This week I was honoured and thrilled to be interviewed by Colleen Turner on her blog
Hello, Annie, and welcome to A Literary Vacation! To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, To Be A Queen.
Hello Colleen, and thank you for having me as your guest. To Be A Queen is the story of Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great. It charts her life, from her childhood living in fear of the Viking invaders, to her marriage of convenience as part of the alliance between Wessex and Mercia, and finally to her years of having to rule Mercia after her husband falls ill and is unable to lead his army against the Vikings.
I love the fact that Aethelflaed was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom and that she was able to rule and lead her adopted Mercian people even when, at least initially, they hated her for being a foreigner. How do you think she was able to do this in a time when it seems so unlikely? Was there anything special about her in particular that you think made this possible?
Aethelflaed had lived In Mercia when she was a small child, but I don’t think this helped her much when she returned there as a bride. There is anecdotal evidence that an attempt was made on her life as she made her way to Mercia after her wedding, and many of the Mercians, fiercely independent and proud, resented the alliance with Wessex. They were running out of kings, and therefore options, but it was still unprecedented to have a woman lead a country at this time. She was royalty, being both the daughter and sister of a king, but even so, she must have had some outstanding qualities – not only did the Mercians agree to her leading them, but her powerful brother, Edward, who succeeded Alfred, also allowed her to rule, rather than taking over himself. Clearly she had strength, but she must have been very charismatic, too, for such doughty old warriors to agree to being led by her.
What drew you to Aethelflaed’s story? How did you first discover this fascinating woman?
The book began, for me, with a single sentence. I was sitting in a lecture theatre as an undergraduate and my tutor was talking about Aethelflaed’s husband, Ethelred. She said, “Nobody knows where he came from.” I had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, and I was fascinated. I hoped one day to write his story, and years later, when I sat down to begin the research, I quickly realised that, whilst he was an interesting figure, (and I’m still probably a little bit in love with him!) the real story was that of his remarkable wife.
What sort of research went into writing To Be A Queen? Did you do any traveling as part of your research?
Very little has been written about her, so research, initially, was difficult. I started off by reminding myself about her father’s reign before trying to research her life. Ultimately, Mercia was absorbed into Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred, and it was written by monks from Wessex, so Mercia doesn’t get the greatest press. There are annals which say a little more about her, but some have been discredited, so I really needed to keep my historian’s hat on when appraising the usefulness of those sources. I knew where to find, and how to interpret, such documents but what I didn’t know so much about was how these people lived – what they wore, what they ate, what type of crops they grew. I spoke to a lot of leading academics who helped me enormously, and gradually I was able to piece together a picture, and really begin to think of these people as, well, people. I didn’t travel, (well, not purposely) because there is virtually nothing left of their world. The Anglo-Saxons primarily built with wood, and none of those buildings has survived. I relied on archaeological evidence and town plans which have been drawn up using that evidence. My daughter is currently at university in the heart of old Mercia, but driving through the modern towns and cities I don’t get much feel for the 9th and 10th century settlements that were once there. Even the landscape, right down to the shape of the coastline, has changed so much in the last 1100 years.
Was there anything you discovered as part of your research that you found surprising or shocking?
Without giving too much away, I did discover how explosive flour dust can be! I also realised that Alfred the Great was not quite so successful as we perhaps all assume. Analysing his career, I found that most of his military successes occurred after his alliance with Mercia and once his children joined the fight. As I continued to write and research, I found myself getting quite cross that neither Aethelflaed nor her brother ever got the credit they deserved; their military and strategic campaigns were ultimately much more successful than their father’s.
Historical fiction happens to be my all-time favorite genre and I find myself going back and forth between what periods of history are my favorite to read about. Do you have a favorite time period to write and/or read about, or do you enjoy jumping around as I do?
I always wanted to write about the Anglo-Saxons, and in a way that portrayed them as early medievals, rather than dragon-slaying, magical, mythical folk from a world far removed from ours. But when it comes to reading, I often turn to my second-favourite period of history, the seventeenth century. I’m also drawn to fiction set in and around WWI. But if something catches my eye and it’s a good story, I’ll read it. Sitting on my kindle just now I have a WWII love story, a Victorian thriller and a Tudor mystery!
What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?
My kids have all pretty much left home now, so my life doesn’t revolve round their schedules like it once did. I work part-time as a freelance music teacher, but at the moment all my classes are on the same day of the week. The rest of the time I try to be disciplined and get to my ‘desk’ (the dining room table!) for about 8.30am and, after checking emails, social media etc, I aim to write until 5pm. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s something to shoot for! Often I go out and about, collecting information and taking photos for magazine articles and I have to admit, it is nice to get away from the computer keyboard now and again.
What drew you to independently publish To Be A Queen as opposed to seeking traditional publishing?
When I’d finished ‘Queen’ I felt certain I had a strong story, and a unique one. I wrote off to several agents and one got back to me really quickly. He signed me up on the spot and a day later another agent approached me. I had the luxury of being able to turn down the offer of representation! My agent encouraged me to get working on the next book, which I did. And then I wrote another, all the time naively assuming that my agent was working hard to secure me a publishing contract. For whatever reason, he wasn’t, and, with three completed novels I decided to have a go at publishing independently. I can honestly say I have never regretted that decision – not only has it given me a lot of freedom, but it has brought me into contact with many other authors whose support and willingness to share their experiences and wisdom has been invaluable.