Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Death of a Dynasty: An interview with historical fiction author Judith Arnopp

Today I'm talking with Judith Arnopp about her novel of Anglo-Saxon England, THE SONG OF HELEDD.

1) Please tell us about your book.

THE SONG OF HELEDD is the story of Heledd and her sister, Ffreur, celtic princesses at the hall of their brother, Cynddylan. When Heledd forms an infatuation for a travelling player, a man far beneath her, she triggers a chain of events that will bring down two kings and destroy a dynasty. The tale is a harsh one and terribly sad, a box of tissues highly recommended.

2) What inspired this book?

I studied Anglo-Saxon and medieval poetry at university and during the course of my research I stumbled across fragments of a 9th century poem, Canu Heledd, which forms part of The Red Book of Hergest. The Red Book was put together sometime in the 14-15th centuries, but the poems themselves are believed to have been written down in the 9th century but set in the 7th. As you probably know, poetry was originally an oral tradition, providing entertainment for long winter nights and it is quite possible that Heledd’s song was passed down from that early date. What makes Canu Heledd distinctive is that the narrator is a woman. Heledd is the only woman to feature prominently in the saga tradition where females are scarcely mentioned. And not only does Heledd narrate the tale but she is the sole survivor of a dynastic disaster and she blames herself for it. This dispensing with tradition suggests to me that Heledd’s story is perhaps a true one, a historical event passed down through the oral tradition to become legend. All the time I was working toward my Master’s degree, Heledd was singing her song in the back of my head. I knew then that I would have to write a story for her one day.

3) How has your background in medieval studies influenced your writing?

My first degree was in English Literature and Creative Writing. I knew I would write books, I’d been writing all my life, but I wanted to progress to longer pieces and knew I lacked the skills to do so. I majored in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval poetry and by the time I’d finished my Bachelor’s degree I realised I wanted to write historical fiction so I signed up for an M.A. in Medieval history to help achieve that goal.

4) One of the reasons British Isles historical fiction set in periods such as the Tudor or Georgian era is so popular is that it's easier for authors to research those periods because of rich documentation. You're hitting a period and area where that's not quite the case. Can you tell us a bit about the research that went into your story?

Oh, I never choose the easiest route - lol. First of all, I knew the poem, but I didn’t just want to replicate that; I write fiction. I am interested in how a person thinks, their motivations and excuses for breaking rules, making mistakes. The poem is full of triggers for the imagination, Cyndyylan’s purple cloak, his high hall, his fame for hospitality and throughout, a strong heroic tradition that is similar to the Anglo-Saxon. Then we have Heledd, lost and alone although we know she was once influential, strong and affluent. She is also absolutely tortured with guilt. She has lost her sister but she doesn’t mourn her. Why? I racked my brains trying to figure out why one would ever stop grieving for a sister who had obviously been greatly loved. I began to come up with a few ideas. Then, I read the recorded history of the period and was able to fit the poem into context. As you say the historical record for this period is sketchy and totally male orientated. The wars between Northumbria and Penda and the Kings of Powy are recorded but there are plenty of lovely gaps that provide perfect fodder for a fiction writer. I had terrific fun filling them in.

5) Accuracy in historical fiction is always a big debate, but, in your case you have less continuity of evidence than you'd probably prefer. How did you go about deciding how to fill the "holes" in the historical record and depicted some of figures in your work?

I think, if you will excuse me saying so, but there is an awful lot of hot air wasted over discussing accuracy in historical fiction. As soon as we put words into a historical character’s mouth we are crossing the boundary between history and fiction. And what is accurate anyway? There is no real truth, only opinion. My stories are about human beings in a historical world that cannot be replicated and never will be totally accurately represented. If you set out to produce an authentic historical world you are setting yourself up for failure. I try to be as accurate as I can but never lose sight of the fact that I am a woman from the 7th century communicating with the twenty first century. You have to tread a delicate line between the two worlds. I think it is quite dangerous to read fiction as history, if people want history they should read a proper history book. That is why all my novels have an author’s note pointing out, quite clearly, where my imagination takes over from the record and urging them to read around the subject further. I also write in the first person. I find that if I can step into my character’s shoes and ‘become’ them, my writing has more passion. You won’t find detailed descriptions of dresses or interiors because those things detract from the story I am telling. Heledd is standing alone on a stark mountain top, confessing her crimes, ripping aside her shame to tell us exactly where she went wrong. She isn’t interested in telling us how she tied her shoelaces or what colour her favourite frock was. Heledd will tell you about the realities of her world, the mud and the blood and the pain of being a woman in her time. It is sometimes uncomfortable to listen to her story but she grows from a thoughtless child into a broken woman who has learned many lessons and is striving to make peace with her god.

6) People write and consume historical fiction for a variety of reasons. What do you hope, fundamentally, to accomplish with your work?

I’ve written since I was a little girl and my main aim is to get better and better. I am not a bestselling author by any means but I do have a small band of followers. When I receive an email or a facebook message on my wall saying how much a reader has enjoyed one of my books then I know I have succeeded. I don’t expect to make a fortune from my writing, it isnt about that. I have a whole heap of stories in my head. It gives me huge satisfaction to write them down and even greater pleasure when my readers appreciate them. As long as I earn enough to continue to afford the ink and paper and to upgrade my PC once in a while, I will continue to write.

7) Do you have a favorite historical period?

I have always loved to read historical novels; they led me into studying history seriously. I will anything that is well written and credible. I often spot inaccuracies but they don’t really bother me, as long as it isn’t something silly like Guyfawks night in the 13th century or an Anglo Saxon peeling potatoes. I do prefer British history, but that is probably because it’s what I know best. Having said that, one of my all time favourites is Gone With the Wind, not because it is particularly accurate but because it is told by the losing side and speaks of the people’s emotion rather than the events. That is what interests me. Oh dear, I have strayed from your question, I am sorry. My favourite historical period is early medieval: King Alfred and Aethelflaed, The Wars of the Roses. I am a big Richard the III fan and, although I detest Henry VII and VIII, no one can help being fascinated by the Tudors.

8) Can you tell us about any of your other projects?

I am currently working on a Tudor novel. It is my first foray into a long piece in that period but my collection of short Tudor stories, Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens is doing very well on Kindle and several readers have asked if I’ve done a full length novel. I thought I would oblige. It is very different in mood to The Song of Heledd and is called The Winchester Goose. The protagonists are Joan Toogood, a prostitute in Southwark, Francis Wareham,a male spy in the pay of Cromwell and two sisters, Bella and Eve Bourne, who are waiting women to Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. Again, it is fiction with a few historical figures here and there. I am about three quarters of a way through the first draft and it is going very well. Of course, the hardest part will be the rewrites and edits, which always take the longest time, apart from the initial research of course.

Other works include:

The Forest Dwellers
Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens
A Tapestry of Time

All available on Kindle.


Thanks, Judith.

If you'd like to see more from Judith, you can find her at  http://www.juditharnopp.com/.

You can purchase THE SONG OF HELEDD at:

Direct from the publisher


Cas Peace said...

Great interview, Judith. I especially liked your take on accuracy in historical novels. I completely agree! Best of luck with The Song of Heledd, I'm looking forward to reading it.
Cas Peace
King's Envoy
King's Champion.

Anonymous said...

Great post, very informative..

Anonymous said...

Great post, very informative..