Monday, May 5, 2008

Interview with Susan Higginbotham, author of THE TRAITOR'S WIFE

I'm honored to welcome Susan Higginbotham, author of widely popular THE TRAITOR'S WIFE. Susan and I have been corresponding for a while now; she has interviewed me in the past and is an active member of the Historical Novel Society. Her first novel is set in fourteenth-century England, where young Eleanor de Clare, a favored niece of King Edward II, finds herself married to the notorious Hugh le Despenser, who eventually becomes the king's lover. Eleanor's own appointment to Queen Isabella’s household as a lady-in-waiting plunges her into the private feuds, intrigues, and tragic schemes that surround the king and her husband. While Edward II's story may be familiar to many readers, Eleanor's is not - and her voice is a refeshing, candid, and witty addition to the canon about this most unfortunate of medieval English monarchs.

1. Congratulations on the ongoing success of THE TRAITOR'S WIFE. It's a delight to have you with us. Set in 14th century England during the controversial reign of Edward II, THE TRAITOR'S WIFE is a dramatic and often witty account of Eleanor de Clare and her marriage to the king's intimate, Hugh le Despenser. While this era is not as well covered in fiction as, say, Tudor times, Edward II has an avid following a la Richard III, and your novel offers an interesting take on his life as seen through the eyes of a fiercely loyal woman caught, often literally, in the middle. You also have stated you hold a great interest in the War of the Roses. What inspires you about medieval England and why did you write about these particular characters?
One thing that constantly amazes and inspires me about the medieval period is how resilient people had to be. Modern women have devoted endless time and resources to complaining about things such as juggling work and family, but a medieval woman had to cope routinely with deaths of close family members, warfare, and struggles over property--and those were the women in the most privileged classes. It certainly makes some of our modern-day preoccupations look quite trivial.

I became interested in Edward II’s reign when one day while surfing the Internet, I came across an online version of Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second. I’d read it years before in graduate school, but upon this re-reading, I became fascinated by the historical background to it and began reading everything about Edward II I could get my hands on. Along the way, I learned of Eleanor de Clare and her extraordinary life. One of the earliest things I learned about her was that her second husband had been one of her first husband’s captors. I wondered what had made her decide to marry him--or whether she had been forced into it--and as I continued my research into her life, I knew that she had a story that begged to be told.

2. THE TRAITOR'S WIFE offers some surprising moments, including a frank look at Edward II's homosexuality and Eleanor de Clare's devotion to a man who loves her and also loves the king. What challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about your characters and their roles in history?
I was very lucky in that as I was researching my novel, several nonfiction books appeared that dealt with various aspects of Edward II’s reign. That helped immensely, as did my access to well-stocked university libraries that offered inexpensive borrowing privileges to the public. I was still left, though, with the problem that very little had been written about Hugh le Despenser the younger and that still even less had been written about Eleanor de Clare. I dug through everything I could find in the English language about Edward II and his reign, looking for any reference to Eleanor, no matter how tiny. Sometimes I got lucky--it was a great day when I found a couple of letters by her. They were purely business letters, and they were probably dictated to a clerk rather than written by Eleanor herself, but they gave me at least a small sense of her voice.
One of the more intriguing items I learned as I did my research was that several scholars have suggested, based on some oblique references by some chroniclers and some entries in the king’s household records, that Eleanor might have been the mistress of Edward II, her own uncle! That speculation did find its way into my story.

3. An interesting storyline within the novel is Eleanor's compassionate relationship with Edward and her awareness of Edward's queen's growing resentment. Isabel de Valois has been dubbed the "She-Wolf of France" for her eventual role in Edward's demise; she's often seen as a conniving, thwarted woman who committed regicide. Many seem to forget how young she was when she first wed Edward or how ill equipped a princess in those times was to contend with an openly gay husband. Is there evidence to support Clare's relationship with the queen? Why do you think Isabel is usually portrayed unsympathetically?

Household records show that Eleanor was a lady-in-waiting to Isabella early on in Edward II’s reign, long before her husband gained any influence over Edward II. Presumably Eleanor got the position because of her close kinship with Edward; it seems likely that they were friendly in those early years. That changed, of course, after Despenser began to gain influence and power.

Some historians and novelists, and feminist ones in particular, have attributed Isabella’s unfavorable portrayal to the bias of male chroniclers and to a double standard for women who commit adultery, but I think Isabella’s own actions are largely responsible for the unsympathetic view of her. When she and Mortimer overthrew Edward II, he and the Despenser family were enormously unpopular, with good reason. Had Isabella and Mortimer settled for giving themselves some reasonable rewards and allowing Edward III’s council to govern during his minority, our judgment of them might be very different--they might well be regarded as heroes or liberators, and even Edward II’s demise might have chalked up to unfortunate necessity, as Richard II’s and Henry VI’s often are. Instead, the queen and Mortimer alienated their supporters, and ultimately the young Edward III himself, by showering themselves with grants and by shutting other members of the nobility out of power. They had the advantage of the Despensers’ mistakes to learn from, yet they repeated them--in Isabella’s case, even to the point of furthering Mortimer’s interests at the expense of those of her son the king.

5. The wit in the novel often helps to relieve moments of great intensity, a refreshing additive we don't often find in historical novels. Eleanor also has a very eventful life, including marrying the man who was responsible for capturing her first husband, Hugh. Then she's accused of marrying two different men at the same time. You mention in the afterword that your interpretation of this event is fictional, though historical records indicate that her marriage to Zouche was challenged. When working with such complex events of the past, which often lack definitive explanation, how do you go about making decisions as to how you'll depict them? Why did you think this particular event was important to Eleanor's story?
With the marriage dispute, we know that the case went before the papal courts several times and that judgment was given on one occasion in favor of one man, on another to the other man. So whatever the facts were--and it’s a fond hope of mine that there’s a relevant document in some long-forgotten Vatican file that might be unearthed someday--they evidently were very much open to dispute. So knowing the relevant laws on marriage at the time, I had to create a set of facts that could plausibly give rise to such a dispute, facts that at the same time could be argued either way by a medieval lawyer. I used the same approach with other unexplained events, trying to create a plausible scenario in light of what I knew about the parties involved.
I thought the marriage dispute was important to Eleanor’s story because as I saw it, her ability to form a loving relationship with William la Zouche after her first marriage ended so traumatically was part of her resilience--a quality that the historical Eleanor must have possessed in abundance and the one that drew me to telling her story. At the same time, her entanglement with Grey was part of another aspect of her character--her impulsiveness or recklessness, which historically is suggested by the episode with the royal jewels.

6. Can you tell us about methods you employ to give your characters authenticity?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had as a writer was by a law school professor of mine who taught our trial advocacy course. When we were doing mock criminal trials and were assigned our defendants, he said, “Each of these people has a sympathetic side to them. It’s your job to show the jury that.” I think that applies to writing as well, the need to look at what motivates people, to show them as complex, multifaceted people instead of just being “good” or “bad” characters. I don’t think this has answered your question very well, though! Really, it’s difficult to articulate a specific method--I just try to be fair to my characters, to see their actions from differing points of view, and to make them creatures of their own time and place, not ours.

7. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
I think modern-day readers can sympathize much more readily with Edward II, and even with Isabella, than their contemporaries could. We can see Edward as a decent man caught in the wrong job and Isabella as a passionate woman caught up in what must have been a frustrating marriage, at least in its last years. My intent in writing this novel, though, was never to explore parallels with today’s world. My interest was in illuminating the life of a courageous woman whose resiliency I came greatly to admire, and I think stories like hers have an enduring appeal. Hers is a quiet sort of heroism, but it’s heroism nonetheless.
8. Please tell us about your next project.
I’m about a quarter into a novel set during the Wars of the Roses that features Harry Stafford, the second Duke of Buckingham, who’s notorious for helping Richard III gain the throne and then for abruptly turning against him. It also features Harry’s wife, Katherine, who was a younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s much-maligned queen. Though many have speculated, no one knows what made Harry act as he did or what if any role he played in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower--and my challenge has been to create an explanation for his actions that’s consistent with the known facts and that is psychologically plausible. In doing so, I’ve come to like Harry and his wife a great deal, and I hope the reader will as well.
Thank you, Susan! We're looking forward to your next novel. Susan is also the author of Hugh and Bess: A Love Story, featuring characters who appear in The Traitor's Wife.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the interview!

Barbara Passaris said...

I just finished THE TRAITOR'S WIFE last night....stayed up until 12:45 AM. I was impressed with the intricasies and complexities of the characters, and I laughed and cried as I read this story. Susan is an excellent writer. I appreciated greatly the scholasticism that was coupled with wonderful storytelling. I can't wait to read HUGH AND BESS. And I look forward to Susan's next novel.

Barbara Passaris, Author of THROUGH TEMPEST FORGED

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for the interview, C.W.! I'm looking forward to reading Susan's book, as I know very little about this period in English history.

C.W. Gortner said...

It's a fun read, Julianne: I'm sue you'll enjoy it!