Nicola here. Today I have the very great pleasure of welcoming best-selling British historical author Suzannah Dunn to the Word Wenches. I first came across Suzannah’s books when she was writing contemporary novels and she became an auto-buy for me. When I discovered that she had turned to writing Tudor-set historical fiction I was very happy indeed! The May Bride is her new book and tells the story of Jane Seymour and Jane's friendship with her dazzling sister-in-law Katherine Filliol. It’s a multi-faceted book with mystery, history, romance, intrigue and family relationships intermingled in a fascinating whole.
Suzannah, welcome to the Word Wenches! The May Bride has Jane Seymour as its narrator but it is as much the story of Jane’s sister-in-law Katherine Filliol as it is of Jane. How did you come across Katherine Filliol’s story? Why did it appeal to you?
I can't remember when I first came across it – it seems always to have been there, off to one side but
sort of disappearing whenever I turned to try to look at it, if you know what I mean. It was never – anywhere – more than a mention, more than a footnote. And that fascinated me. Because how could something so big, as it were, have almost disappeared? Edward Seymour was - became - a Big Tudor, he was Lord Protector for several years of the boy-king Edward V1's reign: ie effectively, he ruled England for those years (which were years of great change, years which made much of the England that we recognise today). How did he come to have such a hideous scandal in his private life – and by the way, he was such an unlikely person to have had a hideous scandal in his private life, which also fascinated me - and we know next to nothing about it? (Answer: Edward was nothing if not efficient, and he was very efficient in keeping this under wraps…)
In both The May Bride and The Sixth Wife you focus on the lesser know aspects of a character’s life. In The May Bride this is Jane Seymour-Before-Henry and in The Sixth Wife it is Katherine Parr-After-Henry. Why did you choose these in preference to the well known periods? Is there something appealing about uncovering the part of the story that isn’t well known?
Yes, very much so! You've answered your own question! When I started out on the historical novels, my agent said to me, 'Don't just re-tell history.' I had to ask him to expand a little, and he said, 'Tell us something we don't know.' I took that to mean that perhaps I should tell a story through the eyes of someone unexpected (shine a light at an unusual angle), and/or go into the gaps, as it were, in the well-known accounts. And I've really enjoyed doing that. (It means that I learn things, too, as I go along – that there are always things to discover. If I were just re-telling history – animating the already well-known mouthpieces – it would make for a deadly boring couple of years for me.)
Staying awake. No, really! It's slower-moving than any of my others, with its turning through the seasons of Katherine's first year or so at Wolf Hall, in the Seymour family, and I found that hard-going - which is why I looked so amazed, Nicola, when you said (when we met) that you'd found it compelling! Amazed and grateful, I should say!
I had a lot of learning to do, too, about how those seasons turned in a largely self-sufficient household of that time.
Also, unusually for me, I had a quiet narrator (Jane Seymour) – reserved, watchful, cautious. Usually, I like quite a mouthy narrator! I couldn't get her right for a long time – she was coming over as dull, stupid. In fact, she didn't come right until the very end, as I recall, (I couldn't quite get the sense of her), and then I had to zip back through the book and kind of pull her narration tight, is how I think of it. Like getting hold of a thread and pulling it tight – pulling it into shape. The changes I made were very small, but they were (I hope!) enough to sharpen her up.
That’s fascinating, because I do understand what you mean about the pace of the book but I think that sense of slowness is deceptive. The story is packed with small but significant detail that keeps you hooked, both fascinating historical detail and events that throw light on the characters and their relationships. As for Jane, she may be quiet but she’s a sharp observer! She notices interesting things.
Tell us about your research. How important is it to you to be historically accurate?
Very. I'm pretty hung up on verisimilitude – and often wish I could be a bit more relaxed about it! I mean, I like the idea of 'what if', in fiction. But, as I say: for myself, if it's a matter of historical record, I don't deviate from it (or try not to). I don't know why it's so important to me – but I do know that when I was young, I wanted to be a documentary film-maker or documentary photographer; I've always had a passion for social realism.
That said, I don't use primary sources – I'm not a historian. One of the (many!) beauties of the Tudor period is how well-documented it is, and how extensively written on. There are such fabulous secondary sources and so very many of them… so that's where I do my reading.
You are well known for not using “Tudorspeak,” writing instead in a more modern style and with a modern “sensibility.” Why did you choose to do that?
Back when I decided I wanted to write a novel about Anne Boleyn – which came out of nowhere, for me, back in 2000, just before the current wave of Tudorphilia – I felt that I couldn't, because I wasn't a writer of historical fiction. But then I said to myself, 'So, just do it modernly,' before realising that I had no idea what I meant by that (!). Did I mean that I should write a modern dress version?! No. It was to do with the language – both in dialogue and in the narrative in general. Anne Boleyn was the quintessential modern woman, in her time. That's what she was: wholly 'modern', for her time. If I were to convey that to a reader, I needed to use (our own version of) modern language, I decided. I couldn't have her going around sounding quaint. When it has come to the other, subsequent novels, the language isn't nearly so 'in yer face' – because the characters haven't been. But, yes, I've retained the approach in general, because I enjoy it (!) and because I'm trying to get the characters to 'be here'. Language that feels stilted and formal and quaint, to me, gives me a sense of watching characters down the wrong end of a telescope.
I do realise, of course, that it doesn't appeal to everyone – the modern language – and I understand that, I do have some sympathy for any reader who finds it a bit ridiculous(/jarring)!
This brings me neatly on to how you create your Tudor world. You said in an interview once that the highest praise a reader could give one of your books was to say that they felt as though “they were there.” How do you transport your readers back in time?
Nicola, this is a very interesting question…because I've suddenly realised that I don't transport them back in time! – don't try to, I mean. I think what I'm trying to do, when I'm writing, is kind of the other way around - I'm trying to make the characters in the novel feel as if they're here with us now. As if they're alive, as if they're living now. (And the same for aspects other than character ie not put us there, but bring those elements here). But, as I say, until you put the question, I hadn't thought of it that way! (Although the Chair when I was recently at the Manchester Literature Festival asked me why I wrote about the past and my instinctive, baffling-to-me and, as a consequence, unvoiced response was, 'But I don't write about the past!' Maybe now I'm beginning to understand what I meant by that!)
The Tudor period teems with fascinating characters. What made you choose to write about the ones you have?
Anne Boleyn speaks for herself! …and then I wrote half of that novel from the point of view of the woman who made sugar sculptures at Henry V111's court because she was the only woman in a kitchen staff of around 200, and it struck me that she, like Anne Boleyn, was a woman in a man's world… I felt there was something to explore, there.
In The Sixth Wife, I was fascinated by how such a clever, cautious woman of considerable independent means then made the monumental mistake of marrying Thomas Seymour… and I told that story from the point of view of Katherine Parr's very good friend, Catherine of Suffolk, who kept cropping up (like the Seymour scandal! – always just out of focus!) and likewise seemed a really interesting woman, a big character, largely self-educated, shrewd and witty.
A 'trick' I sometimes use to keep myself interested – to keep myself on my toes for the two years that it takes me to write a book - is to decide to write about someone whom I think I don't like or whom I think of as boring… which accounts for Mary Tudor, Katherine Howard, and Jane Seymour!
And yet, I assume that when you delve into their stories they become a great deal more interesting to you because you certainly make them compelling characters on the page! (I particularly remember how much I enjoyed reading Katherine Howard’s narrative – she reminded me so much of some modern teenagers I’ve met!)
Is there a character you’ve written whom you particularly like or identify with?
Well, even though I've just said that I quite often choose someone I think I won't like, I suspect I like and/or identify with them all to some extent… Take Anne Boleyn: I love her for how uncompromising she was, but of course there's an awful lot there, too, not to like! …and, moreover, I have the sense that she didn't really like women, so she wouldn't much have liked me! (That's one way to look at this question! - to turn it on its head… which of the characters would've particularly liked or identified with me?! )
That’s a great question and I am going to go away and think about not which historical figures I like but which might have liked me… Or not! Suzannah, thank you very much for such an interesting and thought-provoking interview.
Thank you for these arresting questions, Nicola, and thank you to the Wenches for having me!
You can find Suzannah’s website at: www.http://suzannahdunn.net/
Susanna is offering a copy of The May Bride to one commenter between now and midnight Thursday. Please ask her anything you like about writing Tudor-set fiction and/or writing The May Bride. I can’t promise not to chip in myself as I LOVE this period of history and my next book also involves the Seymour family. So to get everyone thinking… Which Tudor character do you particularly like or identify with and which one do you think would like you if they met you – and why?