Monday, 31 March 2014

Linda Root reviews The Dead Virgins by K.M. Ashman

The Dead Virgins
by Kevin Ashman

A review by Linda Root

Please see below for giveaway details!

Kevin (K.M.) Ashman combines his skill as a historical novelist with his ability as a natural storyteller in his well-constructed, two-plotted tale The Dead Virgins.  He also builds enough interest in his contemporary  characters India and Brandon to lure us to the sequel which is now high on my “to be read” list.  With a strong devotion to historical accuracy in my own books, I applaud Ashman’s research into Nero’s Rome and the highly interesting subject of the Vestal Virgins, whose  exact role in Roman culture remains enigmatic. I did cringe a bit at the use of the term “okay “ coming from the lips of Romans of the first century A.D.  Also, because my own novels are set in Reneaissance and Early Modern Scotland,  I winced at the use of popular modern swear words which rank among the  unique contributions of 15th and 16th century Scots to modern English vocabulary. There were Roman versions of all three words, fuquo, for example.  That Ashman uses the modern Scots version is a matter of creative license, and not something that substantially detracts from the book to anyone but a Latin scholar. Perfectionists might suggest an additional line edit,  but the occasional  glitches occurring  for the most part at the beginning of the story are easily overlooked by anyone who is not reading with a blue pencil stuck behind the ear.

 It is notable that The Dead Virgins is presented with a title and cover true to the story. Perhaps I am being excessivly analytical, but to me, the title The Dead Virgins  communicates  a subtle and enticing hint of the historical which would not be present  had the book been entitled Dead Virgins, and which provides a clue that Ashman’s  dead virgins are going to be special.

There are two timelines to this novel – one occuring in Britain in 2010 and the other, in Rome and Roman Britannia  during Nero’s reign. Ashman treats the logistic challenges especially well.  The reader experiences no confusion in knowing into which storyline he or she has been deposited when there is a change in point of view and setting. Another notable feature of Ashman’s work and this book especially is that it is not overly populated with ancillary characters who do not move the plot ahead. The  principal Roman characters-- the Vestal Rubria, the centurion and the female slave are believable and I was delighted with Ashman’s development of a love interest that satisfies all three.

In the part of the tale set in modern times, the co-protagonists Brandon and India are at first glance somewhat stereotypical,  he being the undercover operative seeking to recover a missing child, and she being the researcher who is drawn to help him because of the possible existence of an important first century artifact.  Ashman saves them from becoming clones of other writers who use similar combinations of female scholar and male strongman by keeping their relationship professional  and their approaches to the issues consistent with their individual biographies. I would have liked to have seen a different resolution of the role of the taxi driver but the one Ashman chooses is the more realistic. He also resists giving superhuman strengths or flawless morals to his heroes. I am less enchanted by the character India Sommers, but encouraged that Ashman has not written her as if she were a runway model with a Ph.D.

As someone who has worked in the past with traumatized childen, I appreciated the manner in which Ashman brings the kidnapped minister’s niece into the story without overdoing it. Missing children seem to sell books, but this particular storyline could have been ruined by a third subplot.  All in all, I will be reading the sequels  based on the teaser at the end of the first book in the series, as well as my curioisity as to where India Sommers and Brandon Walker are going to take us in The Treasures of Suleiman.

The author is also graciously offering a free copy of The Dead Virgins to one lucky winner! To get your name in the hat for the drawing, simply comment below. Facebook users may also comment here

Kevin Ashman’s books can be found on Amazon.

Linda Root is the author of the five books of the Queen of Scots Suite, including 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, coming in April 2014. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunday Wrap Up: Week Ending March 30, 2014

This week at The Review we've done a spot of travelling--through time and across the globe, to get a bit of insight into a variety of circumstances, the sorts that birth new ideas or shape the people we become, direct us toward what kinds of stories we wish to hear or tell, read or write. While not all these circumstances are cheery, one positive outcome is that they all--real or fictionalised--continue to be told and will go on being passed down to future generations as long as humans exist, for people like nothing better than to hear a story. These events are so important because not only do they affect those who took part, but also all who follow. 

Starting in present-day Linda Root takes us for a visit to Wales with a historical fiction author who discusses a variety of perspectives and angles as to how she writes, what she thinks about and so on. We go on a guided tour, as it were, of the author's works and how they came to be. Next, Lisl takes us across the pond as well as a continent, up a gulf and into a magical, huge land once the scene of a devastating earthquake. Still within living memory, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the shakedown, and across Alaska and the world people remember that day, a few of these precious memories picked out by Lisl for us to have the privilege to share. And to round out our epic sweep, Stuart makes the return trip with us back to the UK--Edinburgh in particular, for a spot of scare and history into the bargain. Told a tale of tyranny, we then are brought back to today as our final narrator brings us to one of the spots in which some individuals also met their end. 

Journey with us again or for the first time, as The Review wraps up a week of adventure.

"We are honored to have with us today a writer whose creative energies seem boundless, Judith Arnopp, who is just as comfortable weaving portions of two ninth century epic poems into her fine novel Songs of Heledd as she is invading Henry VIII's death watch to listen in while the ghost of Queen Anne Boleyn intimidates him with her whispers. Join me as we explore Judith's past endeavors, share her present successes and glimpse a bit of what her future offers." So says Linda as she introduces us to an epic interview with Judith Arnopp, who adds: "Although I love all periods of history, I am not drawn to any particular era but rather to particular characters. I am interested in what made them tick, how they might have felt, their motivations. If a situation or historical personage sticks their head up and waves at me, I read around them and see if and how I can take it further." You can do the same with Linda's fabulous interview, and continue the journey with Judith--bring your chocolate and coffee!

Hopping on our transport, we go west with Lisl, to the Ring of Fire in which sits Alaska, an absolutely massive country that--many people are unaware--experiences earthquakes several times a day! Alaskans tend to be used to the smaller earthquakes (many of which are ignored), as they usually result in some rattling and conversations starters. "When the shaking started on March 27, 1964, people generally responded in the same way. It was a Friday, Good Friday in fact; schools were closed and businesses wrapped up early for the holiday. The weather had warmed up to 28 degrees (-2 C) and the afternoon and early evening proceeded like any other.

Unbeknownst to Alaskans, however, the Pacific plate pushing under the North American, 100 miles east of the largest city, Anchorage, had been grinding away and was about to subduct. They were to know soon enough, however, as the rattling continued and the ground began to move beneath them. Surface waves motioned and gaping fissures in the ground split downtown Anchorage apart."

The largest in U.S. history, this earthquake led to the creation of the National Earthquake Information and Alaska Tsunami Warning centers. Read some details of this event and individual recollections as Lisl pauses for Remembrance Week as part of her Great Land History series.

The mother of history series here at The Review, Stuart's histories of Scotland, and particularly his beloved Edinburgh, have always enthralled us. This week Stuart lands us at Greyfriars Kirk, scene of some unsettling history between Sir George Mackenzie and the Covenanters, a persecuted religious group whose members were jailed, tortured and executed for their beliefs. In the spot we visit today are said to be nightly hauntings: "Sir George Mackenzie, the man whose unquiet spirit is said to be the source of the paranormal activity, was born in Dundee in 1636. He was born into a life of privilege, being the grandson of the first Lord Mackenzie of Kintail and attended universities in Aberdeen, St Andrews and Bourges in France. He was elected to the Faculty of Advocates in 1659, and spoke in defense at the trial of Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, in 1661. He acted as justice-depute from 1661 to 1663, a post that involved him in overseeing the extensive witch trials which afflicted Scotland with a form of mass hysteria at the time."

To see how it all ended, click here, but bring your tissues!

Oh the places you'll go! Last weekend was a wrap up encompassing unusual exploration. No worries if you missed it, just click to catch up!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Ghosts of Greyfriars - Bluidy Mackenzie and the Covenanters

Entrance to the Covenanters Prison
Greyfriars Kirk in the heart of Edinburgh's picturesque Old Town is the final resting place of many famous names from the city's history, including the father of Sir Walter Scott; George Heriot, whose bequest founded the famous school which stands next to the churchyard; William McGonnegal, famed as Scotland's worst poet; and James Adam, designer of the New Town, but is perhaps best known to many for its association with the little Skye Terrier, whose loyalty to his master has become famous around the world. Several movies have told his story and Greyfriars Bobby, who has a statue and a gravestone in his honour, where tourists queue to have their photograph taken, has become one of the best known dogs in history. However, tucked away in a quiet shaded corner of the graveyard stands a double-barred gate upon which hangs a simple sign stating that this was the 'Covenanters Prison'.
The Covenanters' Prison

Those who gaze through the iron bars will see a narrow corridor of worn grass and well tramped earth bordered on either side by several open tombs, and would be forgiven for thinking these were the cells where the prisoners were held. 

It is a spot largely overlooked during the day by most tourists but which comes alive after sunset as the infamous ghost tours lead parties of the curious around the dark closes and wynds of Edinburgh in search of the paranormal. 

The guides take great delight in revealing blood curdling tales of people being pushed and scratched by an unseen entity said to be Mackenzie's Poltergeist, once they enter a small tomb behind the locked gate leading to the prison. The hairs on the back of their necks may well rise and  shivers run down their spine as they imagine they feel the presence of evil creeping in their midst. 

Sir George Mackenzie
That is the paranormal version of events but what is the true story of Mackenzie and the Covenanters?
Sir George Mackenzie, the man whose unquiet spirit is said to be source of the paranormal activity, was born in Dundee in 1636. He was born into a life of privilege, being the grandson of the first Lord Mackenzie of Kintail and attended universities in Aberdeen, St Andrews and Bourges in France.  He was elected to the  Faculty of Advocates in 1659, and spoke in defence at the trial of  Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, in 1661. He acted as justice-depute from 1661 to 1663, a post that involved him in overseeing the extensive witch trials which afflicted Scotland with a form of mass hysteria at the time.

Mackenzie was knighted, and became a member of the Scottish Parliament for Ross from 1669. In 1677 he became Lord Advocate, and a member of the Privy Council of Scotland.

As Lord Advocate he was the minister responsible for the persecuting policy of Charles II in Scotland against the Presbyterian Covenanters. 

The Covenanters of 1679 who were to feel the full weight of Mackenzie's displeasure were mainly the descendants of the original men and women who had signed the National Covenant in 1638 which declared they would defend reformed religion and denounce any attempts to introduce Catholic teachings or traditions onto the people of Scotland. While the Covenant stated that they were loyal to the king, Charles I at the time of the signing, it was clear that in reality the Covenanters saw only God Himself as having any authority over them.

Following the restoration of the monarchy following the War of the Three Kingdoms, Charles II sought to establish his will over his northern kingdom. He declared the Covenanters, who had fought both for and against his father at various stages of the English Civil War, to be outlaws and their oaths illegal. These oaths must be renounced in order to avoid punishment. 

This measure lead to armed rebellion and only ended when 6,000 armed men from the Highlands were ordered south to crush the Covenanters with unbridled savagery towards the families of those believed to involved. Ministers were expelled from their pulpits for refusing to accept Charless II as head of the church and forced to preach God's word at field conventicles where even attending was viewed as a capital crime.

A further rebellion broke out in 1679 which saw the Covenanters achieve a notable victory over the Royalist forces of John Graham of Claverhouse at the Battle of Drumclog. Unfortunately internal divisions between the Covenanters meant that in the following weeks they argued between themselves rather than prepare for the inevitable response from the king.
The Battle of Bothwell Brig
They were defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd of June 1679, and it is now that events move back to Greyfriar's Kirkyard.

1,200 men who had been captured at Bothwell Brig were dragged back to Edinburgh and imprisoned within a narrow walled meadow by Greyfriar's in the area now known as the Covenanters Prison.  They were held in this cramped space without shelter from the elements and exposed to all the vagaries of the Scottish weather under the eyes and guns of men who itched for an excuse to kill them. Initially the prisoners were fed only four ounces of bread a day although at times concerned locals were permitted to feed the prisoners a little extra.

Sir George Mackenzie oversaw the show trials these men faced. Without any access to an effective defence they were doomed from the first as King Charles II was determined to stamp his authority on any who dared oppose him. Groups of Covenanters were taken for trial, found guilty and marched down to the Grassmarket where they were hanged en-masse.
Covenanters Memorial in Edinburgh's Grassmarket which marks the location of the public gallows

For those who remained by Greyfriar's conditions did not improve as the weeks and months passed. Those not chosen for the noose suffered due to exposure and many died from disease and neglect until only 257 remained alive by November. These men were given a mockery of a trial and sentenced to transportation to the American Colonies to suffer as slaves. 

On legs which could barely carry them they were forced to march down to the port of Leith on the shore of the Forth where they were chained into the belly of a ship to cross the wide Atlantic. Tragically the ship foundered as it passed the Orkney Islands and all but 48 men were drowned

There followed what became infamous as the Killing Time in Scotland when even suspicion was enough to have men, women and even children murdered in the name of the king in a desperate attempt to finally crush out the last embers of Presbyterianism in Scotland. The actions of Mackenzie, and others like him, only strengthened the faith of those who suffered but it was only the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and William of Orange seizing the throne which finally ended the persecution. Even then some Covenanters did not welcome William as he was viewed as an uncovenanted king as he was head of the Church of England and followed Episcopalian teachings. In Scotland however Presbyterian religion was restored and all those who had suffered for their faith could finally be remembered and their sacrifice rewarded by the overthrowing of the hated episcopal traditions.

As for Sir George Mackenzie, he continued in office until the coming of William and Mary who he opposed. To escape any measures being taken against him he retired from public life and settled in Oxford. He died in 1691 in London and his body was transported back to Edinburgh where he was interred in a grand mausoleum not far from the site where so many had suffered and died under his orders.

As for his soubriquet of Bluidy (Bloody) Mackenzie it is unclear when exactly he was bestowed the title. Sir Walter Scott certainly uses it in his novel The Heart of Midlothian and the association between his name and blood prevails in the published testimony of Marion Harvey, hanged in 1681, who calls her blood onto Mackenzie, "that excommunicate tyrant, George Mackenzie, the advocate".

That then is the tale of Bluidy Mackenzie. A man seen by many as a monster who delighted in inflicting suffering on others while some may see him as man merely following the letter of the law at another troubled time in Scottish history, which once again saw Scots wage war on their oldest enemy – other Scots!

For book giveaways and more general chat please visit us at our Facebook page. 

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.
 His blog can be followed at 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Great Land History: 1964: Good Friday Earthquake

 March 27, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Alaska's devastating Good Friday Earthquake
We remember this week those who lost their lives and pledge to help others 

When earthquakes in the United States come into conversation, people tend to think of California, memories being so vivid of the terrible destruction that has so often visited that state. However, what many outside the state of Alaska—Outside, as Alaskans say—are unaware of is that the northern state is much more seismically active than the sun-drenched, western one, with movement occurring nearly every day, often many times within 24 hours.

Of course, Alaskans tend to be used to their earthquakes; the great majority of them are quick and small. There is a minor amount of shaking and people may pause and look at one another (or not), waiting out the few seconds it usually takes to be done. Occasionally buildings will sway, as they are designed to do; sometimes a plate may fall off the wall or glassware rattle on the shelves. Typically this is all.

When the shaking started on March 27, 1964, people generally responded in the same way. It was a Friday, Good Friday in fact; schools were closed and businesses wrapped up early for the holiday. The weather had warmed up to 28 degrees (-2 C) and the afternoon and early evening proceeded like any other.

Unbeknownst to Alaskans, however, the Pacific plate pushing under the North American, 100 miles east of the largest city, Anchorage, had been grinding away and was about to subduct. They were to know soon enough, however, as the rattling continued and the ground began to move beneath them. Surface waves motioned and gaping fissures in the ground split downtown Anchorage apart. 

Linda, a woman I worked with some years back, would occasionally remember that day for me, her most significant memory being of a man “running buck naked right through downtown.” He had been dressing following a sports activity when the quake struck. She said she was so traumatized by the sight and how devastated and humiliated the poor man might have felt, that she vowed she would never find herself in such a situation. “To this day,” I recall her declaring, “even showering at home involves having clothes at the ready, right there for me to grab if needed.”

Simultaneously in various areas, trees were torn from their roots, houses and buildings collapsed and people held onto anything they could grab to keep from falling over, or into the split streets themselves. Fourth Avenue, Anchorage’s main street, fell by 12 feet and an elementary school on Government Hill was torn into pieces. In a residential area 30 blocks of land slid into the water and the international airport’s control tower fell like a house of cards.

Valdez (Val-DEEZ), a small city close to the epicenter near Prince William Sound, was in utter ruins. The ground rose and fell, cracked wide open and snapped shut, and buildings collapsed. A cargo freighter, the SS Chena, was hurled onto dry land and the dock shredded; later it was carried back out to sea.

The effects were similar in other cities: Resurrection Bay hungrily swallowed nearly one mile of Seward’s seafront, the train yard destroyed and the oil tank farm erupted into flames. Kodiak lost half its fishing fleet. After four minutes of the earth violently churning beneath and around them, surviving Alaskans around Southcentral surveyed the devastation, and were horrified. The destruction related here was just a small portion of the aftermath: the cost of damage was $311 million (seen elsewhere: in today’s currency, $2.8 billion).

That wasn’t all. Next to come was the tsunami, occurring when the Alaskan seafloor lunged upwards, causing the water above it to be hurled into the air and towards land. Some survivors managed to outrun it (likely having had a head start) or escaped to higher ground. Valdez was beaten by tsunami waves late into the night and eventually fell to the torrent, rendered uninhabitable. The tsunami caused such destruction to trees that now, 50 years later, their corpses are still seen along the highway near Portage and Girdwood, where 20 miles of the Seward Highway had to be rebuilt as it had sunk to below the high water mark.

Dennis Giradot remembers the earthquake even though he was only five at the time. KCAW transcribes an audio in which Giradot recalls a flying pot of chili, his Beatles-fan brother’s guitar-shaped birthday cake (decorated with chili) and the sway of buildings outside their window.

[T]he next two nights we actual [sic] slept in our car[;] my dad had this big Mercury something… it was a blue thing with big fins in the back. The aftershocks were so constant and so strong we didn’t know if the building would hold up.
Others’ memories aren’t necessarily so lighthearted: Kim Kowalski-Rodgers recalls for KTUU the sounds she heard first as an eight-year-old child playing outside her family’s home on Third Avenue. “I knew it was a monster.” Indeed, the horrible noises the earth made did sound like those emitted from the brawling lungs of a dark imagining. When I first saw video of the earthquake, at Good Friday Earthquake Rocks Alaska, as it had occurred in Anchorage, the audio impacted me at least as much as the destruction in action before my eyes: the awful noises sounded like those Grendl might have made as he was mortally wounded, and I thought people surely must have been terrified by them.
In terms of death toll, numbers don’t come close to the 700 lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: 128. However, when measuring magnitude activity, this 9.2 quake went on record as the largest US quake in recorded history and in the world second only to Chile’s, occurring in 1960.

The disaster is still remembered by people around the world because although the damage was worst in Alaska, effects were felt around the world. The initial seismic waves shook buildings in Seattle and lifted Houston, Texas ground by six centimeters, 10 in Florida. Like a wave that ripples from one end of a body of water to another, so too did the shock waves across the globe, as they circled the world for the next two weeks. The tsunami that destroyed Valdez also reached the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, and killed 10 people in Crescent City, California. 

Alaskans are frequently reminded their land is "overdue" for another sizeable earthquake, but next time the damage is likely to be worse, especially if it occurs on a day open for business and academics.With a now-larger population and infrastructure, there is more to be lost. Shipping remains as weather dependent as ever, however, and it were to occur in winter months, the death toll could rise in the aftermath if lodging and food supplies are inadequate.
In this week of remembrance we reflect on those who lost their lives in 1964, and prepare as best we can to help those in need following any future disaster. 

Sources (not listed above) and further information:
Earthquake preparedness at AEIC
Great Land of Alaska: 1964 Good Friday Earthquake

Monday, 24 March 2014

Interview: Judith Arnopp interviewed by Linda Root

Meet the Incredible Judith Arnopp
An interview by Linda Root

We are honored to have with us today a writer whose creative energies seem boundless, Judith Arnopp, who is just as comfortable weaving portions of two ninth century epic poems into her fine novel Songs of Heledd as she is invading Henry VIII's death watch to listen in while the ghost of Queen Anne Boleyn intimidates him with her whispers. Join me as we explore Judith's past endeavors, share her present successes and glimpse a bit of what her future offers.


Researching The Song of Heledd required you to do an exhaustive critical analysis of a collection of ninth century Welsh poetry entitled Canu Heledd, and your novel is based upon fragments of the poems. How did you approach such a demanding task?  What drew you to it?

I studied early medieval literature as part of my Master’s degree and became familiar with Heledd that way. Only a tiny fragment of the poem, the beginning and end, are extant, but it is quite clear that Heledd held herself responsible for the loss of not just her family, but the entire dynasty. I found myself constantly wondering what she had done. It was the sort of question that keeps you awake nights even though there is no way we will ever discover the real truth.
The poem tells us that she loved her brother Cyndylan, King of Pengwern, but although she also loved her sister, Ffreur, she doesn’t mourn her. Why on earth not?
There could be a number of reasons but the more I thought about it, the more real Heledd and Ffreur became. In the end the only way to put my ‘historian’ mind to sleep was to let my creative side take over and make up the middle part. Because so little is known about the people involved in the events I was able to give my imagination full rein. We have the names, we have the places, we know of the wars they were involved in, we know the way it ended. The only questions left were how and why. So I made it up.
I didn’t rely on my own critical analysis; I am not skilled enough or confident enough for that but a lot of academic study has been done on the subject and I am lucky enough to have the University of Wales practically on my doorstep. I owe particular thanks to Jenny Rowlands and her book Early Welsh Saga Poetry.

Although I love all periods of history, I am not drawn to any particular era but rather to particular characters. I am interested in what made them tick, how they might have felt, their motivations. If a situation or historical personage sticks their head up and waves at me, I read around them and see if and how I can take it further. I have always been a bit ‘nerdy’ and love research so it is not a chore for me, especially if I have chocolate and a good supply of coffee.

If you were to expand one of your novels into a series, which would you find the most tempting?

I haven’t ever thought of doing a series. I think I might get bored with the characters and if I was bored with them, think how bored the reader would be! I did consider doing a follow up to Peaceweaver, tracing the lives of the sons she bore Grufydd ap Llewelyn. The historical record tells us they returned to Wales and attempted to win back the lands their father governed but the records are sketchy so it would be pure fiction. Most of my novels have such a complete ending that I don’t see how I could take the others further. I suppose the closest I’ve come to a series is with my Tudor novels; I tackle Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard in The Winchester Goose, and Anne Boleyn in The Kiss of the Concubine.

According to my review of your career, you began contributing short pieces to anthologies or writing short stories and snippets.  What made you decide that it was time for Judith Arnopp to move on to a full length novel?

It was the other way round actually. Although I have written short stories since I was a child I never let anyone read anything until I was well into my adulthood. Around 2004 I wrote a very bad historical novel set in medieval England that will never see light of day, then I progressed to Peaceweaver. Once I decided it was good enough to publish I began to write short pieces and blogs to draw attention to my work. On occasion I have plucked something very old from the archives and reinvented it but on the whole the novels came first, the short pieces second. When I first began to blog I adapted old university material but now I try to stick to whichever period I am writing in and link it in some way to one of my books.

Are you ever tempted to try out a different genre?  If so, which would it be?

I’ve written a bit of romance but my heart isn’t in it. I am too bloodthirsty for contemporary stories. I like to make my characters suffer and often kill them off so it doesn’t really suit the romance genre. My heart is in historical, I am more comfortable in a medieval setting and since my personal life is so rural I have no idea what it is really like to live in the modern world. I am in a beautiful time bubble here in West Wales with only sheep and the windswept landscape for company.

It strikes me that the tone and setting of your first three novels is unmistakably Welsh.  And then, you take another leap, this time hundreds of years forward to Tudor England. Did some particular interest, challenge or event cause you to move from pre-invasion Saxon Britain all the way to Tudor England in your recent offerings, The Winchester Goose and finally, The Kiss of the Concubine?

As a teenager when I first became interested in history I was a huge Tudor fan. The Tudor period formed part of my university degree but by that time I was far more taken up with the Anglo-Saxons and early medieval period. It seemed natural to start there with a world that was fresh in my mind and Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers, and The Song of Heledd were born from that.
I published a very short lighthearted pamphlet of six stories called Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens. It wasn’t a serious academic study; I did it in a workshop with no research material to hand. Readers who demand accuracy slammed it but I also had some positive reviews and loads of emails from other readers asking if I’d written any other Tudor books.

I had so many readers asking that I thought seriously about it and the result was The Winchester Goose. I found the transition very smooth and am comfortable in Tudor England. The difference between Dear Henry and The Winchester Goose is the months of research that went into the latter. It is about a prostitute from Southwark and contrasts the life of a whore with that of Henry’s queens. The glittering royal court is juxtaposed with the stews across the river. During the course of researching The Winchester Goose I conceived the idea of writing a novel about Anne Boleyn without embellishing her story or taking defamatory material too literally. The result was The Kiss of the Concubine and the response from readers has been astounding. I am so very touched by all the letters and reviews that are flooding in.

Kiss of the Concubine is populated by actual persons--Anne Boleyn,  her early lovers Wyatt and Percy, and the colorful member of her  own family, especially her brother George and her sister-in-law Lady Rochford, and of course, the king.  How did you deal with the immense amount of conflicting data available about them, and especially, how did you approach the controversy that surrounds the trial and execution of Queen Anne and her parade of alleged lovers?

You have to take every historical record with a pinch of salt. Every writer, especially one recording history as it happens, has an agenda. You have to ask yourself;, why was he writing it? Who was he writing it for? What was his motive? After Anne’s death many of her possessions and papers were destroyed. There are very few letters remaining in her hand, so much of what we learn is gleaned from sources that were ‘allowed’ to survive to the present day. Some were written by her enemies and some of the more complimentary stuff penned later, in her daughter Elizabeth’s reign. It is a case of reading between the lines. Many of the dates of her alleged offences can be dismissed as records show she elsewhere at the time; on one occasion when she was accused of committing adultery she was still in childbed with Elizabeth. It is quite clear the charges were trumped up.
Anne is a very popular figure and there is a large following who believe she has been maligned by Spanish and Tudor propaganda. To find the real woman, or to come as close to her as we can ever can, one has to remain objective. Of course secondary sources on Anne Boleyn are readily available and Eric Ives, Susannah Lipscombe and Claire Ridgway were invaluable when it came to sources and theories. I read the more critical stuff too so as to form my own opinion but I have to agree Anne was innocent, a victim of state politics.

Did your personal attitude toward Anne and Henry change as your book progressed, and if so, in what way?  Do you see Anne and Henry's story as a love affair?

My opinion of Anne was vindicated by my studies of her and remained unaltered, but my research into Henry changed my opinion immensely. I always assumed he was a brute, a wife murderer, a psychopath in fact, but the more I read about him, the more I came to understand, or at least to acknowledge, his psychological flaws. He was a man with immense power, a man in search of the unobtainable and this, together with his belief that he was second only to God, determined the monstrous behavior that he is famous for today.
My personal belief is that he did love Anne, and she him. Henry was a selfish and demanding man yet he courted her for seven years. If he didn’t truly love her he would have given up, yet it seems he scarcely looked at another woman in all this time.
His disappointment when she failed to conceive a son made him vulnerable to the political attack that took her down. I think he believed the lies that were told about her. Henry was a jealous and possessive man and I think the realisation that Anne had died innocent didn’t come until it was too late. Henry and Anne’s relationship was always stormy; they had frequent and public disagreements but their reconciliations were just as public. There are no contemporary reports that the marriage was failing; just a few weeks before her arrest even the Spanish ambassador Chapuys reported that the king and queen were as much in love as ever. In The Kiss of the Concubine, after her arrest, Anne believes it is just another misunderstanding; she is sure Henry will soon cool down and save her.

Without asking you to pick a favorite amongst your novels, can you tell us which of them was the most enjoyable writing experience for you?  And of course, on the flip side, which novel or part of a novel was the most difficult?  How did you overcome the obstacles?

I think the novel that was the most fun to write was The Winchester Goose. There is usually some humour in my novels because I believe that even in the most trying of human predicaments, we find the time for irony or foolery. Joanie Toogood, the main character in The Winchester Goose is a good humoured, big hearted woman and taking on her life as a prostitute enabled me to fully explore the pestilent, filthy, cut-throat underworld of Tudor London. I discovered a variety of people there from the generous to the downright nasty. Amid all the squalor Joanie emerges as funny, compassionate and loud – her mind is probably the one I’ve most enjoyed inhabiting during my writing career so far.
The most difficult was a scene in The Song of Heledd when Heledd’s actions destroy the person she loves most. I wrote the scene several times but it wasn’t right. The situation she was in was so horrible; it was way beyond my own life experience. In the end I imagined it was happening to one of my own sisters (I have three, all of whom are very precious to me). Once I had made the scene personal it came easily, as did the tears I shed while I wrote it. I don’t want to be guilty of spoilers but that particular chapter is the hardest I’ve had to write. It still makes me shudder when I read through it.

Of the heroines in your novels, which one do you most consider ‘a Woman for All Seasons'?

Oh dear, there is a difficult question. Not many of my female characters win in the end. It is more about the journey than the destination; in fact a lot of my women don’t survive beyond the last chapter. I can think of one that would fit the bill in The Forest Dwellers but that would involve a huge spoiler so I will stick with Alys from the same book.
After the Norman invasion the people of the New Forest are treated so harshly by the new regime that life becomes impossible. Alys, an extraordinarily pretty girl, uses a variety of ways to hold her own in a rapidly changing world. Once she discovers her most effective weapon is her own physical beauty, she fights and scrambles her way up the ladder. She survives, she gets what she wants (or needs to survive) but not without the greatest sacrifice of all. Love.
Alys is not easy to love but she is impossible to ignore. She is flawed, her mistakes are legion but at the end of her struggle when she lives on beyond the closing of the book, you will have come to understand her and forgive her failings.

Were you writing regularly when your children were preschoolers? How did your writing mesh with your family life?  Has that changed now that your children are older?  What advice would you give to new writers with young families?

I was too busy being mum and running a smallholding to write seriously until my children were grown up. I used to scribble stories as a hobby but never dreamed of publishing them. I have a clutch of stories I wrote about them when they were little. I’d put them into scenarios and take them through excellent adventures to read at bedtime. When I was expecting my daughter I wrote about the forthcoming event so as to help her brother, Simon, who was just about two years old, to look forward to her arrival as much as we were. I was worried he would feel displaced but I didn’t need to worry, he adored her from day one and they are all still really close.
Now they are all grown up they are proud of my achievements and bore all their friends about their ‘fabulous mum.’

Was there ever a time after your first book was published when you thought of giving it all up?

No. I’d never give up writing. Even if nobody bought my books I would still have to write. Initially I sought the traditional publishing route but I soon got fed up with that malarkey. I was taken on by an agent but she really didn’t ‘get’ what I was about. She wanted me to write more like Philippa Gregory but I didn’t want to; I wanted to write like me.
I have had my share of despondency, bad reviews, negative feedback. I encourage constructive criticism but downright nastiness is upsetting and damaging. One of my writer friends was so hurt by personal criticism that she gave up writing altogether. I can’t see me doing that. I wouldn’t know what else to do.
Once I decided to go it alone I found myself on a huge learning curve. I had to be self-critical, discover a good editor (I have an excellent one now after two or three failures.) I learned to develop new skills, typesetting, layout, formatting, cover design, marketing skills and I had to learn how to be receptive to readers even if I was having a bad day and feeling a bit grumpy. Facebook and Twitter are invaluable for making connections with readers. I have a lovely little band of friends now and it is those people that make all the hard work worthwhile.
It is tough sometimes. A very solitary existence. You have to be happy in your own company, you have to be tough and develop the skin of a rhinoceros. Most of all I think you need to have conviction in your own way of doing things.

I have seen you describe your writing as coming from a feminine perspective.  Do you consider yourself a feminist?  How does your empathy for the plight of women affect your presentation of the principal male characters in your story?   Of all of the males in your several books, which one of them, if any,  would you consider a feminist or the most sympathetic to the needs of women?  And of course, who is the insensitive bad guy in the mix?

I believe in equality for women in the modern world. I know it didn’t exist in the period I write in and I try very hard not to make my female characters act and speak as we do today. Their expectations were entirely different to ours. That is not to say that women didn’t have an impact on history. There are plenty of incidences where the actions of women have had a huge influence; very often they were unrecorded or glossed over in favour of male achievements.
The male characters that empathise most with women are probably Peter the Costermonger in The Winchester Goose, and George Boleyn in The Kiss of the Concubine.
I don’t think any of my male characters are absolute brutes. They might be insensitive, unschooled in the art of love, and they tend to shout a lot but they are not evil, just human. There are no black/white, evil/nice characters; I try to present multi-faceted people. I don’t know anyone who is wholly good or wholly bad so why should they appear in fiction? Gruffyd ap Llewelyn in Peaceweaver is the nastiest of my characters. He was the leader of the Welsh and, by most accounts, a powerful man in a harsh and brutal world. When Eadgyth finds herself married to him we see him from her perspective which isn’t a pretty one, but I do manage to give him the chance to explain his behavior and explore what made him the man he was. I had a quandary with Gruffydd because the records we have of him were written by those who defeated him and so can’t be wholly relied on. But since it was his own men who betrayed him to King Edward I could only surmise that if the Welsh turned against their own leader in favour of the English he must have been a real ‘baddie.’

Now that the Kiss of the Concubine is a completed project, what’s next for Judith Arnopp?  Please tell us a little about your current work in progress, but also give us an idea of where you would like to be ten years down the line, both as a writer and as a woman who has a deep commitment to her family and her heritage.

I am still with the Tudors. This time I am writing the life of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. She comes across as a strong woman. She married four times, the first three occasions for political rather than personal reasons. She withstood a siege at Snape Castle during her second marriage to Lord Latimer and, when the king targeted her as his next wife, she put aside her own desire to marry Thomas Seymour until after Henry’s death. She was a good consort to Henry and, although long thought of as a dull little nursemaid, she emerges a fascinating woman. She was in fact very scholarly and a published author. She stood as regent for England while Henry was warmongering in France and was a strong role model and mother to his children. Her eventual marriage to Thomas Seymour was not an altogether wise choice as it turns out; their short marriage was fraught with suspicion and infidelity until she died shortly after childbirth scarcely a year after the king’s death.
The novel is to be called Intractable Heart, which is a phrase taken from her book The Lamentation of a Sinner in which she acknowledges her ‘obstinate, strong and intractable heart.’
It is told via four narrators: Katherine’s step daughter, Margaret Neville; Katherine herself; Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth Tudor. I am about three quarters of the way through the story now, just beginning Elizabeth’s part and am hugely excited to be tackling such a huge figure.
The future is a dark uncomfortable place to contemplate, I am much happier in the past but in ten years' time I would like to be healthy, fit and happy, doing much as I am doing now only with more confidence and success. I should also like my husband to have finally given in to my demands and retired so he can become my ‘kept man.’ Some more grandchildren would be nice too.

I hope you have enjoyed spending time with Judith Arnopp as much as I have.  My next task is to clear some space on my ‘to be read’ shelf for Judith’s earlier works, and of course, with a special reserved space for Intractable Heart. Visit Judith’s author pages at  Amazon and Amazon UK. 

Linda Root is the author of the novels in the Queen of Scots Suite. If you would like Linda to review your book or conduct an interview, please see our submissions tab above.