Saturday, 23 February 2013

Karen Maitland - Under the Spotlight

Interview with Karen Maitland

Liza Perrat was lucky enough to interview Karen Maitland about her thoughts on historical fiction and her novel, Company of Liars.

Is there any reason you fell in love with mediaeval history, as opposed to another period?

I find the medieval period endlessly fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, they were dealings with problems very similar to the issues we are facing today – rapid climate change, pandemics, population explosions, the changing role of women, wars between Christian and Islamic kingdoms, and people desperate for a measure of control over their lives. But it was also a period in which religion and superstition were part of every aspect of life. Magic and myth were woven into every activity from building a cathedral, harvesting crops or giving birth and that mindset really intrigues me.

Company of Liars has been described as a reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Was this what you had in mind when writing the story?

Not at first, though I had studied Chaucer at school, so it was buried within my subconscious. Oral tales were an important part of people’s lives until quite recently and there’s always a ‘truth’ to be found in stories, which can’t be found in facts, so I wanted to use that tradition. But once I’d finished the first draft, I then saw the Chaucer connection and brought it more to the foreground. I think whoever said, ‘I write to find out what I’m talking about’ was absolutely right. I always have to finish the first draft of a novel before I can clearly see what the book is about.

How much research do you do when writing a novel? And do you do all your research before starting the story?

I immerse myself in reading everything I can in general about the period and also visiting the places and buildings where scenes will be set. I think that’s vital. I try to spend time with someone who is doing the kind of occupation my characters are engaged in so for Company of Liars I spent time watching a glassblower who still works in the medieval way and I talked to rune-readers. I also research particular aspects of my characters. In The Owl Killers some of the villagers have webbing between the fingers which was a genetic feature of some close-knit villages in the UK and in the US in the past. In The Gallows Curse, one character was castrated before puberty, so I read modern medical journals to find out what effects that would have on the body.
When I start writing I keep a pad beside me to note down anything I suddenly discover I need to know as I’m writing a scene, such as what herbs would they use to stop bleeding, the wording of a particular curse or when side-saddle riding was introduced to England. I usually try to look up the answers in the evenings after writing and researching those little details goes on throughout the writing process.

Do you outline the plot first, or simply let the story take you where it wants to go?

I have a rough idea, because I have to write an outline synopsis for my publishers before I start the novel. But by the time I’ve got half way through writing the first draft, I find I’m beginning to grind to halt because characters and subplots have emerged which weren’t in the synopsis and I’ve now got to know my main characters and discovered they won’t do what I thought they were going to.  At that point, I stop writing, try to shut myself away for three or four days, and make a bulletpoint plan of the whole novel, chapter by chapter, so I can see where all the threads are going to lead. Writing goes much faster after that, but, of course, even that plan changes and frequently the ending surprises me.

Can you imagine yourself writing anything other than historical fiction?

Falcons of Fire & Ice which comes out in August is historical and the next two novels I’m contracted to write will be historical too, so I won’t be writing in any other genre soon. My first novel was in fact a modern thriller, but it was based on personal experience and in a sense something I had to get out of my system before I could write from imagination, but I can’t see myself writing a modern novel any time soon. Non-fiction perhaps, but I’m really enjoying writing historical fiction so much and have so much still to explore in that genre, that I can’t see myself writing anything else.

You have a page of mediaeval recipes on your website. Do you actually cook them, and if so, which is your favourite?

I cook the ones without meat, though my family does protest at times, because some medieval dishes are very strange to modern tastes, mixing savory and sweet. They were good at finger-food, so that’s handy if you’re having a themed party or reading group meeting. But Rastons, which the travelers cook in Company of Liars, is my favorite. Small crusty loaves of bread, scooped out and stuffed with the bread crumbs mixed with fried/boiled onions, honey, butter and spices like cinnamon, then heated in the oven so that the butter and honey melts into the bread. Very warming and satisfying especially in winter and great for bonfire parties.

Any plans for the next novel?

The next novel out will be Falcons of Fire and Ice set in 1561, so it’s a bit later than my other novels. It takes place in Portugal during the Inquisition and Iceland during the bloody Reformation. Iceland is the one of the most wildly beautiful places on earth with its volcanoes and hot rivers and it has an incredible wealth of dark myths and blood-chilling legends, so I love writing that novel.
But for the book I’m just finishing, The Vanishing Witch, I’ve returned to England to the year 1381. The first half of the novel is based on a true story, so it’s been fun researching that and a good excuse to go up to stay on the dramatic Whitby coast where some of it is set.

Thank you, Karen, for your time.

Thank you for interviewing me, it’s been great fun!

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