Thursday, September 23, 2010

A tribute to my friend, Judith Merkle Riley

I first met Judith Merkle Riley in a bookstore. I was searching for a new book to read and I came across novel, The Oracle Glass, set in 17th century France. Within days of purchasing that book, I’d rushed out to buy her other novels and she had a fan for life. Imagine my delight when years later, in 2004, I learned that Judith was going to be the guest of honor at the Historical Novel Society’s first US Conference in Salt Lake City.

I was planning to attend the conference to promote my independently published novel; I’d spent the last ten years in the trenches seeking a publisher, without a bite from a commercial house, and I was excited to attend a conference dedicated to celebrating the readers and writers and of the genre I love, though I must admit I felt awkward even calling myself an author.

Then I met Judith. A tall woman with a ready smile dressed in flowing black, she had been wandering the lobby of the hotel, and I finally got up the guts to approach her. I told her how much I loved her work and how delighted I was to meet her; I sounded like a star-struck teenager yet within minutes we were talking about books, writing, history, the fact that we both love Spain (Judith danced flamenco, among her many other talents) and soon it was as if we had known each other forever.

She had that effect on people, an innate ability to make others feel at ease. There wasn’t an ounce of the prima donna in Judith, no bombastic grandeur or self-importance, though she was an internationally bestselling author. Judith cared deeply about writers and writing; she was passionate about research and history, but she always seemed a bit flummoxed by her success. She found it fascinating, and amusing, that she was regarded with such esteem. After all, she’d kept her teaching job, raised her kids, been through a divorce; she'd endured the triumphs and travails of everyone else. Though I think she secretly loved being told how much a reader liked her work, her pleasure derived from a genuine appreciation for the fact that her words had touched others, that someone had actually cared enough to read and like her book.

Over the course of that heady conference weekend, Judith and I became friends. We hung out together at dinner, giggled over drinks one night with the equally gracious and divinely funny Rosalind Miles, and not once did Judith ever treat me as anyone other than a fellow writer. She bought a copy of my self-published book; and on the shared ride we took to the airport, she mentioned she had started reading it and wanted to give me a referral to her literary agency for the book I’d been pitching to editors at the conference. Would I give her a few sample chapters? That book was The Last Queen and Judith’s enthusiastic referral got me my agent, Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, who eventually sold my work at auction to Ballantine Books.

No one was more thrilled for me than Judith. In the following years, we spoke often on the phone and she always wanted to hear about what was happening in my career, even as she embarked on her own valiant, often arduous struggle against an insidious illness. Once when I went to visit her at her home, she showed me the organic wheat grass she was growing and I learned that beyond that keen mind and delicious wit, which make her novels such original paeans to the resiliency and foibles of women who are swept up in extraordinary circumstances, Judith was in fact a multi-faceted and extraordinary woman herself, whose passion for life and spirit for adventure and discovery refused to be quenched.

When I last spoke to her, Judith's illness had taken a frightening turn for the worse. We had talked often of the challenges she faced, but never once, in all that time, did I ever hear her utter a single complaint. She expressed to me her gratitude for the ability to re-evaluate her priorities and embrace her life, for the many friends she’d made and the love she had received. If she knew she would never write another book, she made no mention of it. She spoke as if time would always be on her side. In a way, it is.

Though she’'ll be greatly missed by all of us who had the privilege to know her, Judith Merkle Riley lives on in her wonderful novels, all of which reflect her unique humor, her unending passion, and her grand and generous heart.

We can do her no greater honor than to read them.

To read another tribute to Judith, please visit Sarah Johnson’s Reading The Past.
To read an interview I did with Judith, please click here

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Guest post by Anna Elliott, author of DARK MOON OF AVALON

I am delighted to welcome Anna Elliott, whose new book, Dark Moon of Avalon, Book 2 in her sensational Twilight of Avalon trilogy was published this month. Anna has taken the legendary tale of lovers Trystan and Isolde and cast it within an historically accurate time, refreshing their oft-told story with a unique and often dark look at the politics, intrigue, and treachery of the Dark Ages.

In Dark Moon of Avalon, the former High Queen, Isolde, and her friend and protector, Trystan, are reunited in a dangerous quest to keep the usurper, Lord Marche, and his Saxon allies from the throne of Britain. Using Isolde’s cunning wit and talent for healing and Trystan’s strength and bravery, they must persuade even enemy rulers that their allegiance to the High King is needed to keep Britain safe. Steeped in the magic and lore of Arthurian legend, Elliott paints a moving portrait of a timeless romance, fraught with danger, yet with the power to inspire heroism and transcend even the darkest age.

In celebration of her novel's release, Anna has kindly offered this guest post. Please join me in welcoming Anna Elliott!

From Politics to Potions: Writing Dark Age Arthurian Britain
by Anna Elliott

For me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the King Arthur is a recognizably historical one, part of Britain's past, and in fact many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur--who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It's a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need. That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college. And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing the Twilight of Avalon trilogy.

If Arthur did exist, he lived during the fifth century: 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. As brutal a time as it certainly was, though, this period was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged.
I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And I wanted to give that time period as accurate a portrayal as I could, 'warts and all' as the saying goes. Because that violence and chaos is at the root of the legends; it is against this particular backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led a victorious campaign against the invaders and so inspiring the tales that still captures our imaginations today.

I wanted, too, to honor the magic of the original tales. Which is not as hard to fit in with historical fact as it may sound. The Dark Age worldview was a magical one, make no mistake. People in Dark Age Britain believed absolutely in magical forces in the same way we believe in the laws of gravity and that the world is round. Pre-Christian Celtic belief emphasizes the powers of trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils. So my Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld.

And yet, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. The second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, is the most romantic of the three books: the part of my own retelling in which I had to ask what treatment I was going to give the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love--but which is harder to make into a fact of a historically grounded Dark Age world! I decided on a more symbolic approach, which I've always felt is a way--though certainly not the only way--of reading the fantastical elements of the Arthurian tales. Dragons, for example, can be literal scaly monsters, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for the evil that exists outside the bounds of organized society. And a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love.

In Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don't need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love--only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

Anna Elliott is a longtime devotee of historical fiction and Arthurian legend. She lives in the Washington DC Metro area with her husband and 2 daughters. To learn more about Anna and her work, please visit her website.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest post from Elizabeth Chadwick, author of FOR THE KING'S FAVOR. Win TWO free copies!

Acclaimed historical fiction author Elizabeth Chadwick has carved a unique place for herself in the genre; not only does she command an intensely loyal following and an impressive list of books to her name, but she is distinguished by meticulous research and keen ability to convey the drama of the past with poignant immediacy, never resorting to anarchronisms. The London Times describes her as "an author who makes historical fiction come gloriously alive;" personally, I'm both a huge fan of her work and in awe of how effortless she makes it all seem.

In her new novel, FOR THE KING'S FAVOR , Ms Chadwick brings to compelling, bittersweet life the little-known story of Ida de Rosney, mistress to Henry II, whose passionate love for a young lord plunges her and her lover into a tumultous struggle. A captivating story, and testament to the power of sacrifice and the strength of love, this is Elizabeth Chadwick at her best. In celebration of the book's release, Elizabeth has kindly offered this guest post; in addition, her US publisher Sourcebooks is offering readers of this blog TWO free copies. Entries are available for US and Canada addresses only. Please see the bottom of this post for details to enter. Please join me in welcoming my friend, Elizabeth Chadwick, to Historical Boys.

Finding a Forgotten Royal Mistress
by Elizabeth Chadwick

What was it like to be the mistress of a king? To have the royal favour, bear the sovereign’s child and be at the hub of court life? What was it like to have power and yet be powerless when it came to the sovereign’s whim? And what happened to a mistress when she ceased to be the royal darling? For the King’s Favor tells the story of one such mistress. Her identity has only come to light in the last decade. Her name was Ida de Tosney or Toeni, and she was about fifteen years old when she caught the eye of King Henry II of England around the year 1176.

Initially I wanted to write about Ida because the firstborn son of her marriage with Roger Bigod, future Earl of Norfolk, went on to marry the eldest daughter of the great English knight, magnate and hero William Marshal whom I had written about in The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.. Roger himself had a long and distinguished career and I was keen to follow up his family story to the point where it linked into the Marshal one. Before I began writing, I knew vaguely that he had married a former mistress of King Henry II, but once I made Ida my heroine, I had to hit the research trail and try to discover more about her.

She is elusive in the historical record. We only know her name from a few charters belonging to the time when she was married to Roger where she is referred to as “Comitisse Ida, uxoris mee,” or “Countess Ida, my wife.” We only know that she was a royal mistress before her marriage to Roger because of a French list of prisoners drawn up after the battle of Bouvines in 1214, where William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, bastard son of King Henry II, refers to Ralph Bigod who was on the prison list, as his brother. In another charter of Bradenstoke Priory, Longespee mentions his mother, Countess Ida, but since there was more than one Countess Ida around at the time, the discovered prison list was vital in identifying the right one.

Ida was the daughter of Ralph de Tosney, lord of Flamstead, and his wife, Margaret Beaumont who was close kin to the earls of Leicester. Through various family marriages, Ida had kinship with the royal house of Scotland. When her father died, Ida became the King’s ward, with her marriage to be disposed of as he chose. Henry had a certain reputation with women and already had several bastard children by various unknown women. His long term affair with Rosamund de Clifford is notorious and has passed into legend. It would have begun when Rosamund was still very young – in her teens, and ended with her death at Godstow nunnery in 1176. By this date, Ida de Tosney would have been a nubile adolescent and she plainly caught Henry’s eye in the aftermath of his losing Rosamund. Sometime between 1177 and early 1181, she bore Henry a son who became William LongespĂ©e, Earl of Salisbury, an adventurous soul and hero of the great sea victory at Damme against the French in 1213.

If Rosamund and Ida are any indication, Henry II seems to have harboured a preference for innocent young girls as his mistresses. Perhaps he found them refreshing after doing battle with his formidable queen Eleanor of Acquitaine. As an author I am led to speculate about what this attention was like for such young women who would have had little choice but to submit to the royal will. Mistresses of kings are often portrayed as sexy women with power to wield via their ability to reach the King’s ear (and other parts!), but for young, inexperienced girls, can there really have been any pleasure and real power in their role?

They were pawns to the royal lust. When a king had had his fill, they could be retired to a nunnery or sold off in marriage. We do not know if the latter is what happened to Ida, but certainly she wed Roger Bigod, future Earl of Norfolk in December 1181 about 5 years after Henry took up with her. Ida’s and Roger’s first son was born before the end of the following year and they went on to have another 3 boys and 2 girls at least, so it was certainly a fruitful match in the bedchamber. But what of Ida’s first child, William FitzRoy who became LongespĂ©e? His childhood is unknown, but by the early 1190’s as an adolescent, he was being given lands and duties to bring in an income and it seems that he was raised either at court, or in a household closely attached to the court. Certainly his mother did not bring him with her to her marriage. What she felt about this and what effect it had on her, I can only imagine – with a little help from my delvings. Ida’s reactions are a theme I explore in detail in For the King’s Favor. The same with her husband, Roger. What were his thoughts and feelings when he married a still very young woman who had shared the King’s bed and had borne a son of that liaison? How did it affect him, especially when he desperately needed to keep the king’s favor? There must have been some very tricky shoals to negotiate, both the diplomatic and the emotional, and for all concerned.

Authors of historical fiction know that the past is another country and that attitudes were often different, and very alien to the way society functions now, but I also take the view that it is us as we were then, and like clothes, while fashions and appearances change, people don’t. I hope that Ida de Tosney and Roger Bigod are people of their time, but I also hope that a modern audience will recognise their dilemmas and empathise.
Many thanks to C.W. for inviting me to post on his excellent blog!

Elizabeth Chadwick lives near Nottingham with her husband and two sons. She is the author of 18 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, the Winter Mantle, and The Falcons of Montabard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Awards. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society with the emphasis on accurately re-creating the past. She won a Betty Trask Award for The Wild Hunt, her first novel. To learn more about her and her work please visit her website.

To win one of two free copies of For The King's Favor: You must be a follower of this blog AND leave a comment below. Winners will be selected on September 30 and notified; you must have a valid postal address for the book to be mailed directly to you by the publisher. Good luck!