Sunday, August 23, 2009


I have something rather special for everyone this time around - an interview with my good friend and fellow author Sharon Kay Penman. She has been very generous and taken time out of her busy writing schedule to answer a few questions.
I have loved all of Sharon's books since first becoming hooked on her first novel The Sunne in Splendour - my edition is Macmillan 1983 - see foot of this post. At the time I was just an avid reader, not an author myself and I was blown away by this fabulous historical novel about Richard III, his family, life and times. Sharon has continued to hit it out of the park with every novel she writes, whether they be mysteries or or her richly detailed historical novels set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly featuring the 'Devil's Brood' of Angevin royalty. There's no one better.
So here, without further ado, Sharon Kay Penman welcome.

Q. I really enjoyed Devil’s Brood. I am always amazed at how you managed to keep so many threads spinning at once and I think you have a particular skill for explaining the politics of the period in a thoroughly readable manner. Do you keep spreadsheets or charts of who was related to who and what political game plans were, or is it all stored in your head?

A. I keep it all stored in my head; is that weird or what? I make extensive notes on various topics like medieval sexuality or ships or Cyprus—all subjects of heavy-duty research now for Lionheart. But I seem to have no trouble remembering the shifting political alliances or the behind-the scenes double-dealing. Maybe I was a Borgia in a past life?

Q. There are some spine tingling scenes in Devil’s Brood. The one in Canterbury Cathedral with Henry doing penance for Becket’s death will stay with me for a long, long time. Do you know that you’ve written a particularly memorable scene at the time or does it take a while/other opinions before it sinks in?

A. Usually I know if a scene is going to work. When Henry did penance at Becket’s tomb, I just sensed that it was going the way that I’d hoped. I was surprised, though, that it came so easily; I’d expected to have to suffer more! Another dramatic scene that I was satisfied with was Simon de Montfort’s death scene in Falls the Shadow. But sometimes a scene will resonate with my readers in ways I didn’t expect. The Here Be Dragons scene that readers mention most is the one in which Joanna burned Llewelyn’s bed, and I didn’t see that one coming.

Q Henry II’s son Geoffrey seems to have been a real hit with the readers in Devil’s Brood. I get the feeling you enjoyed writing about him and his relationship with Constance. There doesn’t seem to be a lot known about Geoffrey – or am I wrong? How did you find out about him, and did you have more leeway in creating his character and scenes than you did with Henry and Eleanor?

A. Your writer’s instinct is right on target here. I have always found Geoffrey to be the most intriguing of the brothers. But he has been overshadowed by his more celebrated brothers, Richard and John, and historians rarely bothered to consider his motivations. Fortunately for me, a Breton historian named Judith Everard finally made up for those years of neglect. I don’t think I could have written Devil’s Brood had she not written Brittany and the Angevins first. I certainly would not have been able to flesh out Geoffrey’s portrayal without her input, and he would have remained an enigma. She was able to reveal the reasons behind Geoffrey’s actions, and this enabled me to create a plausible, three-dimensional character, not the one described by a biographer of Richard as motivated by “mindless malice.”

Q. A member of a Penman fan e-list where I participate asked the following question when she heard I was going to be interviewing you: How could such a smart, charismatic leader have been so utterly clueless in interpersonal relationships? Did he have the kind of ego that prevented him from recognizing that anyone could have a viewpoint different from his?

A. I think Henry was the ultimate control freak, unable to delegate any real authority to his sons or to Eleanor. And he paid a high price for that sort of pride. I also think he was deeply wounded by the rebellion of 1173, and those wounds never fully healed. He forgave his sons, but he no longer trusted them, and that set him on a road which led to his terrible, tragic death at Chinon.

Q. Your next project is Richard The Lionheart, and then the story of Balien of Ibelin – the true story, not the Kingdom of Heaven version. I’m really looking forward to both. Are you finding it any different working to a tighter deadline than with some of your earlier books?

A. Oh, yes! I have always had three years to do one of my historical novels, but I only have two years for Lionheart, so I am having to fight off periodic panic attacks.

Q. Is Richard proving to be surprising in any way, or is he as you imagined so far?

A. A total surprise in many ways. When I wrote Here Be Dragons more than twenty years ago, I did not have a particularly high opinion of Richard, accepting the then popular view of him as a brilliant but bloodthirsty soldier, an ungrateful son, and a careless king. Since he was only a minor character in Dragons, I did not do extensive research about him. It was not until I was writing Time and Chance and then Devil’s Brood that my research revealed a different man. He was indeed a brilliant battle commander, but I was fascinated to discover that, while he was utterly reckless when it came to his own safety, he was very conservative when it came to the lives of his men. Henry will always be one of my favorite historical figures, but I came to see that his sons had some legitimate grievances, particularly Geoffrey and Richard. So scratch the ungrateful son charge. And research in the past twenty years has given us a more nuanced and favorable view of Richard the king. He was a good judge of other men, had a real flair for multi-tasking and strategic thinking, and his father’s sardonic sense of humor. Twenty years ago, I saw him as arrogant and ruthless, and I was right—he was. But he was a much more complicated man than I’d originally thought. I think it is only fair to judge historical figures by the standards of their time, and to medieval eyes, Richard was what they most admired, a “man of prowess.”

Q. If you were going to attend a great banquet set in the time of Henry II, but Henry and Eleanor weren’t there, who would you choose to be sat either side of you?

A. Geoffrey, most definitely. And Richard, to see if my portrayal of him in Lionheart is on-target. I wouldn’t mind getting to meet his queen, Berengaria, either. And John, of course, and…well, we’d soon have a full house.

Q. Did you ever do any fiction writing before you wrote Sunne in Splendor? When was the first time you actually wrote anything down?

A. Sunne was my first novel. I’d written stories as a child, and I’d written a “novel” in my teens about young love that mercifully later disappeared.

Q. I know you’ve said you craft each chapter and polish it before you move on. Do you ever have to go back and rewrite once you have finished the book, either because by the time you’ve got the whole in your hand a certain early piece doesn’t feel quite right, or because research you’ve done along the way necessitates a change?

A. I’ve gone back to do some minor tinkering, but I’ve never done a major rewrite. It would be wonderful, though, to be able to go back in time and correct mistakes that subsequently came to light—like my little time-traveling grey squirrel in Sunne. (I know what you mean! I have a few errors of dateline or detail that I would love to be able to correct in my earlier work!)

QWhat is a typical working day? Suppose I became a fly on your wall on a typical weekday when you got up and buzzed off when you put the light out. How would I see your day panning out?

A. I don’t keep set hours as some writers do. So if I’m working on a chapter and it is going well, I am likely to spend hours at my computer, coming up for air occasionally and to feed or walk the dogs. And since I’m an owl, not a lark, I’m likely to be writing well into the night.

Q. Do you take a day off in the week.

A. No. Spoken like a true workaholic, I know. But not a day passes when I’m not either writing or researching or thinking about plot developments.

Q. Is there anything that inspires your muse? I ask this because I listen to music away from my PC, and it resonates in my subconscious for when I’m ready to write at the PC. I wondered if there’s anything that stirs your creative juices.

A. I have a number of wonderful photographs of North Wales, taken by a brilliant Welsh photographer friend, Dave O’Shea, and I think they help to stir the “creative juices.”

Q. From talking to you by e-mail, you seem to have an excellent library of research books. Do you know how many you have? Where do you get them from? (I know we both know about Oxbow and Abe etc but not sure if readers do).

A. Yes, I have an extensive library by now, several thousand or more. I used to make day-long trips to the University of Pennsylvania about fifty miles away, for they have a wonderful medieval library. But I’ve not had to do that for years. In the old pre-internet days, I would buy my books from second-hand bookshops in the U.K. I would arrive with a wish list, and snatch up anything that might be remotely useful to me in the distant future. Then I’d have the fun of packing them up and lugging them to the Royal Post Office. But the internet has changed all that, of course. I find many of my books on ABE, both the English and French websites. The Medieval Bookshop is one of my favorites. Amazon’s mother ship and its sites for England and France are also great sources. Life is so much easier for writers now, isn’t it? I wanted to find a collection of miracles supposedly performed at Becket’s tomb, written by one of the monks at Christchurch priory. I knew it had been translated in the 19th century, so I set out to find it. And eventually I did—in Japan. So an American author bought a book from a Tokyo book-seller that was a translation by a Victorian historian of a medieval monk’s work! And the result was the scene in Devil’s Brood where Henry is doing penance at Becket’s tomb while being kept company by a garrulous monk who just won’t shut up and who happens to be the author of that collection of miracles.

Q. You have mentioned favourite research books before that readers might like, such as Robert Bartlett’s England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings and David Crouch’s History of William Marshal. Do you have any quirky favourites? I confess that my own quirky favourite is Malcolm Jones’ The secret Middle Ages with all its strange folk art objects (such as the erotic biscuit moulds!) Can you give one that you’ve found fun that’s a bit left field?

A. I don’t know if it is quirky or not, but I really like Daily Life in the Twelfth Century (That's one of my favourites too!)

Q A question from medieval historian Gillian Polack who's a member of the Penmanreview forum: I’m really curious to know if Sharon finds it easier/harder/different to talk about the Middle Ages with Medievalists (the ones who don’t write fiction) now than it was when her first book came out?

A. An interesting question. I’ve lurked on Mediev-l for years, but I don’t travel in academic circles. I know I am always very flattered when professors write and tell me they enjoy my books, trust my research, or recommend my novels to their students.

Q From Tamara Mazzei(owner of Penmanreview and publisher of Brian Wainwright)If I were to ask Sharon a question, I think it would be whether she felt constrained by the known history of Eleanor, Henry and Thomas Becket. IMO, I think that's one thing that makes it hard to write about those particular characters -- because so much has already been written about them, in their own times and later --and in fiction and nonfiction. That's a lot of expections to have to plow through, even if one is able to ignore most of them.Looking back over all the different books she's written, HBD is still myfavorite, and I suspect at least part of the reason for that is because,with the exception of some of the political events and the parts concerningJohn, she had fewer constraints because there was less documented historysurrounding Johanna and her everyday life with Llewelyn -- and it gave hermore latitude to create a self-contained story. Perhaps I am wrong on that,but I would be curious to know Sharon's take on it.

A.I think I might feel that way about the Tudors, Tamara. So much has been written about Elizabeth Tudor, etc, that I think it would be challenging to find ground that hadn’t already been thoroughly ploughed. We don’t know as much about Eleanor as we do about Henry or their sons, lacking the personal anecdotes about her that the chroniclers passed on about her husband and sons. Women, even women like Eleanor, too often slipped through history’s cracks.

I think one reason Here Be Dragons is such a favorite with my readers is because it was unknown territory. Most readers—even in Wales—were not familiar with Llewelyn’s history, and so I was able to surprise them. It probably helped, too, that Dragons has such a compelling and true love story. And like Devil’s Brood, Dragons is the story of family entanglements and the pain we bring upon ourselves—Joanna and her father, Llewelyn and his estranged son Gruffydd. I think we can all identify with family vicissitudes and conflict, even if ours are not played out on such a grand stage.

It doesn’t seem right to be discussing the MA without mentioning a writer you publish, Tamara—Brian Wainwright. He has written an excellent historical novel about Constance of York, called Within the Fetterlock, and a hysterical spoof set in the time of the Yorkists called The Adventures of Alianore Audley.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me to visit with you and to give me a forum to to speak to your readers about the Middle Ages, a subject dear to both our hearts.

You're very welcome Sharon. I have so enjoyed reading your answers and I'm sure visitors to the blog will too! Apologies for some slightly strange formatting. Blogger does not always take kindly to cut and paste!

My first ever venture into reading one of Sharon's novels!


Robinbird said...

Thank you for this wonderful interview! I loved reading Sharon's answers to your questions!

Lesley Haycock said...

Agreed - that was wonderful! Wales has never looked the same for me since finding HBD etc, it was just rainy hols. in Prestatyn before (British 'children' of a certain age will empathise!)
It's almost beyond brilliant to have your two favourite authors chatting like this, thanks again to both of you.

Janet said...

Excellent interview, Elizabeth, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And thank you Sharon, as well. I received Devil's Brood for Christmas from one of my grown up children, after dropping a large hint on my blog! Will now look forward to the next one.

All the best - Janet Woods

Amy @ Passages to the Past said...

Now that is one FANTASTIC interview! Well done to you both!

I fell in love with Wales & Llewelyn and Joanna's story after HBD. I agree about the scene with Henry at Becket's tomb...what an intense scene!

Thank you for sharing with us EC & Sharon!

Julia London said...

Two of my favorite writers. Elizabeth, I discovered you in England one summer and devoured The Conquest on the way back to the States. As for Sharon Kay Penman, I have long listed Here Be Dragons as one of my top five favorite reads of all time. That book swept me away. Thanks for the interview!

Anne Gilbert said...

This was a very enlightening interview! I really enjoyed learning how SKP works, which is somewhat the way I do!

Carol Townend said...

Great interview, thank you very much!
And best wishes from a long-standing fan (of both of you!)

Lady D. said...

Fantastic. Thanks both of you for such an insightful interview. It was Sharon who first piqued my interest in medieval history so I have a lot to thank her for.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

Thank you for a wonderful interview.
I'm a fan of both your books, but the first Sharon Penman I read was Sunne In Splendour about 9 years ago and it started me on a medieval novel journey that has been very rewarding.
Thanks to you both!

Christina said...

Wonderful interview. I love all of Sharon's books. I am re-reading Devil's Brood right now and can't wait for Lionheart.

Carla said...

What a terrific interview! Many thanks to both you and Sharon.

Judith Everard said...

A friend kindly forwarded this interview to me. I would just like to let Sharon Kay Penman know, through this, that I am absolutely delighted that she found my book 'Brittany and the Angevins' such a useful resource, and to thank her for acknowledging it here.
The project started as a biography of Geoffrey, but there really wasn't enough material, so expanded into the history of the Angevin conquest of Brittany, in which Geoffrey and Constance were the central characters.

Sharon Kay Penman said...

Dear Dr Everard,
I hope you drop by again, as I've long wanted to thank you for writing the book that enabled me to resolve the enigma that was Geoffrey of Brittany. I've been singing the praises of Brittany and the Angevins for ages, in the Research Recommendations on my website, in the Author's Note of Devil's Brood, and on my blogs. I'd love to give you a copy of Devil's Brood so you could judge "my" Geoffrey for yourself. I've received an overwhelmingly favorable response from readers, who said that they found him to be the most interesting of the brothers. And for that, thank you.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Have just discovered this blog. What an excellent interview. History was such a dreadful subject in high school and college. I have developed a much better appreciation for it since starting to read historical novels. Admittedly that started out with romances, but there are many that use history and everyday details of life to great effect in their books.
I look forward to reading your books. Here Be Dragons is on my list to buy first. Elizabeth, I've read a few of your books in the past and enjoyed them.
I look forward to following this blog.

Patricia Barraclough said...

What a truly fascinating piece. I want to sit down and read all those books now. Unfortunately, I had not discovered women's fiction until recently (the past 20 years). Not sure why, it just didn't happen. There is such a great body of work out there, I'll never run out of good books to read.
I know I've read at least one of Elizabeth's books and I ordered HERE BE DRAGONS today. I'll have to check our library, but I know they have mostly best seller authors. I'll have to dig through my boxes of books and see what I have that I've forgotten about. I've been buying books that interest me and hoping for the time to read them.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Didn't have to look far. I had SHIELDS OF PRIDE, THE WILD HUNT, and THE RUNNING VIXEN on one my shelves. Can't wait to start them. I've got a great library, just not enough time to read.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Excellent interview. I now have a longer list of books to read. Ordered Here Be Dragons after reading the interview. Searched my shelves and found 3 of Elizabeth's books I bought, but haven't read yet. I look forward to finding all of both your books.

Beautiful said...

Great interview, thank you Elizabeth for coming up with such fascinating questions to Sharon. And thank you Sharon for sharing more about yourself with us,your most loyal fans! (wink)

Bella said...

Awesome interview! Thanks Sharon and Elizabeth for sharing more of you, for being so much fun and for being so accessible with us your most loyal fans via blogs, facebook, etc.