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Sharon Kay Penman: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Your books are widely praised for their historical accuracy, and for their complex plots. How do you manage to keep all the characters straight in your head while you're writing, and also make sure you're conveying all that complexity to your readers?

It probably helps that I am so captivated by the Middle Ages and I am happy spending so much time there. I use an outline for the plot itself, creating it once I've determined what needs to be dramatized and what can be left on the cutting room floor. As for the characters, I am not sure how I manage to keep them all straight in my head! It just seems to work out that way. I know it can be challenging for readers to be faced with a cast of thousands, rather like a Cecil B. DeMille film, so I try to jog their memories periodically by giving them a few hints about the identities of secondary characters if they have been absent from action for a while. Some writers believe in Tough Love; in George R.R. Martin's brilliant Ice and Fire series, he tosses names and titles around with abandon, expecting his readers to remember even bit players. I try to be a little more merciful and will remind readers that Hamelin is Henry II's illegitimate half-brother or that Henri, Count of Champagne, is nephew both to Richard and the French king, mainly because I know how unreliable my own memory can be at times. For anyone writing of the Middle Ages, the bane of our existence is the deplorable medieval custom of recycling the same family names. I usually have Edwards and Williams and Henrys and Eleanors beyond counting. King John twisted the knife by naming two of his sons Richard, and why he'd have named either of them after the brother he loathed is a mystery that only he can resolve. I've found that it helps to include a Cast of Characters, which can be even more useful than a genealogy.

How long does it take to write your novels, and can you tell us a bit about your research process?

In the past, it took about three years for me to research and write a novel. I was only given two years to do Lionheart, though, and I soon ran into major problems. For one thing, Richard and I were still stranded in the Holy Land as time ran out. I realized I was not going to be able to finish the book by the deadline and I was in full panic-mode when a friend came up with a brilliant idea. Why not tell Richard's story in two books? It had worked well for the history of his parents, she pointed out; I'd ended up giving them an entire trilogy. Moreover, there was a natural breaking point, for the Third Crusade was the defining experience of Richard's life. So Lionheart ends as he prepares to leave the Holy Land and sail for home—or so he thinks, not knowing what lies ahead: storms at sea, an encounter with pirates, shipwreck, and then captivity in Germany. If Lionheart is his Iliad, A King's Ransom will be his Odyssey, and that I borrowed from Frank McLynn's Richard and John, Kings at War.

I research on two levels during the course of a book. I do general research about the subject of the novel, the Third Crusade in Lionheart. I also do specific research about a particular castle, city, battlefield, etc. Whenever possible, I try to visit the places I write about; my accountant says that I'm one of his few clients whose visits to London or Paris are legitimately tax-deductible!

Following on that, do you have any favorite reference books or research materials that your readers should check out?

My favorite research sources are the chronicles. They are not always strictly accurate, for they sometimes report rumors as fact; for example, one of the chroniclers of Salah al-Din, better known to history as Saladin, claims that the French king died on his way back to France after abandoning the Third Crusade. But they open a window to a far-distant time and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries. The Richard of legend smolders like a torch: glowering, dour, and dangerous. But the chroniclers who accompanied Richard to the Holy Land and the Saracen chroniclers give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable. I am afraid Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I never had such a rich treasure-trove to draw upon. I had eye-witness accounts of the battles fought between the crusaders and Saracens and the most amazing details of daily life, written by men who were actually there—three of Saladin's chroniclers and four of Richard's. I list them all in the Acknowledgments of Lionheart, for I'd like my readers to be able to enjoy them as much as I did.

I also find fascinating nuggets of information in the Pipe Rolls and other government records. There we learn that Lady Neville had to pay King John a fine of 200 shillings "to lie one night with her husband." Wouldn’t we love to know the story behind that enigmatic entry? Another favorite item of mine notes the cost of repairing the crown of King Edward I; the clerk dutifully notes that it was damaged "when it pleased the king to throw it into the fire." This royal temper tantrum was apparently caused by the secret marriage of Edward's strong-willed daughter Joanna to a man he considered unworthy of her; I am happy to report that although Edward initially imprisoned the bridegroom, he eventually forgave Joanna and grudgingly accepted her marriage.

As you were researching and writing Lionheart, did any characters jump out and surprise you? Any you really started to like (or dislike)?

I was surprised by the sympathy I developed for Tancred of Lecce, who took the Sicilian throne after the unexpected death of his cousin, who was wed to Richard's sister Joanna. Prior to my research, I saw him as this usurper who'd seized Joanna's dower lands and then held her captive in Palermo. But by book's end, I saw him as a decent man doing the best he could under very difficult circumstances. I also became quite fond of Isabella, the young Queen of Jerusalem, who’d been forced to divorce the husband she loved and wed Conrad of Montferrat. She would show courage and shrewdness when her life turned upside down again; I won't say more for fear of spoilers, since I don’t know how familiar some of my readers are with the Third Crusade. One of the characters I most disliked was the Bishop of Beauvais, of whom it was said that he preferred battles to books. He was unscrupulous, treacherous, and far more interested in sabotaging Richard than he was in defeating Saladin. When I have Richard's queen thinking, "Like the trail of slime that marked a snail's passing, Beauvais would be leaving venom in his wake" as he slandered Richard throughout Europe, she is voicing my own sentiments.

If you could spend a day with any of the characters in Lionheart, who would they be?

I'd like to hang around with Richard’s nephew, Henri of Champagne. I'd also like to spend a few hours with Richard’s sister, Joanna, and his queen, Berengaria, and if there was still time to spare, I'd be happy to visit with Saladin’s brother, al-Malik al-Adil, whom I found even more interesting than his more famous sibling. Oh, and Richard, of course, provided that he was in camp at the time and not out fighting Saracens; I'd want to see if my fictional Richard and the real Richard were compatible.

Of all your books, which is your favorite?

My favorite of my books is Here Be Dragons, for it began my love affair with Wales. It was also nice to have characters still alive at the end of the book, in contrast to my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, which had an appallingly high body-count. These two seem to be the favorites of my readers, too, with Dragons always edging out Sunne.

Can you describe your writing process and habits for us? Any quirky rituals or useful tips to share?

I do not set regular hours as some writers do. I do a chapter at a time, working on it till I am satisfied with the final version, occasionally surfacing for air or to feed the dogs. It usually takes about a week or so, depending upon the length of the chapter, and if it is going well, I will work late into the night, not wanting to lose that momentum. No quirky rituals that I can think of, sorry. I do an outline for the book, having determined beforehand what I will need to dramatize, and I usually stick to it, although I have an unfortunate habit of adding chapters as I go along, one reason how I end up with 700-800 page novels sometimes.

You write in the author's note that after your next novel (which will continue the story begun here) you'll be moving on from the Angevins. Can you tell us a bit about that next project?

After I tell the rest of Richard's story in A King's Ransom, I would like to write about the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the story of Balian d'Ibelin, the real man, not Orlando Bloom's fictional blacksmith in "Kingdom of Heaven." Balian and a number of the characters in Lionheart will be front and center in the new book, which is the translation of Outremer, one of the names for the Holy Land. So I hope readers will find Balian, Conrad, Isabella, Humphrey de Toron, Henri of Champagne, Saladin and al-Adil interesting enough to want to know more about them.

What were some of your favorite books as a child, and what are some of your favorites now?

My favorite book as a child was Black Beauty. I also loved Bambi and any number of dog stories; I've always loved animals. My two favorite novels today are Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, as unlike as any two books can be, but both wonderfully written.

What books would we find on your bookshelves now, and what have you read recently that you enjoyed?

I have a "To Be Read" pile that resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for it is becoming more and more challenging to find time for pleasure reading, mainly because of the demands of social networking sites like Facebook. This is a source of concern to me, for I've always been an avid reader; one of the many things I love about the LibraryThing website is that it is such a good source to find books I'd like to read. I am currently reading Elizabeth Chadwick's Lady of the English and enjoying it very much. I wrote about many of the same historical figures in my novel, When Christ and His Saints Slept, and it is interesting to read another writer's interpretation of events. One of the best books I've read recently was Margaret George's new novel, Elizabeth I, which deals with Elizabeth's autumn years from the Armada until her death. Margaret captures perfectly the essence of this complex, brilliant, neurotic, and fascinating queen, surely one of history's most interesting women. And I've become a late convert to George R. R. Martin’s remarkable Ice and Fire series, fantasy rooted in a gritty, medieval reality.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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