I interviewed Anne O’Brien around the time that The King’s Sister was released and so was delighted when she agreed to come back again to promote The Queen’s Choice. Her brand of historical romance is far superior to all other competition; it’s so nice to read an author who appears to genuinely consider the female medieval experience rather than simply creating cardboard cut outs in corsets to prance, flounce and simper. Her novels always leave me with something to ponder about these women who lived quite so very long ago and it has been interesting to follow the way she has carefully worked her way round the too-often neglected women of the House of Lancaster, this time landing on the distinctly cobwebby Joanna of Navarre. Once again, she kindly answered my pondering questions and I do hope that she will agree to come back again soon!
1) Joanna of Navarre is one of Britain’s more forgotten queens, what was it that first drew you to her story?
How many of us have heard of Queen Joanna of England? Wife and Queen Consort of King Henry IV, she manages a paragraph or two in history texts if she is lucky. In fact she was an intriguing character, faced with life-changing choices when she decided, on being widowed, to throw in her lot with Henry as his second wife. It was not an easy reign for either of them, full of warfare and insurrection, not to mention dislike of Joanna’s Breton associations, but evidence suggests that Henry and Joanna were strengthened by a true bond of love that lasted until Henry’s death.
Nor was this all that Joanna had to face. When she might have contemplated a gentle life of retirement at Court on her second widowhood, she was accused of using necromancy and witchcraft in an attempt to kill her stepson, King Henry V.
What an incredible story to write. It is so dramatic, full of great characters, fear, tragedy and excitement. I could not make it up.
2) I am always interested in historical fiction about the balance between the story being told and the events that truly took place. In a story such as this one, how far do you go about researching the truth of these long-dead peoples’ lives?
I go a long way to research the truth about the characters in my books. The people, the events, the conflicts, must all be there as the backdrop to the main story. Then comes the difficult part. There must be a very fine balance between the weight of the history compared with the demands of the story. Too many facts can be a danger when writing fiction. Drama must balance fact. Too many facts can destroy the pace and the excitement, when the reader wants to know about the intimate life of the heroine. Sometimes ‘history’ must be pared down for the sake of the novel, but never omitted. Historical accuracy must always remain the bedrock of the novel. With Joanna it was a case of interweaving the politics of Henry IV’s reign with her experiences of a new wife in a new country.
3) Given that the subject matter of so many of your novels focuses on the experiences of medieval women, how do you set about making each of your heroines distinctive?
Historical comment from the medieval chroniclers sometimes gives me clues about character. So does the heroine’s reaction to the various events and pressures in her life. That is where I start.
The rest evolves as I write her story and develop the issues and obstacles which drive her life. It is an ongoing development through my writing of the book. I think that character most particularly develops through conversation when I simply write and allow them to speak. Most of my heroines have been formidable women, but Katherine de Valois was not, and has a quite different voice. Alice Perrers was a woman of low birth with ambition. Joanna of Navarre was of the highest, and with the pride to match. Anne Neville was a young girl growing up in a highly charged political arena. And so they all develop differently. It is a matter of placing them in situations and allowing them to react, and to see what they say. I give them freedom, as long as it sounds right and authentic and helps to carry the plot forward.
4) This book is called The Queen’s Choice, and the last time I interviewed you, you mentioned the difficulties facing women and the limitations of their choices. In your novel, Joanna of Navarre rejects her independent life as a widow to be a wife once more in a foreign country, leaving behind several of her young children. In the modern world, people are often quick to condemn ‘absent mothers’ but I noticed (happily) that you did not do so. Do you ever feel yourself motivated to ‘save the reputations’ of these historical figures?
No, I quite deliberately do not whitewash my heroines, because that, for me, would be a form of dishonesty. I have to be true to the lives of my characters as history writes them, and to the social mores with which they lived. It would be irresponsible of me to make them more acceptable. What I do try to do is to make the reader aware of the reasoning of my character, in this case Joanna. If readers understand why she did what she did, they will have empathy with her. My characters do not always have to be likeable, but they have to be realistic and authentic in how they act and react. They are human and so appear in shades of grey, as do we all. The reader must be able to ask the question: what would I do in that situation? Would I do the same? I hope that they will be able to ‘live the life’ along with Joanna, for good or bad.
5) Queen’s Choice centres on a very strong-willed heroine. When searching for new projects, do you ever find yourself ‘rejecting’ potential subjects – do you ever find yourself taking a personal dislike to a historical figure? As an avid reader of history and historical fiction, I myself take against Henry VIII’s fifth wife Katherine Howard and Georgian villainess Lady Jersey.
I have certainly rejected a potential subject for a novel, but not because I have a personal dislike of them – although I don’t think I could ever bring myself to write about Mary, Queen of Scots for whom I feel absolutely no empathy. The reason I rejected Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, who became queen of Portugal, was simply because she was too ‘good’. History suggests that she led a placid life: the perfect daughter, the perfect mother, the perfect wife. Her children are interesting, but there is so little tension in Philippa’s life that I decided that to make a page turning novel was not within my skill. I had hoped to write about her and make it a duo with Elizabeth of Lancaster (The King’s Sister), but I’m afraid I abandoned her. A character needs an element of conflict to make her good material for a novel.
6) Your past few novels have traced the lives of various members of the House of Lancaster, do you have any forth-coming projects?
Now here is a medieval woman I have pushed aside for some time because I was unsure what I felt about her. I am writing about Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. Not one of the House of Lancaster but, as cousin to King Edward III, Joan was a royal Plantagenet living in the same court circles with so many of my ‘heroines’. She is such a major character on the stage of history. As well as being wife of the Black Prince and mother of King Richard II she is notorious for the clandestine and bigamous marriages that ruined her reputation. She was a remarkable woman and has been on my radar for some years. After writing about Joanna of Navarre, Joan of Kent was still there, demanding that I look again at her. And so I did and she will be on my horizon now until 2017. I am not finding her to be an easy heroine, and not always a likeable one, but the more I write about her, the more she is beginning to emerge and take on a rounded personality. I am enjoying her and her uncomfortably adventurous life.
Thank you for this opportunity to chat about the woman who had filled my life for the past eighteen months!