* What was it about 5th century Ireland that compelled you to set your story there in your debut novel BRIGID OF IRELAND?
I was intrigued by the fact that there were only a handful of Christians in
Ireland at the time. I wondered how they kept their faith and I also
wondered about the pagans. What did they believe? I am amazed that
Christianity spread so smoothly in Ireland. The early Christians there had
to have been amazing people.
* How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
The story is based on legends. Not much about 5th century Ireland can be proven. The legends were written down hundreds of years later. At the time of my story, there was very little written language in Ireland. But the Irish have a reputation for being storytellers and the stories were preserved orally.
The setting is as accurate as I could make it and I used the actual names of people that appeared in those legends. Some characters are completely from my imagination. I tell people to look for the names that are easy to pronounce. Those are the ones I made up.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 5th century Ireland, a pagan country about to be visited by the figure we know today as Saint Patrick.
Some people are surprised to learn that women held high positions in that society. They were druidesses and warriors, just like men. The idea that Brigid could have been ordained a bishop is not really as far fetched as it seems.
The other thing is that there were slaves in ancient Ireland who did not think their lot in life was that bad, and many of them were women. To be on your own, not connected to any clan, was much more frightening. Not that there weren't abuses. We know that Patrick did not like being a slave. But there was a lot of poverty and for many people being a slave meant you could survive.
* In what way is your protagonist, Brigid, characteristic of her time (5th century) and country (Ireland)?
Well, like I mentioned, women were held in high regard so it wasn't unusual that she obtained a place of influence. But being a Christian would not have been characteristic of that time. Also, giving everything you had to others, during a time when basic survival was uncertain, would have been highly unusual and is probably what made her a celebrity of her time, or at least a
* In 5th century Ireland, what was life like for the *average* woman of the lower, middle and upper class?
The classes at the time could have been described this way:
Royal: you were a member of the royal family or connected in some way, such as being a king's druid. A woman here could have been someone of great influence or just a pampered member of the clan with servants to wait on her. Life was not secure, however. A war could displace you.
Landowner: More than owning land, if you owned livestock, you were wealthy. A woman who either owned land (like the woman in the story who owned an orchard) or cattle was wealthy and secure--until there was a cattle raid, but that's another story!
Slave: A woman could be well taken care of or be abused by her owner. Either way, she had food to eat and a roof over her head.
None of the above: There were no cities, so if you did not belong to any of the other groups, you risked your life living out in the forest. There were women who had trades (seamstress, herbalist, warrior, for example) but they would have been connected to a clan.
* Are you working on another historical fiction novel, and if so, will it be set in Ireland again?
I have written another based on another Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator. My publisher ceased publishing fiction so I'm searching for a home for it. The story of St. Brendan fascinated me. An abbot and some monks climbed into a leather skin boat and sailed, some believe, all the way to North America--and in the 6th century! What they must have seen and experienced would have been truly amazing to them, and frightening. They went out of obedience to God and what Brendan learned changed him forever. The story goes on beyond the journey, however. He was one of the evangelistic monks who set up monasteries across Ireland and into Europe.
I'm currently working on a non Irish novel, a baseball mystery set in the early 20th century, and a non fiction book on the spiritual lessons we can learn from the ancient Irish saints. People often call them Catholic saints, but there was only one church at the time. Their lives have much to teach us whether we are Catholic or not (and I'm not.)
Thank you Cindy! And feel free to visit Cindy Thomson online for more information about her novel Brigid of Ireland.
* What was it about your protagonist, Lucy Dillon, that compelled you to tell her story in your seventh novel BLUEBIRD, OR THE INVENTION OF HAPPINESS?
She was such an intelligent and inspiring woman. She seems to have used every occasion, even the most dangerous, to learn something. When hiding out from the mob, she takes singing lessons from an Italian, and after her baby was born at the height of the Terror, she has the doctor give her lessons in midwifery while she instructs him on how to sew! She lead a dangerous life filled with tragedy ( she lost all her many children except for one) but seems always to have been able to maintain a sense of who she was and what she believed in. Mostly, it was her curiosity and her ability to continue to learn that inspired me to write about her.
* In your writing, how much of Lucy Dillon’s life is fact and how much is fiction?
I tried to stay true to the facts and not to alter things, but at the same time to take the greatest freedom in the writing that was possible. I wanted to enter the minds of my characters and find out how they would have thought and felt in that particularly time and place. It took a lot of work, a lot of research and time to allow oneself the freedom to leave the facts behind and let the imagination roam.
* Tell us something surprising about the women who frequented Marie Antoinette's court.
These women were often intelligent and had a certain amount of power. They held salons and could invite or not invite as they wished. Often they wrote memoirs of considerable literary quality. I was surprised by their independence, their learning and courage.
* In what way was Lucy Dillon totally uncharacteristic of her time (18th century) and country (France)?
Lucy, being of Irish origin, a Jacobite and from a military family was perhaps more of a rebel than some of her fellow countrymen. For example, when asked to attend a ball in white she comes entirely dressed in blue from her blue shoes, to her blue fan and up to the two bluebirds I place in her hair. I think she was, even for that time, unusually intelligent, well-educated, and curious about all aspects of life: the practical ones ( she was a great seamstress) as well as the less practical ones.
* During the Revolution, what was life like for the *average* woman of the lower and middle class?
The revolution was an uncertain and violent time for everyone. In the end even the revolutionaries like Robespierre and Danton were guillotined. Violence was often random, and war brought suffering for everyone. Still, there must have been a heady sense of change and the promise of freedom in the air. Perhaps Dickens sums it up: "The best and the worst of times."
* Will your next novel be historical fiction?
Yes, I'm writing about the Brontes.
Thank you Sheila! And feel free to visit Sheila Kohler online for more information about her novel Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness.
* In your historical novel THE MERCY SELLER, you write about a young woman in Prague named Anna Bookman, who makes her living by illuminating books. In your previous novel, THE ILLUMINATOR, Anna's grandfather risks his life to illustrate the English Bible. What was it about the job of an illuminator that fascinated you?
I think it might have been the color--I love color, sometimes I think I could drown in it, especially jewel tones--and the light, exploiting the light buried in those colors, that most difficult of painters' tasks. Of course, the medieval illuminator was not restricted to pigments. He also used gold and silver--that's why they are said to be "illuminated." I have always been fascinated by old, illuminated manuscripts. The first one I saw was The Book of Kells in Trinity College, Dublin. It must have had a much stronger impact on my imagination than I thought for the art to have shaped a fictional character forty years later.
* How much of your novel THE MERCY SELLER is based on fact and how much is fiction?
The character of Arundel, Henry V, Sir John Oldcastle, Jan Hus are all based in history as are the names and the event of the killing of the three young students in Prague. The facts surrounding Sir John's wife and her estate are true, though I could find little about her. Her character is largely drawn from my imagination. Anna, Finn, Friar Gabriel, and Kathryn (as well as the abbey she heads) are fictional. Their stories are fictional, though I tried to make their stories consistent with the roles they might have played in history.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 15th century Prague.
Women in 15th century Prague, or any 15th city in Europe, were in many ways similar to us. They could work at a variety of jobs--not just mid-wife, housewife, teacher, seamstress, poet--but they could enter the trades their husbands practiced and at widowhood become the sole proprietors of same. It was accepted practice that their wages were lower. Because they did not bear arms, they had no political voice, but because they bore children, they could exert tremendous political influence. They could inherit property-- if there were no male heirs--and because they carried a purse, they carried respect. Most from the artisan class and up could read, write, cipher, and some even knew a smattering of Latin. But no matter their social status, their days were consumed with the gathering and preparation--or supervision of preparation, since most had at least one servant--of food. The more things change the more things stay the same. (Heavy sigh)! How did they manage without a deli and take out and prepared meals?! Raise the chicken, wring its neck, pluck its feathers, gut it, put it on a spit on an open fire--all after a day behind the counter in their husband's mill, or armory, or barber shop or...
* In what way does English-born Anna Bookman defy the conventions of her time (15th century) and adopted country (Czechoslovakia)?
In the beginning she does not defy them at all. Because of her grandfather's work with the university, she exists in a little bubble of learning and "free-thinking" people, and she runs her grandfather's household like any other woman of her time. True, she is flaunting the laws of the Church by working with the Bible translations and openly following the teachings of Jan Hus, but the king has tolerated these dissidents until the incident with the burning of indulgences when the Church pressures him to step in. Up until this tipping point, the king has even encouraged the burgeoning cultural interest in developing the Czech language, and the emperor has tolerated it. Every day Jan Hus is preaching to 3000 people in the Bethlehem Chapel in the Czech language while the mass at the Cathedral on the hill is ill attended. So when things go too far and the storm bursts over their heads, Anna is ill prepared to cope. But by the time she returns to England things have changed. She has matured through her suffering and loss, and she is in full flaunting mode.
* What are you working on next, and will your new protagonist be an
No. As much pleasure as that gave me, my next book is set after the invention of the printing press. I am interested in how the English Bible went from being banned to being a required accoutrement of every church and chapel in England within a span of one generation. My next protagonist will be a smuggler and a translator.
Copyright © Don Vantrease
Thank you Brenda! And feel free to visit Brenda Rickman Vantrease online for more information about her novels The Illuminator and The Mercy Seller.
*MARRYING MOZART is the story of four sisters and their fascinating and often scandalous lives while living with Mozart. Why did you choose to use Sophie as your narrator?
Sophie was the youngest and last surviving sister, and I decided to use her memories as an old woman to frame the different sections of the book. An English musician did travel to Salzburg a good half century after Mozart’s death to gather information about him and find how the four musical Weber sisters had influenced his music as a young man so I made him a character. I thought I could set up interesting questions…and here is this very old woman living in a room in Salzburg with all sorts of memorabilia from Mozart and her sisters…letters, hats, opera scores, secret boxes, each one which leads into a story of the 21-year-old unemployed composer who showed up for her father’s weekly informal musicale in Mannheim when she was very young. Of all the sisters, she is the greatest observer.
Actually, the sisters only lived with Mozart about six months when the mother kept a boarding house. Otherwise they lived pretty close to him as Mannheim, Munich and Vienna were fairly small then.
*How much of the Weber girls' lives are fact and how much is fiction?
I had to create a lot, but things like the Mozart family letters and opera house documents etc. helped a lot. We know that Aloysia, the second sister who became a highly paid opera singer at a young age, did break her promises to Mozart and marry someone else; we know that Mozart was scandalized when his future wife allowed a young man to measure the calf of her leg in a parlor game. That became part of the book. He was very proud and concerned for his honor and hers. We know he wrote great music for Josefa and that he adored little Sophie. But of course you have to create a lot to fill in the blanks. It was very easy to create them; they just “spoke” to me!
*Tell us something surprising about women in 18th century Mannheim, where Fridolin Weber's four daughters grew up playing music for German, and later, Viennese soirées.
I suppose you mean women in the artistic, educated circles which were different than the poor uneducated classes or the upper classes. I think the Weber sisters were a bit Bohemian. Artists were always in and out of their door and reading and education were very important. Almost all educated people then learned to sing and play instruments; in this age before radio and recordings, etc. people made a lot of music themselves. But the sisters’ father was poor and he taught his daughters, hoping they could make good livings in music.
*In what ways did the Weber sisters defy the conventions of their time (18th century) and country (Germany)?
I suppose they ended up marrying pretty much who they wanted to marry! They had a lot of freedom. However, it was still very scandalous for a girl then to sleep with anyone before marriage. Only one of the girls actually does…but they choose for themselves. They are strong-willed; their father is lenient and their mother lives in a fantasy world of some prince sweeping her girls away when they live in a fifth-floor walk up and have to bring down the chamber pots themselves and bring up the firewood. The mother is hoping for a prince to walk up the five flights, so the girls take matters into their own hands.
*In MARRYING MOZART you expose how important it was for elderly parents who were not financially secure to arrange a marriage of monetary convenience versus love for their daughters. In the novel, the mother of the Weber girls becomes extremely disappointed when her prettiest daughter, Aloysia (whom she hoped to marry to a Swedish baron), runs away with a painter. For a girl who disobeyed her parents and eloped during the 18th century, what kind of life and reception could she expect in society?
There was certainly no social security back then, though Mozart’s father as an employee of the Archbishop would have qualified for a small pension, and a grown child was expected to provide for her/his parents. They would perhaps move in with the child. But 18th century Vienna was not 19th century Victorian England or the upper class society of Anna Karenina who is shunned by some people when she takes a lover. People had lovers more easily and it wasn’t such a scandal…not in the artistic circles anyway. Besides, the Swedish baron was an utter fantasy! And Aloysia’s mother demanded and received a substantial sum of money from the man Aloysia married! Sort of a reverse dowry!*Are you working on another novel, and if so, who will be your protagonist?
I am working on a few novels now, mainly one about the very handsome 25-year-old Claude Monet. I also have a few others going about a famous writer, another musical one, and maybe a second one about the Weber sisters after Mozart marries one of them. We’ll see!Copyright ©2003 by Sigrid EstradaThank you Stephanie! And feel free to visit Stephanie Cowell online for more information about her novel Marrying Mozart.