Friday, April 5, 2013

Scotland, Colonial Virginia, and a Modern Woman: An interview with historical fiction author Anna Belfrage

1) Please tell us about Like Chaff In the Wind. 

Like Chaff in the Wind is the story of a man who is abducted and carried overseas to the Colony of Virginia, where he is sold as indentured labour. Fortunately, Matthew has a formidable wife who sets off on a perilous quest to find him and bring him home. The underlying theme is the love between Alex and Matthew, a love so strong it carries Matthew through his unbearable existence in Virginia, a love so powerful Alex never hesitates to set off in search of her husband, no matter how hazardous this might be. Not that she has any choice; life without Matthew is the equivalent of a living death. As the novel progresses it offers insights into the life of indentured servants in Virginia, it highlights the constant enmity between Catholics and Protestants, and it gives the reader a glimpse of Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia (a real person, however fictitious his acquaintance with Alex).

2) Please tell us about your main characters.

How long do I have? I could probably write a book just about them. However, in a somewhat briefer format here goes:

Matthew is a devout Presbyterian who spent the formative years of his youth fighting in the Commonwealth armies. An intuitive horseman, he quickly became an excellent swordsman – no choice, had he not learnt to wield the blade he’d have been dead well before his twentieth birthday – and is quite the marksman as well. Due to the treacherous actions of his brother and first wife, Matthew has also spent a number of years in gaol, emerging a stronger but scarred man. In many ways, Alex is a godsend to him. This strange, half-heathen woman makes him laugh again, and never has he felt as cherished as when she holds him in her arms.

Alex is a modern woman raised on scientific thinking and rational thought. Until that very unexpected – and initially most unwelcome – plunge through time, she has at most been an agnostic, but she quickly realises expressing any doubts regarding the existence of God is a major no-no in her new life. Alex has scars of her own, and in many ways being transported three centuries backwards in time gives her the opportunity to start life anew – with Matthew. While Alex has days when she longs for the comforts of her previous life, there is no doubt in her mind that she belongs with him, her man, no matter what fate might throw in their way.

3) Why did you choose to write a time slip story instead of a more straight-forward historical narrative? In what ways did this complicate the narrative? In what ways did it enhance the narrative?

I’m not sure there was any choice. I’d had this idea of a woman falling back in time for years, mainly because I was fascinated by the concept of time travelling as such. To have a modern protagonist allows you a certain freedom of speech so to say, as Alex can react to those aspects of her new life most modern people would find confusing. Ultimately, Alex has no choice but to adapt, but throughout the series she retains the capacity to comment rather wryly on the more incomprehensible characteristics of her seventeenth century existence.

As to complicating the narrative, I found the inherent conflict between “modern woman meets old-fashioned man” inspiring rather than complicating. The challenge was rather to describe the time travelling aspects in such a way as to make them logical (!) and not entirely unfeasible. One of my male readers, an engineer who regards life through very sceptical eyes, told me I must have done quite a good job, as not once did he question the fact that Alex (and others) had been yanked out of time.

4) This is the second book in the Graham saga. How accessible is it to readers who have yet to read the first?
I have attempted to give enough back story in book 2 so as to make it stand alone. From some of the reviews I’ve gotten, it seems I’ve done a fairly good job of this. Does reading book one enhance book 2? Probably yes. Do you need to read book one to enjoy book two? Probably no.

5) A Rip in the Veil had your action primarily taking place in Scotland, whereas this book moves to the ocean and colonial America. Was the setting transition difficult in terms of writing at all?

No, not at all. I have a fascination with colonial life – and a deep admiration for the colonists who set off from all over the world to build new lives in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand or wherever they ended up. The history of Virginia is a colourful one that has always drawn my attention, starting with the Roanoke debacle. In Like Chaff in the Wind, we see a more established Virginia, a colony where tobacco is a cash crop and the people owning plantations are fast becoming very, very rich. As yet, white indentured labour hasn’t been replaced by African slaves, but in a decade or so most of the backs bent over the endless rows of tobacco will be black, not white, and so the Virginia plantation owners will enrich themselves even further.

6) Was there any aspect of the time period that you found particularly difficult to pin down or explore during your research?

I get stuck on the ridiculous details; had the fork made it down to the common people by the 1660’s? How realistic is it that Alex could get hold of tea? By studying paintings and reading tons, I’ve concluded that while the fork was a known eating utensil in southern Europe by the 15th century (the educated well-off traveller would bring his own fork and knife with him), it did not make it down to the common classes until late 17th century. As to tea, the Portuguese had been trading it and drinking it for some decades, so I decided to put Alex into contact with a man who’d lived in Portugal. I must say I find this part of the research very rewarding, even if it ends up somewhere very different to where I started out. (You know; I begin by researching forks and end up reading a fascinating article about pewter tableware in the 18th century…I guess as a fellow writer you recognise that, don’t you?)

7) Do you have links to any excerpts you'd like to share?

My website offers extracts and bonus material. One rather descriptive passage is called “A day in Matthew’s life” and can be found here.

8) Please tell us about some of your other projects.

At present, I’m very much stuck in the Graham Saga – there are a number of books to come, detailing Alex’ and Matthew’s rather exciting lives. (“Too exciting,” Alex mutters, “how about giving us a nice quiet life by the beach somewhere?”)

Further to this I am presently researching for my new project which at present has the working title “All is not gold that glitters”. Set in 17th century Sweden – and England – it tells the story of Sofia Carolina, raised with Queen Christina, and Jonathan Darrow, disinherited royalist who is living in exile. Accused of stealing a fortune in jewels (which she has done), Sofia Carolina is forced to flee the country. In England she is accused of being a witch, and things look quite dark for a while… I’ve written close to 10,000 words already, but need continuity and peace and quiet to really sink my teeth into it.

And then I have a little trilogy with a strong fantasy element that I now and then bring out and tweak. Not sure if I’ll even attempt publishing it – at least not in its present form – but the storyline is quite good, combining reincarnation, magically gifted people, an action packed story set in today’s England and Turkey, and a final scene on an ancient hilltop just outside of Trabzon by the Black Sea. Boy have I had fun researching those books, let me tell you! 


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Great interview, J. A. I love historical novels, and I love the element of time travel being added. This sounds like a good book. I'm really impressed, too, by Anna Belfrage's range of historical settings and research.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks, Elizabeth.