Tuesday, August 9, 2011
In a Treacherous Court -- Interview with Michelle Diener
Today's guest is historical fiction author Michelle Diener. About Michelle, I don't know what's more intriguing, the fact that she was born in London and brought up in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, or that she's written such a compelling novel! Five Scribes readers, please welcome Michelle Diener.
DB.: Michelle, it's such a pleasure. IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, your publisher couldn't have come up with a more apt title. Still, your unpublished title of ILLUMINATIONS fits well, too. Was your original title hard to give up?
M.D.: It was hard for probably all of ten minutes, because I had never thought of the book as anything else, and my publisher and editor were happy with it, too. But when they came up with IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, I saw immediately that the old title, ILLUMINATIONS, was only powerful if you had read the book, or knew a lot about it, but if you didn't, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, said a lot more about the book, and that was what mattered.
D.B.: IN A TREACHEROUS COURT combines the lives of a Flemish painter, Mistress Susanna Horenbout and John Parker, the King's Keeper of the Palace of Westminster and his Yeoman of the Crossbows, one of Henry VIII's most trusted courtiers, or perhaps more simply, he's the "King's Man."
Susanna comes from a family of illuminators, studied under her father who painted for Margaret of Austria, and though equally talented, has lived in the shadow of her brother, Lucas. Until her father allows her to travel to England, at King Henry's behest to serve as the King's painter. Aboard the ship, however, as a man dies in Susanna's arms, he whispers a secret involving a deadly plot against the throne. Have I got it right so far?
M.D.: You do. :) Most likely, Henry would have sent a request for someone from Gerard Horenbout's atelier (his studio) to come and work for him, and I made it both impossible to send Lucas because he is away in Germany, and also fortuitous for Susanna's parents to send her, to get her away from a situation they don't like. That she is the one who was sent seems clear to art historians, though, because she was definitely at Henry's court before her brother and father. Unfortunately the records on what she did are gone.
D.B.: I have so many questions about this novel, I don't know where to start, so let's begin with Susanna Horenbout and John Parker. These two were actual historical figures. I believe they may have even been married? What made you take these two individuals and put them into a historical romantic suspense? Was there any evidence in your research that said these two were involved in such treachery?
M.D.: They were definitely married. That's how art historians realized Susanna was sent to Henry's court first. The record of her marriage precedes her father and brother's journey to Henry's court. As for the treachery and danger I put them in, no. There is so little information on them anyway, and certainly none that involves them in a plot against the throne. But it was a dangerous time and Parker was a courtier who would have had plenty of access to the King, so my plot is possible.
D.B.: And I certainly like the version you came up with! What I thought was particularly innovative and non-cliched in your writing is that neither of your protagonists was of noble birth, although as an artist and as a courtier, they were well-bred. Susanna is one of the most intriguing historical heroines I've ever read (imagine, a 16th century feminist). You aptly describe what she might have endured trying to fit into King Henry's court, and what in that era belonged to a man's profession.
In the story, Parker grew up on the docks, and at one point, came to the King's aid. You write about this so seamlessly, I'd like to know: Is it true that King Henry as a young man went out alone with only a companion? And did Parker actually come to the king's rescue? In other words, how much of this is true and how much was creative license?
M.D.: The part about Parker coming to the King's rescue I made up, but it is definitely true that Henry VIII liked to wander the streets of London dressed as a commoner. Disguises and taking on the appearance of someone else was something he loved, and would incorporate into the many plays and pageants that were staged at court. He would often appear in the plays himself, dressed as an old man, or some other character, and then delight in throwing off his disguise to reveal it was him.
He did this to an unsuspecting Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, who had never met him before, and her reaction of dismay and confusion was one of the things that soured their marriage from the start.
But it definitely seems he would disguise himself and wander about the streets, although I can't imagine he would be foolish enough not to take at least one person with him. In my account, he takes his best friend, Charles Brandon. It seemed very possible that he might find himself in a sticky situation in what were dangerous times, and a very dangerous city, and as the scene I wrote had Henry actually courting danger, it wasn't anything of a stretch to see that he might have needed some help if things got violent.
D.B.: I love when authors place historical figures in books. One of my favorites is Barbara Erskine's LADY OF HAY. At the end of the book there are pages of indexing citing her research. Will you talk about how much research went into IN A TREACHEROUS COURT? Is this the first novel in which you've placed historical figures? And how difficult was it to stay true to what they did in history?
M.D.: I loved LADY OF HAY, too, Donnell. I've been to Haye-on-Wye, and loved it all the more for what I knew about it from that book. I have written a book where the main characters were fictional, but a number of the secondary characters were real historical figures, and the main event in the book was a real historical event. IN A TREACHEROUS COURT was my first book where almost all the characters were based on real people.
The research for IATC was focused on Susanna Horenbout, and so I went to great lengths to discover everything I could about her. Most of it is in art history or historical journals, and I managed to get my hands on every article out there I could find. There were also a few books that specialized in the history of the miniature painting, an art form the Horenbouts are credited with bringing to England, so I snapped those up, as well. I did research into illuminating and painting in the Renaissance, and then tackled the massive body of research available on the court of Henry VIII and Henry himself. It took me over six months of full-time research before I felt ready to start writing, and I was still researching as I got underway with the story.
D.B.: I can't imagine how daunting. Michelle, the suspense takes off from the start. You do a marvelous job of placing us in the 16th century as well as creating believable characters. Susanna's compassion to Parker's brusque exterior makes them an ideal pair to thwart this conspiracy, and with Susanna conceptualizing paintings everywhere she looks in the world around her, you certainly brought the artist to life.
Additionally, Parker's background makes him a natural born fighter, but he fits in with commoner and nobleman alike. And, readers, he's so smart. I loved how he turned street urchins paid to attack Susanna into allies, and, in essence, gave them a better life.
This was brilliant plotting, filled with sexual tension. I can't imagine writing such complicated, intricate plot in the mist. I see you with spreadsheets, and fumbling for your notes at every turn. True? False? Tell us about your writing process.
M.D.: Writing process? Am I meant to have one? :) I like to have a general idea about where the story is going in my head, but that's it. I waste a lot of time because I don't have a spreadsheet, probably because I am constantly rechecking facts and making sure any references I make are accurate, but I like letting the story develop organically.
D.B.: Has all of your work been historical in scope? What do you think is the biggest challenge historical authors face? And do you have any plans to write contemporary fiction?
M.D.: I have a few fantasies written. They mirror my love of fairy tales, and the setting, though magical, mirrors the 15th century and 16th century, so I guess they could be called historical fantasy. They aren't published (yet!).
As for the challenges historical authors face -- I think it is hard to balance all the research you do with what should end up in the book. I'm a firm believer in less is more. So I prefer to have a very solid idea of the world I'm writing about, and then write it without explanation, and let that mental image I have in my head of what the clothes, rooms, palaces looked like come through on the page without fanfare and flourish. So the reader gets their sense of place from what the characters are seeing, experiencing and doing, not from an information dump by the author. I don't want to intrude as an author.
A few months ago, I wrote an contemporary-set paranormal short story for inclusion in an anthology called ENTANGLED. My first foray into the contemporary genre. The anthology will be out around the end of September, early October this year, and all the proceeds will go to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. I'm thrilled and honored to be invited to contribute, and although I was nervous to write a contemporary story, it ended up being a lot of fun. So much fun, I have plans for a sequel. :)
D.B.: How do you vet your research? Do you have readers, critique partners? Do you correspond with experts?
M.D.: What I do is draw from peer-reviewed research -- articles from academic historical journals and art history journals -- and from well-respected historical references sources, as well as primary sources. Letters and Papers, the compilation of letters and records from Henry's reign, features heavily in my research. When I really cannot find something I want, I've emailed experts, like a specialist in residence at Westminster, and the Tower of London. I am constantly amazed at how generous and sharing they are.
D.B.: This is your debut novel, and you have been contracted to write book two. What's its title? Will it have the same characters? If you can, tell us about that plot.
M.D.: The second book is called KEEPER OF THE KING'S SECRETS. Susanna and Parker are the main protagonists again, and the plot deals with the aftermath of what happened in the first book. The outcome of IN A TREACHEROUS COURT results in a shady deal done by a person very high up in the hierarchy of Henry's court with the King of France before he was captured by the emperor Charles I, turning very, very bad. KEEPER OF THE SECRETS has Parker and Susanna scrambling to avert a war with France and involves a very interesting French assassin.
D.B. Sounds intriguing as IATC! Congrats. Finally, Michelle, as you know Five Scribes is a blog for writers. Tell us how long it's taken you to go from aspiring to published author, and what advice would you give to writers?
M.D.: I turned my mind to writing seriously in 2001. But I had a number of false starts. I was also establishing my own small business at the time, and fell pregnant that year, too. I had always written, always seen myself as a writer, even when I was a child, but I expected the muse to show up before I went to work. Deciding to get serious meant I had to learn to write even when I didn't feel like it, and that was a hard and long process. I started submitting work in 2004, and I accepted agent representation in 2009, and my agent sold IN A TREACHEROUS COURT over Christmas in 2009. I got the call in early January 2010, after my editor got back to the office.
If I have one piece of advice, it is never settle in your work, strive to make it as good as you can, and never, ever give up.
Hear that readers? Advice you should take to the keyboard.
Michelle Diener currently lives on the west coast of Australia with her husband and two children. When she's not writing or driving her kids to activities, you can find her blogging at Magical Musings, or online at Twitter and Facebook.
Interviewer's Note: IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, Michelle Diener uses history, in particular, the very backdrop of King Henry's inability to produce a male heir and his philandering ways against him. With treachery arising in the upper echelons of his court, the conspiracy transcends to France and even the Pope as the King's enemies seek to bring about his downfall. It also ends with a satisfying romance I know readers will love.
So how about you? Do you like to read historical novels where actual historical figures take center stage? Questions or comments will enter you in a drawing to win IN A TREACHEROUS COURT. Be sure to leave your e-mail address. Also, unfortunately, since Michelle is out of the U.S. her publisher must send the book out and has stipulated U.S. residents only.
Thanks for being here, Michelle & to all, Happy Writing. ~ Donnell
Congratulations to Ellis Vidler. She won Michelle Diener's debut, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT.