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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Karen Cushman

*Three of your books--Catherine Called Birdy, The Midwife’s Apprentice, and Matilda Bone--are set in medieval England. Why your affinity for this time and place?

My desire to set a book in medieval England began with an idea: what would life be like for young people--especially girls--at a time when they had no power and little value? I chose the time period partly because I love the Middle Ages, with all their excitement and color and brutality, although I am very glad I did not have to live there. But also I saw western civilization, with its growing emphasis on private vs. communal, on self vs. other, on bedrooms and solars and books of manners, paralleling a child’s growth to adolescence, with the same sorts of preoccupations. The idea of a young person living at that time, trying to make sense of her world, appealed to me.

My own fascination has been around for years and years. I started with Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff many years ago and progressed through medieval music, medieval fairs, and collecting things like the 15th century illuminated manuscript page that hangs on my wall. My father’s family is Polish, my mother’s family is German and Irish, so the English were certainly never heroes to either side of the family. But somehow England, especially the England of long ago, spoke to me.

And I think the medieval period is close enough to our own times that I could effectively set a story there. In part it was the fact that I could read most sources without having to learn another language. I couldn’t read early medieval sources in the original, but some, like Bartholomew Anglicus (a 13th century Franciscan monk who created a 19-volume encyclopedia that first made available medical and scientific information from Greek, Jewish and Arab scholars), I could translate from the middle English to modern English, which I never would have been able to do in any other language. It was also because I could imagine myself in medieval England, whereas to think about Medieval Poland or Aztec Mexico was such a stretch. I thought I could come understand these people in Medieval England enough to write about them. I felt a familiarity I wouldn’t have felt lots of other places.

After three medieval and three American books, I returned to England for my new book due out spring 2010. But this time it’s Elizabethan. My interest in the Middle Ages has not waned but I wanted to tell the story of a lame child at a time when ideas about disability and difference were changing and were not, so to speak, so medieval. Hence London, 1574, and Alchemy and Meggy Swann.

* Working from the west coast of the United States, how do you go about finding information sources for life in medieval and Elizabethan England?

When I began, I thought it would be a lot harder than it was. I forgot how long a period the Middle Ages were--hundreds and hundreds of years. And it has been a long time since then. There are innumerable sources. I started out at the University of California, Berkeley, but their sources were scholarly and boring and talked about things I didn’t want to know, like economic and political systems and wars. I wanted to know what people ate and what they sang and where they went to the bathroom. I moved from there to the public library. Once I found a couple of books with bibliographies, I was off and running. With a good bibliography, you’re set.

I found a lot of things reprinted in paperback on the bookstore shelves, such as Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century and A History of Manners. I hounded used bookstores where I discovered books like Daily Living in the Twelfth Century, John Stow’s 16th century Survey of London, and books of slang and saints and insults.

Now, more than ten years since I started researching Catherine Called Birdy, research has changed a lot. For Alchemy and Meggy Swann I used the internet as much as books. The internet is a wonder of resources and information. I found recreations of alchemical laboratories, reproductions of Elizabethan broadsides, and glossaries of Elizabethan words and phrases. And the web has made interlibrary loan a gold mine--I requested and received a 19th century book about Bartlemas Fair, a reprint about English fairs from a 1934 geographic journal, and Disability in Medieval Europe.

* What about young fictional heroines appeals to you as a writer?

Place, personhood, who I am and where do I belong: these are important questions to young women, and to me, which is partly why I write for a young female age group. Their issues and questions are still mine. A consistent theme in my books is finding a sense of place, somewhere to belong, the search for identity, change and becoming, what it means to be human in this world.

All my books are about ordinary girls in extraordinary circumstances, girls like me: the medieval Catherine who had no power and little value in a brutal world; Alyce, The Midwife’s Apprentice, who longed for a name, a full belly, and a place in the world; Lucy Whipple, dragged unhappily across the country from her home in Massachusetts to California because of her mother’s dreams; the lonely, proud, and superior Matilda Bone, raised by a priest to know a lot about Heaven and Hell but not much about this world; Rodzina, a Polish girl from Chicago, who goes west on the orphan train, looking for someone to belong to, and Meggy Swann, different and angry and alone. I know these girls and their concerns and dreams and fears. And so I write about them. And for them.

* Why do you choose to write historical fiction rather than contemporary, possibly more relevant books for your young readers?

The question I am asked most often--aside from “What does Corpus Bones mean?”--is why historical fiction? I think historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, by illustrating the continuity of life, giving them a sense of history and their place in it.

Historical fiction, like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals, and that the future will be made up of

our decisions and actions. British historical novelist Leon Garfield has written: If the young discover that in the past w have been governed, led, abused, and slaughtered by fools and knave, then perhaps they will look about them and see that matters have not greatly changed, and possibly they will do so before they vote. In itself I find that a great reason for writing what I do.

But mostly I write historical fiction because those are the stories that take me over. Rosemary Sutcliff, writer of gorgeous historical novels for young people, said: Historians and teachers, you and your kind can produce the bare bones; I and my kind breathe life into them.....That’s what I’m interested in--the life in those bones.

I’m sure it would be interesting to write a book about somebody in 2009 living in a suburb with a dog and with divorced parents, but the subject doesn’t have the same appeal to me as the idea of someone assisting a medieval bloodletter and getting involved in real blood and guts. I write what’s interesting to me.

*Your medieval books have been published in England. Do you ever feel nervous that you’re an American writing about historical England and releasing your books at the source of the story?

Sure, I do, especially before I went to Britain. Catherine Called Birdy was written before I’d ever been there. I stepped off the plane and said, "Show me Medieval England!" Of course it’s not there. It’s hardly there any more than it is in Ohio. Sometimes I worry the British are going to say, "You’re an American. Why are you writing about England? Or, this is all wrong. We who live here know this." But on the other hand I realize that with all my research and study I know a lot about everyday domestic life of women and children in Medieval England. Any mistake I make is not going to be enormous. People who read my books aren’t looking for mistakes. It’s not like a Ph.D. committee trying to catch you up. The once or twice people have found a mistake, they’ve written very nice letters that were not critical but just pointed out errors. I’m grateful for it. I haven’t had a bad experience, so I don’t expect another one. But, I could hear from a leech.

Thank you Kamran! And feel free to visit Karen Cushman online for more information about her wonderful books!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Anna Elliott
Book cover picture

*Your novel, TWILIGHT OF AVALON, tells the famous story of Trystan and Isolde. What drew you to this period in history?
In the spring of 2007, I woke up from a very vivid dream in which I was telling my mother about a plan to write a novel about the daughter of Modred (or Mordred), great villain of the cycle of King Arthur tales. I'd been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian legends then. So when I woke up, the idea just wouldn't let me go. I started to do some preliminary research, reading several books that explored the historical foundations of the Arthur myths.

The Arthurian legends as we know them today, with their knights in shining armor, jousts, tournaments, and the tragic love story of Lancelot and Gwenevere, are very much products of a later Medieval courtly chivalric world. But Arthur, if he existed at all, would have been a 5th-century British warlord, a far cry from the king of Cammelot as he appears in the tales. The 5th-century was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome's legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged and formed. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led--or at least may have led--a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man's lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world a blend of the earliest versions I could find of the legends and what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain.

*How much of TWILIGHT OF AVALON is based on fact, and how much is fiction?
As I mentioned above, while I was doing research for Twilight of Avalon, I read several fascinating books that explore the possibility of a real-life historic Arthur. But it really is only that--a possibility.

Very, very little can be discovered or said with any certainty about who the man himself might have been. And at the same time, although I'd decided to set my story far from the legendary Cammelot at a time a real Arthur might have lived, I felt as though there were certain conventions of the later Arthur legends that I wanted to pay tribute to and honor.

I decided to base my Arthur on one of the earliest tellings of the Arthur story: that recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, written in the mid twelfth-century. In this version, the now famous Gwenevere-Lancelot-Arthur love triangle does not exist; in fact, Lancelot is not yet even present as one of Arthur’s fighting men. Instead, it is Modred, Arthur’s heir, who betrays the king by seizing both Gwenevere and the throne. I used this version of the story as the backdrop for Twilight of Avalon and at the same time tried to place it in a world that was as authentic as possible a representation of what Dark Age Britain might have been.

The historical basis for the characters of Trystan and Marche is even more scant than that for a historical Arthur: the single true piece of evidence for their existence is a memorial stone in Cornwall with the inscription: Drustans hic iacet Cunomori filius, which means, “Drustanus lies here, the son of Cunomorus.” Many scholars have plausibly suggested that the characters referred to are the Tristan and King Mark of later medeival tales, Drustanus being a recognized variant of the name Tristan (or Trystan) and Cunomorus being the Latinized version of the name Cynvawr, who is identified by the ninth-century historian Nennias with King Mark (or March or Marche).

In terms of the other characters, I used the names of the Saxon kings who would likely have been ruling the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex at the time, and my Madoc of Gwynedd is based on the historical sixth-century King Maelgwn Gwynedd, who was indeed a leading king of the age and whom the 6th-century historian Gildas identifies as "Dragon of the Isle." Myrddin (Merlin) may indeed have been a famed Welsh Bard. Apart from these, though, Twilight of Avalon’s Britain is a a blending of legend and truth, an attempt to portray the historical world of sixth-century Cornwall, while still honoring the legends that are, after centuries of telling and re-telling, as real as historical fact

*The story you tell of Tystan and Isolde is very different (and much better, if I may say so!) from the one most people have read. Why is that?
Well, first of all, thank you! As I mentioned above, the Arthurian canon as we know it today is very much grounded in a courtly, chivalric, later Medieval world--and as one of the later additions to the cycle of Arthur stories, this is particularly true of the legend of Trystan and Isolde, with its tragic love triangle that echoes the more famous Arthur-Gwenevere-Lancelot one. And in many ways, also, the story becomes a bit of a Christian morality play. (Which to be honest I think is a disservice to the characters of Trystan and Isolde, whom I loved from my first encounter with them). And yet the Trystan and Isolde story, like the Arthur one, has its roots in earlier legends and traditions. As I was doing research, I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain, the "real" Arthurian age. Twilight of Avalon is my attempt to create a story that both fit my Dark Age setting and might credibly have been told and retold, adapted and changed through the ages to eventually become the Trystan and Isolde story as we know it today.

*Tell us something surprising about women's lives in 6th century England.
Women during the 6th-century actually had greater legal rights than later during the Middle Ages.

The Welsh laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) were written in the 10th-century, but are assumed to be much older, and are far more liberal in their attitude toward women than those the Catholic Church would be instrumental in instituting later on. Under Hywel Dda's laws, for example, if a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment of six score pence the first time and a pound the second time; on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him.

*What are you working on next?
Twilight of Avalon is the first of a trilogy, so at the time of writing I've completed the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, and am at work on the third, Sunrise of Avalon. I'm about 3/4 of the way finished with it. And with a new baby--our second--due in August, I have a good self-imposed deadline to get it done!

Anna Elliott portraitThank you Anna! And feel free to visit Anna Elliott online for more information about her amazing new novel Twilight of Avalon.