Passages to the Past is tickled pink to welcome author Sharon Kay Penman, whose newest novel, Lionheart, is being released in stores tomorrow! Sharon has graciously stopped by for an interview and thanks to the publisher we have an ARC of Lionheart to give away to one lucky reader!
And now, the Passages to the Past interview with Sharon Kay Penman...
During your research for Lionheart, did you come across anything about Richard I that people would be surprised to know?
I think almost everything about the Richard in Lionheart will be a surprise to my readers. He certainly was a surprise to me. The Richard of legend is like a smoldering torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous. The Richard who appears in the crusader and Saracen chronicles is quite different—with a lively and sardonic sense of humor, unpredictable, playful, and shrewd. I found him to be very complex, a “walking contradiction” like that wonderful Johnny Cash song. He was almost insanely reckless with his own safety, but he was a cautious battle commander, careful with the lives of his soldiers. He was ruthless, but capable of magnanimity, too, hot-tempered but capable of compromise, very prideful—yes, arrogant—but still able to laugh at himself. Not at all the man I expected to find.
What do you most admire about Richard?
I think what I most admired about Richard was his unexpected rapport with his Saracen enemies. Because he’d been the first prince to take the cross, I suppose I was expecting a religious zealot. The real Richard turned out to be a pragmatist, unwilling to assault Jerusalem because he was convinced it could not be taken, that an attack would be sacrificing lives for no purpose. In this, he was utterly at odds with his French allies, who believed they would prevail because they had God on their side. But Richard opened talks with Saladin as soon as he arrived in the Holy Land, arguing that a negotiated settlement was the only way they could gain some of their objectives. I don’t mean to imply he shrank from shedding blood when need be; he was the ultimate warrior-king, after all, and according to military historians, one of the most brilliant battle commanders of the Middle Ages. But he was a realist and saw at once that the crusaders were facing insurmountable strategic and logistical dis-advantages. I also liked the fact that he was so interested in the Saracens and their culture, that he never demonized his enemies as so many of the crusaders did. He actually formed unlikely friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs, and even knighted several of them—in the midst of a Holy War! But while I find that admirable, his contemporaries did not, and he would pay a high price for it when the returning French spread the word that he’d betrayed Christendom by making a devil’s deal with Saladin.
Did you conduct any research traveling for Lionheart and if so, what was the most inspiring location you visited and why?
I usually do a lot of traveling for research, for I think it helps enormously to see the places I am writing about. Lionheart was the exception. Because I was under such a tight deadline, I was unable to follow in Richard’s footsteps. Fortunately in the Age of the Internet, so much more is available to writers. For example, I wanted to see what the cliffs of Arsuf looked like, and was able to find a video on YouTube which showed men kite-jumping from its heights. I can tell you which location inspired me the most, however, even if I did not see it for myself—Sicily. The 12th century was Sicily’s Golden Age; it was the richest kingdom in Europe at that time, and its rulers enjoyed a lavish and spectacular lifestyle. My research made me very eager to see the palaces of Palermo and the cathedral at Monreale for myself.
Can you give us a tease as to what readers will be treated to in Lionheart’s sequel, A King’s Ransom?
Poor Richard—he had no idea what he was sailing into when he left Acre on that October night in 1192. He’d find himself facing savage storms at sea, an encounter with pirates, and a shipwreck that left him stranded in the lands of his enemies, with only 20 men at his side. And the worst was still to come.
Can you take us through a day in your life while you are writing a novel?
I do not set regular hours for writing as some writers do. I work on a chapter at a time, and I do not put it aside until I am at least 90% satisfied with it; I do not do multiple drafts. When I am ready to begin a chapter, I try to keep the real world at bay until it is done. So for me, the best days are those when I have no distractions and can immerse myself in the Middle Ages; at such times, I wish I had a moat around my house. I might write late into the night if the chapter is going well; I surface from time to time to catch my breath and feed the dogs. Once it is finished, I resume my normal life—or as normal as any writer’s life is—and continue researching until I am ready to dive into the next chapter.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? And why historical fiction?
I cannot remember a time when I did not write; my first “story” at age 6 was about a horse named Queenie. In my teens, I even wrote two novels, both of which have mercifully disappeared from the face of the earth. I never expected to make a living as a writer, though; when we hear of starving artists in their garrets, they usually have writers as roommates. I stumbled onto the story of Richard III by chance, and soon realized I wanted to write about him. After spending 12 years with Richard—mainly because the only copy of the manuscript was stolen after I’d been working on it for over 4 years—I knew I’d found my muse: the medieval world. Only once have I considered straying; for a time I thought about writing a novel set during the American Revolution, an idea I reluctantly abandoned once I realized I’d need 9 lives like a cat to do all the research required.
What authors inspire you?
Christy Brown comes to mind, the Irish writer and poet who suffered from a severe case of cerebral palsy and learned to write and draw with his only non-paralyzed limb, his left foot. His autobiography by that name and subsequent Down all the Days made him a literary sensation. Another writer I admire is Christine de Pisan, a 14th century Venetian-born woman who used her pen to support her children and family when she was widowed at age 25; she is considered to be Europe’s first woman to write professionally. And then there is a playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon named Shakespeare—even if he did engage in character assassination in a play named after the last Yorkist king, Richard III!
What book would you like to read again for the first time?
What a fascinating question—the first time ever that I’ve been asked it. My two all-time favorite books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I know, the Odd Couple, for they are totally unlike, aside from being extraordinarily well written. So I guess I’d choose them for the pleasure of discovering their riches all over again.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Never to forget that writing is subjective and no matter how brilliant a novel, short story, poem is, there will be people who do not appreciate its genius. Just as medieval knights needed armor to survive, writers need to be able to accept criticism and somehow not to take it personally. Otherwise the inevitable rejections that we all experience can be devastating rather than discouraging, and the editing process itself can be painful. I personally feel that there is not a writer, living or dead, who could not benefit from good editing. We are too close to our own work sometimes, need to have another perspective; of course, I am blessed to have had the same wonderful editor for thirty years!
About the book...
From the New York Times-bestselling novelist, a stunning story of a great medieval warrior-king, the accomplished and controversial son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Richard, Coeur de Lion.
They were called "The Devil's Brood," though never to their faces. They were the four surviving sons of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. With two such extraordinary parents, much was expected of them.
But the eldest-charming yet mercurial-would turn on his father and, like his brother Geoffrey, meet an early death. When Henry died, Richard would take the throne and, almost immediately, set off for the Holy Land. This was the Third Crusade, and it would be characterized by internecine warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. And, back in England, by the conniving of Richard's youngest brother, John, to steal his crown.
In Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman displays her remarkable mastery of historical detail and her acute understanding of human foibles. The result is a powerful story of intrigue, war, and- surprisingly-effective diplomacy, played out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery, all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.
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Good luck to all!