And now my questions for Alis Hawkins, author of Testament and a fellow historical scribbler. Alis' first novel Testament is a fast-paced timeslip tale, and she has recently completed the first draft of her latest book, The Black and the White. Now that I feel like Parky having delivered that introduction, I'd like to ask Alis whether TB&TW is also a timeslip piece or a straight historical (and if it's the latter, how different she finds the experience of writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story); and in particular what she thinks are the challenges and attractions of writing about the more distant eras she favours (TB&TW is set in the 1300s)?
Thanks, Faye! I like the idea of being a ‘historical scribbler’ – it conjures up an image of somebody hunched over a sheet of parchment, stripped and trimmed wing-feather in hand, a pot of oak-gall ink in a horn at their side; an image totally at odds, I may say, with the rather technophilic truth of me sitting at my ergonomically-uplifted Macbook and tapping at my wireless keyboard.
Anyway, to the question. No, The Black and The White isn’t a timeslip novel, it’s set fair and square in the fourteenth century. In the middle of the Black Death, to be precise.
So, how different an experience is it to be writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story?
In a nutshell, it’s very liberating. Not to have to think about batting resonances back and forth between the different time periods, not to have to step out of one carefully-constructed world into another, totally different world, not to have to break the two different narratives up into nicely self-contained episodes that also provide enough of a ‘but what next?’ is pleasant.
There’s also the release from the insistent little voice that has been making its voice heard for years now. The voice that tells me that I’m just better at the historical voice than I am the contemporary.
But in choosing to write ‘straight’ historical fiction there are pressures as well as liberations.
One of the reasons for confining myself to split-time fiction, prior to my current book, was the feeling that I had no right to be a ‘real’ historical novelist. I have no claim on history – my degree is in English and I although I’m fascinated by the medieval period everything I know has been gleaned piecemeal. I felt that it would be a massive act of presumption to write a historical novel; I worried that it would imply that I felt qualified in some way to do so. It’ all very well having a historical strand in your novel (even if it amounts to half the book) but if you’re clever, you can make the history a necessary preoccupation of one of the solidly contemporary characters and sneak it in that way. ‘What can I do’ you’re implicitly asking the reader ‘my characters are just fascinated by all this stuff.’
If you’re not a ‘real’ historical novelist and you get details wrong, you can hide behind the fact that you’re actually just a contemporary novelist whose plot demanded a foray into the fourteenth century. Once you’re writing straight historical fiction, you’re into a whole different ball game. I now feel a far greater pressure to get things right. I know how cross I get when historical novelists get things wrong, particularly about my beloved fourteenth century. For instance, in a well-regarded and best selling recent book set in the fourteenth century, the author had a reference to the manner of Edward II’s rather painful alleged death several years before he actually died.
I realised I was going to have to be a lot better versed in fourteenth century life than I had been for the writing of Testament. Not that I was slipshod in my research for that book. Not at all, I just confined myself to what I needed to know for those very specific bits of life the narrative demanded. As long as I knew about those bits in great detail, I felt I could ignore, for example, the political situation, or what other classes of person were wearing.
With the prospect of 100-150 000 words of undiluted fourteenth century life to write in The Black and The White, a novel that details two rather traumatic months of my central character’s life and touches on everything from sleeping and eating to the layout of towns and the differences between the fourteenth century landscape and our own, I felt the need to know a lot more. So I researched subjects from underwear to fairies, from what kind of knife would have hung from a man’s belt to what the weather in the summer of 1349 was like, from what coins were in circulation during that year and how men wrestled (a near-murder is committed during a wrestling bout). I consulted a website that claims to be able to tell you the phases of the moon in long-gone centuries. And another that told me the precise date of Easter that year. I not only read everything I could get my hands on about charcoal burning, I became a charcoal burner and have now graduated to hearth-watcher at the twice-yearly earth burn at the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean. Historical fiction can take over your life.
I also learned more than I ever hope to need to know in real life about how long it takes to suffocate somebody to death, when rigor mortis sets in and when it wears off, as well as burial customs of the fourteenth century. (There are several deaths in The Black and The White and, despite appearances, there is a suspicion that not all of them are due to the plague. Which is kind of the point of the book, really.)
As with any historical fiction, the vast majority of what I learned didn’t make it as far as the page, but I hope it has stopped me making the kind of errors that annoy me in other people’s writing. (Twelfth century people sitting on bales of hay annoyed me in an otherwise excellent and enjoyable book the other day…) It won’t have stopped me, of course, because nobody can know everything and I shall, no doubt, make my share of the bale-type error. But the intention and commitment is to be as error free as possible.
However, the necessity for research is as much a pleasure as it is a pressure. I’m fascinated by the medieval period in general but there’s something about the fourteenth century that, I think, links it to our own time. There was such a feeling of change in the air, such a feeling of impending global doom as pestilence followed famine and war; there was even, towards the end of the century, a considerable amount of popular discontent with the way England was being governed and her involvement in foreign wars.
As far as the actual writing is concerned, that’s been more pleasurable than the split time narrative, too. Unlike my work on previous books, I haven’t had to work out how the characters in the contemporary strand of my story could possibly come to know what happened in the historical strand. (I was rather pleased with the way this happens in Testament, but the discovery of a medieval wall painting is not a trick you can pull off again and again…) All I have to do is work out how best to tell the reader my characters’ story.
Writing split time novels – for me at least – there was always a sense that the whole thing was as much about how we view history as it was about the story I was telling. On the whole, I think that worked in Testament. For various reasons (some of which are alluded to here) it didn’t work in the novel that followed it. But writing straightforward historical narrative does not immunise you against the fascinations of looking at history from another viewpoint, in fact there’s an extent to which, in The Black and The White, there is a slightly knowing game going on between me and my readers as they come to the narrative with a post-Christian, post-Freudian, post-Enlightenment eye and can form very different ideas of what’s going on beneath the surface narrative than either of the two main protagonists could possibly do.
To answer the second part of Faye’s question, I suppose it’s this business of world views and how ours, now, is so different from theirs, then, that drives my fascination with the fourteenth century.
Once, when I was talking about Testament at a book group, I was asked whether a fourteenth century person would really have believed a particular thing. Surely, the questioner said, there were those who did believe that sort of thing and those who didn’t, who took a more rational view? But, of course, she was asking the question with a modern mind, a mind that finds it very difficult to imagine not having access to a variety of ways in which the world might be viewed and its events interpreted. We, in the western world of the twenty first century (and the twentieth century was no different) have a highly sophisticated way of looking at and responding to events in our environment, whether it’s on the world stage – volcanoes and tsunamis, war and famine – or in our own psyche. As long as we’re mentally healthy and appropriately educated, we can choose rational, scientific, logical worldviews which are based entirely on empirical evidence, or we can choose a worldview based more on the mysterious forces which we feel are at work in our universe, whether they be God, fate, destiny or luck. Most people, if they’re honest, juggle the two.
In the medieval period there was no juggling. There was just the one worldview. God made everything. God controlled everything. God judged everybody. Heaven and Hell were as real as a city you’d heard of but had never been to. More real, since you were likely to have heard a lot more about them, particularly Hell.
So the answer to my questioner was, yes they did really believe that, because they lacked any framework that might have allowed them to believe something else. Theirs was a closed system. There was no explanation for anything – seen or unseen – that did not come back to God.
And that, for me, is one of the fascinations of writing medieval fiction. People in the fourteenth century were just as clever as us. They were often far more resourceful and personally capable than us. Within the confines of their worldview, they understood their world better than we do. As a consequence, they were probably more confident and at ease with themselves than we are. And yet, their view of the world was one that – even to people of faith – is alien to us today. Trying to emphasise both the similarities and the differences is a fascinating task.
And now my questions for Ciara Hegarty whose The Road to the Sea was published in February of this year. Described as ‘A paean to the lost landscapes and communities of Ireland, and a meditation on the responsibilities of parents’ it is a morally complex tale that makes you care about its characters.
Ciara, The Road to the Sea is set in a very particular time and place. Is there something specifically Irish in its themes or do you think it could have been set anywhere? And how does landscape and the importance of place impact on the way you choose tell your story?