Meet the Incredible Judith Arnopp
An interview by Linda Root
Researching The Song of Heledd required you to do an exhaustive critical analysis of a collection of ninth century Welsh poetry entitled Canu Heledd, and your novel is based upon fragments of the poems. How did you approach such a demanding task? What drew you to it?
I studied early medieval literature as part of my Master’s degree and became familiar with Heledd that way. Only a tiny fragment of the poem, the beginning and end, are extant, but it is quite clear that Heledd held herself responsible for the loss of not just her family, but the entire dynasty. I found myself constantly wondering what she had done. It was the sort of question that keeps you awake nights even though there is no way we will ever discover the real truth.
The poem tells us that she loved her brother Cyndylan, King of Pengwern, but although she also loved her sister, Ffreur, she doesn’t mourn her. Why on earth not?
There could be a number of reasons but the more I thought about it, the more real Heledd and Ffreur became. In the end the only way to put my ‘historian’ mind to sleep was to let my creative side take over and make up the middle part. Because so little is known about the people involved in the events I was able to give my imagination full rein. We have the names, we have the places, we know of the wars they were involved in, we know the way it ended. The only questions left were how and why. So I made it up.
I didn’t rely on my own critical analysis; I am not skilled enough or confident enough for that but a lot of academic study has been done on the subject and I am lucky enough to have the University of Wales practically on my doorstep. I owe particular thanks to Jenny Rowlands and her book Early Welsh Saga Poetry.
If you were to expand one of your novels into a series, which would you find the most tempting?
I haven’t ever thought of doing a series. I think I might get bored with the characters and if I was bored with them, think how bored the reader would be! I did consider doing a follow up to Peaceweaver, tracing the lives of the sons she bore Grufydd ap Llewelyn. The historical record tells us they returned to Wales and attempted to win back the lands their father governed but the records are sketchy so it would be pure fiction. Most of my novels have such a complete ending that I don’t see how I could take the others further. I suppose the closest I’ve come to a series is with my Tudor novels; I tackle Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard in The Winchester Goose, and Anne Boleyn in The Kiss of the Concubine.
It was the other way round actually. Although I have written short stories since I was a child I never let anyone read anything until I was well into my adulthood. Around 2004 I wrote a very bad historical novel set in medieval England that will never see light of day, then I progressed to Peaceweaver. Once I decided it was good enough to publish I began to write short pieces and blogs to draw attention to my work. On occasion I have plucked something very old from the archives and reinvented it but on the whole the novels came first, the short pieces second. When I first began to blog I adapted old university material but now I try to stick to whichever period I am writing in and link it in some way to one of my books.
Are you ever tempted to try out a different genre? If so, which would it be?
I’ve written a bit of romance but my heart isn’t in it. I am too bloodthirsty for contemporary stories. I like to make my characters suffer and often kill them off so it doesn’t really suit the romance genre. My heart is in historical, I am more comfortable in a medieval setting and since my personal life is so rural I have no idea what it is really like to live in the modern world. I am in a beautiful time bubble here in West Wales with only sheep and the windswept landscape for company.
It strikes me that the tone and setting of your first three novels is unmistakably Welsh. And then, you take another leap, this time hundreds of years forward to Tudor England. Did some particular interest, challenge or event cause you to move from pre-invasion Saxon Britain all the way to Tudor England in your recent offerings, The Winchester Goose and finally, The Kiss of the Concubine?
I published a very short lighthearted pamphlet of six stories called Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens. It wasn’t a serious academic study; I did it in a workshop with no research material to hand. Readers who demand accuracy slammed it but I also had some positive reviews and loads of emails from other readers asking if I’d written any other Tudor books.
I had so many readers asking that I thought seriously about it and the result was The Winchester Goose. I found the transition very smooth and am comfortable in Tudor England. The difference between Dear Henry and The Winchester Goose is the months of research that went into the latter. It is about a prostitute from Southwark and contrasts the life of a whore with that of Henry’s queens. The glittering royal court is juxtaposed with the stews across the river. During the course of researching The Winchester Goose I conceived the idea of writing a novel about Anne Boleyn without embellishing her story or taking defamatory material too literally. The result was The Kiss of the Concubine and the response from readers has been astounding. I am so very touched by all the letters and reviews that are flooding in.
Kiss of the Concubine is populated by actual persons--Anne Boleyn, her early lovers Wyatt and Percy, and the colorful member of her own family, especially her brother George and her sister-in-law Lady Rochford, and of course, the king. How did you deal with the immense amount of conflicting data available about them, and especially, how did you approach the controversy that surrounds the trial and execution of Queen Anne and her parade of alleged lovers?
You have to take every historical record with a pinch of salt. Every writer, especially one recording history as it happens, has an agenda. You have to ask yourself;, why was he writing it? Who was he writing it for? What was his motive? After Anne’s death many of her possessions and papers were destroyed. There are very few letters remaining in her hand, so much of what we learn is gleaned from sources that were ‘allowed’ to survive to the present day. Some were written by her enemies and some of the more complimentary stuff penned later, in her daughter Elizabeth’s reign. It is a case of reading between the lines. Many of the dates of her alleged offences can be dismissed as records show she elsewhere at the time; on one occasion when she was accused of committing adultery she was still in childbed with Elizabeth. It is quite clear the charges were trumped up.
Anne is a very popular figure and there is a large following who believe she has been maligned by Spanish and Tudor propaganda. To find the real woman, or to come as close to her as we can ever can, one has to remain objective. Of course secondary sources on Anne Boleyn are readily available and Eric Ives, Susannah Lipscombe and Claire Ridgway were invaluable when it came to sources and theories. I read the more critical stuff too so as to form my own opinion but I have to agree Anne was innocent, a victim of state politics.
Did your personal attitude toward Anne and Henry change as your book progressed, and if so, in what way? Do you see Anne and Henry's story as a love affair?
My opinion of Anne was vindicated by my studies of her and remained unaltered, but my research into Henry changed my opinion immensely. I always assumed he was a brute, a wife murderer, a psychopath in fact, but the more I read about him, the more I came to understand, or at least to acknowledge, his psychological flaws. He was a man with immense power, a man in search of the unobtainable and this, together with his belief that he was second only to God, determined the monstrous behavior that he is famous for today.
My personal belief is that he did love Anne, and she him. Henry was a selfish and demanding man yet he courted her for seven years. If he didn’t truly love her he would have given up, yet it seems he scarcely looked at another woman in all this time.
His disappointment when she failed to conceive a son made him vulnerable to the political attack that took her down. I think he believed the lies that were told about her. Henry was a jealous and possessive man and I think the realisation that Anne had died innocent didn’t come until it was too late. Henry and Anne’s relationship was always stormy; they had frequent and public disagreements but their reconciliations were just as public. There are no contemporary reports that the marriage was failing; just a few weeks before her arrest even the Spanish ambassador Chapuys reported that the king and queen were as much in love as ever. In The Kiss of the Concubine, after her arrest, Anne believes it is just another misunderstanding; she is sure Henry will soon cool down and save her.
Without asking you to pick a favorite amongst your novels, can you tell us which of them was the most enjoyable writing experience for you? And of course, on the flip side, which novel or part of a novel was the most difficult? How did you overcome the obstacles?
I think the novel that was the most fun to write was The Winchester Goose. There is usually some humour in my novels because I believe that even in the most trying of human predicaments, we find the time for irony or foolery. Joanie Toogood, the main character in The Winchester Goose is a good humoured, big hearted woman and taking on her life as a prostitute enabled me to fully explore the pestilent, filthy, cut-throat underworld of Tudor London. I discovered a variety of people there from the generous to the downright nasty. Amid all the squalor Joanie emerges as funny, compassionate and loud – her mind is probably the one I’ve most enjoyed inhabiting during my writing career so far.
The most difficult was a scene in The Song of Heledd when Heledd’s actions destroy the person she loves most. I wrote the scene several times but it wasn’t right. The situation she was in was so horrible; it was way beyond my own life experience. In the end I imagined it was happening to one of my own sisters (I have three, all of whom are very precious to me). Once I had made the scene personal it came easily, as did the tears I shed while I wrote it. I don’t want to be guilty of spoilers but that particular chapter is the hardest I’ve had to write. It still makes me shudder when I read through it.
Of the heroines in your novels, which one do you most consider ‘a Woman for All Seasons'?
Oh dear, there is a difficult question. Not many of my female characters win in the end. It is more about the journey than the destination; in fact a lot of my women don’t survive beyond the last chapter. I can think of one that would fit the bill in The Forest Dwellers but that would involve a huge spoiler so I will stick with Alys from the same book.
After the Norman invasion the people of the New Forest are treated so harshly by the new regime that life becomes impossible. Alys, an extraordinarily pretty girl, uses a variety of ways to hold her own in a rapidly changing world. Once she discovers her most effective weapon is her own physical beauty, she fights and scrambles her way up the ladder. She survives, she gets what she wants (or needs to survive) but not without the greatest sacrifice of all. Love.
Alys is not easy to love but she is impossible to ignore. She is flawed, her mistakes are legion but at the end of her struggle when she lives on beyond the closing of the book, you will have come to understand her and forgive her failings.
Were you writing regularly when your children were preschoolers? How did your writing mesh with your family life? Has that changed now that your children are older? What advice would you give to new writers with young families?
I was too busy being mum and running a smallholding to write seriously until my children were grown up. I used to scribble stories as a hobby but never dreamed of publishing them. I have a clutch of stories I wrote about them when they were little. I’d put them into scenarios and take them through excellent adventures to read at bedtime. When I was expecting my daughter I wrote about the forthcoming event so as to help her brother, Simon, who was just about two years old, to look forward to her arrival as much as we were. I was worried he would feel displaced but I didn’t need to worry, he adored her from day one and they are all still really close.
Now they are all grown up they are proud of my achievements and bore all their friends about their ‘fabulous mum.’
Was there ever a time after your first book was published when you thought of giving it all up?
No. I’d never give up writing. Even if nobody bought my books I would still have to write. Initially I sought the traditional publishing route but I soon got fed up with that malarkey. I was taken on by an agent but she really didn’t ‘get’ what I was about. She wanted me to write more like Philippa Gregory but I didn’t want to; I wanted to write like me.
I have had my share of despondency, bad reviews, negative feedback. I encourage constructive criticism but downright nastiness is upsetting and damaging. One of my writer friends was so hurt by personal criticism that she gave up writing altogether. I can’t see me doing that. I wouldn’t know what else to do.
Once I decided to go it alone I found myself on a huge learning curve. I had to be self-critical, discover a good editor (I have an excellent one now after two or three failures.) I learned to develop new skills, typesetting, layout, formatting, cover design, marketing skills and I had to learn how to be receptive to readers even if I was having a bad day and feeling a bit grumpy. Facebook and Twitter are invaluable for making connections with readers. I have a lovely little band of friends now and it is those people that make all the hard work worthwhile.
It is tough sometimes. A very solitary existence. You have to be happy in your own company, you have to be tough and develop the skin of a rhinoceros. Most of all I think you need to have conviction in your own way of doing things.
I have seen you describe your writing as coming from a feminine perspective. Do you consider yourself a feminist? How does your empathy for the plight of women affect your presentation of the principal male characters in your story? Of all of the males in your several books, which one of them, if any, would you consider a feminist or the most sympathetic to the needs of women? And of course, who is the insensitive bad guy in the mix?
I believe in equality for women in the modern world. I know it didn’t exist in the period I write in and I try very hard not to make my female characters act and speak as we do today. Their expectations were entirely different to ours. That is not to say that women didn’t have an impact on history. There are plenty of incidences where the actions of women have had a huge influence; very often they were unrecorded or glossed over in favour of male achievements.
The male characters that empathise most with women are probably Peter the Costermonger in The Winchester Goose, and George Boleyn in The Kiss of the Concubine.
I don’t think any of my male characters are absolute brutes. They might be insensitive, unschooled in the art of love, and they tend to shout a lot but they are not evil, just human. There are no black/white, evil/nice characters; I try to present multi-faceted people. I don’t know anyone who is wholly good or wholly bad so why should they appear in fiction? Gruffyd ap Llewelyn in Peaceweaver is the nastiest of my characters. He was the leader of the Welsh and, by most accounts, a powerful man in a harsh and brutal world. When Eadgyth finds herself married to him we see him from her perspective which isn’t a pretty one, but I do manage to give him the chance to explain his behavior and explore what made him the man he was. I had a quandary with Gruffydd because the records we have of him were written by those who defeated him and so can’t be wholly relied on. But since it was his own men who betrayed him to King Edward I could only surmise that if the Welsh turned against their own leader in favour of the English he must have been a real ‘baddie.’
Now that the Kiss of the Concubine is a completed project, what’s next for Judith Arnopp? Please tell us a little about your current work in progress, but also give us an idea of where you would like to be ten years down the line, both as a writer and as a woman who has a deep commitment to her family and her heritage.
I am still with the Tudors. This time I am writing the life of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. She comes across as a strong woman. She married four times, the first three occasions for political rather than personal reasons. She withstood a siege at Snape Castle during her second marriage to Lord Latimer and, when the king targeted her as his next wife, she put aside her own desire to marry Thomas Seymour until after Henry’s death. She was a good consort to Henry and, although long thought of as a dull little nursemaid, she emerges a fascinating woman. She was in fact very scholarly and a published author. She stood as regent for England while Henry was warmongering in France and was a strong role model and mother to his children. Her eventual marriage to Thomas Seymour was not an altogether wise choice as it turns out; their short marriage was fraught with suspicion and infidelity until she died shortly after childbirth scarcely a year after the king’s death.
The novel is to be called Intractable Heart, which is a phrase taken from her book The Lamentation of a Sinner in which she acknowledges her ‘obstinate, strong and intractable heart.’
It is told via four narrators: Katherine’s step daughter, Margaret Neville; Katherine herself; Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth Tudor. I am about three quarters of the way through the story now, just beginning Elizabeth’s part and am hugely excited to be tackling such a huge figure.
The future is a dark uncomfortable place to contemplate, I am much happier in the past but in ten years' time I would like to be healthy, fit and happy, doing much as I am doing now only with more confidence and success. I should also like my husband to have finally given in to my demands and retired so he can become my ‘kept man.’ Some more grandchildren would be nice too.
I hope you have enjoyed spending time with Judith Arnopp as much as I have. My next task is to clear some space on my ‘to be read’ shelf for Judith’s earlier works, and of course, with a special reserved space for Intractable Heart. Visit Judith’s author pages at Amazon and Amazon UK.
Linda Root is the author of the novels in the Queen of Scots Suite. If you would like Linda to review your book or conduct an interview, please see our submissions tab above.