Chat with Alison
OPINION - Q&A - INTERVIEWS - ARTICLES
To hear me speaking on Novel Approaches: Writing Historical Fiction at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in November 2011, go to:
Christopher Warwick's stunning and moving biography of the Grand Duchess Ella, sister of the last Tsarina, which I was delighted to endorse; and also Taschen's Her Majesty, of which he is the author. Christopher Warwick, who is well-known to many for his TV appearances, is a fine historian and an authority on the Briitish monarchy.
Sarah Gristwood’s fiction debut, The Girl in the Mirror, this book sets a new benchmark for historical novels. Entrancing, compelling, and beautifully written, this is a fabulous book, bursting with integrity and authenticity, with wonderful period detail. Reading this, I felt the characters come to life as never before, and I was mesmerised by their story. The Girl in the Mirror is the historical novel as literary fiction—and damned good literary fiction at that.
I have long known that Sarah Gristwood is a formidable talent, and I've been delighted to endorse her non-fiction works in the past. In this novel, she evokes the Elizabethan period in stunning detail. As a historian, I'm familiar with all the characters, and I can say with surety that they are brilliantly drawn - Essex, Cecil, Elizabeth I, Katherine Carey - Sarah has captured them all perfectly. I find the detail breathtaking, not to mention her beautiful, elegant use of language and the way she conveys the poignancy of the human condition. Overall, it's a very reflective book, and unbearably sad in parts. And because it is so beautifully written, it is doubly shocking when the reader encounters vivid descriptions of violence. The story builds to a heart-rending climax - the passages towards the end are especially riveting - and stayed with me long after I had finished it. I particularly liked the way in which all the strands in the legend of the Essex ring suddenly came together.
Sarah Gristwood's knowledge of the Tudor period is extensive, and her research impressively comprehensive. She has huge talent and writes with integrity, and deserve the success that I am sure is coming her way.
THE TWISTED TALE OF BLOODY MARY
I discovered this film on the Amazon listings, and was amazed to find it, as I'd heard nothing about it. I must admit that the title put me off a bit, but I soon discovered that it did not detract from the film itself, which I much enjoyed (although I could not watch some scenes - I am pretty phobic about fire - and there are a few inaccuracies in dress and minor details).
I think this film has far more credibility than The Tudors (great drama, but not much to do with the historical Tudors, and with little sense of Tudor England) and other modern films about that period, such as the highly fictional The Other Boleyn Girl. Where it really scores is in engaging story-telling. I thought it gave a balanced and sympathetic view of Mary, and that it was wonderfully filmed and very well acted - and that it conveyed a convincing evocation of Tudor England. The beautifully shot scenes of the countryside were especially moving, and gave me the sense that I was really back there in the sixteenth century. I could not believe it had all been done on a small budget, and when you consider how well it succeeds, you wonder why film makers with bigger budgets can't get it right.
I liked the way that the different viewpoints of ordinary people were presented. The film's portrayal of Henry VIII was stunning. As I watched the movie, I kept wondering why it wasn't more high-profile.
It was easy to see that this film had been made with a lot of love and commitment. More to come, I hope!
Here is my review of Sarah Gristwood's first best-seller, Arbella, England's Lost Queen, from Waterstone's Books Quarterly, 2003:
The full text of this article will appear here soon.
ARTICLES ABOUT ALISON/ INTERVIEWS WITH ALISON
From Excelle magazine, January 2010
Alison Weir has made a name for herself as an historical biographer whose subjects have included: the Princes in the Tower; Henry VIII; Anne Boleyn and Mary, Queen of Scots. In 2006, she crossed over into fiction exploring the life of Lady Jane Grey and most recently Elizabeth I. Traitors of the Tower, a novel [sic] for emergent adult readers will be released on 4th March and The Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine will follow on 1st April.
You've written a lot on the Tudor period - why the fascination?
AW: It's such a colourful period and hugely dramatic - you just couldn't make it up! The six wives of Henry VIII, for example! This period is dynamic and exciting, but more significantly for a historian, there are plenty of facts available. The Tudors lived when the private lives of monarchs were becoming public knowledge, and with both the growth of diplomacy and literacy came some fantastic records, not just written but also visual, for example Holbein's paintings. For almost the first time, we can visualise these characters we have heard so much about. The wealth of documentation is a historian's dream.
How do you set about blending the storytelling elements of biography with the drier facts of history-writing?
AW: Essentially every story hangs on facts; sometimes you can have a huge amount of information, other times, much less. For example, for the seventeen days Anne Boleyn was kept in the Tower prior to her execution, we have a glut of knowledge yet for the first decade or so of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon, we actually know very little. It's very important to get the right balance between fact and fiction, and of course, the beauty of writing fiction is the freedom to weave a story between the gaps.
Can you provide a brief insight into what makes Anne Boleyn such an interesting figure?
AW: Everything that happened to her, quite simply. What a career that woman had and what a cataclysmic fall: love affairs, sex scandals, high politics. I find Elizabeth I a fascinating character as well, as I really think she struggled with being overshadowed by her mother, Anne.
Is there anything more to say on the Tudors, or are you looking to diversify into other areas?
AW: I'll always love the Tudor period and certainly feel there is more to write on it; I'm planning a sequel to my novel The Lady Elizabeth, and I want to explore Katherine Howard's story more. Having said that, my next novel, The Captive Queen, focuses on medieval times with the interaction between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.
Do you think the distinction between popular and serious biography has hecome blurred?
AW: As a non-fiction author, I write 'popular' history: a term which has sometimes been used in a derogatory sense, but history is not the sole preserve of academics. History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all. And if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular, then, yes, I am a popular historian, and am happy to be one. However, I feel that an author has a responsibility to be as true to the facts as is possible. In The Lady Elizabeth, I introduced a controversial plot in which the young Elizabeth struggles with an illicit (and highly treasonous) pregnancy; however, I didn't just make this up for a juicy story: there is documented evidence of a midwife coming forward. When historical novelists simply fabricate facts, they distort history and lose all integrity. We can all learn from a study of the past. We can discover more about ourselves and our own civilisation.
The Richmond Magazine, April 2008
By Helene Parry
Millions of us enjoy historical dramas - from old favourites like Anne of the Thousand Days to the B.B.C.'s latest version of Robin Hood.
But all is frequently not as it appears. Informed viewers of last year's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett, would have been taken aback at the sight of Mary, Queen of Scots playing with her West Highland White terrier - 400 years before the breed existed. And then there was the Sheriff of Nottingham, in the aforementioned Robin Hood, counting down "tick-tock" to peasants who would never have heard a clock.
Author and historian Alison Weir, who will be speaking at the Kingston Readers' Festival, finds such errors irksome.
"I was historical adviser for the T.V. drama Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone," she recalls. "For two years I read the scripts and made suggestions. And they ignored everything. You have to allow for dramatic licence, but the designers had all the right books and could have made it authentic. But they didn't. They had the right costumes though - to within 60 years of the period!"
And Alison should know. Her historical biographies, such as Elizabeth The Queen (a life of Elizabeth I) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, are noted for their attention to detail. More recently, she has also begun writing historical fiction - the genre that first sparked her interest in the past.
"When I was 14, I read my first adult novel, Henry's Golden Queen, about Catherine of Aragon. It was a bit fanciful, but it seemed sexy at the time!"
Her school history textbooks, however, proved less engaging. "I got my history O-level on the Industrial Revolution, but I wanted to learn about the people involved. I felt that it was human beings who made history. Sadly the history teachers wouldn't let me do A-level. I turned up with a book I'd written myself, about Anne Boleyn, and the teacher's jaw dropped, but it was too late for me to get on the course!"
In the end her work paid off. Not only did she pass her A-level "under my own steam", but she was soon researching and writing historical biographies. At the festival, she will discuss her latest, Katherine Swynford: The Story of John Of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. Again, it was a teenage discovery that sparked Alison's interest in this character.
"I've wanted to write about her for 40 years, ever since reading Katherine by Anya Seton," says Alison. "It was published in 1954 and was very daring for its time. The heroine demonstrates the values of the 1950s. She wants to marry for love, which in her own time was quite unknown."
Such historical fiction, as Alison points out, is many people's way into history.
"There's an ongoing debate about how accurate it should be. You sometimes have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. But some readers never make the leap from pure fiction to truth. Elizabeth: The Golden Age was a travesty. The locations were 300 years out of date. Walter Raleigh would never have got into the Queen's presence wearing an open-necked shirt. And Mary, Queen of Scots wouldn't have spoken with a Scottish accent - she grew up in France, and French was her native tongue."
By contrast, Alison did enjoy The Tudors, last year's hit TV drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII.
"I expected to have apoplexy when I saw it, but while I loved it as drama, although I shuddered at the inaccuracies."
The Tudor era, indeed, has always been her favourite period.
"It has such vivid, strong personalities," she explains, "and it's so well documented. For the first time in history we have good portraits of people, so the faces become real. We have letters to give insights into the private lives of kings and queens, which we didn't in medieval times."
For a writer of historical fiction, however, pursuit of accuracy is not the only challenge.
"In a biography, you go straight from A to B. But with historical fiction, twenty editors will have twenty different ideas! When I started writing fiction, I'd published over ten non-fiction hooks and thought I knew my stuff. But I learned so much from the editing process. I had to show, rather than tell; move the narrative from action to conversation."
It takes Alison 18 months to research a history book and six months to write it.
"Detail can teach us so much about character and period. Original sources are the best. But you have to look at how other historians interpret things, and make your own decisions."
And Alison has every reason in life to back her own judgment. More so, it would seem, than some of her associates.
"Since the 1970s I've been working on the genealogy of Britain's aristocracy. In 1981 I sent a manuscript to a literary agency, suggesting a book on Diana, who had just become engaged to Prince Charles. The agent said that people would soon lose interest in her!"
Readers too have been known to react to her work with disdain.
"One letter told me that my book on the Princes in the Tower was only fit for the bin. I wrote badk, saying it was best to remain objective about these things. The writer replied and apologised!"
In any case, with a wealth of rave reviews in the press - The Independent drooled over her "pacy, vivid style " that "engages the heart as well as the mind" - Alison's reputation is safe. Yet even she can fall prey to the kind of errors that so niggle her in others. In an early draft of one book, she had Anne of Cleves meeting Henry VIII in a 'Dutch cap'. Fortunately, her editor spotted the Freudian slip. How long, one wonders, before this insalubrious vision hits our screens.
MY TOP TEN HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHIES by ALISON WEIR
The Good Book Guide, June 2007
It is very difficult for me to choose just ten biographies because there are so many that I have read and enjoyed – not to mention found useful – over the years. But after enormous deliberation, I have come up with the following list (although the numbering is purely arbitrary, as it was a very close-run thing!):
1 Antonia Fraser: Mary, Queen of Scots (1969). I had to place this first since
it set a new standard in historical biography, and because it was the one
book that really inspired me to write about the lives of kings and queens.
2 Eric Ives: Anne Boleyn (1986) and The life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004)
- these are without doubt the best studies of Anne Boleyn ever written.
3 Anthony Goodman: John of Gaunt (1992). A wonderful, balanced academic study,
packed with fascinating detail, that brings to life this most controversial
of medieval figures.
4 Sarah Gristwood: Elizabeth and Leicester (2007). This book encapsulates
what historical biography should be, and is so elegantly written. Sarah
Gristwood is one of the best historians writing today.
5 Lacey Baldwin Smith: Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (1971). Simply the
best psychological study of Henry VIII ever to appear in print. Masterful
6 Jessie Childs: Henry VIII`s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard,
Earl of Surrey (2006). Another riveting example of quality historical
biography, a lively and vivid evocation of a character and a period.
7 D.C. Douglas: William the Conqueror (1964). Another early inspiration;
this is academic – and highly accessible – historical biography at its very
8 Deborah Cadbury: The Lost King of France (2002). A gripping,
mesmerising example of historical investigation that reads like a thriller.
9 Kate Williams: England`s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
(2006). A dazzling and triumphant biography that breaks new ground
in the genre.
10 (This is really cheating.) Anything by David Loades! He’s one of the best Tudor historians writing today.
From Surrey Life, 2007:
THE LADY AND THE UNICORN by TRACY CHEVALIER
Review by ALISON WEIR for The Evening Standard, 2003
With a very few honourable exceptions, I don't normally enjoy modern historical novels. For me, the great age of historical novel writing came to an end about twenty years ago with the demise of such masters as Norah Lofts, Anya Seton and Hilda Lewis, whose books I still re-read avidly. The new tradition of historical novels does nothing for me: either they are poorly researched, or there is no proper narrative, or the use of the present tense jars. Sadly, I find few page turners in this particular genre.
Therefore I approached The Lady and the Unicorn with trepidation, wondering if I was the right person to review it and do it justice, because I am the first to accept that my tastes are rarely those of the majority. Nevertheless, as I have a special affection for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (I have reproductions of two in my home), and had enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's earlier novel, The Virgin Blue, I agreed to undertake the review, and am now very glad that I did. For here is a beautifully written tale, 'a novel about creating art", as the author says - and I could not put it down.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musee National du Moyen Age at Cluny are famous worldwide, but very little is known about the people who created them in the late Middle Ages. They were probably commissioned by a French nobleman, Jean Le Viste, President of the
Court of Aids under Louis XI and Charles VIII, and on his death in 1500 they apparently passed into the possession of his daughter Claude
and her husband. However, the name of the artist who designed the tapestries is unknown (although several theories have been advanced), and the workshop where they were woven cannot be conclusively identified.
Tracy Chevalier has taken the few known facts and crafted an exquisite, moving and convincing story, drawing realistic and rounded
characters who each tell their aspect of the tale. The theme of the five senses that appears in the tapestries is woven into the plot so cleverly that our perception of the novel is sharpened. The author's greatest triumph, however, is her powerful and well-researched evocation of the long-lost world of late fifteenth century Paris and Brussels, which is brought to life for us in picturesque description, homely details and the skilful portrayal of a set of values that can only appear alien, and often harsh, to our modern, secular age.
This is not just a novel about the creation of a work of art, but a tale of ambition, lust, betrayal and heartbreak, a tale of how the making of these fascinating tapestries came to affect the lives of all who came into contact through them, and what inspired their creators.
If I have any criticism to make, it is that at times there is a little too much repetitious technical detail: I found myself skimming over a few of these passages, as I was too anxious to learn what happened next. That apart. The Lady and the Unicorn is a compelling and enormously enjoyable work, with characters that would not have been out of place in the frank and bawdy tales of Boccaccio, and it has proved to me that the historical novel is still alive, well and thriving. This book will delight Tracy Chevalier's established legion
of readers and will doubtless - and deservedly - attract many more.
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR
USA, June, 2008
• If you could write an article for a magazine, who would you choose to write about?
I would write about the fall of Anne Boleyn, the subject of my next non-fiction book. Because a full book allows me the scope to write in depth about this, one of the most dramatic episodes in English history, I am discovering new and fascinating insights.
• You are famed for having ‘perfected the art of bringing history to life’ (Chicago Tribune). How do you think this has been possible/how have you endeavoured to do so AND do you think your gender has aided in your ability to empathise with the past?
I can only say that I am passionately enthusiastic about history and that perhaps that communicates itself through my writing. I also believe that history is about people, and people are always interesting. I also see myself as a storyteller, because history is full of good stories, and I like to focus on details, because it is in the details that we obtain the wider picture.
• Both your biographical and fictional books have, so far, mainly focussed on powerful female characters from history. Is there a particular reason for this? What do you find so fascinating about the women that you have studied?
I`ve always been interested in female royalty. When I started researching in the Sixties, some of the women I`ve written about since were then relegated virtually to footnotes. It`s been fascinating to piece together their stories, often from fragments of information, and to rescue them from centuries of male prejudice and romantic nonsense. And what characters some of them clearly were! It`s very exciting to discover that. But I have to say that I also enjoy writing about charismatic and intriguing men too.
• Who has been your favourite character to write about/With whom have you felt the greatest connection?
I have several favourite characters: Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anne Boleyn… Anne was my starting point, the first historical character who captured my imagination and set me off on my researches. I was fourteen then, and had a very romantic view of her. I don`t like her as much now, but the fascination remains.
• The popular historian always grapples with tension between scholarship and remaining engaging/entertaining. You have been praised for both your ‘impressive scholarly pedigree’ and your ability to engage and entertain. Do you think it is difficult for broadcasting and publishing historians to gain and preserve acclaim in the academic world? Do you think this gap could/should be bridged in any way?
There used to be a big divide between `popular` and academic historians, which is far less evident now, as more and more academics hasten to publish popular history books and popular historians turn to historical fiction. There is no reason why there should be this divide; after all, we all use the same sources, and our common purpose is surely to aim for the truth and to bring history to life. An academic historian once wrote a sneering review of one of my books. Soon afterwards, we met at a radio studio, and the first thing he said to me was, `I suppose you make a lot of money from these books?` Now there`s the bottom line!
• Although writing and researching from the 70s, I notice you didn’t get a publisher until 1988, with the original version of your second work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, rejected for it’s sheer size! How did that affect your mindset - was it a knock-back at all? And do you have any advice for budding authors for getting their works into the public domain?
Yes, it was a knock-back. After finishing that book in 1974, I rarely completed a project for years. I would start, full of enthusiasm, and then give up, believing it wasn`t good enough or commercial enough. Fortunately, in the end, I toughened up and made myself see things through. Today, the advice I give to aspiring writers is never give up!
• You’re currently travelling America on a book tour for The Lady ELizabeth. Do you enjoy the travelling/promotions side of your work? Have you been to any recent interesting events? And do you prefer the writing side of what you do?
I certainly do enjoy promoting my books, and I love travelling and seeing new places, especially in America, but I also love writing, and I see that as my primary task, which takes precedence above all else. So I block off sections of the year in which writing takes priority over all else. The problem is, no one takes any notice!!
• Have you ever disliked a historical figure that you have researched and written about?
I still don`t have much admiration or respect for Mary, Queen of Scots. Conversely, I certainly didn`t expect to like Isabella of France, so what the research revealed was a pleasant surprise.
• Do you feel that female historians are ever judged differently from their male counterparts? Broadcasting historian Bettany Hughes, for example, complained in a recent interview, of the sexualisation of her image by media commentators.
I`ve never found that a problem, but then I deliberately keep a lower profile and my face is not that well-known. I would be very angry if I appeared on TV and was judged on my appearance or my clothes. How frivolous, and, yes, sexist!
UK, July 2008
Alison Weir is one of Britain's foremost historians and popular authors whose books, both novels and biographies, have been hugely successful. Her non-fiction works include Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Her historical novels, namely Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth, have been best sellers both here and in America.
Alison grew up in Westminster, London and has since lived in Norfolk, Sussex, Scotland and Surrey. She attended the City of London School for Girls, then studied at the North Western Polytechnic, where she trained to become a history teacher. The teaching methods employed were rather too trendy for her liking, so she left teaching for some years.
Her interest in history dates back to the age of fourteen when she read her first adult novel, Henry's Golden Queen by Lozania Prole, which told the story of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Enthralled and excited by it, she embarked on her own research into the Tudor period. In her spare time she would head to the school library and spend hours in the history section. She quickly filled exercise books with notes about the Tudor dynasty, wrote a biography of Anne Boleyn and several historical plays, and drew up royal family trees on rolls of wallpaper. Her genealogical research would one day feature in her first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
Writing and history remained a passion and a hobby for many years. During the 1970s, she wrote several historical works, but could not find a publisher willing to take on her work.
Alison was a civil servant for nine years, then a full-time mother to her children. However, in 1989 she became a published author when Britain`s Royal Families was published by The Bodley Head. She continued to write on a part-time basis whilst running a school for children with learning difficulties. In 1997 she became a full-time author and has to date published thirteen titles.
Alison is married to Rankin Weir. They have two grown-up children, John and Kate, and live in Surrey.
“I do a hectic schedule of events, so when I`m at home, I adhere to a strict writing schedule, working from 2pm to 6pm, and then from 6.30pm to 9pm. Fortunately, my husband is a brilliant chef, so I don`t have to plan menus, shop or cook. We entertain quite a lot, and I`m often at the theatre, but whatever time I take out from my writing schedule, I have to make up, and I have a rule that I write for a minimum of two hours each day – at that point, emails and other commitments have to be set aside. Once I`m ensconced in my writing, I`m in another world – I love it!
“I`m a friend of Shakespeare`s Globe, and am transported when I attend performances there. I also go to the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, one of my favourite places.
“I love films and television. I tend to watch a whole series on DVD rather than hope to catch each episode as they are aired. I love good drama. Classics like Upstairs, Downstairs, The Darling Buds Of May, Bramwell and, of course, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (below, left) favourites.
“When it comes to films, I like classics such as Richard III with Sir Laurence Olivier (above, right), Stanley Kubrick`s Barry Lyndon, and anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I enjoy watching historical films, but generally not those made in recent years, as they are often wildly inaccurate.
“I do listen to a wide range of music from different eras. I love medieval and Tudor music, as well as classic rock music - the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, the Mission and the Sisters of Mercy, and also more modern bands such as Arcade Fire, the Killers, R.E.M. and the Manic Street Preachers. My favourite band of all time has to be the Walker Brothers.
“I'm nervous on planes and need something to take my mind off it, so I scribble ghost stories in an exercise book. I had lots of ideas buzzing in my head, and so I write during the flight and it really helps me to relax. I have written about ten stories now, although not for publication, just for fun. I try them out on friends and family members!
“I am interested in the supernatural – I think most people are. I love going on ghost walks with a guide. I used to terrify myself with ghost stories as a child, but I don`t get so frightened by an eerie tale these days.
“I`m fortunate to have travelled a great deal in America on book tours, so I have seen some fabulous places. I only got back into flying a few years ago because I used to be terrified of it, and once vowed never to step on a plane again. However, I wanted to see Venice, and that`s what got me back on a plane. After that, I started doing book tours in America, and holidaying in various places, and in the past three years I have made 32 flights. I`m still nervous but I`m getting used to it!
“America is always very welcoming to me. The people are so enthusiastic about British history. It’s a fabulous place. I thought the West Coast was fantastic and Los Angeles and San Francisco were wonderful. I also enjoyed Boston, Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia. In Atlanta, I was given a private tour of Margaret Mitchell`s house and the Gone With The Wind museum, which made me feel very privileged. I have a thing about that film – I love it.
“I enjoy travelling nearer to home and have been to many European countries too. I love the food, history and countryside of France, and I adore Italy. I have recently returned from Berlin, and will shortly return to the Dordogne for the seventh time. The beautiful chateaux and medieval hill-top villages draw me back again and again.
“In October, I will be cruising in the Mediterranean with my mother. I love cruising, and waking up each morning in a new country. My first cruise was in the Caribbean two years ago. We woke up each day to blue seas and tropical islands. It was amazing.
“I love sampling the food in different countries. I don't understand people who go abroad and then want to eat British food. Trying new flavours and cuisines is part of the fun. There aren`t many foods I don’t like. I adore Italian and French cuisine, and seafood is a favourite.
“I enjoy nothing more than a nice glass of ice-cold white wine. Pinot Grigio is my favourite, although I like many other wines. Sitting out in the evening in the French countryside with friends and a good bottle of wine is one of life`s great pleasures!”
UK, July 2008
What book are you reading now?
The Time of Our Lives by Imogen Parker (Corgi, 2007). Seduced by the compelling jacket quotes, I bought this to take on holiday to the Dordogne. Great period detail – the story is set in the Fifties and Sixties – but I`m on page 138 and still waiting for the `sweeping narrative` to gather momentum, and for the characters to come into focus. Nevertheless, the bygone world of an English seaside town is beautifully evoked.
What book would you take to a desert island?
I would choose Anya Seton`s novel Katherine, which I first read back in the Sixties, and which inspired me to write my biography of Katherine Swynford. It`s a haunting, tenderly drawn love story set against the rich tapestry of England in the age of chivalry, and every sentence is a joy to read.
What book first gave you the reading bug?
A book called Pantomime Stories published by Ward Lock in the early 1950s. As a young child, I was crazy about fairy tales, and used to borrow this illustrated collection again and again from the library. I feel so nostalgic about it that I recently bought a rare copy on eBay. I was surprised at how small the book was compared to my memories of it.
What book left you cold?
Quite a few! The Da Vinci Code was one – it just stretches credibility too far, right from the beginning. It disturbs me that people believe it is based on fact.
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR,
UK, April 2009
Is your writing affected by the seasons? Does your mood change seasonally and if so, how does this affect both what you write about and how much you write?
How do you get started on a new novel? Where do you get your inspiration?
I`m always inspired by subjects I want to live with for several months or years of my life. There are so many such subjects. I do psyche myself up to begin a new novel. With history books, there is one way to write them: you start at A and finish at B. But with fiction, there are many different ways to write a book, and you could give your work to twenty fiction editors who might all have different opinions! I always discuss my proposed structure with my publishers beforehand, but it`s still nerve-racking getting started and writing that first paragraph. Once I`ve done it, though, I`m away, and there`s no stopping me!
Do you write a full synopsis first or do you just write and see where it takes you?
I submit a short proposal, about a couple of pages long, giving the outline of the story, then I just write and see where my imagination takes me. I learned that from my favourite historical novelist, Norah Lofts.
Has your plot ever changed once you started writing?
Yes. If I can see a way to add in a sub-plot, or to enhance the story, I`ll go for it.
Where and when do you write?
I write in my library at home. I work from 2pm to 6pm, break for dinner, then write until 9pm. Then I work on other projects.
How long does it take to write a novel?
In its original form, my first novel, Innocent Traitor, took two months to write, and a month to rewrite, The Lady Elizabeth took me about six months. These were subjects I had previously researched. If I had to do the research as well, it would take me longer.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
With fiction, show rather than tell the story.
How do you know when a story isn’t working?
When you get bored writing it. If you`re bored, the reader will be too. That`s the point at which you delete and adopt another approach. It rarely happens, because I always know the story in advance.
Which is more important, plot or character?
That`s a difficult one. I would say the plot, but I`m the first to get irritated if the characters in a book are only adjuncts to move along the plot. And the characters drive the plot. So really, both, equally.
Who inspired you to write?
Anya Seton, Norah Lofts and Hilda Lewis were all great writers of historical novels who inspired me to write. I still have novels I wrote as a teenager after reading their wonderful books, and they are still my favourite historical novelists. No one writing in that genre today can beat them.
Do you ever base your characters on yourself or people you know?
Yes. I was Mrs Ellen, the mother figure in Innocent Traitor! When I wrote that originally, my daughter was the same age as Lady Jane Grey, so I could really empathise with Mrs Ellen`s feelings. I`m now writing a novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and one or two characters are based on people I`ve known, but I`m not saying who, and I doubt they would recognise themselves!
What would you do (career-wise) if you couldn’t write?
I`d run a small private school for children with special needs, something I did a few years back.
Whose opinions do you value the most? Who gets to read your new novels first?
I really value the opinions of my editors, my many author friends and my family. I sometimes send my books in draft to author friends for an opinion, and they get advance copies too. I always hold my breath when waiting for my editors to read a new book! I never take their good opinions for granted.
How do you get a book published? How do you find an agent?
Consult The Writers` Year Book.
Are there any writing courses or groups you’d recommend, and do you think they’re worthwhile?
I`m sure they are worthwhile. I`ve done some work local to my home with Sutton Writers` Circle in Surrey, and they give great encouragement to budding authors, and facilitate creativity.
Is there anything else you feel that budding writers should know?
If you want to be a writer, my advice is never give up!
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR
USA, July 2009
You write both historical novels and history books. Which would you say that you prefer writing? Is the process similar?
'The process is very different for each. History can be viewed as a series of narratives with amazing stories and characters but you are constrained by the sources. All facts must be checked and verified. With a historical novel you make use of the facts where they exist but where they don’t creativity can be used credibly to fill in the missing information. Feedback from my readers at events and from e-mails shows that they care that historical novels are accurate in terms of events and other details.'
An accomplished and popular historical author, what made you turn your hand to writing fiction?
'In the late 1990s, I was researching and writing a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and felt frustrated because, where women in history are concerned, there are very few recorded facts, and these must be carefully pieced together by the historian. There is sometimes no way of filling the gaps, which prompted me to try my hand at writing a novel about a real historical figure, the fascinating Lady Jane Grey. A few years, and some rewrites, later, what had started out as a diversion for me alone became my first published novel, Innocent Traitor.'
Do you like to relax when you have finished writing a book or are you itching to get on with the next one?
'I write my novels and history books back to back. I have just been commissioned to write three more non-fiction historical works, and have already begun work on the first of these, a biography of Mary Boleyn. There are also three new novels in the pipeline, one of which will be a sequel to The Lady Elizabeth. This year, 2009, I will have been working on no fewer than seven books. However I do take regular family holidays where I switch off completely from the research and writing!'
How do you balance the research, writing and promotional aspects of your job?
'In the last ten to twelve years, my work has become more well known, and the subsequent demands upon my time have escalated accordingly. This began with the amazing success in Britain and the USA of my biography, Elizabeth the Queen, published coincidentally at the same time as the release of the two films Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth. However, such success has proved to be a double-edged sword, with more and more events, emails, interviews and book tours eating into my writing time.
'I research as I write. When writing historical novels, I draw upon my vast bank of published and unpublished works to inform the story and background details.'
Can you tell us about your writing routines?
'Mornings are left free for admin, emails and telephone calls. I start working at 2pm and write until 6pm, then I take a short break for dinner – fortunately my husband is a brilliant chef - before resuming writing at 6.30pm. Unless I am doing an event, I work through until 9pm, then spend a couple of hours watching DVDs with my husband, before working on other projects from 11pm onwards, often going to bed after 2am.
'I have has just finished editing my forthcoming book, The Lady in The Tower: The fall of Anne Boleyn (out October 2009), and am about to complete my third novel, on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.'
ALISON WEIR`S CHOICE: A NEW NOVEL BY A FIRST TIME AUTHOR, AND AN ALL-TIME FAVOURITE
UK, April 2010
I`m known to be a tough critic of modern historical novels, but Juliet by Anne Fortier is a stunner, a wonderful, original book. Elegantly – and seemingly effortlessly - written in breathtaking, vibrant and witty prose that blends beautifully with the clever use of quotes from Shakespeare, it interweaves an astonishing historic take on the tale of the star-crossed lovers with a fast-paced, modern thriller. Every sentence is a joy, every character lives, and medieval and modern Siena are brilliantly evoked. Siena, you are asking? Well, read the book and find out for yourself… The theme is delightfully original – it`s the kind of tale you wish you had thought up yourself. Anne Fortier has amazing talent and she has clearly read Shakespeare extensively - otherwise she could not have written this book. She is to be congratulated on a truly fabulous read. We will never see Romeo and Juliet in quite the same way again...
An all-time favourite? This one certainly will be. It`s Ghost Song by Sarah Rayne, although it was hard choosing just one of her incredible, fast-paced supernatural thrillers, because they are all superb. If you want a compelling page-turner with an original and authentic setting, look no further. I am first in the queue whenever Sarah Rayne publishes a new title. She should be up there among the mega-sellers. Ghost Song is set in an old music hall that mysteriously closed in 1914, and is both thrilling and chilling. `All theatres are haunted…,` Rayne writes, then goes on to tell of a modern surveyor who gradually uncovers the building`s sinister secret and then becomes menaced by its past. What is the truth about the ghost, and the actor who suddenly vanished? This is a powerful rollercoaster of a novel, with robustly drawn characters and a fiendishly twisting plot. You`ll be sleeping with the lights on after reading this one… Sweet dreams!
ALISON WEIR REMINISCING ON EARLY INSPIRATIONS
UK, July 2010
When I was about seven, my father took me on a tour of the Palace of Westminster. I have only the vaguest memories of most of it, but one thing remains clearly in my mind. In the Painted Chamber, I was told to look up at Richard Burchett’s Victorian full-length portraits of members of the Tudor dynasty, and I remember distinctly being shown the one of Anne Boleyn (which actually doesn’t portray her at all, but Anne of Hungary). I was not only fascinated to be told that she had had her head cut off, but there was also what seemed to be a strange moment of recognition, of familiarity.
The moment passed, and my brief awareness of an interest in history remained dormant for the next seven years. At the Westminster Kindergarten and Preparatory School, where I was educated to the age of eight, history had been a succession of stirring tales to enthral a childish mind; even to this day, I still thrill to the epic sweep of great events, the narrative potential in historical happenings - doubtless as a result of my early tutoring. But later, at the City of London School for Girls, I found history dull and uninspiring, a dreary succession of dates, acts and battles. I realised later that it was the personalities, the human aspects of history, that were missing. But of course you only needed facts to pass exams. For me, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the high Middle Ages and even the Tudors passed in a blur of boredom.
As a child, I had been an avid reader, but by the time I moved into the third form at eleven, I had lost interest in books, preferring comics and magazines, much to the despair of my mother. It was not until I was fourteen that I read another book for enjoyment, and that was to prove fateful indeed.
I was off school, suffering from a virus, and had been taken to the doctor, who prescribed a few days at home resting. We had not lived in the area long, and after leaving the surgery, my mother – in yet another attempt to convince me of the pleasures of the written word – took me to the adult library next door to enrol and hopefully choose some books. Wandering around idly, I found one that looked quite intriguing. It was a novel about Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and it was entitled Henry’s Golden Queen the author was the prolific and exotically-named Lozania Prole.
Recovering at home, I curled up in a chair with the book and read, and read. I could not put it down: I had to know what happened next. A whole new wonderful world was opening before me. I have to admit that it was not just the historical tale that seduced me, but the sex. Of course, this was 1965, and what seemed exceedingly daring then to one who had never read an adult novel would appear very tame now, but I was agog: did people really carry on like that in those days? Why were they so preoccupied with matters that were taboo in the repressed middle-class world of the early sixties?
I had to find out more. By the end of the week, much restored, I was in a local bookshop, urging my delighted mother to buy me three novels by Jean Plaidy. Although I would find them much less to my taste nowadays, I still have those novels on my shelf, tattered and yellowed as they are. For they revealed to me the stories of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr and Sir Thomas More, and I was enthralled.
By now I was hooked on Tudor history. I progressed to the novels of Margaret Campbell Barnes, Hilda Lewis and Elizabeth Byrd, or anything else I could get my hands on. I haunted the local libraries. My mother obtained for me Jean Plaidy’s The Goldsmith’s Wife , about 'Jane' Shore, mistress of Edward IV, and thus kick-started my interest in the Middle Ages. Hilda Lewis’s Wife to Charles II encompassed the Stuarts. And so it went on from there.
But I was not just reading novels. My new obsession had already led me to the history books and to my first researches into historical facts. While my contemporaries were haunting Carnaby Street and discussing the latest pop records and films, I was beavering away in the school library, becoming familiar with the works of G.M. Trevelyan, A.F. Pollard and A.L. Rowse among many others. My daughter still laughs at me today: 'Mum, you spent the Sixties in a library?' But that was where I wanted to be,
Within a year, I had transcribed my researches on the Tudors into three volumes, which I entitled A Study in Splendour, and I had also written a biography of Anne Boleyn based on some original sources and (rather heavily) on Agnes Strickland. It was my dream to own the full set of Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, a dream that was not fulfilled until 1995.
Why Anne Boleyn? I was more fascinated by her than by any other historical figure, I can’t explain this, any more than I can explain the feeling of recognition I had had at age seven when I first heard of her. Of course, there is much in Anne Boleyn’s story to fascinate anyone, so I would certainly not wish to be too fanciful about this. Later, when I came to research her life in depth and from a more mature viewpoint, I realised that I might not particularly like Anne Boleyn as a character, although I have sympathy and admiration for her. Yet the fascination remains. She is a romantic heroine in the truest sense.
By the time I was fifteen, history occupied a large part of my life. I had already begun researching the biographical dictionary of the British monarchy that was to become my first published work, Britain’s Royal Families; it would take more than twenty-two years to complete, and be revised eight times over those years before it was ready to go into print. Even now, I could add a great deal to it. Genealogy was then, and still is, a passion. I would sit for hours drawing up royal family trees on rolls of wallpaper, and around 1967, I began collating the pedigrees of the medieval and Tudor peerage, a huge project on which I am still working today. I was never happier than when I was in a reference library, totally absorbed in The Complete Peerage, The Dictionary of National Biography or The Plantagenet Ancestry of Elizabeth of York, to name a few.
I was also writing historical plays: two survive, one on the young Elizabeth I, the other – in the style of a medieval mystery play – on Eleanor of Aquitaine. I would sit out of sight behind a sofa, reading these aloud to my long-suffering family, and putting on the various voices. On one occasion, I staged a play in a model theatre, having drawn and coloured all the cardboard characters, whose costumes I had meticulously researched. I have kept them all.
I had been drawing since I could hold a pencil (I studied Art to A-Level), and not surprisingly the bulk of my creative output at this time was historical portraits, scenes from history and costume sketches. I can hear the weary voice of my art teacher now: ‘Not another drawing after Holbein!’
My mother, however, was – and remains – wonderfully supportive. She took me to the Tower of London and to Hampton Court, where she bought me a set of picture postcards of the six wives of Henry VIII, which became my most precious possession at that time, and which I still have. They formed the nucleus of what would evolve into a collection of thousands of royal images, which is still a work in progress today, and which has proved extremely useful for picture research. Back in 1966, my mother also took me to Hever Castle, the home of Anne Boleyn, which remains my favourite historic house. I can remember the excitement when I was presented with the rather expensive guidebook which contained a full page portrait of Anne Boleyn.
It seems amazing, looking back, that reading one historical novel could have led to such an all-encompassing interest in history and, ultimately, to a fulfilling career as a historian and author. But it almost didn’t happen. Most of my teachers were unaware of my hours of research in the school library; the reason for this was that I was supposed to be studying for exams in my free periods, so I kept quiet about what I was doing. O-Level History was mind-numbingly boring: I had no interest in British Economic History or the Industrial Revolution – in fact, I had problems staying awake in lessons. As a result, although I passed, my mark was one grade lower than it should have been, and when I applied to take A-Level History on the Tudors and Stuarts, a subject I knew I was well prepared to study, I was – to my horror – turned down. Only those with the top grades were accepted.
The next best thing was an optional general course in history: I was the only sixth former who applied. On the appointed day, I turned up, armed with my biography of Anne Boleyn, and prepared to do battle. The teacher admittedly had every reason to be puzzled as to why this lacklustre pupil had asked to join her course, but when she arrived and I showed her my work, her jaw literally dropped.
Eventually, I did sit the A-Level course, with good results. I also, under that teacher’s auspices, completed a biography of Edward III in my spare time.
It is said that everything is more vivid when you are young. Certainly, my exploration, as a teenager, of the world of history, led me on a trail marked out with revelations and excitement. Now, many years later, with my feet planted rather more firmly on the ground and years of serious research behind me, I still feel that thrill of discovery, of losing oneself in another age. My perceptions may have changed, but my love and enthusiasm for my subject has remained constant.
ALISON WEIR'S TOP FIVE HISTORICAL NOVELS
USA, August 2010
Your top choice is Norah Lofts’ House trilogy (The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset), which dates back to the late 1950s/early 1960s.
It’s a bit cheeky [to choose a trilogy], I know. But if you read them all as one book – and you can – it is the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read. It is effectively the history of England, seen through the eyes of each generation of the owners of a medieval house, from 1380 through to the 1950s.
So you learn the history of England without having to read a dull history?
Yes, but it’s not just that. There are wonderful vivid characters, sinister undercurrents, and so many different story lines and themes. Sometimes there is a little gap between the stories where the reader is wondering what’s happened in between, and there are dark hints… The whole thing is a joy. I’ve been instrumental in getting it republished, and all three books are now available once more.
What about Katherine by Anya Seton, which is based on the life of Katherine Swynford?
This is one of my all-time favourite historical novels; it’s absolutely inspirational. Every sentence is a joy. It was written in 1954, and is of course of its time – bodice rippers came later. But it’s written with such integrity, and I see it as a benchmark for historical novels. Anya Seton was an American author and she spent four years in Britain researching it. Given the sources available to her at the time, it’s brilliant. It has inspired so many people. In 2003 the BBC did a poll, The Big Read, of viewers' all-time favourite books, and Katherine came in the top 100. It’s never been out of print.
And by ‘sets a benchmark’, you mean she really did the research, so it’s accurate as well as gripping?
It’s not accurate by modern standards, but it’s so well done that it convinces. The second half of it is largely fiction. The earlier part is closely based on historical sources, but where there are gaps in Katherine Swynford’s life, Seton fills them credibly. To me, it evokes the medieval period, which I have long studied as a historian.
When you say ‘by modern standards’, what do you mean? Has the bar been set higher in terms of historical accuracy?
I mean it is not accurate compared to what we know about Katherine Swynford today. There has been a lot of research done on her life since 1954. No, today, I’m afraid, the bar has gone way down. That’s why you have so many dumbed-down historical novels. There are several honourable exceptions, of course, but not many.
Was it because of Anya Seton’s book that people were inspired to do research about Katherine Swynford, so that, as a result, we know a lot more about her?
Possibly, but not only that. It’s a book that people love to go back to. I do a lot of events, and when my biography was in preparation, my audiences would ask me, ‘What are you doing next?’ And I would say, ‘I am writing a book about Katherine Swynford,’ and you’d hear a frisson in the audience, and afterwards people would come up, and they’d all say, ‘I read Katherine.’
Your next choice is A Mortal Malice by Hilda Lewis.
This book is now out of print. It dates from the early 1960s. Hilda Lewis is my third favourite novelist of all time (you’ve got the other two in the list). She wrote a wonderful series of historical novels. This one is based on the famous poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London, in the early 17th century. It has a rich cast of rogues and royal characters at the Jacobean court. It’s a tour de force, and you could actually rely on it as history. They just don’t write them like that now. It’s a page turner that has everything – witchcraft, sex, scandal, and murder.
And still very accurate?
So that’s what you favour, when you read historical fiction, that it’s true to the history?
I do feel quite strongly about that. I think that historical novels should be written with integrity. Even if the author is taking dramatic license, it’s got to be credible in the context of what is known about the subject. As a historian, I quickly abandon historical novels if I realise that whoever wrote them hasn’t done very much homework.
Who was Hilda Lewis?
She was a great British novelist. She didn’t just write historical fiction, she wrote modern novels, including a book based on the Dr Crippen case, from the 1940s until her death in the 1970s. One or two of them were filmed. The film Mandy was based on her book, The Day is Ours, about a deaf and dumb child growing up in London in the early 1950s. It’s searing. All three of these novelists, Lofts, Seton and Lewis, have an incredible grasp of character and I know that Norah Lofts has recently been the subject of a recent university thesis, because there is a growing body of opinion that her work has been underrated.
It’s a wonderful idea, to take a house and look at history through its inhabitants
It’s an epic tale. And it wasn’t the only one of its kind. Lofts wrote another called Bless This House, in a single volume, which was about an Elizabethan house through the centuries, and that was later followed by A Wayside Tavern, about the history of an inn, from Roman times to the present day. I have all 63 of her books, and nearly all of Hilda Lewis’s. I am still trying to track them down, as some are pretty rare.
What about your last two books, both by Anya Seton? Tell me about Green Darkness first.
Green Darkness was written in 1968 by Anya Seton. It’s a time-slip novel with reincarnation as its central theme. A group of people gather in an old farmhouse near historic Midhurst in Sussex for a weekend in the country, but there are chilling undercurrents beneath the social interaction. As the plot unfolds, the reader realizes that all these people are reincarnated from characters who lived in the area at the time of Wyatt’s Rebellion in the 16th century. The story is based around the actual discovery of a skeleton walled up in a fourteenth-century house called Ightham Mote in Kent. This book is about how the skeleton came to be there. As the story progresses, the conflicts of the Tudor period are resolved in one way or another in the modern age.
So it begins in the present, or at least in 1968?
Yes, but the greater part of the book is set in the mid-16th century, and it’s the most vivid account that I’ve read of Wyatt’s Rebellion, which was a revolt against Mary Tudor. It’s utterly gripping.
And your last book, Avalon, is set in Viking times?
Yes, it’s set in Saxon and Viking times, in the 10th century, at the corrupt court of King Edgar of England, long before the Norman Conquest. It’s based on the obscure legend of a saint, Rumon, about whom very little is known. He is the central character. It is also about the lady he loves, Merewyn – and what happens to her. The story takes us along to Greenland – which the Vikings colonised, and where Merewyn was forced to make a new life. It’s just a beautiful love story. I read it first as a teenager, and found it quite striking and moving, and I still think it holds up very well now.
So in Avalon, there’s a bit more poetic licence, because not that much can be known about how people lived that long ago?
Again, it’s credible. Some of the characters are historic and it’s very, very well done. Seton has focused on people about whom hardly anything is known – which is a gift to any historical novelist, because they are a blank canvas and one can use one’s imagination creatively. And she’s done it well.
UPDATE: Since this interview was published, I have read Valerie Anand's Bridges Through Time novels, and that they would certainly have featured on this list.
The jackets and titles of my books can differ because they are issued by different publishers, who know what works best for their own markets. My publishers also reissue books with new jackets every few years, in order to give them a fresh look and bring in new readers. I am consulted at every stage, and contribute my own ideas and opinions, but I do not make the final decisions.
My books are aimed at adults. I always warn parents bringing children to events that the content may not be suitable, and I would not recommend any of my novels for young people under fourteen. Most of my history books deal of necessity with adult themes, and while they are not as explicit as the novels, they are frank.
The reason why there are simplified family trees in my books is lack of space. Full genealogies are vast - I used to draw them on rolls of wallpaper. In fact, the working genealogy for The Princes in the Tower, showing heirs male and heirs general, extends to nine joined pages of computer spreadsheets!
My advice to aspiring writers is never give up! Get The Writers` Yearbook from the library and look up agents who will take on this kind of book and an unpublished author. Send off your submission to five agents at a time, with a covering letter selling yourself and the book - because publishers commission authors as much as they do books. If you have no success, send the book to five more agents. In the case of rejections, take on board what they are saying. If they all reject the book for similar reasons, they`ll have a point.
I am an academic historian in my approach to my work, but my research is presented in a more accessible way for a wider readership, because I passionately believe that history is for everyone. I also have to have regard to the requirements of commercial publishing, but that does not mean compromising my integrity. What people tend to forget is that academic historians and 'popular' historians use (or should use) the same sources. I see history as a series of dramatic narratives about human beings, who are endlessly fascinating, and lost worlds, and I do not see anything wrong with presenting it that way. I have nothing but admiration for academic historians but wish that a minority of people would realise that there is room for a broader and more accessible view of history. I want people to enjoy history as much as I do.
Those who denigrate the study of monarchs should remember that it was actually the monarchs who shaped history for many centuries. One needs to know about that, because without it, you will never understand the life and circumstances of a medieval peasant, for example. I write about queens because she is fascinated by women's histories, which have been largely ignored until comparatively recently.
My books are used in GCSE and A-Level syllabuses.
All my U.S. editions have the same text as those issued in the U.K., apart from minor changes relating only to spelling and grammar. The page numbers and indexes do differ.
Actress Sammy Winward on 'My Favourite Things', People magazine, August 2009: "I love history books and am really into ancient history, so anything by Alison Weir - she's a great historian."