First of all I would like to welcome Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife, The Swan-Daughter, and soon to be released, The Betrothed Sister.
A big welcome to The Review, Carol, thank you for joining me for this interview about your book, The Swan-Daughter.
How important was it for you, Carol, to have The Swan-Daughter, a stand-alone novel, considering that it is the middle book of a trilogy, the first book being The Handfasted Wife, and the last being The Betrothed Daughter?
The books are stand alone because they each tell individual stories concerning three different noble women. The novels have different focuses. The Handfasted Wife is about what happened to Harold’s wife and children during and after 1066. The Swan-Daughter is a true story of elopement and its consequences. The Betrothed Sister is about exile and a glittering marriage for King Harold’s elder daughter, Gita (Thea) with a great Kiev prince – a few battles too. They can indeed be read as individual stories although they possess an over-arching theme – a particular family’s destiny – that of the Godwins. They were a family which had either hoped to be or were chosen to form a new ruling dynasty after the death of Edward the Confessor. The stories in this series are told from the perspectives of three women, Harold’s handfasted wife and two daughters’ perspectives. How did they survive the regime change in 1066? What happened next? These were questions I answered in the context of three novels. Each is a different and thrilling survival story.
Gunnhild Godwinsdatter, as a woman, and from a woman’s perspective, comes across as having an extremely strong character once her husband, Count Alan of Richmond, is not around. How easy or difficult was it for you to create her, bring her to life, as you have done, given that there is so little that is actually known about her?
I think the events of 1066 threw many English women on their own resources. Gunnhild was King Harold’s younger daughter. Research indicated that she was nine at the time of the Norman Conquest and at the time she was a royal inmate of Wilton Abbey, there to be educated as had many other royal women before her. It is fact that Gunnhild eloped (there are letters from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Gunnhild surviving that indicate the elopement and a later relationship with his brother). Therefore, I considered that it is possible to portray her as a strong, independent personality, thrown on her own resources, particularly by 1075 when the novel opens, because her aunt had died. I knew also that she would be constricted in how her emotions could play out because of the religious and social conventions of the period. Gunnhild could have inherited her mother’s lands. Certainly, Alan, as recorded history indicates, acquired most of these. I portrayed her as naïve to begin with, a noble girl, deprived of and longing for lovely things to the extent that she will thwart convention and suffer for her actions. I portrayed her as maturing through the story. I have no idea what the real Gunnhild was like but I tried to make her plausible.
You say, Carol, in your Author Notes, that you had imagined that Gunnhild favoured calligraphy and drawing, rather than embroidery. That is extremely interesting, more especially as all three require a particular dexterity to perform, and a good eye for detail. So please could you tell our readers why you think she preferred these particular pastimes over embroidery?
I thought rather than Gunnhild being depicted as an embroiderer I would make her artistic and interested in writing. Women in earlier centuries had been monastery (nunnery) calligraphers so I revisited this notion. As a consequence, the Gunnhild I have imagined is artistic. She has a highly educated aunt in the widow of Edward the Confessor, the patron of Wilton Abbey, a woman revered for her intellect at the time. This is recorded fact. Aunt Edith was a renowned embroiderer. There was an embroidery school at Wilton; both Wilton and Winchester were noted for their calligraphy also. In fact there is an overlap in the two because the Bayeux Tapestry designs owe much to 11th century English manuscript work. Now, Gunnhild would be overshadowed by Aunt Edith’s stunning legacy as the best embroiderer in England if she was an embroiderer as well! Thus my Gunnhild has a latent talent of her own which is, of course, calligraphy. I do not suggest this was the real Gunnhild, but then, how would we actually know how the real Gunnhild passed her time, what she really thought or said?
Research is both an important and an absorbing part of writing an historical novel. How do you go about your research, Carol? Do you, for example, gather all your research together before you begin writing, or do you research as you go?
The historical world the Godwin women inhabit needs to be based in sound historical research in both primary and secondary sources. By this I mean archaeology, chronicle, books, museums, as well as art and poetry from that era.
I conduct most of my research in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in museums of all kinds, at re-enactments, in poetry from the period, stories rooted in the period, before I begin the novel. I have different notebooks for different aspects of research. I log every source’s details carefully, including page numbers as well in case I need to revisit them. It is an academic approach and disciplined. After a few months I have dropped into my novel’s world. Only then can I inhabit my characters. By the time I begin to write, I have absorbed the story’s alien landscape and its real and invented people. I have another A4 notebook in which I plan the novel. I also record character information, both invented and researched, in a notebook or two. I jot down phrases and relevant ideas for scenes, as they come to me. And I am old-fashioned as I do enjoy a mix of pencil and paper and computer files for information.
I can see that your cover design is very important to you, Carol. The Swan-Daughter has a beautiful resonance for me. There is a symbolism with the bulrushes, and with the two swans. The bulrushes are symbolic of how to live a humble life and about obeying the Church, as mentioned in Job 8:11: Can the rush be green without moisture. The swans are symbolic of love and loyalty, strength, grace and beauty. The colour of the font exactly matches the colour of the bills of the swans, and it creates a cohesiveness that can only draw the eye. Could you explain to our readers, therefore, how you went about designing your cover, and what it was you wanted to convey with just the viewing of it?
The cover is an illustration that can be viewed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is The Swans and the Irises by Walter Crane. I loved the illustration and suggested it for the cover. I agree with the symbolism suggested in the question. When I discovered this picture, it was only the swans and what they stand for that occurred to me. Accent, my publisher, acquired the right to use it and designed the cover.
Questions that I always like to ask, Carol, are about an author’s writing routine. Could you tell us a little about your writing routine, please? For example, do you write at a particular time of the day, in a particular place? Do you work in a library, or at home, or both? Also, the editing, and proofreading processes are as equally important as the actual writing. How, then, do you go about these tasks, Carol?
I work best in the mornings and try to write most days. I write a scene and revisit it the next day before I write the next scene. It is good for continuity. There is a narrative plan to it, but this develops as I write. I have the novel’s beginning, middle and end before I start. I write chronologically through from beginning to end. Editing is absolutely crucial. It takes months. I go through the first draft three times thoroughly editing, thinking does the scene matter, is the character consistent, is each word the right word, or does a sentence, or even paragraph, sit in the right place within a chapter? Then, groan and joy both, there are three more edits with my editor, the manuscript going back and forth. It is wonderful to see it improve through this process to become the swan rather than the ugly duckling.
Is there anything else that you would like to add, Carol?
At the end of it all I do hope readers enjoy these stories as much as I have enjoyed writing them. And now they can listen to the first novel in the series as well, as it is available on audio. Hopefully The Swan-Daughter will follow.
And finally, thank you, Paula and Louise for reading and reviewing my novels and for this interview.
It's been a real pleasure chatting with you, Carol, and thank you for joining me for this interview.
Other books in the Daughters of Hastings Trilogy by Carol McGrath