An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 26, 2015

"My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times:" an Interview with Candace Robb

Emma CampionCandace Robb is author of the Owen Archer detective novels, set in late-fourteenth-century York, and the Margaret Kerr detective fiction series, set in Scotland at the time of Edward I's invasion. Writing as Emma Campion, she is the author of the novels The King's Mistress and A Triple Knot, both set during the reign of Edward III. Candace spoke to Michael Evans, an assistant editor of Medievally Speaking, about novels, history, and 'the ethics of historical fiction.' 

ME: Tell us a little about your background in medieval studies, and how you came to write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. 

CR: I did my graduate work in English literature with a strong concentration in medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature and history. I received my MA and completed the coursework for a PhD in English lit and then… There’s a saw about climbing up to the top rung of a ladder only to discover it’s propped against the wrong tree; but, for me, I’d say I’d climbed the ladder and suddenly saw the forest and wanted to take off and fly from tree to tree, to experience it all, not limit myself to the one I’d climbed. My engagement in the literature had inspired a burning curiosity about how it was to live in those times; the people seemed so like me and, at the same time, so different. But my university was not set up for an interdisciplinary doctorate in medieval studies. So I left. I became an editor of research publications in a university laboratory where I had easy access to a fine research library. I continued my studies in all things medieval and haven’t stopped. Had I been able to assemble an interdisciplinary committee for my dissertation, there might never have been an Owen Archer, Lucie Wilton, Magda Digby, Margaret Kerr, Emma Campion…. My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times. And it didn’t hurt that Ursula LeGuin encouraged me in that direction in a writing workshop years ago. 

ME: How do you see the intersection between ‘academic’ history, and the role of the historical fiction author? Can academic history inform the historical fiction writer, and vice versa?

CR: Academic history is essential to me, which is why I make the pilgrimage to the Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan U almost every May, and often attend the Leeds congress as well. I also stay in touch with a number of academics working in history and literature, and I read read read. I base my fiction on educated guesses based on others’ research; my motivation remains the same—to explore with my imagination how it was to live in the late middle ages. What I add to the mix is the emotion, the heart. I start with facts about the times, and then spin out a speculative yarn, one that entertains. My sleuth Owen Archer was inspired by an article about the longbow. Thinking about the strength and skill it required. How King Edward valued the Welsh longbowmen. How one of them might rise in the ranks. How important, to a right-handed archer his left eye would be… All this came from reading someone’s research on the longbow. 

As to whether historical fiction can inform academic history, I’d say a novelist might perform the same function as students who ask question after question in class or write imaginative papers. Fresh questions are a wellspring, after all, triggering new ideas, speculation. It’s fun to imagine a historian looked up from one of my books with an 'aha'! Maybe something I said about King Edward’s determination that William Wykeham should be the Bishop of Winchester suggested a closer look (The King’s Bishop); or my toying with John Gisburn’s reputation as a merchant and mayor of York in several of the Owen Archers; or Joan of Kent’s burning question for Archbishop Thoresby in A Vigil of Spies

ME: It seems to me that historical fiction authors take their research very seriously – for example, your author’s note at the end of A Triple Knot contains footnotes referring to scholarly sources. How much of a duty does the author have to ‘get it right’? How much authorial license does he or she have to alter events, or at least to fill in the gaps in the historical record? 

CR: A caveat: I answer this in light of my own work, my own goal in writing historical fiction. I see altering events and filling in the gaps as two quite different activities.  

A Triple Knot book coverWhen writing about Joan of Kent or Alice Perrers I could not write a coherent narrative without filling in the gaps—the historical record for Joan and Alice is too sparse. So I see filling in the gaps as connecting the dots with plausible motives, incidents, catalysts, emotions that lead from one known point to the next. The gaps can involve largely unimportant but intriguing facts, such as how and why Alice Perrers acquired such a quantity of pearls (The King’s Mistress), or more significant issues, such as the decisions I made about just what sort of “garter” is immortalized in the Order of the Garter, and the origin of the Countess of Salisbury garter incident (A Triple Knot). 

Altering events that are in the historical record doesn’t interest me. In writing the biographical novels, The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot; and in the Margaret Kerr series, I stuck to the facts as closely as possible, though filtered through a point-of-view character whose interpretation is necessarily personal. In the Owen Archer mysteries I steer clear of the famous, well-documented incidents so that I can enjoy more freedom in plotting. Well, except for allowing John Thoresby to extend his time as Lord Chancellor for some years. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play with that. 

A while ago I was invited to give a talk about writing historical fiction at Cornell University, after which members of the philosophy department joined me in a round table. Our topic was the ethics of historical fiction, and we agreed that my unspoken but implied contract with my readers is that I do my best to present a plausible, carefully researched historical background.

The Author’s Note is the spot in which most historical novelists state where we’ve taken authorial license. Just to keep the record straight. 

ME: In our post-modern age, the pursuit of ‘historical truth’ might be seen as impossible, yet I see readers of historical fiction – and history-lovers in general – on social media or online forums getting very upset if an author or film-maker takes liberties with history. Does ‘historical accuracy’ matter? 

CR: Does historical accuracy matter? It depends on what the artist is after. In my case, it’s pretty much the point, isn’t it?  I write out of my enthusiasm for what has been discovered about the late medieval period. 

I’m not entirely clear about what you’re saying about the post-modern age and “historical truth.” Are you referring to how quickly new evidence is uncovered and disseminated? How can I possibly keep up? If so, yes, that’s an issue. I know it’s very likely that what I thought of as quite accurate might very well be disproved down the road. That’s why I keep returning to my motive as an artist—I’m feeding my curiosity and having fun fashioning it into entertainment. I was already quite far into the first draft of The King’s Mistress when Mark Ormrod turned up evidence that “Perrers” was not Alice’s maiden name, but the name of her first husband. I made the choice at the time, finding the new information irresistible, to start over. But my editor had the edited manuscript in hand when Mark told me that he’d changed his mind about some dates; at that point I chose to stay with what I had. Or maybe it was my editor—I do recall her reminding me that I’d written a novel, not a dissertation. 

ME: I was thinking of the argument that it’s impossible to arrive at ‘historical truth’; instead, we only have a number of competing discourses about the past, all of which carry the biases of the people who created them. How does this affect the historical fiction author? 

CR: The more I ponder this question, the more I doubt there is any such thing as “historical truth”. The truth of the human condition is something art can suggest, but I don’t think anyone, including an archivist strictly reporting the facts, can ever deliver the Truth of a specific historic event. No one can, not even one who was present—each participant had a unique experience. 

So, how do I answer this? Of course I tend to trust historians who share my bias; yet I question even their theories. There is nothing like putting it into motion in a plot for exposing the holes in a theory. But I don’t see this as a change, something unique about the post-modern age. “Truth” is slippery. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never tried my hand at non-fiction! Even now, in this conversation, we’re role-playing, aren’t we?  I’ve gone off point again, I know—perhaps we’re simply more aware of the futility in the post-modern age. 

ME: You are best known for your Owen Archer series. Do you see a connection between the role of a detective such as Owen, and that of the author or historian in their search for elusive historical evidence?

CR: Oh yes, absolutely! I’ve honed my skill as an interrogator by spending so much time in the mind of a sleuth. I question everything, even the conclusions of scholars I respect (see above)! And that’s the delight of writing for me—I’m always reaching for that elusive idea just at the edge of the story. I write in layers of 'ahas'! I discover the story and the secrets of my characters as I go. Something seemingly insignificant that I add to the story today will wake me up tonight with a startling connection to something else. The seed event for the Countess of Salisbury story regarding the garter that I wove into A Triple Knot took shape in my mind as I wrote—I hadn’t planned it. I read the scholarly opinions and wound up with my own, but based on everything I’d read. The best sleuths are independent thinkers, aren’t they? Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes—they’re always irritating people with seemingly irrelevant questions.  

ME: Can an author – or an academic historian, for that matter – ever truly get inside the head of a figure from the medieval past? Or are our ways of thought too different from theirs?

CR: Can anyone ever truly get inside another’s head? Even our contemporaries? I enjoy trying to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows nothing of technology, who perhaps can’t read or write, who may never have traveled more than a few miles from their homes. But am I accurate? Perhaps a little, perhaps more than that. I enjoy the attempt. Perhaps the reason I found this work so engaging and accessible is that I’d been steeped in the literature of the period—songs, poems, epics, sermons. At the end of the day, as the author of trade fiction my primary job is to entertain my contemporaries, so my characters need to make sense to them. 
ME: Historical fiction is written off as genre fiction by some critics. Do you see this changing, especially following the critical success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels?

CRAll good writing deserves respect. 

ME: I agree – I think there can be a false dichotomy between ‘literary’ and ‘historical’ fiction. After all, Dickens, Flaubert, Dumas etc. wrote ‘historical’ novels. 

Which novelists have influenced your work?

CR: I don’t consciously follow anyone’s style, though I sometimes hear cadences of Anne Sexton’s poetry or Tom Stoppard’s dialogue and wonder whether I’ve read Transformations or seen (and read) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead too often. I believe that it was Marchette Chute’s children’s book The Innocent Wayfaring that brought to the foreground the medieval setting of so many fairy tales and stirred my curiosity about Chaucer. But if you mean whose writing I love, whose books inspired my own attempts at writing, oh, so many! I have eclectic taste. Early influences—E. Nesbit, Margaret Sutton (the Judy Bolton detective series), Madeleine L’Engle (I wrote to invite her to my Brownie Scouts meeting when I was presenting a book report on A Wrinkle in Time—she cordially declined). Soon I shifted to Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Stewart, Mary Renault, Anya Seton. Later, Ursula LeGuin, P. D. James, C. J. Cherryh (for making the strange feel familiar), Martha Grimes (the humor and the community of  characters), Colin Dexter (for Morse’s irritating questions), John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (for playing with stereotypes about the past), Raymond Chandler, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Thomas Hardy, J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll stop there. I think I’ve gone far past the point of your question. 

ME: Surveys such as Mary Tod’s suggest that the majority of historical fiction authors and readers are women. Why do you think this might be? 

CR: Hm… respondents were 83% female, 17% male, but does that have more to do with who’s more likely to answer such a survey, and be reached online, or who reads historical fiction? And it can’t help but vary according to the author, or even among an author’s books. I have a large Italian readership that isn’t even specifically represented here. I warn you, I performed horribly on multiple choice and true/false questions in school—my mind immediately begins spinning through possible exceptions. 

That said, if the statistics are true, perhaps this has as much to do with who editors perceive as the audience, and hence what they buy, as it does with what the market might support. And consider the covers, the headless woman in period dress (not necessarily the period of the novel) or the woman with her back to the observer. I’ve sensed editors increasingly playing to the female reader. Despite the popularity of the Owen Archer series, whenever I’ve suggested a new series my agents have recommended I choose a female sleuth. My fan “mail,” whether electronic or paper (increasingly rare), has a slightly higher male to female ratio for the Owen Archers, and reversed for the Margaret Kerrs, The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot

But I’ve noticed a number of self-published authors writing male-dominated books with heavily martial themes and little evidence, at least in the marketing copy or the covers, of romance. I wonder whether they simply could not get the attention of traditional publishers?

See? I always search for the exceptions to the apparent rule. It’s a fascinating survey, but my mind can’t rest there. 

ME: I’ve noticed the ‘headless woman’ trend recently. Do you have any thoughts about why this trend has come about? I worry that female identity is being erased by these covers that don’t show the woman as an individual – I am over-thinking this, or is this a real concern? 

CR: It’s ghastly, isn’t it? I asked my editor at Crown about it a few years ago. Her explanation was that readers don’t like to have the appearance of the heroine thrust upon them, so the publishers have chosen to either not show the heroine’s head at all, or just from the back (as with my two most recent trade paperbacks in the US). 

Yours is an interesting take. 

ME: Was there any feminist (however we wish to interpret that word) intent behind your desire to write about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent, given that both of them (Alice especially) have arguably been misrepresented by history?

CR: Yes, of course there was some feminist intent, but that motivation would not have gotten me far if I’d not found Alice and Joan strong, complicated women with stories that defied categorization. I once made the mistake of making light of Alice Perrers, in several of the Owen Archer novels; but even in those books I found her too slippery to stay in the cliché. She kept spinning away, changing the story. Joan of Kent has intrigued me ever since I read Karl P. Wentersdorf’s article “The Clandestine Marriages of the Fair Maid of Kent” (Medieval History 5, 1979, 203-131). And then, after exploring her in middle age in A Vigil of Spies (Owen Archer #10), and working with her as a fairly important character in The King’s Mistress, I could not resist the challenge of unraveling the story of her marriages. 

ME: Why do you think there is such an ongoing fascination among the reading public with the Middle Ages? 

CR: Pre-industrial, pre-technology, close enough in time and culture to be familiar and yet far enough in the past to be exotic? Dungeons and Dragons? Tolkien? George R. R. Martin? Armor? Knights? Owen Archer? Hah! (Shrug.) Fairy tales often feel as if they take place in a medieval setting, and, of course, Arthurian tales were read to us at bedtime. Perhaps it simply feels familiar. 

ME: Will we be seeing you at Kalamazoo [International Congress on Medieval Studies] this May?

CR: Yes, you will. Catch me in the roundtable sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society, 'From Frodo to Fidelma: Medievalisms in Popular Genres,' 1:30 Saturday. My topic is “Crimes and Conspiracies in Town and Court: Embodying Late Medieval Life”. See you there!

Michael Evans
Central Michigan University