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On Reading, Historical Fiction…and Hobbits!

A Conversation with Elizabeth Chadwick

by Wendy Zollo

Elizabeth Chadwick, author of such novels as The Winter Mantle, Lords of the White Castle, The Champion and the soon to be released, The Falcons of Montabard is without question one of the foremost writers of historical fiction on the scene today. She's particularly in-tune with her readers, delightfully witty, very opinionated in the most knowledgeable and at times highly amusing fashion! Elizabeth reveals quite a bit of her personality through both the way she creates her novels and her leisure activities.

I first 'met' Elizabeth, like so many of us do now, through the Internet. She was discussing her overwhelming TBR (to be read) pile, which at the time consisted of three books! I don't recall exactly what I said beyond 'three books doesn't equal a TBR', which lead to a humorous war of the TBR exchange. (We've since very satisfactorily and properly overwhelmed her pile!)

Elizabeth writes in a particularly understandable detailed manner that is also very vivid. Below are some quotes from The Falcons of Montabard:

"Sabin FitzSimon stood on the wharfside in the gathering dusk and through narrowed tawny-hazel eyes watched King Henry's ship, The Mora put to sea."

"the blue-green of a sunlit sea"

"Lust withered more swiftly than a storm-topped tree."

I commented to Elizabeth that these quotes are extremely evocative and visual and that they instantly take the reader to the borders of her inspiration. Are you aware when you're creating how deeply you seize your reader's with such well placed/chosen words?

Elizabeth replied, "Half and half. I am creating for myself and my imagination tends to be very visual. I often try to imbue my sentences with themed imagery. The tricky bit is creating a vivid image without going over the top into purple prose."

As I mentioned, Elizabeth has a impish sense of humor (even more so than what you'll find in her books….interviewer won't say another word!) still I hauled this one line again from 'Falcons' that generated an agreeable giggle while I was reading it.

"No, I was just making sure you were still alive." Sabin's mouth curled in good humoured scorn. "Looks as if you've sunk enough to float a galley."

I remarked how her writing is peppered with touching bits of humor that bring a smile, yet, doesn't distract from the plot; then continued to ask her if this was her own humor showing through? (And received a classic Chadwick reply. smiley

"Yes, it's my sense of humour - how could it not be when I'm the author. smiley My sense of humour is wide-ranging. I love word play and clever pun jokes. I can laugh myself silly at the humour of Monty Python, but I'm also at home with the bawdy slapstick of Benny Hill. I also have a strong sense of the ridiculous in society. It's all grist to the mill when it comes to writing."

I started asking Elizabeth about sequels (getting them slightly confused and I'm still wondering why she didn't cyber-slap my hand!).

The Falcons of Montabard is a sequel to The Winter Mantle, while your next project Shadows and Strongholds is the sequel to Lords of the White Castle. It's obvious you felt the story was too significant for one novel. Is that true?

Unlike other authors, we have the pleasure of anticipating a new Chadwick almost annually. Do you keep all those ideas locked in a strongbox! Where do they come from in such abundance?

"'Falcons' is a sequel to ' The Winter Mantle' and inspired by the detail that one of the heroes in 'Mantle' had an illegitimate son of whom nothing is known. 'Shadows and Strongholds' was inspired by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed writing 'Lords of the White Castle' and by the fact that e-mails from readers have absolutely flooded my in-box - far more than with any other novel I have written. The hero's father in LOTWC has a very significant and exciting story of his own and his childhood and young manhood are my current project."

Re ideas:

"History gives me the basic outlines - there are so many exciting stories waiting to be told. A quick glance at a contemporary chronicle or a series of historical records will unfold numerous opportunities for adventure.

The trick of producing a novel once a year (or every 14mths in my case) is to write every single day of every single week of the year. Sometimes it might only be a minimal amount if I've had to give a talk or go somewhere, but most of the time I will write 2 pages a day every day. Doesn't sound a lot, but it's 730 pages a year - more than enough for a novel. Of course some of those writing days are taken up with revising and rewriting, but in that case I'm probably hitting out around 10 pages a day. I research for a couple of weeks before beginning the new novel and then continue to research on a need to know basis while writing the first draft. By the second draft I will know if there are specific areas I need to look at in more detail, so then it's off to the library to order or to peruse books in their reading room…and there's online research too."

Elizabeth Chadwick has been shortlisted for Romantic Times Best Historical of 1999 for The Champion. The Salt Lake City Library Award for The Champion and The Parker Pen Romantic Novelists Association Award for the best Romantic Novel in 1998 (The Champion), 2001 (Lords of the White Castle) and again this year for 2002's The Winter Mantle. She also received the Betty Trask Award for her first published novel The Wild Hunt.

Cool, calm, Elizabeth, I'm sure you weren't the *least* bit excited…were you?

"Not 'the' BT award but 'a' BT award. There were four of us the year I won one. The award is for a first novel of a romantic or traditional nature written by an author under the age of 35. The year I won, the award was presented at Whitehall by Prince Charles. I'm not sure I was wilding screaming and leaping about excited. I'm not that sort of person as such. I tend to go fairly 'numb' and quiet for a time while I digest tidings, be they good or bad. The event itself was rather surreal as only a few months before shaking Prince Charles' hand in the same room where his ancestor Charles I had waited to go to his execution, I had been earning a crust stacking shelves with cat food at my local supermarket."

So, what do you think of book awards in general?

"I think they are good for the industry if it gets readers talking and buying. They are also excellent publicity for the shortlisted authors. How good an award is depends on how well it is run and obviously on the choice of judges and the judge's choice. Perhaps we need more awards chosen by ordinary readers. The RNA award is excellent because the shortlist is chosen by a panel of readers. Publishers can enter books that would not normally be seen outside of libraries or that never get the opportunity to be piled high at discount prices in the bookshops. Everyone starts off level pegging, and what comes through is often enlightening and cocks a snook at what is supposed to be popular taste. I love it. smiley (I'm not thinking of me personally here, Wen, but of some titles by Robert Hale. They're generally published for the library market and bookshops just ignore them. Last year Jane Pollard came through with an excellent read - Eye of the Wind - because readers liked it above 193 other entrants, but it's a book you'd never see in one of the highstreet chains.")

The discussion about historical fiction's popularity on the Net is an on-going thread. *They* (and wouldn't we all love to know who *they* really are?) say historical fiction is a dead-end market. However, we both know from the various lists we share this simply isn't true. So, where do you think the problem lies?

"I've no wise answers to this. I just write books! Perhaps one of the problems is that book buyers (as in those who do it for a job for the high-streets and supermarkets) are often at the younger end of the market and often not trained in literary appreciation. They want to buy and shift books like they would jars of coffee and cans of beans. (I thought that was a lovely and unusual hypothesis. <g>) The media are constantly chasing the next 'hot' thing rather than the steadier sellers with staying power. Historical fiction has also suffered from images of bodice ripping, candy hearts and old ladies smelling of moth balls reading Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy to satisfy unfulfilled longings. These are preconceptions which are difficult to shift."

Elizabeth has this wonderful tendency when she grows dismayed, horror-struck, shocked with a novel to 'toss it over her shoulder'. Whether there really is a massive crater in one of her walls is anyone's guess.

Your novels are as historically accurate as you can make them. Hence, what do you consider a forgivable and an unforgivable error an author can make before the dreaded toss over the shoulder?

"Forgivable = one that's so obscure that only an academic would notice.

Unforgivable = one that can easily be researched or one that totally jars a reader out of a story and out of the period that the story is set in. Like the wounded First Crusade Hero who is put to bed by the heroine and given a glass of milk and a slice of fruit cake (after he's fallen over her garden wall in a mail shirt and survived the drop)."

I'm NOT going to ask you who your favorite author is (too typical, too conventional) although I am going to ask you (free of charge!) what genre outside of HF you prefer to read and who some of 'those' authors are and why?

"I don't have a favourite genre. All genres are grist to the mill and I read widely in most of them. I think this is a very important thing for all writers to do…and readers too. I admit to not being overly fond of contemporary women's 'whingeing novels' and light romantic froth, but even amongst them there are some wonderful exceptions. My favourite writers outside the histfict genre are:

Crime: John Harvey, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Thomas Harris, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Lynda La Plante. All of these authors produce well written novels with excellent characterization and just that twist of gruesomeness to make them worth reading. I prefer my crime edgy rather than cosy.

Fantasy: George.R.R.Martin. Newly discovered and to my mind one of the best writers around. J.R.R. Tolkien. Breadth, depth, scope, imagination. I would add Terry Pratchett and obviously add humour to the list of qualities.

Women's novels: Anita Shreve, Maggie O'Farrel, Sarah Harrison, Maeve Harran - involving, truthful, perceptive.

Women's light fiction: Katie Fforde, Christina Jones, Janet Evanovich, Jennifer Crusie, - fun, feel good reads. The cup of hot chocolate at the end of the day.

Literary: Jane Gardham - because her work is effortless and simple and complex at the same time. Rose Tremain.

Thrillers: DeMille (YES!!!), Stephen Leather - well written and intelligent rather than overboard descriptions of the hardware!"

What do you think makes for a dreadful book? (I shall refrain from asking you what the worst book you've ever read is!)

"If it's a historical, characters and situations you can't believe in (see glass of milk and slice of fruit cake). I wall banged (…well, now I guess 'we' do know there is a 'crater' somewhere in her house <g>) one book by a very well known USA romance author of Medieval fiction after a little boy in her story said something like 'Wow, neat!' when being offered a bath.

I also find awkward prose a turn off. - W.H. Auden said 'The test of good prose is that the reader does not notice it any more than a man looking through a window at a landscape notices the glass.' If a novel's prose has 'smeary windows' caused by sloppy writing then it's likely to get the shoulder chuck within 20 pages."

The romance element remains in your novels, though they've become more 'historical' as you've progressed as an author; in spite of that, they are now more focused on 'all' relationships, not just ones of seduction. Do you find it difficult to involve the reader past the romance? (Interviewer raises hand and states she quite prefers 'all' the overlapping interactions, even though she's really not supposed to be offering an opinion….interviewer sits down.)

"No, I don't find it difficult involving the reader past the romance….unless that reader is a dedicated romance reader and doesn't want to go further along their own reading line. I've had a couple of fans say that they prefer the early novels which were more romance oriented, but I feel that personally my writing and the depth of my writing has moved on, fun though the romances were to write at the time and a great learning curve."

The women in your novels have a spark of independence, though not enough to jerk them from their era. Is it difficult to strike the proper balance?

"You always have to be aware that you must try and make them of their time while still appealing to a modern audience. It is indeed a balancing act, but I don't personally find it difficult. Perhaps because I come from a family with strong maternal input down 2 generations. Although the men were meant to be in charge, it was the women who ruled the roost. smiley Actually I have a sneaky preference for writing from a male vp. Even though I have many girlfriends and like to do the girly stuff with hair and makeup (but not all the time. I'm not the sort to weep over a broken fingernail.) I empathize with men a lot, their pragmatism and the simple way they relate to each other."

Serious 'stuff' over! (I'll just make a quick mention that I'm listening to the Two Towers Soundtrack as I'm writing this….trying to figure out 'who' to blame for this obsession?) Not everyone knows that you are beyond fanatical enthusiasm concerning J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (I won't mention Viggo…but I really should have!) Why?

"I have to set the record straight and say that although I enjoy Tolkien, I'm not particularly obsessed with his work. It's the films that ignite my passion. Why?

Because the film's scenes are so visually, viscerally evocative and powerful that they leave me inspired and itching to write. I want to write Medieval fiction the way that Peter Jackson portrays Tolkien on the wide screen. The way that Viggo Mortensen portrays one of the heroes with all his flaws and insecurities is the biggest inspiration to hit my inner writing eye since Meatloaf and Bruce Springsteen (Elizabeth writes to the music of U2, Robbie Williams, Coldplay and others) - and that's saying something! When I watch Aragorn putting on his armour in The Two Towers I get an adrenaline rush to the gut. It's not lust (well, not much smiley) because I feel that moment with him as well as about him. It's like the Jim Steinman song 'Holding out for a Hero' and that lyric is intrinsic to the core of my writing. Hugely romantic in the widest, most glorious sweep of the word. My early inspirations when I began writing about the Medieval period came from film and TV, so probably LOTR is a continuation of this. I still hold a special place in my heart for Charlton Heston in The Warlord and for the unknown French actor who played the knight Thibaud in the TV series Desert Crusader. They were two of the catalysts that set my feet on the path, and to Heston and Thibaud, I can now add Jackson, Mortensen and the cast of LOTR."

What (shocked expression) will you do after Return of the King, the final film in the trilogy is released this year….What will most of us do? <g>

"I will wait for the extended DVD later in the year followed no doubt by the de-luxe re-cut of all three films into one magnificent, mind-blowing epic!!!"

I imagine that will be 'very' inspiring for Elizabeth Chadwick's future novels!

© Wendy Zollo/2003


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