Saturday, 15 September 2018

Even if I was never published, I would still be writing stories...

Interview with Elizabeth Chadwick
by Agnes A. Rose

Elizabeth Chadwick was born in Bury (Lancashire). When she was three years old she moved with her family to Scotland where she spent her childhood. Aged ten, she came to Nottingham and she has lived there ever since. She says of herself that she was born a storyteller. She remembers that before she could read and write, she would open her picture books at her favourite illustrations and make up some new tales. But she did not write anything down until she was fifteen. Her first foray into historical fiction, a work of fiction about the Holy Land in the twelfth century, led her to realise she wanted to write historical fiction for a living. After years of writing and rejections she was finally published in 1989. The novel was titled The Wild Hunt and won a Betty Trask Award. Elizabeth Chadwick has gone on to become one of Britain's foremost historical novelists and has been called by The Historical Novel Society “the best writer of medieval fiction currently around”. She is published internationally and her work has been translated into many languages. The author is renowned for her extensive research into the medieval period and particularly so in the area of the Marshal and Bigod families. Her novels about the 13th century magnate William Marshal, The Greatest Knight (2005) and The Scarlet Lion (2006), have brought her international acclaim. Recently her trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine has been published in Poland.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much that you accepted my invitation to take part in this interview. I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. You create stories set in the era of the Middle Ages. Why? What is special in this epoch that you decided to write about it?

Published by SPHERE
(4 Dec. 2008)
Elizabeth Chadwick: It’s pure chance that it came to be the Middle Ages. I became interested in the period after I watched a couple of historical dramas on the television. The first was “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, starring Keith Michelle and I began writing a Tudor story. I was 14 at the time and it was the school holidays. When school began again, I put the book away. The next year the BBC put on a children's historical adventure series that was titled “Desert Crusader”. It was dubbed from French. The original was titled “Thibaud ou les Croisades” and you can find episodes these days on YouTube under that title. I fell in love with the hero and began writing my own form of fan fiction. However, the story developed a brand-new life of its own and became very from the character in the TV programme. Writing the book in between my school lessons made me realise that I wanted to write historical fiction for a living. I was only 16 years old, but I knew my career path. I wanted my story to feel as real as possible and that meant doing the research. The more I researched, the more interested, I became in the medieval period and the more I wanted to write about it. It was never ending circle, one interest feeding from the other.

AAR: Before you published “The Wild Hunt”, you couldn’t find a literary agent. Your books were rejected for many years. What were you feeling at that time? Were you furious because you knew that you were writing well but no one wanted to appreciate your work?

EC: Not in the least. I knew it was what I was meant to do and that at some point I would get there. Basically, I was serving my apprenticeship and those hours at the typewriter and in front of the screen had to be done. I never saw rejection as a personal thing. It just made me all the more determined that the next book I wrote would be so good that people wouldn't be able to refuse it. Even though it happened many times, it never put me off. I had been telling myself stories of one kind or another since small childhood so it was actually a part of who I was. Even if I was never published, I would still be writing stories. You need to be lucky to be published, but you also need to be good enough and the times I was being rejected, I was still learning my craft, but had not reached a high enough standard. Toward the end of my apprenticeship. If that is what you want to call it, I was recognising that I was becoming as good as the published novelists out there. I began winning competitions and I had faith that I would succeed. So no, I never felt furious. If I wasn't being published, then I wasn't good enough. I recognised that reality without beating myself up about it. It just gave me the determination to be better.

AAR: After having published “The Wild Hunt”, you wrote the continuation of that story. What motivated you to take on this challenge?

EC: My motivation was that I was interested in the family I had written about and wanted to continue their story for a while at least. The main drive to me is the writing and being curious about history and about the people who lived in that history, whether real or imaginary.

AAR: I must admit that I have been interested in the history of England for many years. I am still discovering something new in it. I also write and read a lot about the United Kingdom’s history. Three years ago I wrote an article about William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. I know that in your literary output you have also books related to this character. Could you tell us something more about them? What motivated you to write about William Marshal and his family?

The Polish edition of
 "The Greatest Knight"
Published by AURUM PRESS (2010)
Translated by
Anna Krawczyk-Łaskarzewska
EC: William Marshal was the fourth son of John  FitzGilbert, who was the Royal Marshal at a time of great upheaval in England. He was of the middle rank of the aristocracy. But William was destined for greater things. He was nearly hanged as a small boy when he was a hostage during a siege. However, the king could not bring himself to do the deed and William was later returned to his family. He grew up to become an expert in the military arts, with a particular talent for the tournament when he made a name for himself.

He entered service with the Angevin kings, first as a tutor and Marshal to King Henry II’s eldest son, also called Henry. When young Henry died rebelling against his father, William swore to take the young man's cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the tomb of the holy sepulchre. Having achieved his goal, he returned and continued to serve Henry II.

Following Henry's death, William entered the patronage of Richard the Lionheart, who granted him a hand in marriage of a young heiress, Isabelle de Clare. William now became a magnate of the realm and when Richard went on crusade he left William as one of the co-governors of the country. Following Richard's death, William also served King John and was one of the senior barons involved in issuing Magna Carta. For a while, he was also Regent of England for the young King Henry III.

His lifetime was one of high drama. He was a great fighter, sportsmen, statesman and politician. In his domestic life he was father to 10 children, five boys and five girls and his marriage seems to have been a long and loving partnership of 30 years. I have written several books about him. “The Greatest Knight” covers the part of his life as a young knight and leaves him in 1194 with his wife and the beginnings of his family and looking to expand his horizons. Its sequel “The Scarlet Lion” takes him through the rest of his life when he became a great politician and statesman and took on his wife's Irish lands. There is a prequel to these two novels titled “A Place Beyond Courage” that tells the story of his father John FitzGilbert. “The Time of Singing” is the story of a family related to the Marshals, the Bigods, and its sequel “To Defy A King” is the story of William Marshal's daughter Mahelt, who married into this family. My most recent novel in the UK is “Templar Silks”, a stand-alone novel covering the time that William spent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

As far as what prompted me to write the Marshal stories – it is always about interest and curiosity with me. I go delving and then I want to know more. Originally I was just going to write about William Marshal because I felt he had a really interesting life that would translate well into the medium of the novel, but I discovered when I began researching that it went far beyond that and I had enough material for several novels and a passion to keep me interested for the rest of my life. I have been studying the marshals now for 15 years, and I'm still learning new things every day. I have a deep admiration for William Marshal. He was a man of his time, certainly, and operated within the norms of that society, but underlying that is a powerful integrity of which I feel there isn't enough in the world today.

The Polish edition of
 "Daughters of The Graal"
Published by
Translated by
Anna Krawczyk-Łaskarzewska
AAR:  Apart from the trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine and “The Greatest Knight”, your Polish readers can also read “Daughters of The Grail”. Could you tell us something more about this book? What prompted you to write this story?

EC: I was commissioned to write “Daughters of The Grail” by a film producer who had written a treatment and wanted it fleshing out into a novel. The film never got made but the book went on to be published around the world. It’s a sort of medieval “Da Vinci Code” with a slight fantasy element and covers the story of the persecution of the Cathars, among them the descendants of a certain bloodline.

AAR: Now let’s talk about your trilogy related to Eleanor of Aquitaine that has been published in Poland recently. It is said that Eleanor was the most prominent woman of 12th century Europe. She was recognized by Time magazine as one of the most influential and powerful women of the past millennium. Do you think that the Queen deserved to be called “the most influential woman of the millennium”?

EC: I think she was an amazing woman. Strong, forthright, resilient, very intelligent. I think there must be very many women of that period who have the same qualities, but Eleanor has been the one to stand in the spotlight. Yes, she deserves it for all that she was, but she could be part of a much greater chorus of women.

AAR:  What most surprised you while working on the trilogy?

EC: What really astonished me was how difficult it was to find a decent biography of Eleanor. There are numerous works an interested reader can study about her, but many are highly unreliable. They state opinions as facts and are very loose in their interpretations. Given that the only representation of Eleanor is her tomb effigy, a stylized stained glass window and a grey-haired lady in the Fécamp Psalter who may or may not be Eleanor, it’s astonishing to find her biographers calling her a black-haired, black-eyed beauty with a curvaceous figure that never ran to fat in old age. Or a saucy hot-blooded blonde, or a humorous green-eyed red-head. None of these can be taken as accurate because there is no existing physical description of Eleanor from her own lifetime. Basically most of her biographers cannot be trusted. I did find a couple of books that were grounded and gave good information but overall it was difficult to find decent factual works about her that didn’t leap off a cliff into flights of fantasy. I know I am writing fiction, but I like to have a strong grounding in a factual historical background and it was hard despite – or perhaps because of the numerous nonfiction works that have been written about Eleanor.

AAR: How much time did it take you to prepare to write the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine? Did you have any problems with researching?

EC: I have been writing medieval fiction for several decades, so I already had a base line awareness. Writing the William Marshal novels I had become familiar with Eleanor too, so I already had some research under my belt. I always research as I write, so probably the intensive research took about 18 months, but I already had a strong background awareness. My problems as above mentioned is that many of her biographers could not be trusted. I tried as much as possible to go back to primary source research, but that in itself is a difficult project. I can get by in Latin and Old French but I do prefer to read works in translation.

AAR: If you could travel back in time and meet Eleanor of Aquitaine, what would you like to tell her? How do you generally imagine meeting such the powerful Queen?

EC: I would tell her to run away from Henry II! What I would say from the research I have done is that anyone striving to know Eleanor better should read a book called “Inventing Eleanor” by Michael Evans, which shows how much has been made up about her down the centuries and how the image we have of her today (especially if we read some of her popular biographies) is nothing like the person who inhabited the 12th century.

Here is the Polish edition of the historical trilogy about Eleonor of Aquitaine:
The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown & The Autumn Throne.
They were published in 2017/2018 by PRÓSZYŃSKI I S-KA
Translated by Magdalena Moltzan-Małkowska

AAR: It is said that Richard the Lionheart was the most beloved child of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Could you tell us how you perceive this King? Have you written a novel about him? If not, do you have such a plan?

EC: No, I haven’t written about Richard the Lionheart nor do I plan to. My good friend Sharon Penman has written two excellent novels about him – “Lionheart” and “A King’s Ransom”, should anyone want to read a work of fiction about him. I would say that he was Eleanor’s favourite, but this was partly because from birth he was the son destined to inherit the maternal lands. He was raised to be her heir and so she was bound to gravitate to him. His skill was warfare. He was also an accomplished musician in his quieter moments and politically astute.  A complex and interesting man.

AAR: During the Second Crusade where the first Eleanor’s husband, Louis VII of France, took part in, there were some rumors that the Queen was having a love affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers. What do you think? Were there definitely just rumors, or maybe Eleanor really became the main character of the moral scandal?

EC: I don’t think she had an affair with her uncle. When you look at the evidence for and against in depth, it mostly emerges on the negative side. Some writers have suggested it happened, but I suspect it’s the sensationalism that draws them rather than admitting to the probable more prosaic truth. I have written a full blog about why I don’t think for one minute that they had an affair. Here’s the url.

AAR: As I mentioned above you live in Nottingham. According to the legend, Robin Hood was supposed to live near this place. He is also very strongly associated with two sons of Eleanor, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. I must admit that I have been fascinated by Robin of Sherwood since my childhood. Although I have read and written about him a lot, he is still a mystery to me. Could you tell us what the truth is? Did the Eleanor’s sons really have anything to do with Robin Hood?    

EC: No, I don’t think they did. Indeed, I do not believe that Robin Hood was every actually around so early. He’s a product of the ballads of the later Middle Ages and as such is a fictional character. He may be an amalgam of several outlaw types rife in the 14th century onwards but in actuality the myth has grown out of itself and become the life that never was. Hollywood and modern fiction writers are the main instigators of Robin Hood in the late 12th and early 13th centuries I’m afraid.

Published by SPHERE
(7 Sept. 2006)
AAR: Let’s go back to your books for a moment. So far you have written a lot of novels. Do you have your favourite story among them; the one you love more than others?

EC: For me that would be a bit like asking a mother if she had a favourite child! Each book I write always has something unique about it that makes it special to me. My first published novel “The Wild Hunt” was the one that won a major UK award and that obtained me representation by a top London literary agency. “Lords of The White Castle” was my first attempt at biographical fiction and has been a bestseller, “The Greatest Knight” was a New York Times bestseller and started me on my journey with William Marshal. My Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy has led me to think in very different ways about a great Medieval queen and who she might have been really under all the glitter and dust we have sprinkled over her life. Every book has taught me something unique about the people and their life and times as I research. So the answer has to be no they are all my favourites.

AAR: And what about the protagonists? Is there the one that you like most and you always smile when you are thinking about him or her?

EC: It’s the same answer as the previous one but with a couple of exceptions. John Marshal in my novel “A Place Beyond Courage” has always stayed with me because I feel history has written him a bad deal – or rather our modern interpretation of history and our laziness in not actually pausing to lift the sheets and look under the surface has given us a simplistic view of a complex man striving to survive in very difficult times. And of course, the great William Marshal. A legend in his own lifetime, and even more of one today. But underneath it all a flesh and blood man with flaws and merits, passions, preferences and dislikes. I’d like to have been in a position to have known him in his own lifetime.

AAR: Is there anything, any era or a character, you would like to write about, but you think that the right time has not come to do it?

EC: Yes, many, but I’m not going to tell you. That’s something that creatively stays under my hat until I’m ready!

AAR: How important are your readers to you? Do you have a good contact with them? How much do they help you while writing?

EC: If I didn’t have readers I wouldn’t have a job! I get on very well with my readers, many of whom have become good friends. I have an open Facebook author group for news and features and feedback – it’s not all about promotion.  I share my research with my readers and daily doings. We’re all people with all our particular interests and skills and it’s good to socialize while doing the day job.

AAR: You told me that there is a chance of publishing your next book in Poland. Could you tell us something more about it if it is not a secret?

Published by SPHERE
(13 Sept. 2012)
EC: I think “Lady of the English” is soon to be published in Poland. It’s about two women and the struggle for the English crown in the 12th century. Matilda, daughter of the king, has had her throne usurped (as she sees it) by her cousin Stephen and she is determined to have it back for herself and her heirs. She is helped by her stepmother, who is actually Matilda’s own age and with a gentler personality, but nevertheless a steely determination to see that justice prevails.

AAR: Finally, I would like to ask you about your next project? Are you working on a new novel?

EC: I have just begun one, but since it is the very early stages and has not yet gone to contract, again I cannot say, beyond the fact that it is set in the 13th century and stars two very charismatic protagonists!

AAR: Elizabeth, thank you so much for this nice conversation. It was a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to you. Is there anything you would like to add or tell your Polish readers?

EC: Just thank you for reading my books and I hope you all continue to enjoy them! And thank you for interviewing me and asking such varied questions!

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

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