By now most readers of the WordWenches will know that Wench Susan/Sarah, known to the outside world as Susan Fraser King, has taken her career to new heights with the publication this month of Lady Macbeth: A Novel. This is Susan’s first historical novel, and it’s already gathering well-deserved praise everywhere from Glamour to Entertainment Weekly to Library Journal — not to mention a prominent place in the front of bookstores everywhere. A fascinating new take on a notorious literary character, a richly textured story, and history in glorious detail: what’s not for readers to love?
Or, in the words of Susan/Sarah’s newest-favoritest-quote-from-a-fellow-writer, Lani Diane Rich (A LIttle Ray of Sunshine): "Lady Macbeth! I feel smarter just owning it!"
A recent "meeting of the Susans" between Susan Fraser King (aka Wench Susan/Sarah) and Susan Holloway Scott (aka Wench Susan/Miranda) discussed Lady Macbeth (never named Susan, as far as I know) in all her delicious detail. Part One appears today, with Part Two to follow on Wednesday. As always, please feel free to ask additional questions that you may have.
SHS: How did you choose Lady Macbeth as your heroine? Have you wanted to tell “her” story for a long time, or did you come across the idea while researching another book?
SFK: I’ve known for a long time that the historical Lady Macbeth, an 11th c. Scottish queen, was probably very different than the ambitious harridan of Shakespeare’s play, but she didn’t start blipping on my story radar until about three years ago. I was researching another medieval Scottish story and kept seeing references to Macbeth and Queen Gruoch. I got curious and followed the breadcrumbs, and realized that a few facts hid a story with real substance. Macbeth was treated by Dunnett and Tranter decades ago, and Lady Macbeth was a strong character in those stories, but I wanted to focus on her story and base it on updated history and what was possible for a Scottish woman in an age of Celts, Vikings and Saxons. The facts and possibilities were fascinating, and once I started to research and put ideas together, it developed pretty steadily from there.
SFK: Some of the names were determined by historical record, so I had no choice, and I did my best to simplify the Celtic and Gaelic names while retaining authenticity. For instance, Lady Macbeth’s father in historical accounts is Boite, Boete, Bode or Bodhe. The modern equivalent is “Boyd” … um, no thanks! So I settled for Bodhe.
Macbeth’s queen is identified in a Latin document as "Gruoch filia Bodhe," or Gruoch, daughter of Bodhe, and she is also identified as Queen of Scots, and equal to Macbeth, and not a consort (a big clue to her lineage and rank). But “Gruoch” is not a known Gaelic female name, and appears only for this woman. It’s possibly a cleric’s phonetic attempt at a Gaelic name. Although Gruoch is used by historians, I looked for a better alternative (besides, I kept typing “Grouch”).
Some genealogy charts listed her great-granddaughter as Gruaith or Gruadh, which is a legitimate Irish female name. Since it’s possible the child was named for her great-grandmother, a Queen of Scots, I used that for my Lady Macbeth. Though it could have been her actual name, no one seems to have made this connection before. I also gave Gruadh the nickname Rue, to spare the reader as well as the author.
SHS: Any novel written in the first person needs a strong “storyteller” to carry the weight of the book. Yet because Lady Macbeth is set in such an early historical time period, you didn’t have the letters, diaries, or journals that often inspire first-person writers. How did you research and develop Gruadh’s strong narrative voice?
SFK: While you were writing your 17th century novels (your next one will be The King’s Favorite, about Nell Gwyn, from NAL in July 2008 — Susan/Sarah’s plug for Susan/Miranda!) I was a bit envious of the fabulous, detailed sources you had for each woman—journals, diaries, letters, accounts of all kinds. Sigh!! The historical Lady Macbeth has one direct document to back her up. We don’t know a thing about her personally, and whatever historians and novelists come up with has to be inferred from evidence of the political circumstances around her, what is factually known of the men in her life, and what we know of the traditions of the Celtic society, women in particular; even things like what is known of the environment (the warming of a small ice age, the introduction of new crops, the trade routes, the structure of wooden fortresses, etc.) was very helpful to creating a picture of the woman.
The woman needed a strong voice to carry the book, and she couldn’t sound too modern. So I read widely in Celtic myth, poetry, chants, charms, and songs. I’ve done that for years anyway out of natural interest, since I love that area of myth and literature. That, and years of medieval studies, taught me the general voice of the times.
Whenever you read extensively in whatever era you’re writing about, you’ll naturally absorb the voice. By delving into Celtic lit, I absorbed cadence and phrasing, and little turns of phrase, all of which came in handy in creating Lady Gruadh’s voice. Years of work in medieval studies also helped me understand medieval phrasing and medieval opinions, which helped too. In the past few years I’ve also studied some Gaelic, which helped give me a sense of how the character might speak. I tried to keep in mind that whatever Lady Gruadh said would be “translated” into English for the modern reader.
SHS: Thank you, Susan (and thank you for the shout-out for Nell, too*g*) I hope all of you will please join us again on Wednesday for Part Two. And if you have any questions for Susan, please ask away!