Saturday, November 1, 2008
My interview with Brenda Rickman Vantrease is just the second author interview I had ever done. I clearly remember going to my book shelves one night to pull down all of the books I had recently read, emailing all of the authors whose contact information I could find. I was extatic the following day when several had replied, in fact 95% of all of the authors I have ever contacted have happily agreed to participate - there are a few who have been busy and some who have not been so gracious. Some day I fancy writing a tell all in which I unmask the friendly. Some day.
Brenda's book The Illuminator is historical fiction that deals with the process of book illuminating, some very engaging characters and that state of religious change and reformation spurred on by the English translation of Bible scriptures which was at the time very much against the teachings of the church. At a time in my college education when I was pooring over medieval church history as part of my major in English history The Illuminator provided me with interesting characters (Julian of Norwich, for example, a real life and prolific religious mystic who claimed a connection with God) who were not only living in the time period but followed the beliefs of men like John Wycliffe and his Lollards - beliefs and ideas and individuals that I was working to memorize for upcoming exams.
Interviewer's Note: This interview originally took place in 2006.
Kelly Hewitt: You taught in the Metro Nashville School System for 25 years before retiring in 1991 to write full-time. What was that first month like? Had you already been working on "The Illuminator" or did you start after you were done teaching?
Brenda Rickman Vantrease: I really didn't retire to write full-time. I retired to learn to write fiction and maybe publish something now and then. I never dreamed of writing "full-time." Or at least I wouldn't have admitted to such a dream. It sounds so professional, as though one is doing reasonably well part-time. The first month was great. It was just like the first day of summer vacation. It didn't really sink in that something had profoundly changed for me until the end of summer came and everybody else went back to school. That's when I decided it was time to start a productive routine. Other retirees take up golf or flying or sailing, I was going to take up writing. I found a writer's group that met in a local library once a week. It was one of those open mic affairs, for anybody who wanted to drop in and read aloud or just listen. After several weeks, I finally found the courage to read something. I put myself on a writing schedule, started sending my work out, and sold my first article a few months later. I had a few publication credits (and a children's book and two apprentice novels in a drawer) before I began THE ILLUMINATOR.
KH: I read in an article that you joined a writer's group in order to gain support and have said, "I could never have done it without them." Are you still a member of a group? What would you suggest aspiring writer's look for when joining a writer's group?
BRV: From within that first large group I was able to find a few like-minded souls, all committed, all at about the same stage and level of understanding of the craft. We all wanted to write novels and decided to meet once a week and critique each other's work in a very honest, take-no-prisoners kind of way. The critiques were helpful, but the best thing about that group was the discipline. We felt pressure to produce--much like homework--every week, until it developed into a good work habit. Much of what we produced was throwaway quality, but we were putting words on paper and learning how to write for readers.
Unfortunately, my group broke up when two of the members moved a continent away. We still keep in touch, still exchange manuscripts, but it's not the same. So I'd say proximity is one of the things to look for in a writer's group. Look for people who share your level of commitment and people whose work you don't mind reading, because you'll read a lot of it.
KH: Julian of Norwich, the English mystic who serves as a character in The Illuminator is a pretty serious figure to take on, were you ever hesitant to involve her in your story? Did you take a look at the writings of other English mystics?
BRV: Actually, it was reading Julian that led me into the story. I wanted to write about her, but found it daunting to base a whole novel around what is recorded of her limited life experience. I couldn't really get inside her head. I guess I'm not that holy. So she became a minor character whos philosophy I used as a theme, a sort of touchstone for all the othe characters. Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen also fascinate me.
KH: One review, and I note for the record that it was indeed just *one* review, noted the similarities between The Illuminator and Anya Seton's Katherine. Both novels have Julian of Norwich and John of Gaunt as characters. Is this something that others have brought to your attention? If so, how do you respond to that?
BRV: One of the best novels I have ever read was Seton's GREEN DARKNESS. I read it when I was in high school and never forgot it. I'm honored to be compared with an author who gave me such pleasure. Several years after reading GREEN DARKNESS, I picked up a copy of KATHERINE in the library. But I never read more than the first few chapters. I had just started teaching and was easily distracted by my workload, so I took it back to the library, thinking I would try again when I had more time. I didn't even read enough to remember that Julian was in it. I don't think I'd ever heard of Julian of Norwich until I read her Divine Revelations in a Christian anthology. I do vaguely remember now that John of Gaunt was a character. But the character of John of Gaunt as presented in my novel came solely from my research regarding John Wycliffe. (One of my English teacher friends was quite indignant with me for what she considered my unusual and negative portrayal of the English patriarch.) Now I am intrigued. I shall have to go back and take another look at Anya Seton's KATHERINE.
KH: Your second novel The Mercy Seller is due out in February (of 2007). Can you give us a bit of information about new book?
BRV: I guess I could not bear to part with Finn and Kathryn. They stayed with me and are characters in THE MERCY SELLER, although it is basically the story of Finn's young granddaughter, the child at the end of the story.
The conflict in this story also arises from the historical persecutions of the Lollards and the early English Bible translators. The setting is 1412 and the story begins in Prague when three young men, converts of the reformer Jan Hus, are executed for burning papal indulgences. The setting later shifts to England where Henry V and Archbishop Thomas Arundel are set on burning out the 'heretics." Like THE ILLUMINATOR, THE MERCY SELLER, is a story of romance and intrigue.
KH: I am one of those who can't help but fill their shelves with books, CD, and movies. What is the one thing that loads down the shelf of Brenda Rickman Vantrease?
BRV: Books on the cultural, political, and religious history of England. I'm an addict of English history. And now my shelves are loaded with foreign translations of THE ILLUMINATOR. What a hoot! I can't read anything in them but my name.