Mercedes Rochelle has written a fascinating novel about Earl Godwine whose son, Harold Godwineson, became the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. I recently interviewed her about the novel. In the interview, she tells about her interest in real people who lived in the past and the challenges of writing about events that took place a 1000 years ago.
Q: You write historical fiction. What about this genre attracts you?
It’s ironic to me that I fell in love with historical fiction without really understanding that it was a genre! All the way through my college days, I gobbled up all the Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas novels I could get my hands on. Then one day, as I was reading “The White Company” by Arthur Conan Doyle, I realized that I was trusting them to give me a history lesson the easy way (I thought I didn’t like history until I was well into my college years). When I started writing, I decided to carry on the tradition. Then I discovered the concept of genre.
Q: If you were to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say?
I aspire to the sub-genre of Historical Fiction that we call Historical Faction. I like to write about real people and real happenings; my style is to put flesh on the bones of the events we read about in history books. What motivated these people? How do we get from point A to point B? History often tells us what happened; I like to write about where, when, how, and why.
Q: What is Godwine Kingmaker about?
Earl Godwine was a self-made man who came to power in the reign of Canute the Great. He became the most powerful earl in England, and more importantly, the father of Harold Godwineson, the last Anglo-Saxon king. Without Godwine there never would have been a Harold II, for they were commoners and came to power strictly on the basis of merit. But Harold was the second son, and Godwine wasted a lot of effort on his eldest son Swegn, whose misdeeds derailed his best efforts and brought shame on the whole family. Godwine loved Canute, but when the Danish king died unexpectedly, his life was never the same. Along with his power came a struggle to keep his enemies at bay, and eventually his disappointments took their toll, leaving his legacy to Harold.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
I came upon the moniker Kingmaker early in my research. I doubt he was called that in his lifetime, but some historians were happy to call him that and I think it stuck. Because he was the Earl of Wessex, his support was critical to Canute’s successors and especially to Edward the Confessor, who was a stranger to England and needed guidance.
Q: Where is it set and how did you decide on the setting?
In eleventh-century England, I had to get used to the idea that there were very few stone buildings; that came later, with the Normans. Hence, not many residences survived. Also, I had to figure out where Godwine lived. Wealthy noblemen owned hundreds of manors all over the country. I’m sure I’ve “missed the boat” locating local references to Godwine, since I don’t live in the UK. As it turned out, finding Bosham (in West Sussex) turned out to be surprisingly easy, because this is the spot Harold departed from on his ill-fated visit to Normandy in 1064, It is actually depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Local legend suggests that Canute also built a residence in Bosham, possibly on the foundations of a palace used by Vespasian (future emperor of Rome).
London was a lot tougher for me. Westminster Abbey wasn’t built until Edward the Confessor came along, so that location was still known at Thoney Island (sounds attractive, doesn’t it?). I had to stay inside the old Roman Walls, and discovered that Canute probably used the old palace between St. Paul’s and the Thames, built on the same spot as the later Baynard’s Castle. It might have been easier to place my scenes in a generic building, but finding real references—even if they are gone—adds legitimacy to the story. Of course, it’s not always possible.
Q: Tell us a little about your research.
Finding historical sources for events 1000 years ago is challenging, to say the least. For instance, there are no first-hand accounts of the Battle of Hastings. This is why so many people use the Bayeux Tapestry as a source, stylized though it is; at least the seamstresses were probably around when William invaded. For the rest, we are reliant on chronicles written by monks—many of whom were given second-hand information. And of course, some of them were biased—especially against men who offended their religious sensibilities. So the “source material” we must use—with the exception of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—was written at best a couple of hundred years later. And the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entries are maddeningly brief. We have Norman sources that contradict English sources. In fact, most of our sources contradict each other, depending on their agenda. A good “modern” historian, especially my favorite, Edward A. Freeman (OK, he was a Victorian), will document all the different angles. The novelist (me) gets to pick the version I like best.
Q: Can you give us an example?
My hero, Earl Godwine, had many admirers and just as many detractors. There was a terrible event that nearly destroyed his reputation, and to this day no one agrees on what happened. After Canute died he was succeeded by his eldest son Harold Harefoot. Queen Emma’s sons Edward and Alfred (sons of Aethelred the Unready) were exiles in Normandy, and decided to test the waters, so to speak. Alfred landed in Wessex with a small following, only to be apprehended by Godwine. While still in Godwine’s custody, Alfred was arrested on order of the king, his companions were killed or enslaved, and Alfred was taken to Ely and blinded. He soon died of his wounds and Godwine was blamed for the heinous deed. Some said Godwine did it himself, some said he did it under orders; others said Godwine willingly turned Alfred over to the king’s men and had nothing to do with the murder. Some said Harold’s men forcibly removed Alfred from Godwine’s custody. Edward (later the king) blamed Godwine; that much is certain. As you might expect I selected the last interpretation; I can’t see any motivation for Godwine to do such an explosive deed, which would certainly not enhance his prestige.
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
It seems to be a maxim that every novel must have some kind of romance, and any romance must start out as some kind of conflict. Actually, Godwine and his wife Gytha seem to have had a good marriage considering how many children they produced. On the other hand, Gytha was a noblewoman and Godwine was a commoner. Why would she be willing to marry under her station? This really bothered me, until I saw the opportunity to explain why things went so wrong with their eldest son Swegn, who was really a black sheep. If Gytha was forced into marriage with Godwine, she could very well resent her first born and reject him. I had a hard time putting this together and I guess I did it too well, judging from the hostile comments toward her in my reviews!
Q: Regardless of genre, what elements do you think make a great novel? Do you consciously ensure all of these are in place?
What I look for in a novel is movement, flow, and imparting details in a way what flows into the narrative. I want a page-turner. I don’t want to spend a lot of time reading background information. There’s a way to spoon-feed attributes or imagery without slowing down the pace, and I try to concentrate on sneaking it in. I like pithy dialogue that makes me think. I also like shorter paragraphs than some authors tend to use; it can be exhausting reading too many long paragraphs in a row. I try to mix long and short sentences, which I think looks better on the page. I have my own personal judgment as to whether I like a novel or not. If I can read it on the treadmill and forget about the time, the book is a winner!
Q: John Irving says you can’t teach writing. You can only recognize what’s good and say ‘keep doing that.’ Do you think that’s true?
Only after you’ve been practicing for a while. I’m a firm believer that the more you read, the better you’ll be able to write. I get my best inspiration about “flow” from reading the old masters. It’s not easy to go back and read stuff I devoured in my formative years, but when I do, I recognize the greatness of these classic authors. Some, like Dickens, seem old-fashioned now, but I recognize the power of his third-person omniscient point of view (which I’m agonizing over during my current work-in-progress). Or Dumas, whose characters leap off the page with their remarkable characterizations. How can you not love d’Artagnan—that artless, clever, flighty, honorable, attractive bundle of contradictions? I think without those old mentors I never would have absorbed the complexities of the historical novel.
Below is a trailer of Godwine kingMaker:
Merecedes’ Website: http://www.MercedesRochelle.com
Godwine Kingmaker is on sale on Amazon in October for $0.99, so if this interview peaked your interest, grab a copy.