A Conversation with Historical Fiction author, Judith Arnopp
Please give a warm Coffee Pot welcome to Historical Fiction author, Judith Arnopp.
Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on the release of Royal Blood: A HWA Short Story Collection. Could you tell us how you got involved in this fabulous collection of short stories?
Judith Arnopp: Hi Mary Anne, Thank you for inviting me on to your blog. The anthology is a collection of short stories set in the Tudor period written by David Field, Elizabeth Fremantle, Michael Jecks, Steven Veerapen, Peter Tonkin, Philip Gooden, John Pilkington, Michael Ward and me. All nine authors are thrilled with the success Royal Blood is enjoying. Sharpe Books already publish two of my twelve novels, Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr and The Kiss of the Concubine: the story of Anne Boleyn so when they approached me to be part of this project, I knew right away what I’d write and who I’d write about.
Mary Anne: All the stories in this collection are set during the Tudor era. Why do you think this period in history is still really popular with readers?
Judith Arnopp: I have loved the Tudors all my life. I can still just about recall how amazing the story of Henry and his wives was to me during my early teens. When the serious study came later, I found the Tudor world just kept giving. The fact that I am able to write about and attract new people to the royal court is still unbelievable. I think the era draws newcomers into history. It was certainly so for me. The Tudors have it all: romance, intrigue, passion, betrayal, treason and of course, a whole lot of horror which we all love.
I find it very satisfying when I introduce a young person to Henry and his wives. The stories are new to them and they have no idea of the years of pleasure ahead. I love to see the animation in their faces as they tell me what they’ve learned so far.
The Tudors are a gift for an author – it was a time of so much social change and there are many different perspectives and paths to follow: male, female, catholic, protestant, I could go on but lists are tedious.
There are those who complain the Tudors have been done to death but there will always be a new generation coming along for whom the 16th century is new and exciting. For me, Royal Blood is made special by the diversity of style: different authors, different genders, different points of view, different characters. Royal Blood is like a selection box of Tudor England that contains everyone’s favourite story.
Mary Anne: Your story in this fabulous collection, No Other Will Than His, is about Katherine Howard. As I am sure many readers will know Katherine Howard’s story has a very tragic ending. Why did you choose to write about the fifth wife of Henry VIII?
Judith Arnopp: I’ve written about most of Henry’s wives already, also his grandmother, mother and daughter Mary, but although she appears in one of my books, Katherine Howard has escaped my full attention. Now, having written, No Other Will Than His, I think she may find herself the subject of one of my novels quite soon. She is a fascinating woman.
As with every aspect of history, there are differing opinions on her true nature. Some see her as an innocent young girl whose abused childhood made her an easy target for Norfolk's political manoeuvres. For others, she was a woman of loose morals who knew exactly what she was taking on. We will never know the full truth; we never know the full truth of anything.
In No Other Will Than His I have taken the middle road, a mix of recorded history, myth and imagination. Katherine is a victim of abuse, relatively uneducated, enamoured of pretty things and lured into the royal marriage by the promise of riches rather than power. She seems to have been content enough at first, an old man's darling enjoying her new status but totally out of her depth politically. It is only when she becomes involved with the unscrupulous Culpepper that she realises she cannot remain faithful to the ageing Henry. Whether her lover, Tom Culpepper, was the romantic young lover often depicted in fiction or the corrupt rogue that historical research suggests, Katherine seems to have loved him.
I’ve often wondered how Katherine felt about stepping into her dead cousin’s shoes. She must have thought about her. She was an adolescent at the time of Anne's execution but the scandal and speculation about her life and death would have continued to circulate. Perhaps Katherine saw Anne as an innocent victim, perhaps she believed the allegations of treason and incest but surely, at some point leading up to her marriage to Henry, Katherine thought about Anne and wondered what her own future held.
People of the Tudor age were far more familiar with death than we are today. Our expectation is to live to old age but in the Tudor era infant death, death in childbirth, death from contagion was commonplace. Judicial death was also normal but the execution of an anointed queen is something peculiar only to Henry VIII’s reign.
In my story, Katherine is inured to violence. She has grown up with it. She believes unquestioningly in God and an afterlife. As was the case with so many others, her faith enables her to face death with a maturity and courage she lacked in life.
I saw a pig slaughtered in the farmyard once. The butcher struck the sow on the head before hoisting its prone body on a rope. I peeked around the corner of the barn as he slit its throat, and I saw the blade of the knife slicing through the thick, rubbery skin as if it were butter. Crimson blood oozed into a bowl and when the body was empty, the wound gaped wide, like a screaming mouth. The butcher turned the corpse into chops and sausages but the mangled body of my cousin was hurriedly squeezed into an old arrow chest, her intelligent head shoved beneath her arm.
Despite the negative aspects of Katherine’s life and personality it cannot be disputed that although she was half her cousin’s age she faced execution as bravely as Anne Boleyn.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Judith Arnopp: The research. I spend months reading up on the subject, trying to make some order of the differing records, opposing accounts, contrasting opinions. I have to be aware of them all but when I begin to write I put all research aside and allow my character to relate their own story. It is rather as if they are giving evidence, explaining the whys and wherefores.
It is a constant battle between the fictional character wanting to do one thing while history dictates they must do another - this is where the character’s own opinion comes in. We know from history that they took a certain action but history can never fully explain why they might have taken it. It is all open to supposition.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Judith Arnopp: I am tempted to say ‘don’t do it’ but if they have the heart and the thick skin to cope with the sometimes rather cruel criticism then that would be the wrong advice. I’d suggest they research thoroughly and keep as true as possible to the historical record; if they wander from the record then be sure to add an author’s note pointing out where and why.
My number one negative thing about HF, and the thing that will make me stop reading a book, is the demonization of historical figures. Take Henry VIII for example. Some of Henry’s acts were undoubtedly brutal, or they seem so today, but that doesn’t mean he was a monster – monsters don’t exist. They never have done. People do bad things. Rather than making your characters pantomime villains, dig a little deeper and consider how and why they became a ‘bad’ person.
I have no love for Henry VIII but I feel as an author I have to remain objective. I put aside my preconceptions. To my surprise Henry emerges as more tragic than evil. He was human and like all of us, he was flawed. He tried desperately to be the man and king his father and grandmother trained him to be. He needed strong sons but his failure put the Tudor dynasty at risk. With just one small boy to follow him, Henry knew from experience (the sudden death of his older brother Arthur) that one son wasn’t enough. When the sons failed to appear he grew desperate to secure his dynasty and in doing so struck out at those he loved. He killed his friends, men he’d looked up to all his life, the woman he had fought for seven years to possess and he brought down the church he once championed. The older and sicker and more desperate he became the worse his acts grew. It is a horrible thing to recognise failure in oneself and Henry, once so full of potential, died in the knowledge that he had failed in his primary duty as king. He had let the side down.
So in short, when writing about a known historical figure, try to worm your way into their minds and discover a human being instead of a cardboard cut-out. The result will be far more interesting.
Also please hire an editor. So many potentially great books are ruined by sloppy editing.
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to chat with us!
A HWA Short Story Collection
‘The drama, intrigue, and clashing contrasts of Tudor times brought vividly to life.’ Imogen Robertson
Immerse yourself in the Tudor period through a diverse collection of informed and entertaining short story narratives.
Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre.
The stories in Royal Blood bring the Tudor era richly to life, presenting suspense, rivalry, espionage and historical drama.
This stunning new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers' Association, also includes interviews with each author.
Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Tudor world.
Royal Blood is a must read for all fans of historical fiction.
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A HWA Short Story Collection
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Authors and Stories Featured in Royal Blood:
Judith Arnopp – ‘No Other Will Than His’ Katherine Howard
David Field – One for the Road
Elizabeth Fremantle – The Sum of Me
Philip Gooden – Exit Ghost
Michael Jecks – The Earl’s Purse
John Pilkington – A False Hawksman
Peter Tonkin – A Palpable Hit
Steven Veerapen – Lantern and Light
Michael Ward – The North-East Passage