Sunday, 19 July 2015

I still find a visit to a castle always stirs my imagination...

Interview with Joanna Hickson 
by Agnes A. Rose

Joanna Hickson worked in BBC radio and television for 25 years, where she presented and produced news, current affairs and arts programmes. She graduated in English Literature and Politics, but she had an early interest in history, being fascinated by “Henry V” and other Shakespeare history plays. Her first book, “Rebellion at Orford Castle”, was a children’s novel set in East Anglia. At present, because of the contract with the publishing company Harper Collins for her historical books she is dealing exclusively with writing. Her novels tell the story of Catherine de Valois who gave rise to the Tudor dynasty. She is also the author of “Red Rose, White Rose”, a story about Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. At present in Poland we can read “The Agincourt Bride”, but this autumn the Polish publisher will release the second of Joanna’s books – “The Tudor Bride”. The author lives with her husband in an English farmhouse that dates back to the 15th Century.

Agnes A. Rose: Joanna, thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. I am very honored to host you here. Why did you become a writer after working in the BBC for so long?

Joanna Hickson: First let me thank you Agnes for inviting me to connect with your readers, some of whom I hope will also read my books! I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young and used to write stories in school exercise books, many of which I still have in the bottom drawer of my desk.  Of course they have never been published! Then, after university, I worked for the BBC on radio and TV and wrote scripts and news stories, which I also broadcast myself. So in many ways I have written all my life. I also published some modern romance novels in the 1990s but now I am writing what I always wanted to write, that is stories of medieval history, bringing the characters of five and six hundred years ago to life.

Agnes A. Rose: Allow me to ask you why you became fascinated with medieval history? I mean exactly this part of English history.

Joanna Hickson: I think it was visiting castles in England as a teenager that inspired me to do this. I still find a visit to a castle always stirs my imagination. And of course reading other historical novels made me realize that perhaps I could do it too. A novel called “Katherine” by Anya Seton, of which you may know, inspired me particularly. It is the story of a girl who became the mistress of the famous John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and then eventually married him as his third wife at the end of the fourteenth century. I think it is still the most evocative portrayal of English medieval life and although it was published in the 1950s it is still popular today.

This is the Polish cover of
The Agincourt Bride
Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie
Krakow 2014
Translated by Maria Zawadzka
Agnes A. Rose: In your books you describe the story of Catherine de Valois. Could you tell us something more about this heroine? Why did you become so fascinated with this character that you decided to write about her?

Joanna Hickson: It was as a schoolgirl that I first saw a film of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, made by Laurence Olivier (a famous English actor). There is a scene at the end when he woos the French Princess Catherine, which I loved very much. It is romantic and funny but the character of the Princess is rather stereotyped – she is shown as the typical trophy-wife that a king might be expected to marry. However, when I began to research her life I realized that she lived through very troubled times and could not have been as giggly and empty-headed as Shakespeare portrayed her. I decided that she would be an excellent subject for a novel, taking a more detailed look at her story and character and the eventful life she led both before and after she married King Henry V of England.

Agnes A. Rose: What about Catherine de Valois’s loyal servant Mette? Is she a real person or a fictional one?

Joanna Hickson: During my research, in the accounts of Henry V’s household I found a list of the ladies who attended Queen Catherine after her marriage. Funnily enough three of them were called Joanna (!) but there was one whose name was listed as Guilliemot, which is the English name of a rather ugly black seabird, and I wondered why any lady would have such a name. Then I guessed that she must have been French and that her name was actually Guillaumette, the French female version of Guillaume – or William in English. Perhaps the clerk who wrote the accounts had never heard of ‘Guillaumette’ and so decided to give her a name that sounded similar! This person was paid less than the Joannas and therefore I guessed that she was perhaps a commoner and so the character of Mette (short for Guillaumette) was born as a baker’s daughter from the back streets of Paris who becomes Catherine’s nurse as a baby and then her closest companion throughout her life. She narrates the story and apart from this mention in the accounts she is entirely fictional but I think she is my favourite character!

Agnes A. Rose: How did you prepare to create the character of Catherine de Valois? What was the most difficult in this writing process?

This is the Polish cover of
The Tudor Bride
Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie
Krakow 2015
Translated by Maria Zawadzka
Joanna Hickson: There is always a problem in researching female characters from medieval times because women were rarely mentioned in sources like chronicles and documents – it really was his-story and not her-story! So there were no contemporary descriptions that I could find of Catherine de Valois except the mention that a portrait of her had been painted and sent to King Henry V, which was supposed to have made him very interested in her.  What a shame that the portrait does not exist today, unlike so many portraits of her successor King Henry VIII and his 6 wives, who lived a hundred years later. So I had to devise her looks and character from the very few mentions made of her and of course from my own imagination. We know she was considered beautiful but the detail of her beauty is my own invention.  

Agnes A. Rose: Did you have your favourite part of writing these two novels?

Joanna Hickson: I liked writing about Catherine’s romance with Owen Tudor and contrasting it with the relationship that developed between Mette and her friend Geoffrey. It helped me to show the two sides of life in those times – both of royalty and commoners.

Agnes A. Rose: As I mentioned above, you are also the author of “Red Rose, White Rose”. In this book you describe the story of Cicely Neville, Duchess of York. She was an English noblewoman, the wife of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and the mother of two kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III. Could you tell us what inspired you to create this novel?

Joanna Hickson:  I was originally drawn to Cicely Neville when I discovered that she was the youngest of her father’s 22 children – by 2 wives! I wondered what relationships would be like in such an enormous family, when the youngest child might be born around the same time as her father’s first grandchildren. Also the Nevilles were staunch supporters of the House of Lancaster and Cicely married the Duke of York, the leader of the opposing faction in the nobility. I wanted to examine how difficult it must have been for her to balance loyalty to her birth family with loyalty to the family she married into. Her story was a microcosm of the rivalries and conflicts that developed nationally in England in the 15th century and led to the outbreaks of violence known as the Wars of the Roses.

Agnes A. Rose: While we are talking about Richard III’s mother, I would like to find out what your reaction was when you heard about the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2013. Could you tell us about it?

Joanna Hickson: I was very excited and intrigued by the discovery of the king in the Leicester car park and absolutely amazed when it was confirmed that the skeleton found was definitely that of King Richard III. In March this year I took part in a conference involving historians and historical fiction authors on the eve of the re-burial of Richard in Leicester cathedral and was astounded at the number of people who turned out to watch the processions and share in the ceremonies surrounding this event.  Much controversy surrounds this king of England – was he bad or was he good and did he or didn’t he order the murder of the Princes in the Tower. It made for some lively debate! 

Agnes A. Rose: In researching and writing this novel did you find that your sympathies tended toward the House of Lancaster or the House of York? Why?

Published by Harper Collins 
United Kingdom 2014
Joanna Hickson: As my central character, Cicely, was both Lancastrian and Yorkist I felt able to maintain a balance between the two houses, but by the close of the novel I seemed to have created such a charismatic character in King Edward III that I found myself favouring him. At his coronation he was only eighteen but he had become a ‘golden boy’, winning battles and attracting followers, apparently unable to put a foot wrong. History of course shows that later he made major mistakes that re-ignited the internecine wars but that will be for another story. I ended the book as a Yorkist but that may not last.

Agnes A. Rose: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

Joanna Hickson: I am lucky to live in a house that was first built in the fifteenth century and my writing room is in the oldest part of it. The door to it is original and made from wide planks that were obviously cut from one tree and are secured by hand-made iron nails and when I close it I really feel as if I have been transported to the period about which I am writing.  I like to write with my face to a blank wall because I am easily distracted by a view of any kind. I usually write at least a nine hour day, although some of it is taken up with online distractions like Twitter and Facebook and writing Q & As for lovely people like you and your followers, Agnes!

Agnes A. Rose: You also wrote the book for children. Are you ever going to return to writing for young readers?

Joanna Hickson: Oh I would love to but at the moment I am fully occupied fulfilling my contracts to my publishers for adult fiction. However, you never know in the future. It was a wonderful children’s novel called “The Gauntlet” by Ronald Welch, which I read at age ten or eleven, that spiked my interest in using medieval history for my own early writing efforts.

Agnes A. Rose: I read on the Internet that your work is sometimes compared, for example, with the books of Philippa Gregory. How do you feel hearing or reading something like that?

Joanna Hickson: It depends if the comparison is favourable or not! I have read almost all of Philippa Gregory’s novels and I would certainly acknowledge that she has been one of my influences, so I am delighted if I am mentioned in the same breath as her!

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? 

Joanna Hickson: I don’t think I have anything to say to other published writers of historical fiction because the very fact that they are published means that they have already achieved some success. But to any aspiring novelist, whether historical or not, my primary piece of advice is to finish the story that you begin. A story is not a story until it has a beginning, a middle and an end and until you have written ‘The End’ on your last page you cannot call yourself a writer of fiction. There is more hard work to be done after that first draft but at least you have a work of fiction under your belt. My second piece of advice would be not to tell anyone about your idea for a story until you have written it yourself – otherwise they might do it first!

Agnes A. Rose: What is your next project? Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Joanna Hickson: I am writing a novel centered around one of Catherine de Valois’ children with Owen Tudor, so it continues the story of the family’s advance. I find it extraordinary that half way through the 15th Century no one in England had even heard of the Tudors and by the end of the century there was a Tudor king on the throne! More than that I am not prepared to say, other than that it is a medieval romance as well as a swashbuckling adventure fraught with danger. I hope it will be a page-turner!

Agnes A. Rose: Joanna, thank you so much for this very pleasant conversation. I wish you great success with your next novels. Would you like to add anything? Or maybe is there a question you would like to answer that I have not asked? 

Joanna Hickson: No, I think your questions have been comprehensive Agnes and the only thing I would like to add is the hope that your readers will become my readers, if they aren’t already.  Oh, and one day I would love to come to Poland and meet some of them – and you!  Thank you very much for hosting me on your blog.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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