Bringing a neglected time to life: an interview with Patricia Bracewell

PB_172-001Back in my late adolescence, driven by historical and linguistic curiosity and by having read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s and Jill Paton Walsh’s wonderful Wordhoard as a child, I studied Anglo-Saxon alongside Middle Welsh and Icelandic sagas as part of an Arts degree. I will never forget the extraordinary sound of Anglo-Saxon as the lecturer read it in such works as Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon and the Exeter Riddles, catching through it a glimpse of a time so long ago, so far away, yet in a sense quite close too. That interest surfaced from time to time even well after that, and I read Sile Rice’s vivid novel The Saxon Tapestry, and used Anglo-Saxon documents myself to create part of the background of one of my own books, The Stone of Oakenfast, part of the LayLines/Forest of Dreams trilogy.

My interest in Anglo-Saxon England was rekindled again late last year, with one of the great discoveries of my recent reading life–the wonderful historical novels of Patricia Bracewell, who has brought the neglected world of early eleventh century Anglo-Saxon England to vivid and memorable life in two books of a planned trilogy set around the extraordinary figure of Emma of Normandy.

And so today I am delighted to feature an interview with Patricia Bracewell herself. Enjoy!

Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood are major works of historical fiction about a period that is rarely written about: Anglo-Saxon England in the early eleventh century, before the Norman Conquest, but during a period of great strife, both internal and external. What first drew you to writing about this neglected but important period?

It was Emma of Normandy who piqued my interest in the Anglo-Saxon period. My knowledge of pre-Conquest England was relatively slim until the day about twenty years ago when I ran across an online post that referenced Emma, her royal husbands, and her children. I had never heard of her before that, even though I’d taken a course in English History at university. And when, intrigued, I did a little digging and began to get a glimmer of the role that Emma must have played in the first half of the 11th century, I was hooked. I had to know more and, beyond that, it seemed a crime to me that Queen Emma, who had herself commissioned a book about events that she had witnessed in her lifetime, should be virtually unknown today. I wanted to correct that if I could.

You preface each of the chapters in the novels with a quote from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an invaluable but rather dry history of the time, written at the time. What other research did you have to do to create the rich texture of your books, in terms of cultural and historical background?shadow2

The research was considerable because I truly was starting from square one. My university degrees are in Literature, not Medieval History, so I had to begin by learning everything that I could about the 10th and 11th centuries in England, Normandy and Denmark. It took two years of preliminary research to convince myself that I could learn enough about Emma’s world to even attempt to write her story. In addition to academic books and journals about the period I studied translations of documents written at the time – Emma’s own book of course, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, but also charters, wills, leechbooks and lists of abbey treasures that provide insight into the culture. I made several research trips to Europe beginning with a two-week Anglo-Saxon history course at Cambridge that focused on the period from King Alfred to Edward the Confessor. In Normandy I visited museums, abbeys and the site of the ducal palace at Fécamp. In London, Canterbury, and Winchester, museum displays of archaeological finds – weapons, reliquaries, jewelry, and glassware as well as models and maps of towns – helped me visualize that Anglo-Saxon world. In York and in Denmark I learned about the vikings and their ships. I’m still researching even as I write the third book, and I’ll be back in London this coming summer for that very purpose.

The action of the novels is seen from the viewpoint of four main characters: Emma of Normandy, the young, spirited and intelligent Queen of England; Elgiva, manipulative daughter of English nobleman Aelfhelm;  Aelthelred, the tormented and cruel King of England, and Athelstan, his eldest son from his first marriage, a brave, honourable yet ambitious prince. How did you juggle these different viewpoints, and what were the challenges and pleasures in seeing the story from different pairs of eyes?

In terms of juggling the four viewpoints, the biggest question I asked myself when creating a scene was Who has the most to lose? That decided, I could write the scene from that character’s viewpoint. In order to write a different scene from another point of view I then had to accustom myself to that character’s attitude, voice, opinion, language – a switch that was never easy and usually involved a lot of re-writing. Nevertheless there were distinct advantages to utilizing this shifting third person viewpoint. It broadened my story by allowing me to go places with a second or third character when the main character – Emma – could not go there. The shifting viewpoint also added contours to the various characters because readers could see them through several pairs of eyes. Elgiva, Æthelred and Athelstan, for instance, all regarded Emma quite differently and interpreted her actions in different ways. I think (hope) it added a layer of complexity to the story.

You paint a remarkably compelling and nuanced picture of the many warring cultures of the time–Norman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking, to name just the main ones. How did you go about creating a picture that is engaging for modern readers yet historically authentic in feel?

This may seem simplistic, but I think it comes down to the fact that human beings haven’t changed all that much in a thousand years. It’s my belief that our emotional responses are pretty much the same now as they were in 1002, and it is that emotional charge that readers look for in fiction. So it’s a matter of building that historical and cultural world as accurately as possible, placing actors inside it, and then imagining how they will feel and how they will act in that situation.

Shadow on the Crown was your first novel. Can you tell us something about your career before the novel was published–and how it came to be published?

I wrote two romance novels (unpublished) before I attempted Shadow on the Crown. I think of them as my practice novels because writing them helped me learn my craft. (I’m still learning – with each revision!) Before that I wrote short stories, personal essays, and feature articles for local publications. Before that I was a high school English teacher, so I really have been involved in writing all my life.

I pitched Shadow on the Crown to an agent at a Historical Novel Society Conference in 2009, but for over a year we received nothing but rejections, mostly because editors didn’t believe they could sell a book set in Anglo-Saxon England. We were both determined, though, and after I made a number of pobukjulyrevisions my agent, God bless her, sent it out again. By that time the first season of Game of Thrones had aired. Did that make a difference? I don’t know; but two weeks later we had offers from two different publishers.

How have readers across the world reacted to the books?

I think that a great many readers have been surprised by Emma’s story simply because they’ve never heard of her. She wasn’t a Tudor or a Plantagenet, and readers seem to appreciate discovering not just Emma but the pre-Conquest world in which she lived. The Portuguese language edition of Shadow on the Crown (A Rainha Normanda) has fans in Brazil and one of them, to my delight, has created a Facebook page for it. The German language edition has done well enough that The Price of Blood (Die Königin) will be published this month, and a Russian edition is in the works as well. Given that my goal in writing the trilogy was to pull Emma out of anonymity, the number of foreign editions of the book has been enormously gratifying although completely unexpected.

You’re working on the third book in the Emma of Normandy trilogy. Are you dreading or looking forward to telling the rest of her story? And do you have plans for other novels set in that time?

I am very much looking forward to telling the rest of Emma’s story – at least, as much of her story as I’ve chosen to include in this trilogy. If there is any dread involved, it’s that nagging question of Am I a good enough writer to make a really good job of it? I hope and pray that I am! I’m writing toward a conclusion that I had in mind when I first began this project, but the devil is in the details, and I’ve never written the final book of a trilogy before. I want it to be fantastic, so I’m setting the bar for myself pretty darned high and giving myself all the time I need to do it well.

As for what comes next, I’m too consumed by the conclusion of Emma’s story just now to think about it. Nevertheless, I love the Anglo-Saxon period, and there is a wealth of unexplored material there, so I wouldn’t rule out another pre-Conquest novel.

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