CAROL MCGRATH: THE BETROTHED SISTER IS A STORY OF LOVE, REVENGE, JEALOUSY AND RIVALRY
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Carol McGrath published the third part of her The Daughters of Hastings series at the beginning of October. The Betrothed Sister is another history journey that started just after the Battle of Hastings. Our next guest is historian, who is specializing in medieval era. It’s is a real pleasure to welcome at Land of Books lady Carol McGrath for the following chat.
– Carol, what is The Betrothed Sister about?
– The Betrothed Sister tells the story of Harold II’s elder daughter Gytha, who, because her grandmother has the same name, is called Thea in the novel. It is a story of love, revenge, jealousy, and rivalry. Thea travels into exile in Denmark after The Battle of Hastings and the Norman take-over of England. After a time coping with the jealous Danish princesses, her cousin, King Sweyn, brokers a spectacular marriage for her with Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Thea now has to adjust to a very different society, one very protective of its women, deeply religious and war-like but with many beautiful palaces, castles and great trading wealth. Will her marriage bring her happiness? Will she earn her princely husband’s respect as together they confront danger from within and without the court? The story also contains a small sub-plot, that of Padar who was the Godwin skald/poet/spy and Thea’s protector.
– How did you decide to write the story?
– I read Russian Studies at University along with Medieval History and Literature. I understood much about Russian History. The Battle of Hastings is a fascinating event that brought about a huge regime change in England. I was already writing the first novel in the series when I thought why not explore what happened to Harold’s daughters Gunnhild and Gytha. I am fascinated by women’s perspective on great historical events, particularly as they get a brief mention in primary sources. Women are indeed the footnotes of recorded history, particularly centuries old history. I wanted to bring their voices back to life and to imagine their side of the story. I found the first story The Handfasted Wife on a trip to Bayeux in Normandy to see The Bayeux Tapestry. I was moved by a story told on a video before viewing The Tapestry, one which I discovered to be contained in The Waltham Chronicle. After the Battle of Hastings, Edith Swan-neck, Thea’s mother, identified her husband’s broken body by marks only known to her. There are Tapestry Historians who believe that one vignette depicted on the Tapestry showing a burning house with a woman and child in flight just before The Battle of Hastings illustrates Thea’s mother and her brother, Ulf, who was taken into Normandy as a child hostage. That was how my stories about the three noble Godwin women began.
– What is the biggest challenge during the write-up process?
– I think checking facts for such long-gone history is a challenge. Unearthing and creating an atmosphere for the Danish and Kiev courts was challenging as was sustaining this. The story itself is but the tip of an iceberg. It involved so much research. I had to investigate both in primary and secondary sources and then bury my research within the narrative and my re-created medieval world. I had to inhabit that re-imagined world for at least a year. The Russian Primary Chronicle was a fabulous resource as were books by the Rus Medieval scholar, Janet Martin. Building up the relationship between Thea and Vladimir in a convincing and historically plausible way provided a huge challenge, since I needed to create jeopardy and tension that worked within the context of this world.
– How difficult was it to describe Thea’s personal traits?
– Thea is headstrong. She is a survivor. These are traits laid down in The Handfasted Wife. From the beginning she has spirit. She can be impulsive too. Thea is intelligent and brave even when she makes mistakes. She was her grandmother’s companion. Her grandmother was formidable, a true matriarch. Thea has ambitions. She wants to marry a prince. Once she has her prince she wants to please him but she also wants to assert her own sense of independence. She had seen much by age seventeen and has endured great changes. I think war offers the opportunity to invent interesting historical female characters and remove them from their comfort zone. I found her easier in many ways than Gunnhild of The Swan-Daughter which, whilst it has an exciting narrative, really is a totally character based novel and a satire on medieval ‘romanz’. I like Thea best of all the female characters I have invented.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and publish it?
– It took over a year. I had already a hold on the period as it is the third in a sequence. I spent years researching The Handfasted Wife as it was written on a PhD programme.
– Did you expect the success of The Daughters of Hastings Series?
– No, I had no expectations because I wrote the first, The Handfasted Wife on a PhD programme in Writing Fiction at Royal Holloway, University of London. I was very anxious about my thesis on How Romance Tempers Realism in Historical Fiction. My viva examiner loved the book and endorsed it. I think that helped. I am thrilled at the series’ success. It is encouraging because without readers there would not be books.
– Who are you?
– I am a reader who is passionate about History and Literature. I love Russian literature and can get lost for hours in novels like Dr Zhivago. I also have a family, a son and daughter, both now immersed in their own lives, but we are all very close. I enjoy the theatre and I travel widely. My home is in the English countryside but I enjoy cities and places of historical interest such as castles.
– What are your writing habits?
– My favourite time to write is in the morning when I am fresh. I try to write most days when I am not travelling. I read through what I have written on the previous day before I begin again the next day. I have outlines. I have character sketches. I rarely write more than 1k words in a session and frequently less. I research as I write as well as before I begin a new project. I have a study that looks out into trees. This inspires me. I also listen to classical music a lot.
– Are you satisfied with the sales of your books?
– The Trilogy has sold very well here and in the US. All three have been in the top 20 of Biographical Fiction charts on Amazon for months- both in England and the UK. In fact, The Handfasted Wife has had long spells as #1 on these charts and the other two have been placed in the top 5. However, I would like to see translations into foreign languages. This has not happened yet.
– What is the best promotional tool that you use?
– I use a variety of promotional strategies. I use Twitter, Facebook and my blog http://www.scribbling-inthemargins.blogspot. Writing historical articles relevant to the historical background of a book shows your integrity as an historian. I advise authors to set up author pages on face-book works. Posting pictures is the best way to use Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. I post covers of books I use for research and occasionally I post very brief extracts on face book and photographs of historical places, paintings, objects etc. I often respond to interview requests and I review other writers. I write for The Historical Novels Review. In fact, I am the co-ordinator for an international Historical Novels Society Conference to be held in Oxford Sept 2nd-4th 2016. Do consider attending because as well as show-casing some top authors of historical fiction, it is a great place to net-work.
– Give us some insight about your next novel?
– I am just about to sign for four new books with my publisher. The first of these is a stand-alone novel concerning London and trade circa 1515 and a woman’s life as an upwardly mobile citizen of the period. It contains a love story and a mystery or two. I cannot reveal more just yet. She is a known historical person, if shadowy. The other three novels will encompass a new trilogy set in the High Middle Ages.
– Which are the three most important aspects of writing historical fiction?
– Read everything you can about the period you are writing and then bury your research in a well plotted narrative so that you transport your reader into a different world.
Create a protagonist whose story a reader will enjoy following and avoid anachronistic character construction. The characters need to be of their time but have a strong emotional pulse as well so that the modern reader can identify with them.
Pay attention to pace so that the historical story sustains a reader’s attention.
– How do you proceed when you have two different versions of historical facts?
– I advise making a choice here on the basis of what works best for the narrative but an Author’s Note can explain this choice and provide two sides to the facts where two different versions of fact exist.
– Did you discover anything surprising as you researched The Daughters of Hastings Series?
– I discovered that King Harold’s youngest son was indeed taken as a child hostage into Normandy according to the Chronicler John of Worcester. I thought I had made it up. I discovered too that the Rus princess Elizaveta who had been married to Norwegian King, Harold Harthrada, married Sweyn of Denmark after her husband was killed by King Harold’s army at Stamford Bridge, the first battle of 1066. This allowed me to create tension in the Danish court once Thea arrived as an exiled princess without lands. This is also an example of conflicting facts because a Wikipedia entry suggests it was Harold Harthrada’s mistress who married King Sweyn. However, I have gone with Janet Martin’s research on this. It supports links that already existed with trade between the Rus and Danish court. That is the wonderful thing about research. There are surprises but the secret is not to give a history lesson in a novel, thus even the most exciting discovery needs to be absorbed into the fabric of the novel. It is about creating convincing historical worlds but also a good story. We are writing, after all, historical fiction.
Thank you so much for this interview. I very much enjoyed these questions.
If you like historical fiction, Land of Books recommends you to check out The Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. Carol McGrath is coordinator of the event that will take place at the beginning of September next year. It’s a really interesting meeting, where many famous authors from the genre will attend. Go see by yourself the field of writers that already confirmed their participation on the official web site of the conference. There you may book your place and be sure that you will have your own seat among the masters of historical fiction.
About Ognian GeorgievOgnian Georgiev is a sport journalist, who is working as an editor at the "Bulgaria Today" daily newspaper. He covered the Summer Olympics in Beijing 2008 and in London 2012. The author specializes in sports politics, investigations and coverage of Olympic sports events. Ognian Georgiev works as a TV broadcaster for Eurosport Bulgaria, Nova Broadcasting group, TV+, F+ and TV7. He is a commentator for fight sports events such as boxing/kickboxing and MMA. In May 2014 Ognian Georgiev released the English version of his book The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski's secret story.
Posted on November 9, 2015, in Author, Books, Interview and tagged author, Carol McGrath, interview, novel, The Betrothed Sister, The Daughters of Hastings, The Handfasted Wife. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.