(Today the blog is dedicated to author Lissa Bryan, whose new novel, Under These Restless Skies, has just been released. To commemorate it, we are holding a giveaway with all three of Lissa’s books – to be in with a chance of winning, simply leave a comment on any of today’s posts.)
1. You mentioned in your notes that you first learned of Will Sommers in the pages of The Autobiography of Henry VIII, but what made you decide to focus on him as the main character?
Will has always intrigued me because he was privy to Henry VIII’s most intimate thoughts. Margaret George described Will as Henry’s “secular confessor,” which may have been accurate, according to the few references we have to him in letters and such. While he occasionally entertained the court, his main function was to listen to Henry as he unloaded his troubles. Will was so close to the king that he’s included in family portraits, and pictured in the king’s personal psalter.
But we know so little about Will. The few times he appears in the court records, he’s sometimes confused with the other fools. A book was written about him, years after his death, so we can’t know how accurate it is, but I had to use some of its stories in my own novel about him.
If he was the king’s “confessor,” what would that have been like for Will? How did he feel when he saw the execution of the king’s wives and friends, people he knew and may have cared about? What sort of pressures would he have felt from others to try to influence the king? More importantly, what would his life have been like as a “cripple” and a fool?
As I pondered these questions, Will grew in my mind as a character, and I knew I wanted to write about him, to give him a book of his own.
2. Where did the idea to make Will’s wife a mythological creature come from?
Selkies are another thing that have always fascinated me. Years ago, I read the old Celtic fairy tale The Selkie Wife. It’s such a terribly sad tale, and it sparked my imagination. I’ve always had a penchant for re-writing stories to have a plotline I like better. I took elements of the old legend and wound them through a new narrative.
The story seems to date from the late medieval era, and it seemed like an interesting juxtaposition, these gentle-natured creatures and the hard, glittering world of the Tudor court. Tudor England itself was undergoing massive changes from its previous agrarian lifestyle to a more “modern” world, where fields were enclosed, monasteries disbanded, and a thousand years of religious convention upended. The Tudor court was a turbulent sea, and I wanted to see what would happen if an innocent creature who could not lie was plunged into this tumultuous pool of artifice.
3. I was intrigued by your portrayal of Anne Boleyn. Most accounts portray her as a witch and an ambitious monster. What made you decide to paint her as the poor girl who was pushed towards the throne? It made for a nice change, I have to say.
I think Anne Boleyn has been unfairly maligned. Most of what we “know” about her comes from the words of her enemies. Writers have tended to give a motive of their own to the little we know, and so everything she did becomes calculated, ambitious, or selfish, depending on the lens through which the author sees her.
Anne did have a temper and she argued with the king. That alone was shocking in an era in which a woman was never supposed to “talk back” to any man, let alone a king. And, unfortunately, a lot of what Henry did gets attributed to Anne. People of the day wouldn’t openly criticize the king, but they could criticize the “Concubine,” and lay the blame for what Henry did at her feet. She lured him away from his wife. She was the wicked stepmother who abused poor Princess Mary, and sent Katharine into exile.
History was written using biased sources as the basis, and later writers added their own layers of interpretation. This woman, who refused to become a king’s mistress, became a cunning seductress. This intensely religious woman became a poisoner, and the woman Thomas Wyatt described as sweet-natured became a malicious harpy.
They ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit into that narrative. Where’s the Anne who fought with Cromwell to use the money from the monasteries to found schools? Where’s the Anne who gave a massive chunk of her income to charity, and sponsored scholars and athletes?
4. Will you write any more Tudor fiction?
Oh, yes, there will be a sequel to this book. I’ve tentatively titled it The White on the Crimson, and I’m going to try to write it this summer.
5. What sources did you find most useful for your research? Especially for the vocabulary of the time.
I tried to go back to the original sources as much as possible, because so many layers of assumptions, interpretations, and “modernizations” have been added over the years. So many writers reference other writers instead of looking at the original material. Fortunately, many of those records and books are online now, but I found myself squinting at Tudor handwriting for hours on end.
The language posed a couple of difficulties, because some of our words have a meaning today that was completely different in the Tudor era. As an example, “nice” used to be an insult and “auburn” meant something was whitish in color. I tried not to use wording in dialogue that had a different meaning at the time, but on occasion, I ran into situations where it was too difficult to manage without using modern words.
As an example, there’s a line in the early chapters where Will says, “A king’s fool amuses the court.” Well, “amuse” at the time meant to daze or confuse. I considered using “entertain,” but that meant to host someone. I considered other synonyms, but eventually gave up and used the modern word.
6. One thing that really stuck out to me were the spellings in the letters written by the characters. Are those accurate spellings of the time and did everyone really spell things differently? Was there no “correct” way to spell a word? (As an ex English teacher, that’s something I can’t handle!)
You would have gone insane! I nearly did, reading and transcribing those old documents, because there’s no consistency. Even within a single document, you can find the same word spelled different ways.
English had no standardized spelling all the way up to about 1830 or so. The Tudors spelled phonetically most of the time. One interesting aspect is that it gives us an indication of how words were pronounced and their accents. But it makes for very difficult reading, especially with their elaborate handwriting, superscripted characters and flourishes.
I transcribed the letter attributed to Anne Boleyn right from the original source document. The letter Will writes to Emma was cobbled together from other letters of the period, spelling intact.
7. What’s your take on Henry VIII? Madman who let power get to his head? Or simply a desperate man, trying to produce an heir for his kingdom?
I think Henry VIII was a sociopath. I believe he hits six of the markers in the WHO’s diagnostic criteria. Though, I suppose I should admit to being chastised by readers when I said that recently in a Reader’s Digest article. You can never accurately diagnose someone who lived five hundred years ago, but Henry’s actions showed a shallowness of emotional connections, and a complete lack of remorse for defying social norms.
His actions were based purely on his own desires, not what was best for his kingdom. He once said that God and his conscience were perfectly agreed. He really did think that whatever he wanted was God’s will. It tied in with the current beliefs on the divine right of kings, and it suited his personality perfectly.
If it was truly about heirs, Anna von Kleefes (Anne of Cleves) would have been the best choice for a wife. Her grandfather was known as The Babymaker because he had a whopping sixty-seven children, so her family line was known for its fertility. But Henry wasn’t attracted to her because of their disastrous first meeting. Because of that, he turned his back on a thousand years of European royal marriage traditions and tried to reject her. Only the possibility of war got him to go through with the marriage.
8. In your mind, what happens to Emma and Will after the final page?
They’ll have to return to court in the sequel. Will remained at court throughout the rest of Henry’s life, so we’ll see the rest of Henry’s unfortunate brides. The real Will lived long enough to see Anne Boleyn’s daughter ascend to the throne. I wonder if he thought of Anne when he saw Elizabeth’s “beautiful black eyes” sparkle beneath a crown.