The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey in its pre-casino days. I have a B.A. in history from the University of Texas and a J.D. degree from Rutgers School of Law. I practiced law in New Jersey and California for about four years, although it felt much longer; I considered it penance for my sins, past, present, and future!
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I never expected to be able to make a living as one. When you hear those stories about artists starving in garrets, they usually have writers as roommates.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That life was black or white with few shades of grey in-between.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
I find music very inspirational and soothing, too, if I am struggling with the dreaded Writer’s Block. I usually have classical music playing in the background as I write and sometimes medieval music. For my last novel, A King’s Ransom, I often listened to the haunting lament that Richard Coeur de Lion wrote while he was held prisoner in Germany; it can be found on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVRjmTdM4c8&feature=related. Greensleeves is another song that is often heard at my house. I think photography is an art form, too, and my home is decorated with many stunning photos of Wales done by a Welsh photographer friend of mine, Dave O’Shea. I often found myself gazing at them as I worked on my trilogy set in medieval Wales during the thirteenth century.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I am definitely not a Renaissance woman; I cannot sing, dance, paint, etc. But I have always felt the urge—the need—to write. I wrote my first short story at age six or seven, about a horse named Queen. I wrote my first novel in my early teens; thankfully that one has long since vanished, for I suspect it would be highly embarrassing to read it today.
Wanting to write was only half of the equation, though. I also needed something I wanted to write about. I did not find that until I was in college, when I stumbled onto the story of Richard III. I was interested enough to want to find out more about him and discovered, to my surprise, that there was no proof that his nephews had been murdered, much less that he had done the deed. I was so indignant that I began telling my friends about this terrible injustice done this long-dead medieval king. They had a uniform response; they said, “Richard who?” and then their eyes began to glaze over. So it was then that I had my epiphany—that this was the story I was supposed to write. Twelve years later, it would be published as The Sunne in Splendour and I was no longer a reluctant lawyer; I was a very happy author.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
My latest published novel was A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart and my final book in my series about the first Plantagenets, Henry II and his controversial queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons, sometimes known as the Devil’s Brood. I’d initially intended to end their history with the third book, but they had other ideas and so I found myself writing a five book trilogy about them! I am currently working on a novel set in the kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, Outremer—the Land Beyond the Sea. After that, I hope to resurrect the career of the hero of my medieval mysteries, Justin de Quincy, who first appeared in The Queen’s Man, the queen in question being the above-mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine. I love doing the mysteries, for they give me greater freedom to exercise my imagination than the historicals do, and I am delighted that they are finally available as e-books in Australia and the United Kingdom, thanks to the diligence of my new publisher, Head of Zeus.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that my novels awaken in readers an interest in history in general and medieval history in particular. I am always so pleased when readers tell me that one of my novels inspired them to want to learn more about the characters or the era itself. History matters. We can learn from it if we are lucky.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are so many writers whom I admire. Mark Twain for being Mark Twain. The Bronte sisters for defying a world in which women were not expected or allowed to be creative. Harper Lee for writing a novel that I consider well-nigh perfect, To Kill a Mockingbird. Geraldine Brooks for taking me back in time to seventeenth century New England in Caleb’s Crossing, and Alice Hoffman for doing the same in her novel of Masada, The Dovekeepers. Bernard Cornwell for writing the best battle scenes I’ve ever read. I am an avid reader as well as a writer, and am grateful that there are so many good writers out there.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
World peace? No, I do not think I’ve ever set very ambitious goals for myself as a writer; I was willing to settle for reasonable ones. I want to entertain and inform readers, to share my love of history. I think historical novels are a form of time-travel, so writers of that genre have a responsibility to their readers be as accurate as possible. I write of people who once lived and I feel a sense of responsibility to them, too, since their lives are the clay that I use to create my books. A fellow writer, Laurel Corona, said it perfectly: Do not defame the dead.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Persevere. Remember that writing is as subjective as it is solitary, so reviewers and critics and editors are not always right, but pick your battles, especially with editors. Bear in mind that there has not been a writer ever born whose book could not benefit from editing. Take comfort from the knowledge that writing is a skill that can be honed by practice, rather like polishing a diamond. And be thankful that you are writing now in an age where you are not totally dependent upon the good will or judgment of publishers; for the first time, writers have options, among them the opportunity to reach out directly to readers via social media. I see that as a very good thing Facebook has allowed me to become friends with so many of my Australian readers in a way that would not have been possible even ten years ago, and they have done more to promote my books Down Under than an army of agents or publicists.
Sharon, thank you for playing.
by Sharon Penman
Travelling home from the crusades, Richard was shipwrecked off the coast of Austria, after an encounter with pirates. Richard should have been under the Church’s protection, but in Outremer he had given the Duke of Austria good reason to loathe him and he was captured. He was immediately claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor, who also bore a grudge against the captive English king. Richard was to spend fifteen months imprisoned.
For a man of his fiery nature, it was truly shameful. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, began to move heaven and earth to raise a staggering ransom, travelling to Germany herself to buy the release of her favourite son. But it was not to be that easy. At the eleventh hour, Heinrich announced that he had had a better offer from the French king, Philippe, and Richard’s own treacherous brother, John, offering Heinrich an even larger sum to continue Richard’s captivity – or to turn him over to their tender mercies.