Recently I was fortunate enough to win a copy of Annelisa Christensen's amazing book, The Popish Midwife. From page one, I was hooked. The book is a true story told in novel form, and tells of the little known life of Elizabeth Cellier, an unusual woman for her time in that she is an upper class Catholic midwife, married to a French Huguenot. It is a tale of treason, prejudice and betrayal that sees Elizabeth's inner strength tested to the core...
Hi Annelisa. Thank you for joining me. If you don't mind, I'll jump straight in...
What is the genre you are best known for?
That has to be historical fiction, since that’s the only genre I’ve yet published.
If your book, The Popish Midwife , was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
Apart from me, you mean? Ha ha. At one point while writing her story, I so strongly empathised with Elizabeth Cellier, the protagonist, I think I could easily have played her.
But, seriously, which actress… Difficult one. One choice might be Caitriona Balfe of Outlander. She’s adaptable and has a lot of passion. Whoever played Elizabeth Cellier would need passion, strength, boldness and a dash of sass. I think Caitriona could carry her off well. (Whilst reading the book, and still now some time later, the skill of the author is so great, I so strongly related to Elizabeth that I think I too could play her. Diana.)
What made you choose this genre?
I didn’t choose historical fiction, it chose me. I would never have had the confidence to write such a novel, but Elizabeth Cellier’s story demanded to be told. I won a 300 year old copy of her trial, loved the woman’s pluck and temerity and simply had to research her more. The puzzle of her story was scattered in many places, a piece of it here in the Popish Plot, a piece of it there in the study of authors of the past and another piece in her craft of midwifery. Putting them together gave a picture of an extraordinary woman whose tale is barely known today. Like I said, it was a story that needed to be told.
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
It sometimes makes me feel a bit of a fraud, because I pieced together The Popish Midwife from the different sources rather than plotting and planning (although it does have its fair share of real-life plots and sham-plots). The story was already there (in ‘Malice Defeated’ - Cellier’s own book, and in trial and court records, religious and session records, contemporary satires and personal letters). My novel uses many of the original situations and dialogue Cellier herself wrote. All the characters are there in the past too. I know some readers have become quite frustrated with Cellier, because she doesn’t always do what they think she should, but I haven’t changed her character to suit the novel. She is the novel.
Favourite picture or work of art?
This is going to sound corny, but I’m in love with the sky. It does sometimes seem that it’s a new canvas every day, and I love how our star, the Sun, shines through the clouds and creates such amazing sky-scenes. (Not corny. Beautiful! D.)
If, as a one off (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
Actually, I’ve already written a couple of novels that just need editing, and have another five in various states of completion, in a magical realism series called ‘The University of Lights’. I love the ideas in Sole Possession, the first novel of the series, which is based on a recurring dream. The others are all linked, but not necessarily chronologically. I plan to publish once I have all the story details down pat across the series.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
I’ve been writing since I was about eight, but then… life. I never put the pen down completely, but could never finish anything either. Finishing Sole Possession as an off-the-record NaNoWriMo in 2007 was amazing and gave me the confidence to go on.
The Popish Midwife was indeed one of those compelling ones that couldn’t be denied, and I’m glad I didn’t ignore the call. It opened the door to the other novels in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series (I’m currently writing The French Midwife) – stories of fascinating real people of the past.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
‘A bit every day’ is the way I write. Even more so, it’s the way I edit. I wrote the outline of The Popish Midwife in a month or so, but it took 4 years to edit and research all the little details. Two of my children had OCD and I had a heck of a lot of life stuff going on, including the death of my best friend and my mother, but I was determined to finish this one, and woke early every day to work on it.
Oh, and music? Don’t tell anyone… there’s one artist that gets me writing, but I rarely admit it to anyone as the music is not at all my normal taste. My dad used to play Demis Roussos when I was a kid, and I associated it with writing, so now I only have to hear it and I have the itch to get out my laptop and start pumping out the words!
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
Family always come first, but since my family are so supportive of my writing, the characters are a close second. If you read my acknowledgements at the end of TPM, you will see my kids put up with a lot!
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
Nope, that’s it. Writing full time is the one-and-only…
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
I like coffee but drink lots of tea. And wine isn’t wine unless it’s red, especially delicious if it’s home-made bramble and elderberry!
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
That depends. For the historical fiction, I research meticulously and stick to the story, so it’s more a case of making sure I’ve got it all in. For my magical realism stories, however, I only have a rough idea of where I want it to go then wing it!
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
I’m old-fashioned, and like good old-fashioned Times Roman, but I’m rather chuffed that I slipped ye olde English style for the headings. It might not be so readable, but it transports you right back in time the moment you see it. (I loved that too. D)
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
Right now? I’m looking for documents showing when The French Midwife came to England, where she first married, where her children were born. Is that too boring? Okay, how about a print of her? Oh yeah, my son found that for me last Christmas (Did I tell you what great kids I have? All four of them!).
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
Elizabeth Cellier certain did her own thing, even to the frustration of myself and others, placing not only herself in danger, but her husband and family. Thing is, she really did, and I was so tempted to write her up as a more thoughtful person, but then it wouldn’t have been her, would it? And I do prefer a character who doesn’t neatly fit into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ box.
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
OMG! I knew nothing about seventeenth century London when setting out to write The Popish Midwife. Nothing except that The Great Plague and The Great Fire of London were some time around then. I had to look up every. single. detail. I had no idea what people ate, what they wore, what the used for lighting or writing or smoking or travelling… I couldn’t take anything for granted, so if it went into the story, I double-checked whether it was right. I probably missed a couple of words or phrases that weren’t around 300 years ago, and maybe some other details I didn’t even know to check, but most everything else was verified where I could. 90% of that research was online, though I did take a trip to Great Missenden to see where Elizabeth Cellier came from, and also took a ‘The Popish Midwife’ tour of London to get a feel for where she lived and places she visited.
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
Not at all. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but if it did, I’d invite them in, sit them down and have ‘the talk’ with them why they can’t just barge in and take over someone else’s story! Then I’d send them out to the waiting room… seems to me that they’re there for a reason and might have their own story to tell! ( 😁 )
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
No. I like to tell the story as it was, or as close as possible to how it was. For me, that’s the fun of it, bringing history to life. Of course, you have to fill in between the facts, and that’s where you get to tie all that research together.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
When I’m immersed, it’s another world. I can be thinking ‘in-story’, trying to get to the heart of the characters’ actions, for big chunks of the day – driving, running, eating, working – so it does sometimes feel as if my life is being taken over by the story.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I fell for Elizabeth Cellier as a forward-thinking, humanitarian. I loved her sass and her tenaciousness, and her willingness to do what was right, even though it put her life in danger. I hope I would be so brave, but fear I’m not.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Anything but horror as long as it has a good story. Well, even horror, if you count Stephen King’s The Stand.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
How about a glass of mulled sac (mulled white wine drunk in C17th England), a cup of cider or a yard of ale? Otherwise, a dish of coffee would be appropriate.
Last but not least... favourite author?
I don’t think I can say other than Terry Pratchett. His books make me chuckle, and that doesn’t happen enough. A mention also for David (and Vivien) Eddings with the Mallorean and Belgariad series – the characterisations were brilliant. They are the only books I’ve ever read more than once.
About the book:
In seventeenth-century London, thirteen years after the plague and twelve years after the Great Fire, the restoration of King Charles II has dulled the memory of Cromwell's puritan rule, yet fear and suspicion are rife. Religious turmoil is rarely far from tipping the scales into hysteria.
Elizabeth Cellier, a bold and outspoken midwife, regularly visits Newgate Prison to distribute alms to victims of religious persecution. There she falls in with the charming Captain Willoughby, a debtor, whom she enlists to gather information about crimes against prisoners, so she might involve herself in petitioning the king in their name.
"Tis a plot, Madam, of the direst sort.'
With these whispered words Willoughby draws Elizabeth unwittingly into the infamous Popish Plot and soon not even the fearful warnings of her husband, Pierre, can loosen her bond with it.
This novel is the incredible true story of one woman ahead of her time and her fight against prejudice and injustice.
**AWARD WINNER for Christian Historical Fiction in the Readers' Favorite 2017 International Book Awards**
About Annelisa Christensen:
Award-winning author, contributor to Read My Mind magazine: Bringing history to life.
One day, several years ago, Annelisa bought some pages of a trial, merely to hold a piece of a 300-year-old book. That purchase changed her life. The defendant in the trial captivated her and her story demanded to be told. Annelisa's debut novel, The Popish Midwife, is based closely on the true story of Elizabeth Cellier, an extraordinary 17th century midwife.
Annelisa's research revealed Elizabeth to be known in three areas of interest - for being a woman writer when it was much frowned upon, for being caught in The Popish Plot and as a forward-thinking midwife - but her story was all in pieces and scattered. It was such an fantastic tale, Annelisa wanted to link it all together and share it with people of today. If Cellier could be all she was in a time of such prejudice and suppression, echos of our own time, how much more amazing would she be now when we have so much more freedom?
*The Popish Midwife won the bronze award in the Christian Historical Fiction category of the Readers' Favorite international book awards 2017*
Annelisa also writes poetry and story rhymes, and is currently writing The French Midwife, the second in The Seventeenth Century Midwives series, as well as a magical realism series (University of Lights).
© Diana Milne January 2017 © Annelisa Christensen December 2017