Friday, 5 September 2014

Louise E. Rule Interviews Australian Author Wendy J. Dunn

From the cover of _The Light in the Labyrinth_

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel.

In the winter of 1535, fourteen-year-old Kate Carey wants her family home. She thinks her life will be so much better with Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII's second wife and the aunt she idolises. Little does Kate know that by going to attend Anne Boleyn she will discover love and a secret that will shake the very foundations of her identity. An attendant to Anne Boleyn, Kate is also swept up in events that see her witness her aunt's darkest days. By the time winter ends, Kate will be changed forever.

Wendy J. Dunn
While she [Wendy J. Dunn] has a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channelling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors - possibly over three generations - had purchased land from both the Boleyn and the Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. it seems very likely Wendy's ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter - named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

Welcome Wendy to The Review Author's Interview. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

I would like to start by talking about your book cover.

Your book cover is impressive. Did you have any input into its design Wendy?

Close up detail of the picture from the cover
Thank you, Louise. Smile, I think the cover is impressive, too. The figure of the girl is taken from a painting called “The head of a Tudor Girl”, painted by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale in 1899.  I first saw and fell in love with this painting about two years ago. Ever since, I yearned to use the girl to represent Kate Carey on the cover of The Light in the Labyrinth. The other images on the cover are a symbolic peacock feather and, of course, the famous Anne Boleyn necklace. Can you see the blood on the necklace? That's the end result of trying to imagine how it would have looked after Anne Boleyn’s execution.

So, yes, I did have a lot of input into the design of the cover for my novel. But that’s also because Metropolis Ink is an extremely supportive publisher, made up of a wonderful partnership: Kurt Florman and David Major. David does the book layout and cover designs.  He, just like Kurt, always listens to his authors and works with them until they are completely happy with the look of their books. 

The title written in lower case ‘the light in the labyrinth
The sub title written in upper case ‘THE LAST DAYS OF ANNE BOLEYN

The colours of the lettering match the colours of Anne Boleyn’s English Gable Hood, making for a dramatic impact.

The main title colour matches the gold in her English Gable Hood, and the subtitle matches the red insert of her hood. This has a truly striking impact.

Background black with the symbolic peacock feather, which traditionally are linked to immortality and resurrection, and for this reason can be used in decorating a church at Easter.

There have been quite a few novels written about Anne Boleyn. She has proven to be a very enigmatic figure to many. What drew you to write about her Wendy?

Anne Boleyn has been part of my life since I was ten-years-old. As a very shy child, I was always drawn to Anne’s courage, her determination, her sharp intelligence and her strength of character that refused to wilt before strong men like Henry VIII. Her story, and that of her daughter, Elizabeth, lit a light of inspiration during all my growing up years.  But I never quite understood why her story spoke to me so deeply, or so loudly, until I started the journey of my PhD in 2010. Now I clearly see that I am drawn to historical feminist narratives, like that provided by the story of Anne Boleyn, because these stories connect deeply to my own experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Tudor women were educated that a virtuous woman was a silent woman. If they didn’t toe the line, they suffered the consequences. Sometimes, as in Anne’s case, the consequence was death.  I really believe Anne died because she refused to be silent.

The Light in the Labyrinth is my second novel that imagines Anne Boleyn’s story. Both this novel and my first, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, have left me questioning how much things have changed for women over the centuries. Women today are still punished because they refuse to be silent. In Australia, every week one woman dies through domestic violence. The story of Anne Boleyn has become a tool for me to critique my own society, and also opened my eyes to why the narratives of our world need to be rewritten so men and women walk side by side as equals. Until that happens, I don’t think the world will be able to find true healing.

It’s extremely interesting how you bring the reader into the story in media res, with Mary and Kate, and Kate angrily thinking:

 ‘Tis my mother’s fault. She’s the one who has brought shame on us. A sister of the Queen of England should know better than to wed a commoner.”

Thus achieving in one thought, just where we are in history. So, Wendy, would you like to tell our readers what gave you the inspiration to write this novel?

I wrote an essay about this very subject, which is included in The Light in the Labyrinth, Louise! A shorter version of the answer is that I believe writers grow by continually pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. 
Late in 2009, I went to a ten-minute play competition with a friend. The competition left both of us very inspired – and we challenged ourselves to write a play to enter in the 2010 competition. I really wanted to write a comedy – but I found all my ideas just went nowhere. Finally, with time disappearing on me and a new school term about to start, I picked up a copy of my first novel and found myself thinking about “Anne Boleyn in the Tower”, the painting used for its cover. Next thing I knew, I found myself writing a play that imagined the last night of Anne Boleyn’s life.

Remembering the hints from history that Katherine Carey may have been with her aunt, Anne Boleyn, during the lead up to her execution and also a witness to her death, I decided to include Kate Carey as one of my characters. After writing that play, I kept returning to the thought that Kate would make a great subject for the young adult novel I planned to write for my next major work. But before I could commit to writing another novel, I first had to do a lot of research to reassure myself that there was enough evidence to suggest Kate Carey was fourteen-years-old when her aunt was executed. Like Anne Boleyn, Kate is another woman from history with her birth year shrouded in uncertainty. For years, I believed she was most likely only twelve at the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution – too young, I thought, to be included as a witness to her aunt’s death, and one of the women responsible for ensuring that Anne Boleyn’s body was interned with all proper respect. But my research showed it was possible that Katherine Carey was fourteen in 1536 – a far more interesting age than that of a girl of twelve. Once I could believe that, I could begin my novel, which also became my PhD artefact, in earnest. 

You say that you have been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor history since being a child of ten-years-old. What drew you to this point in history Wendy?

I received a child's book of English history for my 10th birthday. In that book was a chapter about Elizabeth I. As Elizabeth Tudor was wont to do in her own lifetime, she hooked me - and I have stayed hooked ever since. From that point of time, I started to read and seek out everything I could find that would help me learn more about Elizabeth. That quest led to her mother, Anne Boleyn. Both these two remarkable women have been responsible for my lifelong study of the Tudors. 

As the history of Anne Boleyn is known by many, even if it’s only the fact that she was one of Henry VIII’s wives, what was your inspiration to making this novel new and fresh for your readers?

There are three parts to this answer. The first part has to do with Kate Carey. Very little is known about Kate Carey’s early life – and that offered a gap for my imagination to use to create a new fictional character, a character also based on a real person from history. The second part of this answer concerns the fictional construction of the last months of Anne Boleyn’s life. I think most people interested in Anne Boleyn wonder about the reasons for her tragic death. For myself, writing this story was my way to try to understand the real reasons Henry VIII murdered, yes, I see it as murder, a woman who he had turned his kingdom upside down to marry. I had mulled over this question for years, ever since I finished my first Tudor novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? It seemed far too simple to blame the events of 1536 on Anne Boleyn’s failure in the birthing chamber. The third involves my imagined Anne. She is not the Anne of The Other Boleyn Girl or Wolf Hall. My Anne is not perfect. She makes mistakes, like all of us, and says things out of anger, jealousy and heartbreak. But my Anne is also an extremely intelligent, very human woman who deserves love and respect. I have researched Anne for decades now. The more I study her, the more I respect her, and recognise that Elizabeth I is very much her mother’s daughter. 

I thought I would concentrate here a little on Kate, the daughter of Mary, their relationship of which is palpable in its intensity. How much of their relationship comes from perceived knowledge, and how much is from your inspired imagination?

From both: perceived knowledge and imagination. I constructed my imagined Kate through my knowledge of her mother and her aunt. But as I have already mentioned, very little is known of Kate’s early life. So the relationship of mother and daughter was very much a product of my imagination.

Kate is a very strong character in your book. It’s quite revealing of her thoughts to show her writing in a journal. Given this aspect, what gave you the idea to have Kate writing in this way, or was it a well know aspect of life in that time?

This also came from my knowledge of both Anne and Mary Boleyn. We have in existence a letter written by the young Anne Boleyn to her father when she was in service to Margaret of Austria. We also know Anne Boleyn wrote poetry – and then there is that heart wrenching letter from “the Lady from the Tower”. Whilst it is debated whether this letter is indeed from Anne, I believe it rings with too much truth and bewilderment for it not to be from Anne’s own pen.

We also have a letter to Thomas Cromwell by Mary Boleyn, then Mary Stafford. So, in a time when many in nobility struggled to put pen on paper (reading was a far easier skill to learn), we have physical evidence that Anne and Mary wrote letters. It is such a shame we have lost Anne Boleyn’s letters to Henry VIII, but the very fact we have his love letters indicates a correspondence between them. It was this simple fact that Anne and Mary wrote letters, added to my knowledge of the Devonshire Manuscript, a shared book passed around a group of men and women at Henry VIII’s court, many of them also Kate’s kin, that gave the idea of that Kate would likely know how write as a teenager. That helped me decide on using the device of the journal to help to tell Kate’s story.

As the reader scans the page, it is evident when Kate is writing in her journal by the change in the font, which is an extremely effective device for the reader to recognise that moment. I read her journaling almost as though it were a soliloquy, an aside to the reader. Was this your intention?

Thank you, Louise – that was my exact intention, and I’m utterly delighted that you, as a reader, connected to the journal in this way. I saw the journal as a device to deepen the connection between Kate and the reader – and a way to include sections of first person narration, which research suggest is more appealing to the young adult reader.

Many readers are keen to know the routines of writers. So to that end, may I ask you if you have a set routine to your writing day? If so, could you tell us how your day runs please Wendy?

At the moment, I’m taking a break between The Light in the Labyrinth and submitting my PhD before starting in earnest my next novel. My family is the centre of my existence, so it is lovely to have more time available for them. But I also need to write. For big novel projects, I make a habit of going away to writing retreats so I can focus utterly on my work. Varuna, The Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains in Australia is perfect for this. Writers write in their rooms from 9 am to 6 pm. There is no phone in the house, and all mobiles have to be switched to silent. After 6 pm, everyone emerges from their rooms and eat a wonderful Varuna dinner together, cooked by a very special woman. (I miss you, Shelia!) Writers share their daily triumphs or frustrations, and sometimes read from their work-in-progress.

At home, I generally work when my family are not around– between 9 am to 3 pm. When I am deeply in a project, I will often return to my study around 7.30 and work until 9.30. 
The editing and proofreading process is a very meticulous task, as I’m sure you will agree, Wendy, so it would be interesting to know how you tackle your proofreading/editing process?

Writers of fiction need passion to dig out the clay to make the bricks of narrative. Passion gives writers drive and purpose – the reason to write. Second, third and fourth drafts call for more and more objectivity until your creation is ready for the eyes of publishers.
I always write the first drafts of my work for myself. That’s my time to experiment, and play around with ideas. It is when I arrive at later drafts I turn my thoughts to what needs to be done to ensure I engage readers other than myself.
When I arrive at second or third drafts, the task of writing begins to feel more like a collaborative project. I don’t believe writers can do their best work in the vacuum of isolation. I am fortunate to have critical friends who I can go to for feedback about my work. For The Light in the Labyrinth, I not only had my PhD supervisors as critical friends, but a group of fellow writers and dear friends who also critiqued my work through its various stages. Of course, the writer of the work is always in the drivers seat. I take full responsibility for all the decisions made in writing this novel.
One thing I have found very useful to help proofread my work is to read it out loud. My brain has a terrible habit of seeing words in sentences I’ve really left out, but reading it aloud helps me catch those missing words. Another useful technique is to put your work away for a time and then come back to it to read it with fresh eyes. When we have just been working on something, it is difficult to see it clearly and objectively. I also think that every new draft pushes a work to the next stage because the writer becomes more and more certain of the direction of their story.
Writing fiction is all about surrender. To arrive at that point needs discipline, and the mental space to dream stories onto the page. My creative habits continually change. Nowadays, I need a fair amount of silence to write a first draft. I need to hear my thoughts and take them to a place where I can turn them into words on a page. My whole body is involved in the creative process. I am forever testing out my text, tasting, savouring words, to see if they make me vibrate. I put myself in the same space as my characters, to feel their pain, their joy – their experience of being. 

Finally, Wendy, is there anything else that you would like to tell our readers about your writing process?

Probably not so much about the process, but a final word about why I write. Writing has taught me that I use historical fiction as a way to tell my own story, as a woman who has lived the experience of being shaped by her culture, who also has known oppression and – in her growing up years – being deemed to have less value than the males in her world.  A woman who believes in writing as a space that creates and builds empathy – not only for the reader, but for the writer, too. 

Wendy, it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, and extremely interesting and very informative too. Thank you so much for joining me at The Review today, and may I wish you all success with your new book, _The Light in the Labyrinth_
Wendy's book is published by Metropolis Ink

Wendy J. Dunn is also author of _Dear Heart, How Like You This?
Wendy can be found on Facebook,  and Twitter and on her blog and Goodreads

Louise E. Rule is the author of Future Confronted
Louise can be found on Facebook and Twitter,
and on her blog and Goodreads

Louise E. Rule