Wednesday, 25 July 2012

My interview with author Judith Arnopp

It is my pleasure and privilege to interview a wonderful author - Judith Arnopp  

How did you become an author? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Well, it is something I’ve always done.  As a child I was very influenced by C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and made up stories based on that.  Then, as a teenager I wrote lurid romances, and while my children were growing up I turned to adventures using them as the main characters. Writing has always seemed the natural thing for me to do so I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to do it.  I never let anyone read it until I was in my forties when I did creative writing as part of my studies.  Then my writing group encouraged me to publish but it wasn’t until I’d completed my studies that I turned to writing seriously.

What is it about Welsh history that attracts you?

I think its living here, surrounded by the culture, treading in the footsteps of Welsh heroes. There is hardly a hill you can walk around here without stumbling upon a ruined castle or a stone circle or a hillfort.  My home is quite remote and although modernisms are creeping into the area now it is largely unspoiled.  It is possible to see the past quite clearly in both the architecture and the landscape. I have a thing about earthworks and ancient churches and there is nowhere like a mouldering graveyard to feel the people of the past peering over your shoulder. I sit quietly and listen while they tell me stuff.
Explain a little about Welsh pronunciation in your books.  For example, how do you pronounce Heledd?
I knew the names could be a problem for non-Welsh readers so I included a pronunciation table at the front of The Song of Heledd but, of course, as Welsh isn’t my first language, I could well be miles out although I did consult a Welsh friend. Heledd, I believe, is pronounced Hell – eth.

Tell us a little about the poems Canu Llywarch Hen and Canu Heledd.

The basis of Heledd’s story come from fragments of Welsh poetry known as Canu Heledd and Marwnad Cynddylan. The poem, and others relating to Heledd and Pengwern, can be found in The Red Book of Hergest. The Red Book of Hergest dates from the 14-15th centuries but the poems themselves are believed to have been written in the 9th century, although set in the 7th. The poems were probably part of an older oral tradition, recorded and transcribed in the medieval period.
There are very few female dialogues in the saga tradition and, apart from this poem, women do not speak or appear. Sole survivors of disaster are not uncommon but female survivors are. This dispensing with tradition suggested to me that Heledd’s story could perhaps be a historical event that has passed down through the oral tradition to become legend. The poem itself is historically inaccurate, even in those days literature was written for entertainment not to enter the historical record.
When the poems are read alongside the historical documents of the time, they complement eachother, and this is what I did to come up with a fictional account of Heledd’s life. It is a complicated period of history, largely impenetrable by modern society and to that end I have simplified many place names and the names of the peoples who inhabit it. The Song of Heledd concentrates more upon how it might have felt to play a female role within that society rather than how events really happened. History is an unknown place, full of half truths and many opposing opinions and this just forms my own version of an obscure truth and is a fiction.

Your books also are about the Anglo-saxons and the Normans, what draws you to them?

I became interested in Anglo-Saxon poetry while I was at university and learned about the culture and heroic tradition. Although it was a violent society, they struck me as a noble, very proud people and, compared to the Normans, their justice system was fair. Under the Norman regime ordinary people were oppressed but beneath Anglo-Saxon rule low status people had rights and even women and slaves had a fairer deal.
When I was about seven years old I did a school project on the Norman invasion and fell in love with King Harold. Since then I’ve read every book, fiction and non-fiction, about him that I could lay hands on. It seemed natural to make him part of my first novel. He and Richard the Third are my heroes. I guess I just love an underdog.
Can you explain for our readers what Gruffydd ap Llewellyn means?
The ap in Gruffydd ap Llewellyn means ‘son of’ so it means Gruffydd son of Llewellyn. He was the first leader to rule the whole of Wales but he was never referred to as ‘king’ although that was his role. He is often mixed up with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, another Welsh leader of similar name who appears in history a few hundred years later. When they named their children they didn’t make things easy for us, did they?

You have 5 books out now, which is your favourite?

Ooh, that is a hard question. I think my favourite is whichever one I am writing when the question is asked. They are all so different but I suppose it is to do with the characters. Most of my protagonists are anti-heroines to an extent. In Peaceweaver, Eadgyth is hugely annoying. We meet her first as a complaining teenager (hormones don’t change) and see her grow into a stubborn, flawed adult. Her journey from girl to womanhood is complete when the story ends in her twenty-first year. In the course of ten years she marries and buries two kings, births five children and her status declines from Queen to exile. She has learned her lessons.
The Forest Dwellers is set after the conquest in what we now know of as The New Forest. The Saxons are oppressed, evicted from their homes and forced to live in servitude but Ælf and Alys fight on against their oppressors, both using very different weapons. Ælf is justifiably angry and will punch anyone who asks for it and Alys has learned to use her pretty face and neat figure to survive. I love the story and although I had a few publishing issues with it to begin with, the whole thing has been revised now and the new edition is much better for it.
The Song of Heledd is a lament for lost things. Heledd has seen her dynasty, her youth, her family destroyed by fault of her own. She has some harsh lessons and she learns them the hard way. The story is set at the transition between the pagan and Christian religion and looks at the resulting confusion and chaos until ultimately Heledd is forced, quite horribly, to admit the new God into her heart. She has the harshest lessons of all I think.
The Winchester Goose, my work in progress, is more light hearted, although still replete with beheadings and suffering.

Which was the hardest for you to write?

Peaceweaver was the hardest and I will always have a soft spot for it. As you know, when writing your first novel you not only have to learn the formula of getting your writing into book form but the discipline of sitting down every day and just getting on with it. It took me about three years, I suppose. One year of research, one year writing and one year editing and rewriting. It hasn’t taken the world by storm but world domination isn’t really what I’m aiming for. Peaceweaver won me a small group of readers who wait eagerly for my next book and it is their praise that keeps me writing more.

A Tapestry of Time is a collection of short stories, how did that come about?

I find editing my novels to be quite stifling creatively so to prevent myself from going nuts during those periods, I write shorts. I’ve had a few published in various magazines etc but it isn’t easy finding publications that take historical shorts. As my hard drive is stuffed with unpublished stories it made sense to do something positive with them. I think it was a good decision as many Kindle owners read on trains or planes or while they eat lunch and want a quick hit, so short story collections sell well and, at the same time, introduce my work to people that may otherwise have not heard of me. Many of my readers have progressed from the short story collections to my full-length novels.

Do you find short stories easy to write?

Usually, but I do have quite a few that will never see the light of day.  I find once I have a title or a few words on the page, the rest follows of its own accord. Then I put them away and bring them out later to edit when I’ve distanced myself from them. I belong to a local writing group The Cwrtnewydd Scribblers and we are set ‘homework’ once a week. Often something comes of those pieces.

Again Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens is a collection of short stories and a current bestseller – why did you choose to write that?

I wrote Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens in a workshop situation, no research, no plan, just straight out of my head. It just came out, practically as it stands apart from the quotes from letters that were added later. It was so well received by members of the group and online sites that I was encouraged to publish it as an e-book. I didn’t expect it to do anything. It went out free at first and my readers loved it, so instead of pulling it, I kept in on Kindle. It is my best seller by far and is as cheap as I can get it. Historical novelists and historians don’t rate it because it isn’t accurate but most readers love it and, after reading it, go on to buy my other novels. I have had so many requests for it as a ‘proper book’ that it will be available in paperback soon. It is very short, just a pamphlet really but it has caused me the most anguish, some reviewers are very rude which can be hard to take. Constructive criticism is always welcome but insults help no one and say more about the reviewer than they do me. In hindsight maybe I should have polished it up more but it isn’t meant as history, more as an examination of the psychological strain of living with a monster. I do stress whenever I can that I write fiction. If you want to learn history read a non-fiction history or go to classes. My books are intended for entertainment alone.

Your books are often described as ‘un-put-down-able’, why do you think that is?

I’m not sure. Lots of people have said that they flow rather well. Maybe it’s because I write in the first person and involve the reader directly in the action. I write my novels as if I am sitting in a room with the narrator and she or he (I often write as a male) is telling me their story. I am just a sort of medium, I suppose.
Also, again because they are in the first person, they are not overly descriptive. If you were to describe yourself going into your kitchen to make a cup of coffee you wouldn’t give extravagant details of the make of kettle or how the water manages to appear as if by magic from the taps. These things are all familiar to you and you don’t notice them. It’s the same with Heledd and Eadgyth and Ælf. When they move through their world they are used to the decorations in the hall and the way the walls are constructed. I give the reader enough of a picture to know where and when they are but it is the thoughts and feelings and motivations of my characters that are primary.

What hints and tips can you give to aspiring or new authors?

I’m a new author myself so I could do with someone giving some to me – ha ha. I would say, first of all, sit down and write. You aren’t a writer unless you do so. Then I would say, never think your writing is good enough. All writers, even the most successful of us, should strive for improvement so join a writing group and keep going to writing courses. Read the competition and keep writing, writing, writing. It is the best way to improve. There should never come a time when you feel you can sit back and stop trying to develop.
Editing is more important than I can say and you cannot do it yourself. I find uploading my manuscript to my kindle helps me to distance myself from the work and errors and typos then stand out much better. Get your manuscript as perfect as you can before it goes to the editor and then have it edited again before you send it off or self-publish. Once it is out there and you flick through it, you will find typos and small formatting mistakes and, if you are self-published, there are critics that will slaughter you for this. Ignore them and make your next book even better.

What are you working on now?

Since Dear Henry began to sell I have had streams of people asking me if I have written any other Tudor books. The world is full of them but it seems there aren’t enough yet, so although I was initially reluctant to do so, I am bowing to pressure and jumping on the bandwagon. The Winchester Goose opens in London and Southwark just as Henry VIII is about to marry Anne of Cleves. The plot then encompasses the annulment and subsequent marriage to Katherine Howard.
During the period in question Southwark was outside the jurisdiction of London and it was there, across the river, that various entertainments evolved that were not available in London town. Since the Middle ages the Bishops of Winchester owned lands and properties in Southwark around Winchester Palace which was situated there. The area became popular with visitors to the city, traders and exiles, people far from home. Gentlemen from court also spent their leisure time on the far side of the bridge on Bankside.
The Winchester Geese were prostitutes who lived and worked in Southwark and paid their rents to the Bishop. My novel is told from the perspectives of Joanie Toogood, a warm hearted prostitute; Francis Wareham, a young, womanising adventurer who is roped into working as a spy for Thomas Cromwell and two gentle women, sisters Isabella and Evelyn Bourne who are ladies in waiting to Henry’s queens. The adventures of these fictional characters coincide with the historical events at the royal palace and I hope provide a refreshing perspective of the King and his court.
I am having tremendous fun writing it and am about three quarters of the way through the first draft – the fun bit.

What are your writing plans for the future?

Well, I had better not stop. If I can’t find the time to write I get very growly and not nice to be near so my husband, for his own sake, is very supportive. I am lucky to be able to write full time and hopefully that will continue.
I have nothing planned yet but each of my books have grown from another so I have confidence that, somewhere along the line, an idea will germinate from The Winchester Goose. 
Even if I stopped publishing my work, I can’t imagine ever not writing at all. It is the creative process that I love, it’s more important to me than hitting the big time. It is a sad fact that many high earning authors are so pushed around by the publishers that their writing is suffering and readers are noticing this. More and more people in search of well-written, innovative novels are learning that the best place to look is among independent writers. I would like my books to be among them.

It was a pleasure interviewing Judith.  You can find out more about her here.