Monday, 27 August 2012

Sir Read A Lot interviews Elizabeth Chadwick

Elizabeth Chadwick is, without doubt, one of the most respected, popular and widely read authors of historical fiction of the last twenty years.  Her books are published in many languages and feature a host of real characters from the past whose stories are told in vivid detail.  Elizabeth is acclaimed by many for the depth of her research and she regularly updates her Facebook page with a photo and snippet of information on books she uses to research the past.

Famous for titles such as "The Greatest Knight", "The Lady of the English" and "Knights of the White Castle" she is currently working on a series of novels telling the story of  the most famous medieval Queen of all - Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Her "Marshal" stories, telling the life of one of the most influential power-brokers of the 12th/13th Century, William Marshal, remain a firm favourite of many and she has written about William's father as well as his daughter, Mahelt.

Taking some time away from the edit of her latest work in progress, she has very kindly given me an interview and provided a prize for a giveaway!

1 – Firstly, Elizabeth I would like to thank you for gracing my Court of Historical Fiction with your presence. Your books are a firm favourite of mine, how did you start writing and why choose historical fiction?

Thank you Sir Read a Lot, and thank you for inviting me to your Court of Historical Fiction.
I began writing when I was 15 years old, but before that I had told myself stories verbally from first memory. I began writing after I watched a BBC TV children's programme titled Desert Crusader and fell in love with the hero. I suppose it began as a piece of fan fiction, but quickly developed a life of its own. Rather like the Mary Poppins film where Mary and the children jump into Bert's chalk pavement picture and then go and have an adventure deeper into the picture. I might have started off with the TV programme in mind, but the story and characters soon became independent of the latter.
I didn't know anything about the Holy Land in the 12th century so I had to begin researching. Since my character’s story arc brought him back to England, I had to research the Angevin period in northern Europe. The more I researched the life and times, the more interested I became in the Middle Ages and the more I wanted to write about it. Basically one fed off the other round in a circle. I wrote eight novels before I was taken on by a leading London literary agent, which goes to show that you need to persevere. I would also say that those eight novels were a time of learning my craft and the first ones were apprentice pieces, albeit highly enjoyable to write.

2 – Your most well-known books are about William Marshal and his family. Can you tell us how you discovered this amazing man and how you came to write about him?

You can't study the 12th and 13th centuries without coming across the great William Marshal. He is involved in many of the politics and dramatic moments of the time. He was born in the reign of King Stephen and even served him for a time while being held hostage by him. He went on to serve Eleanor of Aquitaine, her eldest son Henry the Young King, his father Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John and Henry III. As a young man he was a jousting champion par excellence, moving on to become a great magnate and experienced elder statesman- and still a fine warrior. Where ever you look if you are studying the Angevin Empire, you will cross William Marshal's path.

I had thought about writing about him for some time, it was just a matter of gaining the confidence to do so. I used to lie in bed thinking ‘Someone should write about William Marshal, and gradually came to the conclusion that it might just have to be me! I had to persuade my publishers and my agent that he would be a good subject to tackle. By fortuitous circumstances, my agent had recently visited the temple church and seen the tomb effigies of William Marshal and two of his sons, so she was keen to find out more about them. I did some preliminary, but detailed research, wrote a synopsis and first three chapters and sent them up to my publisher, and found myself with a two book contract to write about William Marshal, the books becoming The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.

3 – As a regular follower of you on Facebook, I love your posts which give little glimpses of your work in progress. Your current project is based on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is a huge undertaking. Is this a story you have always wanted to tell?

I have wanted to write about Eleanor for many years. She was the project waiting behind the Marshal novels. While I was mulling the Eleanor project other novels about her have been published, but that doesn't bother me, because everyone tells their own version, and it is safe to say that my Eleanor will be a very different one, while staying true to the historical record. For example, we know from recent research that she was married at only 13 years old, not 15 as earlier biographers thought, and that makes a huge difference to what kind of influence she was able to wield as Duchess of Aquitaine. People often say to me that Eleanor was a woman ahead of her time, but that is not true. She was a woman of her time, confined by the parameters of the social mores of the 12th century when for a woman to have power in her own right was almost unthinkable. I am absolutely delighted that my publishers have given me the opportunity to write a trilogy about Eleanor's life. I was over the moon when they awarded me a three book contract because there is a great deal waiting to be said that so far hasn't been. I have just handed in THE SUMMER QUEEN, which covers Eleanor's life from 1137-1154.

4 – You are releasing a set of three books, A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight & The Scarlet Lion, which tells the story of John FitzGilbert and his son William Marshal. What prompted you to release them as a collection? When are you releasing them?

It's not me personally who is releasing them, and it's not as a collection as such. As with all fiction that has been in print for a while, publishers tend to refresh it by changing the covers every now and then. You can see this with authors such as Philippa Gregory today, and if you look back at the works of Anya Seton and Dorothy Dunnett you will observe the same trend. Having said that, the original A Place Beyond Courage in the UK was given the cover of a woman with a sweeping turquoise sleeve when it actual fact the story is about William Marshal's charismatic father. I was never over the moon about this cover, and my UK publishers decided to repackage the first three Marshal covers to feature men. The Greatest Knight has always had a man on the front cover and has always been my biggest bestseller because it attracted a male as well as female audience. Sometimes men can be a bit reluctant to pick up books featuring headless woman in nice dresses! So the packaging of the Marshal novels with men on the front is to see what an effect it has on the market. I love the new covers and I think they reflect what the novels are about and will help to diversify my audience. The repackage covers will be available in the UK from early September, although you may see a few floating about just before then, and the sourcebooks USA version of A Place Beyond Courage will be available from September 1st - again early copies may be spotted in the wild!

5 – You use a special form of research called “Akashic Records”, how did you discover this insight and how has it helped you in your writing.

The “Akashic Records” is a handle my friend Alison King uses to describe her wonderful and extraordinary ability to see back into the past. Given a name a date and place or similar coordinates, she can tune into what went before and it plays for her a bit like a film but with every sensory detail involved as well as feelings and emotions. She doesn’t just get visuals, but smells and tastes too, which can be a bit of a double edged sword! 
Alison had been working with clients for some time as a therapist, helping them with issues in their daily lives. Sometimes those issues would involve events of 20 years ago and sometimes the people concerned with those issues had passed on. Alison found that she could tune in to the time that the issues were occurring and also to the person with whom her client was involved even if they were no longer living. Clients told her that she was picking up on that person exactly, She reasoned that if she could do it 20 years why not any time in history?

I have known Alison for over 20 years as a friend. We met up one day for a chat and she asked me how the writing of The Greatest Knight was coming along. I said not too badly, but I was having difficulty finding anything about William Marshal's brother’s mistress. Alison offered to tune in and see if she could find her, and came across a lady swinging a bag on a string. Alison wondered if she was drying lettuce - that's how much she knew about the Middle Ages! I suggested that it might be hawking lure. To cut a long story short, the detail that came through in a small moment over coffee and biscuits, convinced me that this was a terrific resource to help me write the novels, and we set it up on a professional basis. Once a fortnight I go to Alison's house with a list of questions -she never knows what I am going to ask in advance. She tunes in to the historical moment and finds out what I want to know – if she can. I transcribe the digital recordings of our sessions and send them to a mediaeval historian for comment. I am told that it is medieval mindset through and through.

I accept taht many people are not comfortable with this aspect as a part of historical research, and consider it tosh, but that's fine. All they need do is take it as another strand of imagination, because the things I am finding out would be down to imagination anyway. I've been using the Akashic Records since 2004 and with the amount of material I have amassed I am convinced there is more to it than that, and it is a kind of time travel, but that's my personal opinion. In interviews like this I tell people what I do and then it's up to them whether they take it on board or not.

This is a description of William Marshal from the second Akashic session we ever did.
I asked Alison to find William Marshal in Poitou in 1168 when he would be serving as a young hearth knight of about 21 years old in the retinue of his Uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury and governor of Poitou.

Alison: He has incredible courage. He’s like a bouncy castle; very buoyant. He’s riding with a lot of highborn people. He’s awed by them but not overawed. He feels as if he’s in the right place. He has a good sense of his own worth. He’s very flexible and alert, responds not just in a chit-chat way but deeply and appropriately. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time and it comes easily to him. He’s alert and all his senses are awakened. He has dark hair, long cheeks, a strong nose. His clothes are intricate. His eyes look dark but inside they feel light. I am seeing the youth and the older man mingled. It is difficult for others to gauge what he’s thinking. He has very dark eyes; might be brown, might be blue.
There is a woman laughing and William is making her laugh by telling her jokes about the English being loutish and stupid. It’s probably Poitiers they are going to. The woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Alison had several stabs at saying Poitiers, unprompted by me. She was unsure how to pronounce it, but got it in the end)

6 – Have you ever discovered a character in your research that you detested but had to include in your stories?

I don’ think I have ever detested a character. There are some I would rather not spend time with should it be possible to meet them in real life but even so they must have had moments when they were less detestable than others, or interesting facets to their personality I am not a fan of King John, although of course this may come from the fact that the characters I write about are not fans either! He deprived Fulke FitzWarin of his lands, selling them to someone else for half the price just to spite Fulke. He took William Marshal's sons hostage and fomented war in Ireland behind William’s back, threatening William's pregnant wife. Later on he took William Marshal's grandson hostage and seized Framlingham Castle. Generally speaking my characters had strong reason to dislike him. William Marshal, a man of great diplomacy, abandoned that diplomacy on his deathbed to tell John's son the young Henry III,that if he ever acted like some wicked ancestor, he wished him an early death. I have never warmed to King Stephen's eldest son Eustace, but I still can't say I detest him. Quite often the less agreeable characters with their different sets of complexities are just as interesting to write as the heroes and heroines. In THE SUMMER QUEEN, the first of my Eleanor novels, I found Louis VII and one of his courtiers Thierry de Galeran two of the latter type. You’d avoid them like the plague in the flesh, but to write about they are fascinating.

7 – What advice could you give to an aspiring author?

First and foremost write because you love writing. Write because you must. Enjoy exploring with your stories and your characters. By all means learn the basic nuts and bolts of the craft, but don't let yourself become hidebound by a rulebook. In writing, rules are more like Captain Barbossa’s comment in Pirates of the Caribbean. ’More like guidelines really.’ Also don't be in too much of a hurry to see your work in print. Serve your apprenticeship. Sometimes rejection is indeed because there is no room at the inn. Because the publisher has just taken on a book very similar to yours. Because the agent or editor doesn't recognise what a stunning talent you are. And sometimes it's because your work is not ready but you don't recognise it. Learn to be a good critic of your own work. That means finding the level you are at and the level of readers you want to pitch it to. And my advice for finding that out is to read widely and voraciously because it will give you a context for where you stand.

8 – Which author inspires you?
There are many, but when I was hopeful writer, I always read Dorothy Dunnett when trying to raise my game. She is in a league of her own, and I love her wonderful use of language to create scenes. I have always enjoyed the works of Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell and Lindsey Davis.
As a reader, my tastes are very eclectic and I'll read gritty thrillers, historicals of all times and genres, horror stories, paranormal, literary, you name it. It's about entertainment, and knowledge while being entertained. I love the work of Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. Their awareness of their craft can’t be bettered.

9 – What is your favourite quotation?
I don't know that I have one when you put me on the spot! I can tell you a favourite poem that I feel is particularly pertinent to historical novelists. It's a poignant one by Tolkien and it's called ‘I sit beside the fire and think.’ You probably can't quote it all for copyright reasons, but I copied and pasted it from the Internet below, and if you can only quote a couple of lines from it in fair usage
Then I love the lines

in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.’

It pertains to my novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Every telling is different even if the season is the same.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

10 – At which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall?

Something hugely momentous would be the rolling away of the stone on the third day – Oh to be a fly on that stone - that would certainly answer some questions!

I'd like to go to a proper tournament and watch William Marshal at the height of his physical powers.

I’d also like to observe Stonehenge being used in its heyday.


  1. Lovely interview and I _so_ agree with your opening line: 'Elizabeth Chadwick is, without doubt, one of the most respected, popular and widely read authors of historical fiction of the last twenty years.'

  2. Your description of using Akashic Records is extremely interesting. In a way it brings to mind the term 'drawing into oneself' to bring forth a literary vision. I enjoyed the interview. My thanks to Elizabeth and to... Stuart.

  3. This is an excellent interview, Stuart, and I love the way Elizabeth Chadwick comes across. So interesting - and such good advice for aspiring writers. I'm shocked to read she wrote 8 novels before being accepted by an agent. She deserves every bit of her success.