Elizabeth Fremantle holds a first class degree in English and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck College London. She has contributed as a fashion editor to various publications including Vogue, Elle and The Sunday Times. QUEEN’S GAMBIT is her debut novel and is the first in a Tudor trilogy. The second novel, SISTERS OF TREASON, will be released in 2014. She lives in London.
Hello Elizabeth! Welcome and thank you for chatting with me today. Please tell me about your book, Queen’s Gambit. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about your story.
Elizabeth Hello to you, and thank you so much for hosting QUEEN’S GAMBIT on your blog. I’m obviously delighted that you have heard such good things about it. When you launch a first novel it’s impossible to imagine how people will react, so the lovely things people have said are a source of great joy.
QUEEN’S GAMBIT tells the story of Katherine Parr, the wife who ‘survived’ Henry VIII, describing the period from when she first catches the eye of the King until the demise of her disastrous fourth marriage. It is told from three points of view: that of Katherine Parr, her doctor Robert Huicke and her maid Dot Fownten, giving a prism of perspectives on the Tudor court at a time of great turbulence.
When did you fist become interested in this period and when did you know you wanted to write your story?
I have always enjoyed reading history and read Jean Plaidy voraciously as a child, which is when the seeds were sown for my own historical fiction. It was when I first read Stephan Zweig’s two wonderful historical biographies (of Marie Antoinette and Mary Queen of Scots) in my early twenties that my desire to discover more about the lives of women from history was born. However having studied English as a degree, I felt I wasn’t qualified to write about history. So my first (unpublished) novels were contemporary fiction but I failed to find my voice, until I decided to try my hand at writing the past. Once I began work on QUEEN’S GAMBIT everything seemed to fall into place – it was as if I’d unlocked something in myself and began to realize that much of what I had learned reading English was also history. It all comes down the study of texts.
What is some of the research you did and what fascinates you most about the royal court surrounding this story?
So much of my research is textual and there are some extraordinary biographies of Katherine Parr but I also explored renaissance etiquette books, recipe books and social histories as I felt it was of great importance to create as close to an authentic world for my characters to inhabit. I spend a great deal of time wandering around old houses and castles, trying to imagine myself back in time. A course I took in Tudor and Stuart clothing, looking at all aspects of dress, from its construction to its symbolic value, was invaluable as I have used clothing to represent the restricted lives of women in the book. Research is an on-going process and inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. A documentary series about Amish women, for example, gave me insights into the lives and beliefs of Tudor women, as they operate under some of the same social restrictions.
As for the court, it is the constant sense of impermanence and danger that I find particularly fascinating. These people, however privileged, were living on a constant knife-edge and I wanted to articulate that in QUEEN’S GAMIT.
You have certainly done a lot of research and I’m sure it’s paid off. I love visiting old homes and hope to visit castles one day. I often wonder at times how the people at court could stand it for so long and the pressure they were constantly under….
Katherine Parr is my favourite among King Henry’s wives. What sets your book apart from others about her? And were there any challenges writing about her?
Katherine Parr was a gift in the sense that her life is a perfect narrative arc with drama, romance and ultimately tragedy. I have tried to show her as the vibrant, politically astute and intelligent woman she was, rather than the dull nursemaid that history has remembered her as. But one of the things that interested me most about her is the essential contradiction in her character, in that she, a clever, canny woman, makes a disastrous decision in the name of love. For me this is what makes her story resonate with modern women.
To be honest, I have never read another novel about Katherine Parr, only historical biographies, so I am not the person to ask about comparisons, but each novelist will have created her in her own particular way. What I have tried to do is get beneath her skin and understand how she might have thought and felt (how might it have truly felt to be the wife of such a tyrant) whilst adhering as much as possible to the historical facts as we know them.
What is the most challenge thing to write about Historical Fiction and what advice would you give someone who is considering writing in this genre?
I suppose the challenge is getting the balance of fiction and history. For me it was important to remain faithful to history but it is the inner worlds of characters that make for good fiction and creating characters, even those based on real people, is an act of imagination. I find having a restrictive framework of history to work within forces you to explore different narrative possibilities more deeply, but it can be frustrating at times. In QUEEN’S GAMBIT, for example, a main character dies half-way through the narrative – that is something I couldn’t change and had to find a way for that death to make sense within the arc of the story.
My advice is to do all your research, then set it aside and write your story without trying to pack it full of evidence of your knowledge. One of the greatest complements I have received is that QUEEN’S GAMBIT wears its research lightly.
How long did it take you to write your story? Will you write others that take place in this period?
From start to finish QUEEN’S GAMBIT took about eighteen months but it came at the end of a ten-year period of writing fiction (an MA in Creative Writing and three unpublished novels). I had said to myself that I would have to stop if I didn’t find a publisher for it. Happily it has worked out for the good and I have realized that the wilderness years all contributed to honing my skill as a writer.
I have written the second in my Tudor trilogy. SISTERS OF TREASON is out next year and is about the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, a pair of girls who were born dangerously close to the throne at a time of great instability. It begins in Mary Tudor’s bloody reign but when Elizabeth comes to the throne things become increasingly difficult for the Grey girls. In SISTERS OF TREASON, though we don’t revisit any of the main characters from QUEEN’S GAMBIT we are reacquainted with some of the characters in the background, and of course the two Tudor princess, watching their rise to the throne and the consequences of this.
Tough question. What are your thoughts on the Reformation and how the Church of England was established?
I find it impossible to have a straightforward opinion on this because in many ways the Reformation was a force for good, in that it counteracted a deeply corrupt Catholic church and offered ordinary people a way to think, read and learn about faith in a personal and intimate way. Some of the violent acts perpetrated in the name of religious reform though, were unconscionable. But then again religion and politics were inextricably linked in those days and faith was used as a means to control people. You only have to think of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition or the 280 odd Reformers who were burned in Mary Tudor’s reign to understand that terrible things were done in the name of both Catholicism and reform, but such acts were political at heart. It does make me deeply sad though, when I visit the ruins of the great monasteries and abbeys in England and wonder about the violent erasure of a tradition that had persisted for centuries and all the beauty and tradition that was lost forever.
I agree with you. How often do you get a chance to read for pleasure and what is the name of the book you have just read?
All reading is a pleasure for me, even if it is work, but I am on holiday at the moment, with a stack of novels on my Kindle to read without having to make notes. The book I am reading today is Blood Royal by Vanora Bennett, about Catherine de Valois and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Are you a paperback or r-reader sort-of gal?
Elizabeth: I have a reader for convenience and for reading when I’m traveling but I do prefer a good paperback if I’m honest.
Same here. I love my e-readers but prefer a paperback. Do you write reviews for all the books you read?
If there were time enough…
Also, if I particularly enjoy a book I often want to share that with other people even if it’s just via a Tweet. I don’t think wholly negative reviews are helpful, unless there is something very specific to say. But then I’m a writer so I would think that.
Where is your favourite reading/writing spot in your home?
I have a study, filled to the gunnels with books and I sit at my desk beside the window to write, with my dogs by my side to keep my company. As for reading, my favourite place is in bed, in the morning!
Stephanie: I to have my desk by the window. It’s a beautiful spot to write. There is a beautiful Maple Tree right outside my window and just beyond that great big Holly Bushes….and love all my books around me and my dog loves to sit beside me when writing.
Elizabeth it was a pleasure chatting with you! Thank you!