Monday, June 30, 2008

Interview with Sarah Bower, author of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD

It is an honor to welcome Sarah Bower. I recently had the great pleasure to read her debut novel, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, a gorgeous, multilayered look at the making of the Bayeaux Tapestry and the unexpected love affair between Bishop Odo, who commissioned the tapestry, and Glytha, an Anglo Saxon woman bent on revenge who is recruited to embroider the tapestry. I knew relatively little about this time of history, yet Sarah's exquisite prose and ability to portray the fading Anglo Saxon world as the Normans subjugate England drew me right in. I read this book as if I were sipping wine: the language testifies to the beauty we can achieve in writing, without sacrificing complex characterization. Truly, this is one of the finest historical novels that I've read this year. I'm currently reading her second novel. BOOK OF LOVE, set in Italy during the reign of the Borgias, and hope to have her return for a second interview about that book. Also, Sarah and I have discovered, quite by chance, a mutual affinity for Juana la Loca, as you shall see. So, please join me in giving Sarah a warm welcome!

Sarah Bower began writing around the age of four, and would probably have begun earlier except that she hadn’t yet learned to write. She won her first literary prize when she was nine and had produced four novels – of which the less said the better – before she was sixteen. The trauma of being laughed at by a careers teacher when she told her she wanted to be a novelist stopped her writing for twenty years, during which time she married, brought up a family and worked in various jobs from running a children’s hospice to selling cheese on a market stall. The writing came back gradually, under the influence of good friends who grew awfully fed up with her self-deprecation! The Needle in the Blood was begun during her creative writing MA course at the University of East Anglia, which she completed in 2002. She was shortlisted for the Curtis Brown scholarship for that year. The novel was published in the UK in 2007 and in the US in spring 2008. Her second novel, The Book of Love, was recently published in the UK and is planned for publication in the US in 2009. Sarah lives in rural Suffolk with her husband, two golden retrievers, two menopausal chickens and a very ancient and imperious cat. She has two grown up sons and a gorgeous grandson. She teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia and helps to organize Norwich’s annual New Writing Worlds festival. She was UK Co-ordinating Editor of the Historical Novels Review for two years.

You can read more about her at

1. Congratulations on the publication of NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD. It's truly an honor to have you with us. Set during the Norman conquest of Britain, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD offers a fascinating look at the making of the Bayeux Tapestry through the tumultuous love affair between an Anglo Saxon woman, Gytha, and the bishop who commissioned the hanging itself, Odo of Bayeux, brother to William the Conqueror. This is an exquisite, layered novel, in which both Odo and Gytha battle not only their loyalties to their respective bloods, but a society in midst of upheaval and transformation, in which winners and losers are not so easily identified and sacrifice and loss forge the road to a new world. What inspired you to write about these people and their link with the famous Tapestry?

Christopher, thank you for your kind words and it is, of course, very exciting to join the ranks of published historical novelists. There are really two answers to your question. The short one is Simon Schama. Some years back he made a wonderful TV series called The History of Britain and during one episode, showed an image from the Bayeux Tapestry of a woman and child fleeing a burning house. This, he said, was the earliest image in Western art of what war does to civilians. Whether or not that’s true, it made me sit up and take notice of the Tapestry for the first time. This leads to my second, less definable reason.

For us in England, the Bayeux Tapestry is what I can best describe as the wallpaper to our history. Its images are so familiar we hardly notice them. They have been appropriated for everything from political cartoons to table mats. The culture the Normans brought with them has become deeply embedded in English life, in place names, in people’s names. (My own sons are called Guy and Hugh, both Norman French names). The literary descendants of Odo and his ilk are figures as quintessentially English as Lord Emsworth! So I suppose, as well as wanting to revisit a great work of art, I wanted to look at a point in our history which feels both very distant but very immediate. I thought there were tensions there from which I might craft a story.

2. THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD features an unflinching look at the less savory aspects of the Norman Conquest, especially the losses suffered by the Anglo Saxons. Gytha starts out seeking revenge only to find herself swept up in Odo’s world; she eventually is able to craft a new existence for herself out of the rubble of her past, but for others, like Edith Swan Neck, the known world ceases to exist and so do they. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this particular story, with its differing viewpoints on the Conquest? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the women and men who figure in your novel?

Gosh, where to begin? I suppose the main thing was that I found myself forced to look at the Conquest from the Norman viewpoint. There is a wealth of literature, from Walter Scott to Julian Rathbone, which deals with the aftermath of the invasion from the point of view of the ‘poor, oppressed Saxons’, and I must confess I had expected to be writing along the same lines myself. While my storytelling antennae perked up at the tensions I could exploit between a group of Anglo Saxon, women embroiderers and their male, Norman patron, I originally conceived the novel entirely from the women’s viewpoint. But gradually, something began to happen – everywhere I turned in my researches and speculations, there was Odo.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a strange anomaly, both very familiar and utterly mysterious. No-one knows for sure who commissioned it or why, but Odo has long been the most popular contender because of the way he is represented in it, and because it received its first public showing at the dedication of his new cathedral in 1077. Certainly nothing I read persuaded me otherwise, though I fully respect the alternative views expressed by a range of academic historians who know far more than I do. I began to be absolutely fascinated by Odo, whose life seems to fall into two very distinct halves, divided by the Conquest. This led me to speculate about the psychological effect it had had on him, and, by extension, on the conquerors in general. It seems to me, given the huge risk they took, that they might well have suffered from the trauma almost as much as the people they conquered. Their lives were utterly changed too, they couldn’t go home again either. The figure of Tom/Sebastian in the novel is very much an alter ego for Odo.
So, to come back to the question, I think the big surprise was that I found myself writing a much more complicated book than I had originally envisaged, and tackling a very masculine viewpoint, which was also more than I’d bargained for! I was also surprised to discover that William abolished slavery and the death penalty in England, and that the Normans introduced rabbits and peas to this country.

3. A key element of the novel is the gathering of a disparate group of women to work on what has become known as the Bayeux Tapestry. While technically not a tapestry but rather an embroidered hanging, it alchemizes into a reflection of the women themselves, carrying their secrets and transforming the Norman vision of the Conquest into something far more mysterious. I loved the fact that Gytha sews figures from Aesop’s fables into the fabric and that the blood of Alwys becomes part of it. How much of your interpretation of the creation of the Tapestry is based on fact and how much is product of your imagination? Did these women actually exist as you describe them, and if not, how did you go about selecting them to correspond with what is known from historical record?

As I’ve already indicated, very little is actually known about the making of the Tapestry. We believe it was made in England, because England was the place for embroidery at that period. Just as today you might want your shoes made in Milan or your suits on Savile Row, you would come to England for your altar cloths or embroidered banners. There was a notable embroidery workshop at Saint Augustine’s Monastery in Canterbury – where ‘my’ Tapestry ends up being finished – and this would tie in logically with Odo, whose base of operations as Earl of Kent was Canterbury.

Embroiders might be men or women. In the later Middle Ages, when the guilds became influential, most embroidery workshops were owned and supervised by men, even if women worked in them, but at this early period a number of women owned businesses also, which gave me a basis for creating quite independent female characters like Gytha and Agatha. Others, such as Judith or Meg, began as illustrations of the kind of plight which might befall women living through the Conquest and its aftermath, but of course they developed lives of their own as the novel progressed. As for the coded images in the borders, such as the use of certain of Aesop’s fables, I am hugely indebted to the work of David J. Bernstein, whose book, The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry, ‘unpicks’ the borders in a scholarly but accessible and intriguing way.
4. Your novel features various viewpoints, including that of Odo of Bayeux, a man of the Church who has an illegitimate son and falls in love with Gytha; and his sister Agatha, who flees an unwanted betrothal for the cloister and develops an unrequited love for woman. While much of today’s historical fiction is marketed for a female audience, I felt your novel transcended this limitation and can be equally enjoyed by both sexes. Do you believe that historical fiction writers today should deliberately choose beforehand the gender of their target audience? Is there anything in particular you did in this book to address this issue?

I’m delighted you think the novel transcends the gender divide. Marketing is, of course, essential to the life of a published book. Although it may grieve us to think this, once our words are packaged between covers and lined up on the shelves in bookstores, they become consumer products like any other. I absolutely don’t believe, however, that any writer who sets out to write for a specific audience, rather than for her own creative need and for the lives of the characters that gives rise to, will succeed in producing a novel worth reading. The best books are unique, they defy the way they’re sold and their message is not commercial but emotional and philosophical. I teach creative writing now at my old university, and my heart always sinks when a student tells me s/he has a plan to be the next Stephen King or Philippa Gregory. That’s just not the way it works. We all have to find our own, individual voice.
5. Can you tell us about methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity? Of the characters in NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, which are your favorites?
Favourites? Well, Odo, of course. If I didn’t say that, he’d probably come back to haunt me! I had a strangely troubled relationship with Gytha because she’s so prickly, and wanted to give Meg a good shaking, but I love Agatha for her self-discipline and her intellect and Alwys for her barminess, and I have fondness for Robert and Fulk because they’re decent blokes.

The question of characters’ authenticity goes, I think, to the dark heart of the creative process. On the surface, there are all kinds of tricks I’m sure all writers use – imagining a character’s favourite possessions, thinking about the way they dress, all that stuff which goes towards building up a picture. But that’s external. I find I usually begin a novel with fairly clear ideas about those things, then at some indefinable point I move into what Margaret Atwood has called ‘negotiating with the dead’ (particularly apposite for those of us who write about real historical figures!) I can’t predict this, and it can be terrifying as well as magical. It’s also really hard to define without sounding as though I ought to be taken away by men in white coats, because the best I can say is that the characters begin to talk to me, to tell me their stories so that I become a kind of conduit. I do believe the best fiction is character led, that plot arises out of staying true to the way your characters behave and not trying to force them into behaviours which don’t suit them. So I guess I just follow where they lead.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

For me, the main message of the book for today’s world is about perspective, taking a long view. There is an unattractive and ill-informed national conversation going on in the UK about the nature of Britishness, and how it involves – basically – being white and English-speaking. What I would like people to take away from this book, as well as their enjoyment of it, is a more subtle, complex and informed sense of identity. In 1066, this island was inhabited predominantly by people of Scandinavian and Germanic origin. It was conquered by a bunch of French speaking adventurers who had come originally from what is now Sweden. Our country, like every other, is polyglot, a mixture, a long history of people shifting hither and thither, intermarrying, fighting, negotiating their political and cultural differences until they come to some kind of accommodation. By writing from the viewpoint of people on both sides of the Saxon-Norman divide, I hope I’ve shown how this happens on the individual level and how everyone has equal value, regardless of their background.

Or, of course, their gender. I’m sure you would agree with me that Odo doesn’t get the better of the women for all his swagger!

7. Please, tell us about your next project.

Ah, well now, perhaps I should let you do that for me! By a marvelous coincidence, Queen Juana ‘La Loca’ is the subject of my next book. This makes it a particular thrill for me to have this conversation with you just as The Last Queen is shortly to hit the bookshelves, though also somewhat nerve-wracking. I first stumbled across Juana while researching my second novel, The Book of Love, which is set in a similar period. The legendary images of her lurking in the chimney breast at Medina del Campo and her curious relationship with her husband (trying not to give anything away here) completely captivated me. It’s early days yet, but I’m really enjoying the search for a voice for such an extraordinary woman. I’m also working on a possible short story collection, though these will all be contemporary not historical.
Thank you for taking the time to visit with us, Sarah!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Checking in . . .

Just a quick check in to let everyone know I'm alive and well in revision hell. Well, not exactly hell, but challenging enough. One hundred and fifteen pages of my Catherine ms. have been cut so far. I've had to make some painful choices but I've also had some fun re-writing some stuff, too. With the release date for THE LAST QUEEN coming up fast (July 29!) I'm hoping to finish the revisions soon, but you know what they say about the best laid plans . . .

I did take a much-needed break to go to Los Angeles for an author video shoot with Expanded Books. Apparently, book videos are quite popular and my publisher wanted me to have one. The actual video will resemble a mini-History Channel featurette, with excerpts, a voice-over narration, and cuts to me talking about Juana. The shoot itself was great fun. The crew was so nice and they even had me help pick out the voices for the narrator and the woman who'll be Juana. My partner Erik took photos of the shoot, so I'll post them here once I get them downloaded. And of course as soon as I have the video I'll post a sneak peek :)

Otherwise, I got a new review from Romantic Times, which was lovely. I had been expecting the standard reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist, too, but apparently these aren't so standard anymore. In fact, they're rather hit and miss, I'm told, so any reviews coming in now, so close to release date, are very welcome.

I also designed and sent out my first e-newsletter. Some of you were on the mailing list, I think. Did you like it? Hate it? I'm never sure if these things are worthwhile, in that we get bombarded with so much stuff all the time I wonder if anyone needs or wants another newsletter? But it seems like a worthwhile endeavour to communicate with readers, and I'd welcome any feedback.

Karen Essex is my most recent interview. She's a lovely lady. I've got the incomparable Sarah Bower, author of The Needle in the Blood and The Book of Love, coming up for a two-part interview. I just read The Needle in the Blood and am in complete awe of her talent; it is one of the best historical novels I've read in years.

That's it for my update. Back to Catherine . . .

Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview with Karen Essex, author of STEALING ATHENA

Karen Essex is one of my favorite historical novelists working today. Her books describe those moments when desire and power collide, and her elegant prose brings a new dimension to the genre. Whether it's writing about the last pharoah of Egypt (KLEOPATRA & PHAROAH) or the battle between the Este sisters (LEONARDO'S SWANS) or, as in her latest novel, about the wholesale rapine of the Elgin Marbles and the women caught up in the construction and destruction of the Parthenon (STEALING ATHENA) Karen never sacrifices reality for sentiment. Her novels are enthralling, brilliant, and above all else, very entertaining. With her new book, Karen explores the lives of two women in two different eras: Aspasia, courteasan to Pericles of Athens, and Lady Mary Nesbit, the wife of the man who made it his life's mission to appropriate the priceless marble reliefs and statues of ancient Greece to save them from Bonaparte's maurading armies. In STEALING ATHENA Karen Essex paints a fascinating portrait not only of two distinct eras tainted by disregard for the rights of women, but also of the illusory value we place on objects and the spiritual sacrifices we make to obtain them.

Karen's international bestseller Leonardo’s Swans won Italy’s prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California. Her books are published in twenty-six languages. Please visit her website at
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Karen.
1. Congratulations on the publication of STEALING ATHENA. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars and the golden age of Athens under Pericles, STEALING ATHENA offers us two characters from different eras connected by the Elgin Marbles—Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, who assisted her husband in his frenetic quest to save the artifacts of the Acropolis from destruction; and Aspasia, philosopher and courtesan of Pericles. What inspired you to write about these women and their link with the marbles?
I have been fascinated with the saga of the marbles since I first saw them in the British Museum in 2001. I have also studied women’s history—and specifically women of the ancient world— for decades now, and in all of my books, I try to illuminate both the female experience and women’s contributions to the world. This story, in which one very influential woman, Aspasia, watches the Parthenon being built while another powerful woman, Mary Elgin, watches it being disassembled some 2300 years later, was a natural for me to undertake. When Susan Nagel’s biography of Mary appeared in 2004, I realized that once again, a woman had made things happen but had gone unacknowledged in the historical record. That usually lights my fire.
2. STEALING ATHENA makes a strong case both for Elgin’s actions during his time, as well as for the return of the marbles to Greece. To this day, controversy rages over which country has the right to the marbles, and as an author, you’ve not shied away from controversial subject matter, whether it was a new interpretation of Egypt’s last pharaoh or envisioning the rivalry between sisters and the Renaissance preoccupation with immortality through art. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this particular story? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about these different eras in history?
The most overarching challenge was to hold the great breadth of history contained within the story all at once in my poor overtaxed brain. Stealing Athena encompasses the Golden Age of Pericles, the Napoleonic Wars, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire in the days of George III, and—as the Elgins were Scots—the newly formed United Kingdom. I had to absorb a dizzying amount of information and then synthesize it into a coherent, unified, and compelling story. Luckily, the narrative came easily to me because the ways in which the two women’s lives resonated was almost haunting. Readers have said, oh, I love the way that you made the characters’ lives ad experiences reflect one another, but history did that for me.

The most startling discovery about those early days of the 19th century—which, remember, followed the Enlightenment, and all that great egalitarian thought—was that even though women had the veneer of more freedom and agency than in Aspasia’s day, when one got right down to the nitty gritty of the laws of Great Britain, females were no better off, really, than in ancient Greece, or even in Constantinople, where we learn in the book that the sequestered women of the harem had more legal stature than the women of England. For a woman of Mary Elgin’s status and wealth to receive such shoddy treatment both within her marriage and in a court of law astonishes the modern mind.
As far as surprises in the other story, it was amazing to discover the degraded state of Athens in 1803. Considering the energy and vitality of both the ancient city and the city today, to discover that it was once down to about one thousand inhabitants was shocking. The rise and fall of civilizations has always fascinated me.

3. A key story within the novel is Mary Nisbet’s struggle to become independent, not only as a woman but as a human being. Her early years are devoted to her husband until she realizes she is, in fact, at odds with him emotionally and spiritually. Mary’s growth as a character also illuminates the struggle of Aspasia, her counterpart in ancient Greece, and reveals the gross inequities between the genders at these distinct times. Because your book is centered on women and told through the eyes of women, do you believe your story can resonate with male readers?
I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve always said that my books have two things that men really like: sex and history. I realize that the books are heavily marketed to women, but I do think they appeal to men. My male readers are always full of compliments for the work. I think it’s because even when I write about a dastardly male character, I try to give him his humanity. I am not at all a male-bashing female. I love the species…some might say too much! I also find the politics of whatever era I’m writing about utterly fascinating, and I know that I delve into these issues, as well into the battles, conflicts and military strategies of the day, more than some of my female readers would like. I think that my books offer a broad spectrum of delights for every sort of reader. Recently, a reader just walked up to me and said, “Your books are the perfect combination of scholarship and entertainment.” I considered it a great compliment because that is exactly where I aim to be. I don’t’ compromise on either front.
4. In this vein, much of today’s historical fiction is marketed for the female reader. Do you believe that an historical fiction writer today must deliberately choose beforehand the gender of his or her target audience? Do you think there are writers who bridge this difference and speak to both sexes? Is there anything in particular that you do in your books to address this issue?
It’s a bit of a shame because I would like to be considered in the vein of say, Mary Renault or Robert Graves, whose novels appealed to both sexes. But with the way books are marketed today, I don’t think it can happen, except in special cases. My book jackets are so deliciously beautiful and feminine that I imagine a male reader would have trouble taking them off the shelf. I just had this conversation with my publisher over dinner. Unfortunately, the male fiction-reading demographic is so small as to be almost nonexistent, save for the fans of a few male authors. Men don’t buy a lot of novels, and when they do, they don’t buy novels about women. So publishers rightly, in the commercial sense at least, market books about women to women because that is who will buy them. I don’t mind—I like selling books, and I need to sell them in order to be able to continue publishing them. Female readers are my life’s blood. But men are always asking, what do women want? What do women think? If they read the occasional book about a woman, they might actually find answers to these questions!
5. Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity?
I work very hard to make sure that I bring these characters to life beyond the factual information that the historical sources have given us. Of course, I read as many original or contemporary sources as possible, and this is invaluable because it tells us how the people of the era saw themselves. Letters, court documents, diaries, all these things are what truly reveal the subtleties of an era. After that, I study the culture that created the person. I read what they read; I study the ways in which they were educated; I find out what they saw at the theater. I spend loads of time figuring out what they wore and how they felt in those clothes.

My undergraduate work focused on costume design, so this is a particular area of interest for me. I also investigate the cuisine of the day, and most importantly, I study what they believed in terms of religion. Also extremely pertinent to my female heroines—what were the gender dynamics and customs of the day? What rights did women have, and what rights were they denied? I do a saturated study of the world in which these people lived until I feel that I can plausibly construct a psychology and a daily life for them. When all of that is done, I travel to all of the locations I intend to use so that I can do more hands-on research and take in the atmosphere. It’s an exhaustive process for me, but it is also my joy.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
Aspasia lived some 2500 years ago, and Mary lived 200 years ago. You’d think they had little in common with each other and little in common with us, but women’s issues and concerns remain constant through the millennia—relationships, birth control, pregnancy, child-rearing, the place of women in society, and women’s fundamental rights. I wrote about these two women because, firstly, their experiences resonate quite hauntingly, and secondly, because while women generally have more rights and status today, at least in much of the world, our concerns are the same as those women. Both Mary and Aspasia defied social convention, which also makes them extremely identifiable to women today who have lived through so much social change. I am absolutely passionate about illuminating the truth of the female experience, and for many reasons, that truth remains quite static, I’m afraid. I know that women of all ages find a lot to identify with in my characters.

7. Please, tell us about your next project.
My next book will incorporate lore, mythology, and metaphysics, reflecting my interests in all those things. It will again be historical fiction told from a female point of view, but it will also be quite a departure, though one that I believe my readers are pre-disposed to like. That’s all I can say at the moment. But my publisher has already bought it, and with great enthusiasm! And I am researching it and planning my travel around it as I write this.

Thank you, Karen. I'm looking forward to your new novel, as I'm sure are many readers. To learn more about Karen and her work, please visit her website.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Interview with Sandra Gulland, author of MISTRESS OF THE SUN

I recently had the great pleasure of reviewing Sandra Gulland's new novel, Mistress of the Sun, the story of Louise de la Valliere, the first official mistress of Louis XIV. This is an exquisite novel, and a unique look at a woman whose life has been obscured by the Sun King's later flamboyance. I'm including my review here, which was an Editor's Choice for the latest issue of The Historical Novels Review:

In her first novel in eight years (following the international success of her Josephine B. trilogy) Sandra Gulland has chosen an enigmatic figure—Louise de la Vallière, mistress to Louis XIV and mother of four children by him. Louise has been overshadowed in history by her more glamorous successors and the flamboyance that characterized the later years of Louis’s reign, but in her captivating jewel of a novel Gulland offers an absorbing account of a woman who reluctantly became a royal mistress and paid the price. Gulland’s Louise has a fey spirit with the ability to enchant horses. In a desperate act of magic to save a feral stallion’s life she sets the course for her own destiny, one that will bring her equal measures of sorrow and joy. Uneasy with the cruel sycophantism of court, caught between her innate spiritual introspection and an impoverished lineage that compels her to noble servitude, Louise eventually catches the young king’s eye. Louis is handsome and vital, poised to assume his later embodiment as the Sun King; in Louise, he discovers incorruptible innocence and their romance flourishes under a secrecy that continues for years, even as he grows in stature and she wrestles with her conscience and the degradation of her illusions. Scandal ensues when Louise is brought into the open as Louis’s lover; this fateful moment also sets the stage for her decline. Fascinating details of life at the French court sparkle throughout the narrative, evidence of Gulland’s dedication to research; and while Louise may not be as ambitious or clever as those who followed in her footsteps, she imbues an unforgettable authenticity that gives credence to the belief that she was Louis XIV’s only true love.

Sandra Gulland is also the author of the internationally best-selling Josephine B. Trilogy, based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon's wife. Born in Miami, Florida, Sandra lived in Rio de Janeiro, Berkeley and Chicago before going to Canada in 1969 to teach in an Inuit village in northern Labrador for one year. Settling in Toronto, she worked as a book editor for a decade before moving with her husband and two children into a log house in northern, rural Ontario. In 1985, she began writing full-time. Ten years later, the first of the novels in the Josephine B. Trilogy was published. She thought, when she began writing, that she would never find a publisher. Now the trilogy is published in 13 languages, 15 countries, and has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Mistress of the Sun — which took her eight years to research and write — is set to follow. You can learn more about Sandra, her research and her work on her web site: <> . She also has a blog, Notes on the Writing Life, at

Please join me in welcoming Sandra!

1. Congratulations on the publication of MISTRESS OF THE SUN. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in 17th century France during the reign of young Louis XIV, MISTRESS OF THE SUN offers a fascinating account of the life of Louise de la Vallière, Louis’s first official mistress and mother to four children by him. While Louis himself has been covered in fiction, as well as his other subsequent mistresses, Louise has largely been neglected. What inspired you to write about her, and why are you drawn in general to French history?
Thank you, Christopher — and congratulations to you, as well, on the publication of your novel. I looked into Louise's story because a biography of her was popular in Josephine's time. I wanted to know more about what my own characters were reading, find out what interested them. And was swept away! Mainly I was intrigued by Louise’s horsemanship, which was extraordinary for a woman at that time. She is described as shy, something of a wallflower, and yet an Amazon on horseback. She was religious, yet the official mistress. The pieces of this puzzle didn't fit: I wanted to know more. And thus begins that long journey — writing a novel. I was drawn to French history, and history in general, through Josephine. She led me there, but it was the delightful combination of idealism, whimsy, theatre and what seems to me to be a passion for spectacle that keeps me there.

2. MISTRESS OF THE SUN offers many marvelous details about daily life in Louis XIV’s France, including superstitions around medicine and the influence that people believed evil forces exerted on them. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about this time in history?
It took time for me to come to understand how superstitious the period was — both superstitious and religious both. Discovering that the mathematician Descartes believed that nightmares had been put into his head by demons was something of a revelation. Louis XIV mother believed that a comet foretold her death.

3. A key storyline within the novel is Louise’s relationship with horses. She is fey by nature, and also deeply spiritual. Did Louise like animals in real life, and did she struggle between her desire for a spiritual life and the role she found herself fulfilling as the king’s lover?
Louise de la Vallière was an extraordinary horsewoman — this was one of the things that first captured my interest. We have very little to go on, but what there is is telling, rather like the tip of an iceberg: a line in a letter saying that she looked mighty fine on horseback; an account from a traveling Italian priest who saw her standing a galloping horse, and reported that she could out-ride and out-hunt the king and his men. (As well, he reported that a Moor who worked in the King's stables coached her.) That isn't very much to go on, but from such scraps it's fair to deduce that Louise had to have spent a great deal of time on horseback and that she had a way with horses. No doubt there were special horses in her life. We know, likewise, very little about Louise's early spirituality. We do know, from her writings later in life, however, that she had an intensely spiritual nature, and one must assume that this didn't come upon her out of the blue. Too, her father and her father's siblings were very religious, and given how conflicted Louise's relationship with her mother seems to have been — and too, given how gentle and good her father was — I think it likely that she took after him. In fact, she wrote an account of her spiritual awakening, Réflexions sur la miséricorde de Dieu. There is little doubt, I believe, that she was seriously conflicted about her relationship with the King.

4. Louise and Louis were together for years, yet much of that time their relationship remained a secret. Do you think this can account for Louise’s relatively obscure place in the pantheon of Louis’s mistresses? Why else do you think she has been largely bypassed by history?
It's true that Louise is not well known, even to the French. In the words of Bernard Turle, the French translator of the Trilogy, Louise is a woman of "silent power." I like that. I think if she had stepped happily into the role of First Mistress, if she had used the power that comes with that title, she would have been better known. But she was not one to seek power or the limelight. She had no interest in being in a position of power and was not at all suited for life at court. Had she embraced the position of "left-hand wife" and used it to advantage, historians would have taken note.

5. Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity?
I wish I could say that it "just happens," but it really comes down to elbow grease: an arduous combination of research and revision (re-vision). The characters in my early drafts tend to be wooden and two-dimensional. Over time, and many, many drafts, they begin to take on life. It's really a question of constantly asking, "How does she feel?" "Would she really have done that?" I don't do extensive "interviewing" of my characters the way some authors do. (I always feel I should, however.) I do try to identify what it is they want — their "noble goal" — their inner conflict, ruling passion, their weaknesses. Over time, details build up. I especially like identifying what my character keeps with her — her secret treasures. These became very important in Mistress of the Sun.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
Mistress of the Sun is a love story, and that's universal and timeless. It's a story of what people are willing to do to get power — and that's universal and timeless as well. It's a story of how power corrupts, how hard it is to stay true to oneself, how love's passion can turn to insatiable lust . . . In truth, I think people are people are people, no matter the time and place, and that's an important part of what's learned by delving into history.

7. Please tell us about your next project.
I'm thinking a lot about La Grande Mademoiselle, the King's cousin. She was a fireball, an early feminist, a writer, the wealthiest person in France (wealthier than the King). She managed to avoid marriage to practically every king in Europe, only to fall for the charms of ugly little lady-killer Lauzun, a lowly courtier. They secretly married — possibly there was a daughter — he became abusive and she kicked him out. There are a number of fantastic stories in her life, and I'm not sure what I would focus on. I'm considering her devoted male secretary as the narrative voice. I've lots of mulling to do yet.