Hello, Nicola here, and today I am very pleased to share with you a conversation I recently had with Word Wench Susan about her new release, Queen Hereafter, A Novel of Margaret of Scotland. There is nothing that I enjoy more than a good historical novel and as soon as I picked up Queen Hereafter I was hooked. I stopped writing, there were no walks for the dog and no one was fed until I had turned the final page. Not only does Susan create the most vivid setting for the book, making 11th century Scotland come alive for the reader (more on that later) but the love story of Margaret and Malcolm had me riveted from the start.
Here are some of my questions to Susan; I hope that you will have plenty of your own and join in the conversation!
NC: Susan, Queen Hereafter focuses on the life of Margaret of Scotland. What was it that made you want to tell her story? Why did you choose her?
SFK: The contrasts in Margaret’s life were so interesting—piety and power, gentleness and temper, obedience and mischief, saintliness and worldliness, all that was part of her, as I discovered in the research. We know a fair amount about the 11th century, though little about individuals, let alone the women, and yet Margaret emerges as a real person thanks to a rare biography written by her friend and confessor. He idealized her, but left tantalizing hints of a vital, fascinating young woman.
NC: It's interesting that her biographer also fell under Margaret's spell! That says something about her personality, I think, as well as the style of biography at the time. Margaret does indeed come across as a very real and fascinating character but there is also a lovely fairytale element to her story. Tell us a bit about that.
SFK: The fairy tale aspects of her true story are naturally romantic, and that attracted me too. A beautiful young princess in exile, a shipwreck, love at first sight, a brawny royal husband who adored her, eight healthy children, enough charm to win the affection of a resistant country, yet some inner torment kept her from being truly happy despite all she had – who could resist!
NC: Certainly not me! I loved that combination of history and fairytale romance, and I really enjoyed your blog about the fairytale element of the book here on Word Wenches. (The picture above is the site where Margaret is supposed to have landed in Scotland after the shipwreck). Getting back to the historical aspects, though (you can tell I’m a historian – I’m fascinated by this!) Margaret is a part of history at a critical moment, the period of the Norman Conquest of England. In what ways did the wider political background influence her young life?
SFK: She had a cosmopolitan upbringing between her early years in Hungary, a pious and Byzantine court, and the sophisticated Norman-influenced English court. Her Saxon father brought his family to England when Margaret was about ten, but her father, who would have been king of England, died within days of their arrival. Although a Saxon princess, Margaret was a foreigner in the English court, and when William of Normandy invaded England, she and her mother and siblings fled. She was royal and privileged, raised in a culture of warriors and saints—and she was a refugee in great danger until she and her family came under the wing of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.
NC: How much is really known about Margaret as a historical figure? You’ve already mentioned that there is a biography of her written by her personal priest, Turgot, but are there other contemporary sources to draw upon? (This picture is from a 16th century armorial book).
SFK: Bishop Turgot created an amazing document in his Vita S. Margaretae, written for Margaret’s daughter—it’s full of anecdotes, insights and verifiable facts. Other primary sources mention her and her family, such as in annals and charters, and information from the monk-chronicler Simeon of Durham. The rest of the picture is provided by historical events and the actions of her husband, Malcolm Canmore, her brother, Edgar the Aetheling, and others. And of course there are lots of historical gaps, and some extrapolating and leaping needs to be done by either a novelist or a historian to create a complete portrayal of Margaret’s life.
NC: Queen Hereafter isn’t just Margaret’s story, of course. It is also told through the eyes of Eva, kinswoman to Gruadh, Lady Macbeth (whose story you have also told). Can you tell us what sort of contrast Eva provides to Margaret and why you chose to narrate this story through these two women in particular?
SFK: Eva came about as a fictional character for two reasons: I wanted to highlight the contrasts and comparisons between Margaret’s more European upbringing and the Celtic nature of Scotland when she became queen – and I had to work around Margaret’s piety. I began writing the book as a first-person narrative by Margaret, but her deep faith and constant prayerfulness were not easy to portray that way. So I switched to third person and created Eva to give another perspective of a queen who, as gentle, kind and devout as she was, sometimes bordered on fanaticism and obsession in her personality. The story needed another viewpoint, so Eva was a good vehicle for that.
NC: Combining a narrative from a real and a fictional character is a very interesting thing to do. What do you think are the pitfalls about writing about real historical figures – and what are the advantages? In what way does writing a fictional account of a historical figure differ from writing non-fiction or biography?
SFK: We’re making stuff up about people who actually lived – essentially, that’s the advantage and the pitfall, all at once. History can be a guideline for novels such as these, giving us some landmarks, but the rest needs to be filled in and invented. As novelists writing about actual historical people, we are writing history from a different perspective. I think there’s a certain responsibility to create an authentic picture with touches of accuracy, while letting imagination have full rein too. Finding nuggets of logic and insight that help to fill in the story is a fascinating challenge too. And while sometimes there are journals and diaries and biographies available, sometimes there is very little to go on, and the author then creates within the parameters of what makes the most sense for that time, those events, those people. How did they get from A to B – well, maybe this way. Maybe they realized this, felt that, did that.
NC: As I mentioned at the start, one of the hallmarks of Queen Hereafter is the fascinating 11th century Scottish background and setting, which you portray so vividly that they are almost another character in the story. How do you set about achieving that?
SFK: Thank you! It’s cumulative, I guess, from years spent studying Scottish history and culture, writing stories about Scotland, travelling there and just loving everything about it. What we love most we absorb in our heads and hearts, and it’s then easy to write – it’s almost second nature for me to write about historical Scotland now, like it’s second nature for you to write your wonderful stories about Regency England!
NC: Now I’m blushing! Thank you! I love that idea that what we love most we absorb in our heads and our hearts. I’m wondering what you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding elements of writing historical fiction?
SFK: The research is the most challenging—and the most rewarding. I love doing research, I love following historical trails as I’m putting stories together, love solving historical puzzles. For Queen Hereafter and Lady Macbeth as well, I was able to make little historical leaps and insights here and there that were rewarding for me as a historian and as a novelist. But it’s tedious work, and takes up gobs of time to not only research it, but then to “world build” like a fantasy writer does, creating a historical world in which the reader feels comfortable as they move through the story. And you don’t want the research to show, which is tricky to pull off as well.
NC: And what do you consider to be the qualities that make a good historical novel?
SFK: Personally I love novels that are so beautifully written and crafted that I’m just sucked into the book. I like books that make me toss away that red pencil I carry around in my head. I do enjoy historical novels that are accurate and authentic as well, evoking the whole bubble of the era—setting, atmosphere, true characters and so on. And I love a story that’s accessible. Most importantly, I love a cracking good story. I can easily forgive historical wobbles for a great story.
I'm going to turn the tables now… Nicola, I’d love to know what you, as a British reader, knew about Margaret and Malcolm and the whole situation when you sat down to read Queen Hereafter. Did you have a basis of knowledge about her, being raised in England with an awareness of British history? Is she considered Scottish or English/Saxon?
NC: I knew very little about Malcolm Canmore although I have always enjoyed reading the history of the Kings and Queens of Scotland. In contrast, I remember reading about Margaret first when I was a child, though whether that was as part of my formal history lessons or purely out of interest, I am not sure now. Certainly I remember her identity being very firmly Scottish in the books that I read about her, which is very interesting now that I see her original background was quite different. To me as a British reader she was very much a Scottish heroine because Scotland has such a strong national identity and Margaret has become firmly associated with that identity.
SFK: And what do you consider the qualities of a good historical novel?
NC: For me, Queen Hereafter has all the hallmarks of the best historical novels – a story that grabs the reader, draws you in and doesn’t let you go; a book that creates a vivid and authentic world that you don’t want to leave. I love research too and I think that the best historical novels are beautifully written and researched but they wear that research lightly so that the reader barely notices that it is there. That is a real skill!
That is the question we would like to ask everyone – What qualities do you enjoy in a good historical novel? Susan is giving away a signed copy of Queen Hereafter (which as you can see has a stunning cover and looks beautiful on the bookcase or teh TBR pile!) to one commenter who posts a comment by Sunday morning (12th December) EST.
There is also the chance to win a very special Wench Prize this month! The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 – a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered — comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!