An interview with Sharon Kay Penman in honor of the publication of her eleventh novel, Devil's Brood (Putnam October, 2008) Currently on sale at Amazon.com for $18.12, 37% Off
I often gush about authors when introducing these interviews. The reason? I have been lucky enough to interview and write about authors whose books I have read and work I admire. And so my introduction to my second interview with Sharon Kay Penman will be no different.
Penman has had an astonishing career which began in 1982 with the publication of The Sunne in Splendor, a novel in which Sharon told the story of Richard III in her own way, cutting through the Tudor political rhetoric written by men like Sir Thomas More. Perhaps even more astonishing, and we will chat about this in the interview below, is the fact that Penman was writting English historical fiction at a time in which publishers worried about modern English audience's reluctance to read their own history as written by an American author - a fear that Penman's writing handily proved false.
What may be one of the very best things about Sharon Kay Penman is that she is, quite simply, approachable, welcoming, kind, sharing and genuinely cares about both her craft and her fans. (As do a great many authors, I have learned during my odessey of over 40 interviews, I should note.) I have chatted with Sharon off and on for the last couple of years, after our initial interview two years ago, that interview can be found here.
The release of Devil's Brood a few days ago marks the final chapter in a rich series of novels that have followed the lives of Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Devil's Brood follows Time and Chance where last we witnessed the confrontation between Henry II and an increasingly empowered Church that ended in bloodshed with the murder of Thomas Becket and Henry's self-exile to Ireland. One might think that the turmoil and torture of Henry II and the queenly Eleanor ends there, right? Wrong. Devil's Brood takes the reader to the next and perhaps most tragic period of the reign of Henry II in which his shortcomings as a father and husband are about to result in intrigue, lies and outright rebellion.
And so the final chapter of the tumultuous relationship between Henry II and his beloved and despised wife Eleanor comes to an end. Feeling sad? Have no fear, read below. It appears that while the story of this iconic marriage may be coming to and end there will be yet another installment in the equally iconic love affair between a woman named Sharon Kay Penman and those crazy Plantagenets.
Kelly Hewitt: When it was first announced that I would be doing another interview with you one of our Loaded Questions readers wanted to know if there were movies (Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor in "The Lion in Winter") or books (Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter) that have influenced the way in which you portray Eleanor of Aquitaine or any of your other characters. Are there any other sources of literary or cinematic inspiration?
Sharon Kay Penman: No, my portrayl of Eleanor was not influenced by any films or books, although I am a great fan of Lion in Winter. But in the forty years since it came out, its factual foundation has not held up. For example, no reputable historian today believes that Richard had an affair with Philippe, the French king; I discuss this at some length in the Author's Note for Devil's Brood. And while researching DB, I came to the reluctant conclusion that Alys was not Henry's mistress. I say "reluctant" because writers naturally crave drama and what could be more dramatic than a man seducing his son's betrothed? Again, I discuss this at greater length in DB's Author's Note.
On the same subject, I have never transformed real-life people into fictional ones. No old boyfriends or nasty neighbors or snarky ex-schoolmates show up in any of my books. When I am creating an actual historical figure like Eleanor or Henry, I begin by reading all I can find about them. Slowly an image begins to emerge and eventually I am able to get inside their heads, to see the world through their eyes. This is necessary to give life to a character, though it can be a bit unsettling to discover how easily I can identify with damaged, deranged individuals like George, Duke of Clarence or the souless killer, Gilbert the Fleming!
Kelly: I read that in the UK you have dropped the middle initial K. from your name. Is there some significance to this? Do you plan to do the same in the US?
SKP: No, I would never drop my middle name in the US, and it was not my choice in the UK. When Sunne in Splendour was about to be published, my British editor told me that they wanted to publish me as Sharon Penman, explaining that two personal names sounded "too American." I remember thinking to myself, "Winston Spencer Churchill" and "George Bernard Shaw," but this was my first book and I wanted to be cooperative. So I suggested that we compromise with the initial K, which we did.
When my second novel, Here Be Dragons, was about to be published, they raised the issue again. At the same time, they objected to the title, Here Be Dragons, which I was loath to lose. So we made a deal. I got to keep the title in return for deep-sixing my middle initial. In fairness to my publisher, this was more than twenty years ago, and at that time they were worried that the British reading public might be resistant to an American author writing about their history. I was sure this was not true, and indeed time proved I was correct; the vast majority of my British readers cared only about the accuracy of my research. And, as I was happy to point out in countless interviews at the time, since my own family roots are English, Irish, Scots and Welsh, I was in effect writing of my own history!
Kelly: When asked a couple of years ago in another interview what you would be doing next you replied that you would finish Devil's Brood and then "after that I'm open to suggestions". Now that you've reached that point are you still taking suggestions or have you already set up more projects for yourself?
SKP: I would be happy to take suggestions for future books; writers always fear that the well is going to go dry. But I have already signed a contract with Putnam's for my next book. I wasn't ready to leave the world of the first Plantagenets, and fortunately for me, after they read DB, my publisher and editors felt the same way. So my next book will continue the story of Eleanor, her sons Richard and John, and her daughter Joanna. It will cover Richard's reign and crusade, with the working title Lionheart.
Kelly: As a fan of English history one of the things that I appreciate about your characterization of Henry II is that you are clear to point out that, while Henry may have botched matters when it came to his immediate family, he was otherwise a very intelligent man and fairly good king who led England well. Have you done a lot of research about the reforms, laws and political gains that Henry played a major part in as king? Where would you direct readers of yours who are interested in learning more about Henry II and the successes of his reign?
SKP: I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Henry. Whatever his failings as a father and husband, he was a great medieval king. The definitive biography of Henry remains the one written by W. Warren, a detailed scholarly account of his government, his reforms, and legal innovations; it deals as well with his turbulent family life and his diplomatic maneuvers. A less academic biography is Henry Plantagenet by Richard Barber. A new book called Henry II, New Interpretations was published in 2007; it is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of Henry's reign, and I recommend it highly. Another interesting book, Henry II, A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189, by John Hosler, offers a rare assessment of Henry's military career.
Kelly: Your novels are so widely celebrated and appreciated because of the fact that you take minor historical figures who often operated in the same spheres of influence as very famous figures and monarchs and tell the story of major events and figures through their eyes. Was it harder for you to find these lesser known historical figures to write about in Plantagenet England, the era of the Welsh princes, or the period of England's Matilda and Stephen?
SKP: I found Saints (Where Christ and His Saints Slept) to be more of a challenge than my Henry and Eleanor trilogy or my books set in the Age of the Welsh Princes. I think this is because there were so many conflicting contemporary sources. Those chroniclers supportive of King Stephen gave him the benefit of every doubt and missed no opportunity to portray the Empress Maude as a vengeful harpy. Those chroniclers favorable to Maude were no less harsh in their treatment of Stephen.
It is always a challenge to dig up background information about the people you describe as "minor historical figures." The Internet has proven to be very useful in finding nuggets about these shadowy figures, often leading me to books or articles that might otherwise have sailed under the radar.
Kelly: I was browsing a literary website the other day when I noticed there was a thread in which readers were sharing the title of the book that first got them interested in historical fiction. Not surprisingly people listed Dorothy Dunnett, Anya Seton and yourself. How does that feel? When you first left the practice of law to write novels did you ever think that you would end up where you are?
SKP: Wow--talk about finding myself in good company! Dorothy Dunnett and Anya Seton were extraordinarily gifted writers, with an uncanny ability to pull readers into their fictional worlds. It has been more than two decades since my first novel was published, and in those years the book most mentioned by my readers was Anya Seton's Katherine. People who'd read it as teenagers remembered it vividly thirty years later.
When I receive letters (nowadays mainly e-mails, of course) from readers who tell me that one of my books helped them through a family crisis or a difficult time, I feel honored and blessed. And no, when I stopped practicing law, I never imagined that I would have such a deeply satisfying career as a writer. I was just thankful that I didn't have to be a lawyer any more!
Kelly: You have probably been asked this a million times but, what novel first got you interested in historical fiction?
SKP: There is no one novel. I was always fascinated by history and I always wanted to write, even as a child. So it was a natural melding of my two loves. But I do remember the first "adult" book that introduced me to the joys of reading and showed me that it could be an exhilarating form of time travel--Black Beauty.
Kelly: I saw that you have a brand new and very nice looking website! (Click here to visit!) What kind of new things can readers expect to find when they visit?
SKP: Putnam's was kind enough to finance the upgrading of my website, and I am delighted with the results, thanks to my gifted webmaster, Danielle Campisi of Bella Website Designs. I will be doing a weekly blog and sending out periodic newsletters, continuing my "Medieval Mishaps" section and my "Recommended Reading" list. And I am open to suggestions from my readers; if there are features you'd like to see on my website, please let me know.
Kelly Hewitt: Was there any sadness in finishing Devil's Brood, the last of the Henry and Eleanor trilogy? How does that stack up in comparison to how you felt when you finished the Welsh books?
Sharon Kay Penman: Yes, it was not easy to bid farewell to Henry; he has been haunting me for nigh on fifteen years, after all. But it eases the sense of loss to know I can continue with the family saga. Eleanor never exercised such power or enjoyed such independence as she did in her twilight years. And because--unlike Henry--she had been able to learn from her mistakes, she emerged from her long confinement as a different woman than the one who'd erred so grievously by encouraging her sons to rebellion. I am looking forward to dramatizing these changes in Lionheart.
The Sunne in Splendor, 1982
The PlantagenetsWhen Christ and His Saints Slept, 1995
Time and Chance, 2002
Devil's Brood, 2008
Welsh PrincesHere Be Dragons, 1985
Falls the Shadow, 1988
The Reckoning, 1991
Justin de Quincy Mystery SeriesThe Queen's Man, 1996
Cruel as the Grave, 1998
Dragon's Lair, 2003
Prince of Darkness, 2005
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