ran a household of some type or other, a much more complex business than it is today. You couldn’t nip out to Tesco if you needed (for example) some extra salted fish to get you through Lent. You had to order it at the right time and in the necessary quantity.

Constance of York’s daughter, Isabelle Despenser, Countess of Warwick, ran her husband’s estates for years on end while he was away fighting in France. This would be the equivalent today of a woman in her twenties acting as Chief Executive of a major farming and property conglomerate. (And she wouldn’t have had the advantage of an MBA course before taking it on!)

What motivated you to start writing historical fiction?

A deep interest in the middle ages. Novels seemed the way to go, as I’m not qualified to write academic history. In addition, the beauty of novels is that they can ‘answer’ the unsolved questions that serious historians can’t.

An example, of one such question is: the fate of the Princes in the Tower. All the novels about Richard III have to answer that, one way or another. Sometimes Richard kills them, sometimes he puts them somewhere safe, sometimes they die naturally, and so on. No historian can tell you absolutely what happened to those boys, it’s just a matter of opinion. A novelist can ‘solve’ the mystery. Of course the reader may or may not be satisfied with the solution, but that’s another matter.

My spur to write about Constance of York was that she did something that was -- to say the least -- exceptional for a medieval princess. Basically she busted two noble boys out of royal captivity and tried to take them where the king couldn’t get them. I had to explore her motives for that, what led her to do it, to solve that riddle if only to my own satisfaction. That’s what lay beneath Within the Fetterlock.

I’m passionately interested in history, and I suppose one of the things I am trying to do is encourage similar interest in others. A lot of people come to history via fiction -- it’s a more accessible route than to dive straight into heavy textbooks, many of which are really aimed at post-graduates. I try to show the human side in my serious work; how events hit people, and impacted on their lives.

What drew you to the middle ages and to fiction about the middle ages?

You must remember that I grew up in an age when the children’s TV channels were dominated by things like William Tell, Richard the Lionheart, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Knights of the Round Table, while cinema output included El Cid, The Vikings, Cleopatra, and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

History was also taken seriously at school, and along with English, was one of my favourite subjects.

When we went on holiday we often visited Wales, where I was fascinated by the castles. I started reading about history for pleasure, because I wanted to know more than school taught me. I think the very first historical novel I came across was The Wool-pack by Cynthia Hartnett, read to us at primary school by the best teacher I ever had, Miss Margaret Mackie. When I got a little older and found there were such things as adult historical fiction novels, I think I pretty much devoured the entire library offering!

The more I’ve learned about the middle ages there more fascinated I’ve become; and to be honest, there’s always more to learn. Some people think of me as an expert on the subject, but frankly I never cease to be amazed by my own ignorance of particular topics.

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