Such Great Stories in History: An Interview with Cecelia Holland
Cecelia Holland talks to Sarah Johnson about about her two most recent books, the appeal of the Dark Ages, and her celebrated career as a historical novelist
Cecelia Holland’s novels first caught my attention ten years ago, when I came upon an old paperback copy of Great Maria – misfiled, as it so happened – in the romance section of a used bookstore. Set during the Norman invasion of southern Italy in the eleventh century, Great Maria told the story of the daughter of a Norman robber baron and her struggle to survive in a time of brutality and aggression. It soon became apparent that this book was not your typical romance. After all, it was not the handsome young knight Roger d’Alene that Maria married, but his ambitious older brother Richard. And what a match it was. Their relationship was strong, passionate and occasionally violent, but above all, it felt real, as did the world they inhabited.
Since the publication of The Firedrake in 1966, Cecelia has published twenty-eight books, mostly historical novels. What sets Cecelia’s work apart in the genre is not just her productivity but also her versatility; she has the unique ability to make most any historical period her own. Her settings range from prehistoric Britain (Pillar of the Sky) and twelfth-century Iceland (Two Ravens) to sixteenth century-Hungary (Rakóssy) and nineteenth-century California (The Bear Flag, Railroad Schemes, Lily Nevada, Pacific Street, An Ordinary Woman). But this doesn’t nearly name them all.
Over the years, Cecelia’s style hasn’t changed drastically. Her research is thorough, and critics frequently mention how her tense writing style gives readers a sense of immediacy. Her plainspoken dialogue has a similar effect: its lack of adornment keeps the focus on the words, the characters, and the action.
With her most recent two novels, Cecelia returns once again to a Europe of long ago, a time when history mingled with myth. The Angel and the Sword, first published in 2000 by Forge, is based on the legend of Roderick the Beardless, a ninth-century princess who disguises herself as a boy and defends Paris against a Viking invasion. The Soul Thief, which appeared as a Forge hardcover in April 2002, is the first of a five-book series set in tenth-century Jorvik (modern York) as a young man searches for his twin sister, captured during a brutal Viking raid on their family’s Irish settlement. In his travels he encounters a number of memorable characters, including Eric Bloodaxe, his witch-wife Queen Gunnhild, and the mysterious, powerful Lady of Hedeby.
Cecelia lives in northern California. Her website, which includes more information as well as a small number of online stories, is http://www.thefiredrake.com.
What first got you interested in writing historical fiction? When you first wrote The Firedrake, did you intend to make your career in this genre?
I began writing historical fiction because there are such great stories in history. I started writing when I was twelve or thirteen, a time of life when you have no stories, nothing has happened to you. So I took on this mine of stories. The more history I’ve learned, the more awed I am by the whole discipline, which is basically to try to know everything there is to know. The sheer impossibility of this is enormously liberating. Firedrake was actually my fourth novel, but two of the other three had been historical.
What happened with these earlier novels – were they ever published?
I didn’t try to publish them. Jerusalem is actually the final version of one of those, and I’ve used pieces from them all in other books. I was very young and didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t, but now I at least know I don’t know.
How do you choose your subjects – do you have an idea of the era, country, topic you want to explore and then come up with a storyline and characters, or is it the other way around?
I wish I could answer this, but I can’t. Every book is different, every book starts in its own way. For instance, I got the idea to write Jerusalem when I was thinking of starting a new book, and had just written an article about the Templars. I was thinking about how these desperate people in the Middle East in our own time were throwing their lives away, and why anybody would do that. The end result was Jerusalem. But I had written a book about the battle of Hattin when I was fourteen (of course not much of a book), and I’ve been thinking about the Crusades ever since. So where did it start? I had taken two or three stabs at a book about Mongols before I managed to finish Until the Sun Falls. On the other hand, Belt of Gold began when my editor told me he wanted me to write a book about Constantinople. Not a good book, maybe because it didn’t take long enough to grow. Except Vaumartin began just as cold and I rather like Vaumartin, although too crowded a book.
What historical settings are your favorites, if any?
I don’t really have any particular favorites. Any time that I managed to get to the point of coming to life for me, I love. There are documents I love, Heimskringla and the Sagas, the Secret History of the Mongols, Guicciardini, the Bayeux Tapestry. The Utrecht Psalter. These seem like windows into the past for me, a way to see things the way those people saw them. On the other hand, California history is so within reach, so still breathing and living, it’s really juicy. I read all over the map. I’m reading about Chinese history in the nineteenth century now, for no real reason.
Have you found that it works to your advantage to choose settings for your novels that are fairly unique, ones that haven’t been chosen by many other novelists?
I don’t know. I have no answer for this. I do like oddball places, but my historical knowledge is so spotty, I really don’t have much sense of a period being well known or not. It seems to me that these days most people pull a total blank for anything out there beyond 1950. On the other hand, I wouldn’t dare do the Civil War, because it’s so well known, every damn detail, it would be so stifling. Much as I like Killer Angels.
It’s interesting that many authors have trouble finding publishers for novels set in historical periods or locations that aren’t that well known, despite interest on the part of readers, while you’ve been successful in doing just this.
Getting published these days is a crapshoot. Historical fiction in general is a hard sell, although of course writers keep on writing it. Publishers are not adventuresome these days. But I do think the Internet is the publishing world of the future. Very soon anybody who wants to will publish his or her own book, available on the web in one form or another. Then, of course, the issue will be to get known.
In your novels, you seem to be fascinated by the conflicts between cultures – typically one culture invading the territory of another. What is it about this type of situation that inspires you?
You can’t beat a war for drama. Also, battles mean something, they decide issues, in ways good for stories. History is lousy on endings. Stories have to end but history doesn’t, just cruises from beginning to beginning, so to speak, very hard to write pieces of. But wars and invasions, etc, and the big clash of cultures, provide turning points and decisive moments, and so you can make a historical story end.
Your battle scenes always come across as very realistic. How do you go about researching them?
When I was much younger I had a boyfriend who played Kriegspiel, and he taught me how, with much glee thrashing me in battle after battle. That taught me a lot about tactics. But I basically try to describe the battles from the point of view of a character in the middle of one, which means bits and pieces of action, feelings, fragments of observation, all very fast. That’s part of the real fun of writing, trying to think myself into the middle of that. I look for analogs with modern life, read stuff about fighting now in Afghanistan and Palestine and so forth, and also I like sports. I play tennis and I love football. Some characters are better fighters than others, too.
What sorts of research do you do for your novels in general? Do you travel to the places you write about?
I try to. I can do more now that my children are grown. When they were younger, and also being up here in the back of beyond, I didn’t travel as much as I’d like to. Mostly when I’m deliberately researching I read primary sources, whatever they happen to be for the period. When I’m just reading I read histories. I use the Internet a lot.
The action in a number of your novels is seen from a male point of view. Do you find this any more challenging than writing from a woman’s viewpoint?
I have always had lots of friends who were men, and my real problem has always been devising credible women characters.
Where did you come across the legend of Roderick the Beardless?
I wish I could find it again. I was cruising the web and ran on a mention in some posting to a bulletin board, about a cross-dressing fabliau. I pulled it up and it was this really neat story, different from most fabliaux in having an elegant knightly setting, but still pretty lusty and funny in that sly bawdy medieval way. That book actually began, though, when I mentioned the story to my editor and she said she was interested, and I realized I could make it into a book. That ought to tell you how directionless the whole process is. On the other hand, I had been thinking for years of writing something about John Scot Erigena, and the vague plotline of him helping two star-crossed lovers was always there.
Did you find it a challenge, in writing Angel and the Sword, to follow a plotline that was pre-determined, in a way? How far did you deviate from the original legend, if at all?
No, actually, it was a terrific help. I had a whole plot to follow. It meant the book came out in a single leap. But there was still some struggle at the beginning. I had managed by this time to lose the original, and so I could pick and choose, I thought, and the incest angle made me uncomfortable. I was talking to some friends about the story and mentioned I was thinking of bypassing the incest stuff, and this friend of mine jumped down my throat and said that was the whole point of the story, the threat of incest drives her true self underground, makes her turn into a man, yadda yadda yadda. That got me confronting the story a lot better.
Did Soul Thief arise out of material that you had found while researching Angel and the Sword?
Actually Soul Thief and the whole rest of this project, which is four more books, arose out of my need to stay in one place for a while. There happens to be a huge amount of material about this time in history, all terribly unreliable and wonderfully romantic. What came out of Angel and the Sword was the kind of fantasy element. I have always regarded fantasy as a cheap thrill. Angel has some fantasy, but it’s ambivalent and unsure. The magic in Soul Thief is a lot more upfront and confident. I feel as if I’m getting a handle on how to use the technique, more so with each effort, to do some interesting things. Especially the magic can cut across the grain of the history. History is not about meanings, history is irreducible event. But stories are about meanings. The magic can convert raw observed stuff into meaning, into something to be understood, and not simply endured. That’s very comforting.
Will these five books be connected in any way, other than their being set in the same time period? What is it about this period of history that inspires you?
The series is called “Corban Loosestrife.” The hero is Corban Loosestrife, who appears in the first book, the second, the third, and a little in the fifth. Many of the characters are ongoing. I love this time in history because it’s the fertile mixing of several influences, Viking, English, Continental, Christian and pagan, and from even farther afield, like Grod the Russian in Soul Thief, and in later books, North American people. I’ve always hated sequels. Nonetheless doing this so far has been exhilarating, I don’t have to tie up a lot of loose ends, I can balance a lot of big story ideas and follow them through some fifty years of time. The characters can develop over time. I’ve written in some people I know well, one of my favorite ploys for getting a character to work for me, and that’s given me a lot to do. Fortunately my publisher has come through and given me contracts for all the books, so I don’t have to worry about it. I’m trying to get to ideas I’ve had for years, characters I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s fun.
Is there anything you found when doing research for Soul Thief that surprised you, or which you found particularly intriguing?
The sources for all this are wonderful, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Saxo Grammaticus, Heimskringla, Egil Skallagrimsson, the rest of the sagas. What enchants me about the sagas in particular is how modern they seem. The motivations of the characters, the way they relate to the world, the attitude of the author toward them all seem very modern, very like now. (This stuff is all from the twelfth century, although it’s about the tenth.) At the same time in Latin Europe you have the Roman de la Rose and allegories and symbolism, which seem so alien to us now. It’s no coincidence, it seems to me, that Shakespeare articulated his revolutionary view of human nature in a play whose major subject was drawn from an old Danish story. The distinctive way we see ourselves now originates with those people, somehow.
Is the Lady of Hedeby based upon anyone, either historical or legendary?
No, I made her up.
How did her character come about?
I started thinking about a book about Hedeby many years ago. One of the things that intrigued me most was Hedeby’s cosmopolitan nature – in the middens and coin hoards you find bits and pieces from all over the world. I liked thinking of a mysterious woman of great power sitting on that nexus of energy flowing in from all over the world. At first I couldn’t get a handle on her at all, and in fact I made that part of her character, that she changes constantly, nobody can really see her. Her powers and how she acquired them and the ultimate question, who she really is, has come about very slowly. She runs through the whole series, or I hope she’s going to, as a counterweight to Corban himself – he liberates the powers in other people and she subjugates them. How this will work out with the other themes I don’t know. One of the other themes is how Christianity buries other realities in its own narrow view of the world, and the Lady certainly chimes with that.
Queen Gunnhild is rather a larger than life character, both in history and in Soul Thief. When you were researching the historical background of this period, and Gunnhild in particular, did you find it difficult to separate the history from the myth?
Gunnhild Kingsmother is wonderful. I see no reason to separate the history from the myth. She’s a powerful woman who dominated a lot of rowdy men. She has to be larger than life. She’s mentioned in a dozen places in the sources and always with a sort of awe and wonder – of the “my god what will she do next” sort. In Soul Thief she and Eric play off each other well, but in the next book (Witches’ Kitchen, I call it, but my editor hates that) Gunnhild is on her own and she does just fine winging it.
How is POD publishing working out for you?
Fine. I sell about a hundred copies per book per year; the royalty is not great but helps. Until The Sun Falls, which was scanned from hardback copies, is the better of the two titles. The Firedrake was scanned from paperback and looks pretty bad to me, but it’s a rare book in hardback. I’m thinking of doing a couple more titles.
Who are some of your favorite authors, historical novelists or otherwise? What recent historical novels have you been particularly impressed with?
I liked Kalimantaan, by a woman named Godshalk, about the British Empire, sort of. And Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon. I go in jags of reading; I read all of Edmund Crispin’s detective series at once, for instance. I try very conscientiously to read Great Books and usually wind up enjoying them. There’s a reason they’re great, after all – I’m reading Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, now, for instance. Did not think I’d like it, love it. It certainly is the way we live now, although it’s set in Victorian times, which gives it enormous resonance.
Anything else you’d like to add that might interest an audience of historical fiction readers?
The worst thing about bad historical fiction is how it reads the present back into the past. This happens in all of it, of course, nobody can entirely escape his time, but bad historical fiction doesn’t even comprehend that its moral perspective is an artifact of its time, makes no effort to break out of it. There’s such arrogance in that, such complacency. Great historical fiction, like I, Claudius, say, or Kristin Lavransdatter, springs from a longing to escape the mental straitjacket of the writer’s own era and find out what else can be going on.
The Soul Thief. NY: Forge, hb, 2002.
The Angel and the Sword. NY: Forge, hb, 2000; tpb, 2001.
The Story of Anna and the King. NY: HarperPerennial, tpb, 1999. (nonfiction)
An Ordinary Woman. NY: Forge, hb, 1999; tpb 2001. (nonfiction)
Lily Nevada. NY: Forge, hb, 1999; tpb, 2001.
Railroad Schemes. NY: Forge, hb, 1997; pb, 1999.
Jerusalem. NY: Forge, hb, 1996; pb, 1997.
Pacific Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, hb, 1992.
The Bear Flag. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, hb, 1990; NY: Kensington, tpb, 1996.
The Lords of Vaumartin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, hb, 1988.
Pillar of the Sky. NY: Knopf, hb, 1985; London: Gollancz, hb, 1985; NY: Forge, tpb, 2000.
The Belt of Gold. NY: Knopf, hb, 1984; London: Gollancz, hb, 1984; NY: Ballantine, tpb, 1987.
The Sea Beggars. NY: Knopf, hb, 1982; London: Gollancz, hb, 1982.
Home Ground. NY: Knopf, hb, 1981; London: Gollancz, 1981.
City of God. NY: Knopf, hb, 1979; London: Gollancz, 1979.
Valley of the Kings (as Elizabeth Eliot Carter) NY: Dutton, hb, 1977 (as Cecelia Holland) London: Gollancz, 1978; NY: Forge, hb, 1997; pb, 1999.
Two Ravens. NY: Knopf, hb, 1977; London, Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1977.
Floating Worlds. NY: Knopf, hb, 1975; London: Gollancz, 1976; iUniverse, tpb, 2000.
Great Maria. NY: Knopf, hb, 1974; London, Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1975; NY: Soho Press, tpb, 1993.
The Death of Attila. NY: Knopf, hb, 1973; London, Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1974; NY: Ballantine, pb, 1974.
The Earl. NY: Knopf, hb, 1971; as A Hammer for Princes, London: Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1972.
The King’s Road. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1970. (children’s)
Antichrist. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1970; alternate title The Warrior of the World, London: Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1970.
Ghost on the Steppe. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1969. (children’s)
Until the Sun Falls. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1969; London: Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1969; NY: iUniverse, POD tpb, 2000.
The Kings in Winter. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1968; London: Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1968; NY: Forge, tpb, 2000.
Rakóssy. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1967; London, Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1967.
The Firedrake. NY: Atheneum, hb, 1966; London: Hodder & Stoughton, hb, 1967; NY: Ballantine, pb, 1973; NY: iUniverse, POD tpb, 2001.
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Autumn 2002.