Succession, the latest novel by Livi Michael, is published later this week. Within its pages lies the stories of two women who were to play a significant role in shaping the future of the English monarchy in the 15th century and beyond – Margaret of Anjou, Queen of the sometimes mad Henry VI, and Margaret Beaufort, who gave birth to the future Henry VII aged just 13 years old. Their stories are wrapped in the political and military turmoil of the Wars of the Roses – great themes for historical fiction. A review will follow in the next couple of days (the review is now ready to read here) but in the meantime I am delighted to host an interview with the author, Livi Michael.
I started off in adult fiction, but have written 11 novels for children – some of them historical. The main differences are that in adult fiction I write from or about an adult perspective. And although my stories for children might be dark, I provide some kind of hopeful resolution at the end! I always feel drawn to the rich variety of stories that history has to offer – truth is generally stranger than fiction, and the challenge is always to do justice to the original material. Also I think history offers a different perspective on where we are now.
The Wars of the Roses appears to be an increasingly popular subject for writers. What do you think are the reasons for its appeal?
People have been interested in the Tudors for a long time, but they didn’t just come out of nowhere, and the story of where they did come from is fascinating. It’s an epic tale of the birth of a nation, or at least of a recognisably modern England, and it has all the elements of high drama – conflict, heroism, love & betrayal, violence and idealism. You couldn’t make it up!
The style of Succession is highly original, incorporating contemporary sources and switching perspectives? Why did you pick this style of narrative?
Ah, where do I begin? I began actually with the story of Margaret Beaufort, which is extraordinary – married three times before she was 15, gave birth to her only son at the age of 13, who, on an unlikely chance, became king of England; lived through the reigns of 6 kings, became the most powerful woman in England etc. etc. But her life only makes sense when considered in the context of the historical period – the upheaval of civil war, the political developments and disasters that affected her personally. This is where the medieval chronicles came in – contemporary accounts of life as it was lived then. Initially I read about her in modern works such as The King’s Mother (Jones & Underwood) or Elizabeth Norton’s biography, but these all referred to the chronicles and I was increasingly convinced that I needed to go back to the original sources. And once I started to read them I was hooked. They are so vivid, personal, partisan, sometimes scurrilous – and they really convey the spirit of the time.
I don’t believe that a 21st century novelist can truly convey the spirit of the 15th century – only their own.
Also I became interested in the difference between the chronicles and the contemporary novel: one is focussed almost exclusively on events and action, the other, potentially at least, offers a more intimate exploration of individual consciousness, feelings and motivation. The chronicles seem to have been written by and about men – women feature peripherally if at all, – but the novel allows us to reimagine the lives of women involved or affected by the chronicled events. The two different kinds of narrative seemed to me to complement one another rather well. And the chronicle extracts allowed me to cut through large swathes of complex history – without them the book might have been 5 times longer than it is! Initially I saw my novel as an illustration of the content of the chronicles, but my editor saw it differently – and this was the cause of much redrafting. Eventually we reached a compromise that made us both happy – that hopefully retains the best of both forms while allowing the relationship between them to create a different kind of historical fiction.
What interests you about Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort?
What doesn’t interest me about them? That would be a shorter list. But here goes:
• Both strong characters and powerful women who played a vital role in the history of the nation.
• Each had one son to whom they were devoted. They put all their considerable resources into bringing that son to the throne – one was successful, the other not.
• For different reasons, both had to act alone in a man’s world.
• To me they symbolise the shift from medieval feudalism to early modern society – Margaret of Anjou was a warrior queen, Margaret Beaufort’s power was exercised through an absolute control of the economy and bureaucracy.
Would you have been a Yorkist or a Lancastrian?
When I started this project I didn’t think I had a bias. My family is almost exactly divided between Yorkshire and Lancashire and I have always lived on the borders of these two counties. In some ways the House of York is more colourful. But I do feel that the Lancastrians have had a bad press, even though they were ultimately successful. Henry VII, for instance, gets far less attention than either Edward IV, or Richard III, and certainly than his own son, Henry VIII, but he really laid the foundations of everything that followed. Henry VI is remembered, if at all, for being mad or feeble, and the chronicles have nothing good to say about Margaret of Anjou. Margaret Beaufort tends to be portrayed as a shrewish ascetic, ruthless and manipulative. I just think their stories are more interesting than that.
Will you be writing more historical fiction? If so, can you tell us a little about what’s next?
Well I will certainly be writing the sequel to Succession – which will take a similar form and follow the characters through to the Battle of Bosworth. I do have other ideas for the future, but this is taking up all my time and energy at the moment.
Which historical novelists have inspired you?
Historical fiction is such a varied field. I do tend to admire those novels that have something to say about the history of a nation or race. I’m thinking of Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Toni Morrison’s retellings of African American history. But I also love those novels that offer an unforgettable portrayal of an individual – Hilary Mantel’s virtuoso recreation of Thomas Cromwell, for instance, or Colm Toibin’s portrait of Henry James in The Master.
What are you reading at the moment?
Lots of student work and my own research! Also some poetry – John Burnside’s All One Breath is a magnificent collection.