Friday, June 14, 2013

Interview with Carol McGrath

Carol McGrath is a writer of historical fiction set in the Medieval period. Last month she was a contender for the much coveted Joan Hessayon Award for New Writing.

Could you tell us what Inspired Your Novel?
The Handfasted Wife was inspired by a visit to Bayeux when I was Chair of our local Twinning Association. I was fascinated by the vignette of The Burning House on the Bayeux Tapestry and by a video introduction which suggested that Edith Swan-Neck, the common-law wife of King Harold identified his body parts on the battlefield after The Battle of Hastings by marks only she knew. At the time, I was looking for a radio play to write and this event provided its narrative. The voices of the women of Hastings haunted me as they did my fictional television Historian. ‘This is our story too. Listen.’ Years later, still interested in this story, I wrote the story of The Handfasted Wife. Research suggests that she was set aside for a political marriage when Harold was crowned king, and yet interestingly she was either brought to the battlefield or appeared there by choice. Then there is no other recorded information concerning her fate. That is where I invented because I am, of course, writing as a novelist, not an historian. It is generally considered by historians that she did end her days inside convent walls. This would not be at all unusual.

Did you always want to be a Novelist?
I always wrote. I am a passionate reader too. I wrote poetry in my twenties. My life was busy as I lived in California, followed a teaching career on my return, had children and consequently with both career and teaching I did not find time. I did join The Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing ten years or so ago and then I seriously fell in love all over again with writing. I followed this with an MA in Creative Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University Belfast and an MPhil at The Royal Holloway, University of London. These courses do not make a published writer, of course, but they, if good and mine were, inspire and encourage. I think publication was my destiny but first of all I write because I love it and have stories to tell.

What excites you about the Medieval period? How do you set about research?
I taught History at high School level and am interested in periods other than the medieval. After I complete this trilogy I intend going forward to the Civil War period. It was the story of Harold, Edith, their children and family that interested me, especially the characters, rather than the particular period. I wanted to know what happened to this woman, then what happened to her children, what she felt and thought. Although The Handfasted Wife is in a way a universal story of women’s survival after an invading army takes everything away from them, there are clearly universal experience differences between life in a medieval past and the twenty first century. I do research thoroughly in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. I find out absolutely everything I can about the period so that I am better equipped to stand in a medieval noble woman’s shoes and inhabit her world. However, it is a reconstructed world. I defy any writer of historical fiction to claim that they truly can recreate the past accurately. We bring our own experience to our recreations for all sorts of reasons; one reason simply concerns our need to make the past accessible. Historical fiction holds ambiguity rather than answering questions.
The burning scene on the Bayeux Tapestry

You ask me about breathing life into characters? I think human beings have always had similar emotions through time - love, jealously, ambitions, hurt, anger, and so on - but I also believe that circumstances can influence how an historical character deals with her emotions and particular circumstances do dictate consequences. These differ with varying cultures and situations. I consider the rules that belong to a particular period carefully before bending them, and even when I am taking a character outside the rules as I consider her fate within the narrative of the novel. I think this is how I go about animating characters, especially women, who were marginalised on any historical record. For example, religion was important for the eleventh century men and women so I needed to try to understand it the way they did. Time was measured differently then so I usually use the Benedictine Hours to break up the day, even in the middle of an adventure. Another technique I use in The Handfasted Wife is to always stay with the heroine’s point of view, her perspective when she inhabits a particular scene.

The Working Day
I usually work best early in the morning. I relax in the evening. Some days are research days. I also have an extensive library of my own on the Medieval period. I do believe one should have an online presence and that you set it up long before you are published. It is interesting and relaxing to take the odd fifteen minutes out, a break to chat and check out interesting blogs written by others. First, my favourite, Twitter, provides me with interesting contacts and fabulous information. I have a positive view here. People do like to share and there is a degree of quid pro quo in the online writing community. It is a lovely feeling when you find out something interesting and if you provide this too. Second, I think blogging on subjects that support my big interests, travel and historical information, actually worthwhile. One always does best what one enjoys doing so I try to put great effort into these. Mine are generally little articles. I have always blogged a few times a month and enjoyed it. My early blogs are still very popular, written long before any publication and I just use Blogger. My attitude is that one starts small. When I need a web-site then I shall organise it. Fot now this works best. Reading, writing, and travel are all, I find, relaxing pursuits. And, in addition, I garden and I adore theatre.

Favourite Childhood Novel
Of course I love to read most of all, always have. As a child I read everything, Enid Blyton, classics, poetry. Probably a favourite all time book close to my heart is Jane Eyre which I stole from a Donegal hotel bookcase when I was eleven years old thinking I just had to finish it. I loved it and still have this ancient red hard-backed copy! 

Thank you for sparing time to talk to us today, Carol. We wish you continuing success with your books. Best wishes, Henri 

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Interviews on the RNA Blog are carried out by Freda, Henri and Livvie. They are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact:


anne stenhouse said...

Good morning Carol, thanks for tell ing us a little about how you came to writing ficion. My own book for this year's JH award, Mariah's Marriage, is also historical. I like your remark that historical fiction raises ambiguities. I'll store it away and bring it out when the questions become difficult. One thing I think about writing through the past is human nature doesn't change. We only have to look at recent high profile newspaper stories to realise greed, ambition, political imperative are as present as they ever were.

Toni Sands said...

Carol and Henri - this is a great post. Thank you both for the Q and A. Loving writing and having stories to tell is a trait I share. I wish you good things with this book and forthcoming ones.

Liz Harris said...

A most detailed, interesting post, Carol and Henri. Thank you for it. I'm very much looking forward to reading the novel.

Christina Courtenay said...

Great interview Carol! The story of Edith certainly sounds fascinating!

Carol McGrath said...

I must apologise for not catching these comments at the time. I have been catching up on the RNA blog and found them. Thank you so much for commenting. I must say that though human nature may not change constraints do and that can affect characters and outcomes. There can be different societal restraints of course at different times.