Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview with Patricia Bracewell, author of SHADOW ON THE CROWN

I'm delighted to welcome Patricia Bracewell, a fellow Bay Area writer whose historical novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN is available in stores today.The first in a trilogy set in the brutal days of the 11th century, Shadow on the Crown tells the rare, often forgotten story of Emma of Normandy, whose marriage to the English king set in motion a series of dramatic events that would ultimately result in the Norman Conquest. The book has received much advance acclaim, with Publishers Weekly calling it "an enthralling debut . . . highly entertaining." I'm currently reading and loving it, and will soon post a review here; in the meanwhile, please join me in welcoming my friend and colleague, Patricia Bracewell.
What inspires about historical fiction? What can you tell us about your particular inspiration to write THE SHADOW ON THE CROWN? I have always loved books that take me to a time and place different from my own, whether they are fantasy or historical fiction or even sci fi, and so as a writer I turned to the genres that I love. I thought about writing fantasy for a long time – back when I was in my ‘dreaming of writing’ phase. But the idea of creating an entire world from scratch, as LeGuin and Tolkien did for example, was daunting. When I discovered Emma of Normandy, a queen of England completely unknown to me, I was inspired to write about her, and although the research that would be demanded made me hesitate for a time I finally threw myself into the project. Very little is known about what Emma experienced when she first arrived in England because the annals of the time were concerned with much larger and quite threatening events taking place, so I felt I had a pretty free hand in imagining the challenges and fears that she must have faced in crossing the Narrow Sea at fifteen to become the bride of a much older, foreign king.

Tell us about the time period in which your book is set. What drew you to the particular era? What are some of the challenges and/or delights about writing about this time? I set the book in England just after the turn of the first millennium. There had just been a generation of peace and plenty, but by A.D. 1000 the kingdom of Aethelred II faced continuous attack from Danish raiders, and there was a very strong belief that the Danes were the instruments of God’s punishment for sin. This was an uneasy period in English history, with pagan superstition existing right along side Christian beliefs. If you wanted to cure an illness, for example, you might recite a charm that incorporated part of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a common notion, as well, that human affairs were governed by supernatural intervention, and that gave me the opportunity to explore concepts like guilt, sin, retribution and punishment. It meant that I could inject a little bit of a mystical element into the novel, too, and I loved that. The early eleventh century – the period before the Norman Conquest – has been somewhat under-represented in historical fiction, and that was a bonus in a way; but it was really my fascination with Emma that drew me there. 

What process did you use to transport yourself (and readers) to another time period? How do you go about your research and incorporating it into fiction?  The late Anglo-Saxon period was a time when courage and honor were highly prized, and this is reflected in Old English poetry. Re-reading some of that poetry, like The Wanderer, The Battle of Maldon, and Beowulf for example, helped me enter the mind-set of the people who wrote it. One critic referred to my novel as ‘Beowulf-y’ and I quite liked the comment. It was what I was after, so I hope I was successful in taking the reader with me into that long-distant, dark and brooding past. I used a number of quotes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to ground the reader in the events of the time, and I purposely chose a translation (from the Old English) that has a medieval lilt to it without being over the top. I’ve also sprinkled some Old English words into the text (yes! there’s a glossary), and that, too, is a way of pulling the reader out of the present and placing him or her into the early medieval world. My research included a class in Anglo-Saxon history, hours and hours of reading translations of ancient texts including the Encomium Emmae Reginae which was commissioned by Queen Emma herself, plus books and Journal articles on the details of early medieval life: food, travel, clothing, crafts, architecture, and in particular, ships and seafaring. I traveled to Normandy and to Denmark, I made several trips to England, and I incorporated all of this research into my settings and story line.

Does your historical fiction convey a message or theme relevant to our world today? If so, what do you think it is? If not, how do you think readers can find common ground with the characters in your story? Although my intention is to transport the reader to early medieval England and throw some light on Emma’s world, it’s impossible for a writer to be completely divorced from his or her own time. I have to draw from my own beliefs, experiences and observations to create my characters and the situations in which they find themselves, so many of the themes that surface in my novel are going to be ageless. The theme of family is one of them as I explore relationships between father and sons, between mother and daughter, between brothers, and between stepmothers and stepchildren. Other themes include loyalty, trust, ambition and vengeance. Fear of the stranger is a big one. There is a scene in the book where King Aethelred orders what is essentially a pre-emptive strike on his enemies. This was a real event, and when I wrote the scene I was remembering America’s pre-emptive strike on Iraq. I’d say that was pretty relevant. 

Can you tell us about your next project? Because Shadow on the Crown is the first book of a trilogy my next project is the follow-up novel. I’m calling it The Perilous Tide, but titles have a way of changing between first draft and publication, so who knows if that will stick. The story picks up roughly fourteen months after the final chapter of Shadow. New allies and new enemies come into the tale, and the setting broadens to include London, Sandwich, Oxford, and Windsor as well as an ancient part of eastern England known as Holderness. As the working title suggests, outside forces continue to threaten, and as my characters mature, more conflicts divide and torment them.

Thank you, Patricia! Best of luck and much success with the novel! To find out more about Patricia and her work, as well as upcoming events, please visit her website. To hear Patricia talk about the book on the radio with the fabulous Liz St John of Sunday Magazine on Alice@97.3, go here.