Joan Szechtman for the Richard III Society (American Branch) interviews
Have you always wanted to write?
No, I am not one of those authors who have always known that they’ve wanted to write; I came quite late to it. I have always loved words though and was reading at a very early age – before I started school. As I grew a little older I often got into trouble at home for having my nose in a book when I should have been doing chores. Our local Library was one of my favourite places to be and Historical Fiction became one of my favourite genres. I clearly remember my delight in discovering Frederick Marryat’s ‘The Children of the New Forest’ – a story set during the English Civil War after the defeat of Charles I, which follows the fortunes of four children who hide from their Roundhead oppressors. This was followed by authors such as Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, and Elswyth Thane who wrote the classic Colonial Williamsburg novels.
When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
That’s a memory that always makes me smile. It was during my third year at University – I was studying for a four-year dual honours degree in English and History. One of the courses of study was the Romantic Fiction; the successful formula of the Harlequin romance novels was a category we looked at. A fellow student and I decided we could easily write one. We decided upon a historical romance set during the early years of the reign of Henry VIII. We had enormous fun in meticulously planning and researching it and with much laughter wrote the first few chapters but somehow never got around to finishing it – it was the beginning of a long friendship though and also the realization that I liked to write. From then onwards I wrote on and off – short stories, articles, poetry – even the beginnings of a couple of novels (historical of course). However, family and career commitments always took precedence. It is said that every cloud has a silver lining – my cloud was breast cancer which forced me to take a long career break – the silver lining was that it enabled me to concentrate on writing.
When did you first become aware of Richard III?
I can’t really put my finger on it – I suppose I have always known of him, you see I grew-up in Richard III country, in the small medieval city of Ripon located between Middleham and York. We northern folk have always had an affection for ‘good king Richard.’ However, I became really interested in him when I read Josephine Tey’s ‘Daughter of Time’ in my late teens. Inspector Alan Grant’s methodical, analytical sifting through all the existing evidence and his ultimately finding that Richard did not have a case to answer was an eye opener. I went on to read Paul Murray Kendall’s ‘Richard III,’ his lyrical prose really brought him to life for me as a man.
Is this your first book?
It is my first published book – the way it came to be written is a story in itself. I was at lunch in York with a group of university friends at the time of the rediscovery of Richard’s grave – during all the controversy about his reburial place. You can guess what the topic of conversation was – that his wish to be buried in York Minster should be respected or if not, then as an anointed king, he should be buried in Westminster Abbey. I found myself speculating aloud about what he would have made of all the fuss if he were here. One of our group – a fellow Ricardian and a highly respected Medieval historian – challenged me to write a story. Her words were: ‘write about Richard III in blue jeans.’ Needless to say, my friend had sown the seed into my mind and it took root but the flowering was quite different from what she envisaged. My Richard did not wear blue jeans but I did bring him into the 21st century – in my own way. The story took her completely by surprise and she urged me to try to get it published.
Would you please tell us a little about ‘Renaissance – The Fall and Rise of a King’?
My novel begins where most others end. Richard’s brutal slaying on Bosworth Field is not the end of his story, it is the beginning. The reader follows him into the Afterlife – to a place between life and eternity and watches him relive the events and confront the actions that he took which led him to the bloody Plain of Redemore; then accompanies him into the 21st century to be witness to the reburial of his rediscovered remains in Leicester Cathedral where Richard faces one final and very crucial decision that will affect his destiny through all eternity.
The setting of your novel is very unusual, where did the concept of locating Richard in Purgatory after the battle, come from?
Richard was a medieval man. Medieval Society very firmly believed in a physical Heaven and Hell. Its location was believed to be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, surrounded by high mountains and vast deserts. Purgatory and The Garden of Eden would have been very real places to him. As I wanted my readers to step into his world and his mindset, for me it seemed the logical place for him to be after his death on Bosworth Field. The concept of a soul in Purgatory is not a new one – Dante Ailghieri’s epic poem, ‘The Divine Comedy,’ which he wrote in the 14th century, tells of his own soul’s journey through Hell guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. The second part of his poem ‘Purgatorio’ gave me the idea for the book’s setting. Dante with Virgil as his guide, climbs up the seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth that make up Mount Purgatory, until he finally reaches the earthly paradise of Eden. Allegorically Purgatoria symbolises the penitent Christian and Eden represents the attainment of the state of innocence that existed before Adam and Eve fell from Grace – which Dante’s journey represents. In my story Richard achieves Eden but is unwilling to take the final step to Heaven; his mentor Father Gilbert makes him re-examine the reasons for this reluctance.
Your book takes the reader deep into Richard’s psyche – what made you decide to tell his story in this way?
I wanted the reader to hear Richard’s voice; to watch him being honest with himself; to listen to his innermost thoughts; share his pain as he examines his conscience and considers his actions. I wanted the reader to see the king pared back to the man himself and for the contemporary reader to be able to identify with him as a ‘warts and all’ human being. I also wanted to do my own little part in trying to redress the balance – the victor always writes history – for too long the strident voices of Tudor enthusiasts and traditional historians have coloured the image of Richard the deepest black.
The other main protagonist in your novel is the fictional character of Father Gilbert – where did he come from?
I intended Father Gilbert to make only a brief appearance in the novel – he was to act as Richard’s celestial guide into Purgatory and then disappear. He wouldn’t allow this to happen, he kept reappearing in my mind – insisting that he should stay in the story to be Richard’s mentor and friend – to make sure that Richard won out in the end. It was natural for me to make him a Franciscan monk – the Order was sympathetic to the Yorkists. I believe that one of Richard’s personal chaplains came from the Franciscan Order. Thinking further about him – I perhaps subconsciously modelled him on Dante’s poet guide in Purgatoria.
Was it hard to have a fictional character interact with an historical character?
When writing about actual historical characters one has to be careful as their lives and the events that they took part in are already all mapped out but I found it relatively easy to weave Father Gilbert into the story – as he took no part in Richard’s past life – he was an observer and a vehicle with which I could take readers into Richard’s mind…and of course he was his guardian angel who was intent on making sure that Richard received natural justice.
Why did you have Edward IV’s sons murdered in your book and have Richard shouldering the blame for their deaths?
I’ve always felt that the Duke of Buckingham killed the boys – either to curry greater favour with Richard or as the tool of John Morton, Bishop of Ely and Margaret Beaufort. I got the idea from a well-known story about Henry II and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. In a fit of rage against Becket, Henry shouted ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest.’ On hearing these carelessly spoken words, four of his knights took it upon themselves to murder Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. When I remembered it, I thought – ‘what if Richard were to carelessly express regret for the existence of the boys and Buckingham overheard him?’ This, and the existence of two mysterious unidentified children’s stone coffins, located in a small adjoining chamber in Edward IV’s tomb in St George’s Chapel, Windsor – gave me my raison d’etre.
Did you find any part of the story difficult to write?
The battle scene which takes place towards the end of chapter one was hard to write – I was determined to give Richard a small taste of victory and had to get him past Henry Tudor’s bodyguard of Pikemen. Having been told by a very knowledgeable Ricardian historian that this was impossible, I had to make it both possible and plausible – my husband’s (a military veteran) practical knowledge about battle readiness helped me to overcome that problem. The other scene that I found difficult to write is at the beginning of Chapter two – where Richard relives his own death – writing it really made my heart hurt.
How do you research? What secondary resources did you use?
I try to immerse myself in the lives of the characters I am going to write about. For this novel living in North Yorkshire, near to the places that have such a close association with Richard, it was relatively easy to spend many pleasurable afternoons in and around Middleham Castle imagining what Richard’s life there was like. Walking the ramparts of York’s city walls, I could see the mustering of his volunteer troops in front of Monk Bar after news of Edward IV’s death and the Woodville grab for power reached him and whilst enjoying a cup of tea and some scones in the Jervaulx Abbey Tearooms, I could see him at worship in the great abbey church. The secondary sources that I used were Paul Murray Kendall’s ‘Richard III,’ his writing style made Richard the man very real to me. Anne Carson’s ‘Richard III The Maligned King;’ Michael Jones’ ‘Bosworth the Psychology of a Battle;’ John Ashdown-Hill’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ and ‘The Mythology of Richard III,’ and of course The many scholarly articles to be found on The Richard III Society’s Website were all invaluable to me. As was the input of fellow Ricardian and Medieval Historian, Cris Connor – who kept me firmly on the straight and narrow with regard to Richard’s world and the Battle of Bosworth.
Given that he/she is dealing with actual events that have taken place and people who have lived, do you think a writer of historical fiction should stick strictly to the facts or is he/she justified in distorting history for dramatic licence?
Historical fiction makes history accessible; brings characters to life therefore, I feel that a historical fiction writer’s main responsibility is to respect history – be true to the events and the people about whom they have chosen to write. If they need to bend facts for dramatic licence – to suit their story, then they should be sure to acknowledge this in their Author’s Notes.
Is there any other character in Richard’s world that you find interesting?
I find Francis Viscount Lovell fascinating because he doesn’t strike me as having been the warrior type – he was a ward of Edward IV but there is very little record of his time under his control – there is no record of his knightly training; he did not fight at Barnet or Tewkesbury – although he did take part in the border skirmishes against Scotland. He seems to have been content to be a friend and advisor to Richard – an administrator in the background a total contrast to the ambitious Duke of Buckingham. I’ve read somewhere that he had a fascination for books and spent a great deal of time in monastery libraries. After Bosworth he could easily have thrown in the towel; taken the oath of loyalty to Henry Tudor, as many of his contemporaries did, and then continued living a rich and easy life. Instead he chose to become of a hunted fugitive, doing his best to organise rebellion and drive the Tudor out of England back from whence he came. The extreme grief and outrage Lovell must have felt about the manner of Richard’s death and the vile treatment of his corpse – especially when he learned that his own stepfather William Stanley had betrayed his friend, transformed this man of peace into an avenging angel who was quite a thorn in Henry Tudor’s side. It’s sad that he didn’t succeed but he had no experience as a military commander and no knowledge of battle strategy.
What’s next for you as an author?
Well…I’m in somewhat of a quandary. I put aside a romantic murder mystery set during the Napoleonic Wars to write ‘Renaissance.’ I had six chapters already written and the rest of the novel meticulously plotted out. I promised myself that I would return to it as soon as Richard’s story was told but now ideas for a sequel are running around my head – about Francis Lovell. I am also involved in a project with my writing group ‘Skell Scriveners’ in putting together a poetry and prose anthology on different themes – our deadline for publication is the end of 2018. So here I am with a published novel, one partially written, another in the planning stage and a commitment to a further writing project – which do I tackle first? Is it possible to tackle them simultaneously? And then there also the promotion and marketing of ‘Renaissance’ which is a pretty steep learning curve for me.
In the short time since its publication, Renaissance has been well received in the Book-Reading Community. In May it received the recommendation and seal of approval of the ‘Discovering Diamonds’ team of Reviewers – not only for the novel itself but they also declared it winner of the month for Book Cover Design. And on June 6th Renaissance was announced as one of the winners in the Fiction Category of the ‘Words for the Wounded – Georgina Hawtrey-Woore National Literary Award.’ Can you tell us a little more about them?
Discovering Diamonds is a Review Blog founded by Author Helen Hollick. Their aim is to showcase historical fiction written by Indie and Self-Published Authors who do not have the marketing back-up of the big publishing houses – although traditionally published novels are welcome also. The Discovering Diamonds team are fussy in their selections – to quote the words on their website: “We only publish reviews of the best books, so we also take note of correct presentation and formatting, as well as the quality of the writing – and when space and time are limited we may only select a few books a month to review. If your book is selected to be reviewed then you know it is of an approved status.” Their chosen novels receive the Discovering Diamonds logo and are mentioned on Twitter – @HelenHollick – look for #DDRevs and Facebook.
The Words for The Wounded – Georgina Hawtrey-Woore Literary Award for Independent Authors (a charity that helps members of the Armed Forces who have suffered serious mental or physical injury) is judged by published authors; literary agents and editors. It is in remembrance of a senior editor at Cornerstone, Penguin Random House, who sadly died of breast cancer a few years ago. Georgina worked with authors such as Katie Fforde; Kathy Reichs; Susan Lewis; Karin Slaughter and Dilly Court to name but a few. This makes the award very special to me as I am a breast cancer survivor and married to a military veteran.
It is almost impossible to describe my delight about the way in which Renaissance has been received – I loved writing the story and am so very gratified that those who have read it have taken time to leave their very complimentary reviews on Amazon and Social Media – in addition there is the very great satisfaction of receiving the recommendation of my peers.