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!