Last week, Joanna Hickson’s latest novel Red Rose, White Rose was published (review here), pulling the reader back into the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses. It’s a pleasure and an honour to host an interview with Joanna today, starting off the tour to accompany the novel’s birthday. It was so good to be able to ask Joanna about Cicely Neville as well as Catherine de Valois, Joanna’s previous heroine, plus the challenges and pleasures of bringing the past to life and the novels that have given Joanna pleasure in turn. So with no further ado, and with thanks to Joanna, here we go.
An interview with Joanna Hickson
Thank you so much Kate for inviting me to share your virtual sofa at For Winter Nights. With its bright reds and silvers I think the cover of my latest book conveys a hint of holly-berries and tinsel and it will be lovely to curl up around your questions and have a pre-Christmas ‘chat’ about Red Rose, White Rose, so fire away while I raise my virtual cup or glass of something. I hope you’ve got one!
Your last two novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride focused on the life of Catherine de Valois, the young queen and widow of Henry V. Now that Catherine’s story is finished, what drew you to Cicely Neville for your next subject?
Perhaps weirdly it was the size of Cicely’s family that intrigued me to start with. When I discovered that she was the youngest of her father’s twenty two children (!) I immediately began to try and imagine how a family of that size would function and what would be the relationships between them, especially with the Wars of the Roses looming on the horizon. And when I researched further I realised that the Nevilles were crucially involved in those wars and that Cicely would inevitably be torn between the red rose and the white. To me her story was quickly revealed as an untold tale set in a period packed with action and intrigue.
Was it difficult to leave Catherine behind?
Yes it was, more difficult than I was prepared for because I had spent many years with Catherine. But once I had wiped the tears from my eyes, I realised that one of Cicely’s attractions to the writer in me was that she and Catherine were polar opposites. Catherine’s strength lay in her ability to overcome being used and abused in her youth and eventually to defy the powers ranked against her and seek some personal happiness. On the other hand Cicely is the spoiled youngest child who discovers that wealth and rank bring their own challenges and that war can turn all that upside down. She is spirited and ambitious from the start but finds that mental strength and determination are not always enough when fate takes a hand.
15th century women of status did not really share in the social revolution that was beginning to bring opportunity to those in the lower ranks at that time. They were still bound by the misogynistic rules and protocol of birth and privilege and none found them more frustrating than Cicely Neville, Duchess of York. She could kick against the traces but in the end there would be a price to pay. The one thing my Cicely and Catherine have in common however is that they can both keep a secret!
Red Rose, White Rose has two different narrative perspectives – Cicely’s and Cuthbert’s (Cicely’s illegitimate half-brother). Why did you decide to split the narrative?
When recounting Catherine de Valois’ life I chose to use a fictional commoner (Mette) to tell her story and found it a successful way to take the narrative out of court and castle and into the everyday lives of ordinary people. I wanted to achieve a similar balance in Cicely’s story only this time, with war moving centre stage in the later chapters, I needed someone who could take the reader onto the battlefield, and so it had to be a man. Also it would have been difficult to bring a male servant into Cicely’s private life but a half-brother, who was also a knight and her sworn bodyguard, would have access to her quarters, could be a confidant and could remain with her more or less throughout the book. Once I’d decided this, Cuthbert took root in my mind, had his own thoughts and opinions and I found him longing for his own family life. He more or less wrote himself!
What was your favourite part of the novel to write?
While visiting Middleham on one of my research trips I also explored Coverdale, the remote Yorkshire valley which runs through the hills above Middleham Castle, and I fell in love with it. Its narrow road runs through farm-yards and across wild stretches of moorland and I chose it as the perfect place for Cicely’s father, riding out from Middleham Castle, to have found a pretty farmer’s daughter for some ‘fiddle dee dee’ as the minstrel’s song goes in my (free!) e-book short story. So Coverdale became Cuthbert’s birthplace and the obvious spot for him to make his family home, when he eventually gets one. If you put your favourite character into your favourite setting I think it qualifies as your favourite part to write!
How much of a challenge is it to mix historical figures and events with fiction?
I must admit that I don’t find it a particular challenge. Essentially all the characters, whether fictional or historical, emerge from my imagination. Sources give you some clues for the historical characters but they don’t supply the dialogue and thoughts which make them live on the page. And it’s the same with events and locations. A battle may be described in some detail by a contemporary source but it will always have been written after the event and usually by someone who is biased towards one side or the other; similarly a location will have changed in six hundred years, sometimes almost beyond recognition. So it requires copious amounts of imagination to ‘create’ a historical character, location or event – I would argue just as much as is needed to invent them from scratch. The main challenge for me is the timeline. Writing historical fiction is like doing a jigsaw. When you fit one piece in it should lead to another and then another but sometimes it’s a struggle to keep them under control – and I do like to get the timeline right. You can’t muck about with dates in my opinion, although some ‘histfic’ writers do so unashamedly!
The Wars of the Roses is an increasingly popular period for historical fiction. Why do you think this is?
Maybe it’s because historical fiction has become increasingly popular among readers generally, with the Tudors consistently way ahead in the genre stakes. And now those who have familiarised themselves with the story of the Tudor kings and queens are becoming interested in discovering where they sprang from. So the pre-Tudor period – what used to be called ‘the Twilight Century’ – has come into its own, supplying action, intrigue and romance with the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist kings, the Princes in the Tower, the Battle of Bosworth and the whole drama of the fifteenth century cavalcade. Of course the ‘king in the car-park’ has had his part to play recently, to say nothing of the York/Leicester battle to acquire Richard III’s final resting-place! Long may the fascination continue because I have not yet completed my exploration of what the no-longer-so-twilit century has to offer.
Would you have fought for the Red Rose or the White Rose?
Good question! My researches have shown that it was one that a number of people at the time tried not to answer, either avoiding the fight altogether or only opting for one side or the other at the last minute, when they had decided which was going to win. Obviously when they got it wrong there were serious consequences, especially since deadly feuds were frequently settled by summary executions, which unfortunately became the norm after battles. So we know where the Tudors got their taste for them! Anyway, my mother was a Lancastrian and my father came from Yorkshire and they managed to stay married for fifty years so luckily perhaps I don’t have to choose!
Well you may have already gathered that I have not yet finished with the fifteenth century. A proposal for my next novel has been accepted by my publishers but I have not yet signed the contract so I won’t reveal too much now in case it all goes pear-shaped. It must suffice for me to say that the central character has connections with all my three previous novels and will carry us through many an adventure towards the Tudor ascendancy.
Which novels have you enjoyed most during 2014?
Perversely, in the centenary year of the start of the First World War, I read and very much enjoyed Barbara Erskine’s dual-time novel The Darkest Hour, set partly in the Second World War. I have also enjoyed the latest novels by a number of authors in my own genre; Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen, Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse and Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason. I love detective fiction and combined the two genres by following C.J. Sansom’s Tudor sleuth Shardlake through Heartstone and introducing myself to Lindsay Davis’s brilliant Roman-era detective Falco by picking up The Silver Pigs, first of a series which I believe now stretches to nineteen! I assure you I will be reading more of both! When I come back into the present I consume another of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels set in my favourite city of Venice – a joy to visit for someone who spends so much of her time in the fifteenth century!
Thank you so much for hosting me Kate. As you can tell, if you want me to talk about ‘my’ period and my books you only have to turn me on! But Christmas is coming and we all have presents to wrap. I hope some of them will contain a copy of Red Rose, White Rose.
Thank you, Joanna!