Launch: J.K. Knauss’s Our Lady’s Troubadour
INTERVIEW BY TRACEY WARR
J.K. Knauss is an American living in Zamora, Spain. Our Lady’s Troubadour is her latest book of short stories based on the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria. The book is published in English and Spanish.
How would you describe this book in a couple of sentences?
Ten inspiring short stories that give the reader a tour of medieval Spain and a sense that everything can be right with the world.
Why this period of history?
The figure of Alfonso X, el Sabio, sparked my interest in the thirteenth century. The Middle Ages through Alfonso X’s lens was a time of brilliant cultural exchange, colorful art, and lively music. I like to highlight what’s fun and multicultural about the Middle Ages for my readers. It can help them understand our world in a more profound way. The figure of Alfonso X is a great springboard for discussions about open-mindedness and intellectualism in the world today.
Are images and music important for your writing?
I’ve been known to listen to curated playlists while drafting. The stories in Our Lady’s Troubadour are based on the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria, which conserve their narrative poetry, illustrations, and musical annotation. They’re a medieval multimedia experience.
I’ve been listening to recordings of the Cantigas for a very long time, and recently had the satisfaction of performing them for an audience at my book launch. My musician friends practiced this new-to-them material for months. When I read one of the stories, showed the original images, and then presented the medieval melodies, the audience glimpsed something like the quasi-theatrical presentations members of Alfonso X’s court might’ve enjoyed.
The illustrations in the Cantigas manuscripts are undeniable masterpieces of visual storytelling. In a format recognizable as a predecessor of a comic book, each song is accompanied by a full page of vignettes, most with captions so the meaning of the story is never lost.
In my story “The Unwary Host,” based on Cantiga 67, the lyrics mention hunting and fishing. The illustration, on the other hand, shows exactly what’s dangerous about those activities with a bear attack and the fishing boat being pushed out to sea with no oars. These are the most exciting scenes in the story, and I probably would never have thought of them without the influence of the illustrations. The Spanish government made scans of the manuscripts freely reproducible just before my Encircle Publications’ deadline, so each illustration that influenced the stories is included in Our Lady’s Troubadour.
Could you tell us more about how you adapted the cantigas and how you bridged the gap between the 13th and the 21st centuries?
I feel enormously proud when critics and readers say the book has an authentically medieval voice and immerses the twenty-first-century reader in Alfonso X’s ideal of what Spain could be. The “fleshing out” process wasn’t very different from the way I approach contemporary fictional characters: I imagined what it would be like to experience what they do and catch the details as they go racing past me.
I’m used to reading medieval texts in the way they were intended: the reader (or listener) had to supply the cultural, psychological, and emotional context the author evoked with few words. In order for my readers to get a similar rich experience, I as the author must supply that context.
The cantiga inspiring my story “The Lamb and the Wolf” is delightful and happy, and also tremendously simple. A poor woman buys a sheep and a shepherd nearly cheats her out of it. I thought about what would make readers today consider this an interesting story, and I latched onto the fact that the woman is poor. To me, that means she’s resourceful, and in the story, I show her as quite the entrepreneur in order to save enough money to buy the sheep she’s always wanted. When the woman finally buys the sheep, it’s very cute, but most of its emotional impact is the result of the tremendous effort involved in obtaining it. My writing group told me that this woman is Our Lady’s Troubadour’s most enjoyable and vividly drawn character.
You have studied the medieval period as an academic and have published nonfiction as well as fiction. Some historians have taken a rather antagonistic view of historical fiction. What is your own view on the relationship between the two modes?
In a recent article in El País, Therese Martin of the Instituto de Historia, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, recognized that her findings could fuel novels full of forbidden love but insisted that her job was to do the research. She implied that she would leave the novel-writing to someone else. I think she’s right to separate the two approaches. Not all historical fiction authors can undertake the kind of investigation that makes their novels possible, and not all academics can write an interesting novel, even with fascinating findings to their credit.
Both approaches have immense value to the reading public and to each other. Obviously, historical novelists need historians so their stories aren’t complete fantasy. On the flip side, historians should appreciate the way historical fiction captures people’s imaginations. A fun introduction to a topic or an era can lead to a lifetime of serious research. I’m sure I had The Princess Bride in the back of my mind when I selected a medieval history course over the more popular political science offering.
But historical fiction is just as useful and important when it simply serves to broaden someone’s point of view. There’s room for every kind of writing, as long as its purpose is abundantly clear. The purpose of historical research is to present the evidence and draw fact-based conclusions. This can be done in highly entertaining ways, don’t get me wrong!
But I got into historical fiction because in grade school, there was a timeline on our classroom wall that began with Leif Eriksson being born in 970. It blew my mind that people lived so long ago. I wanted to know what it was like to see, hear, smell, and taste the world at that time, and what it felt like to experience all that. This visceral involvement is historical fiction’s legitimate goal. My first novel, Seven Noble Knights, takes place in the year 974, fulfilling that grade-school germ of an idea. It doesn’t have any Vikings, though.
You have also published fantasy fiction books. What is the relationship between the different modes you are writing in?
I write in two wildly different genres with little overlap. My fantasy fiction is always set in a contemporary world, seen through my unusual point of view. I enjoy taking a “what if” and running with it in my fantasy fiction. I find that the most unexpected twists can deliver the most emotional truth.
Then again, my historical writing almost always includes touches on fantasy, such as ghosts or, in the case of Our Lady’s Troubadour, miracles. But I draw these elements from the historical context of what the characters would have believed was possible and the way they explained the world to themselves and others.
How important is your writers’ group in Arizona for you?
My advice to new writers is find a good writing group, with people more talented than you, perhaps writing in different genres, with a unified goal of improving and lifting all the members rather than self-congratulation or competition.
This is a rarity, I know! But when you find it, don’t let it go.
I started with the founding member of the Low Writers ten years ago, and luckily, the members agreed to let me Skype in when I moved away from Arizona. We meet regularly, every month, and this helps with discipline. Reading their work invariably broadens my perspective, as well as receiving their useful critiques.
My group has been especially valuable to me in that I’m immersed in medieval culture, and I sometimes write first drafts as if my reader is, too. They point out what needs an explanation or more detail or psychological depth. This has played a huge role in my goal of presenting accurate information in an accessible way.
A lot of your writing has taken the form of novellas or short stories. Do you prefer this mode?
“If I’d had time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter,” was Blaise Pascal’s famous excuse for verboseness.
I believe that a writer must master the short story before taking on longer projects, because economy and efficiency are two of the highest achievements in the craft of writing. I don’t prefer one form over another because I find that the story chooses what’s most apt for it. For example, one of the Cantigas I was working on for Our Lady’s Troubadour turned out to be such a complex tale that I ended up publishing it separately as a novella, Empress of Misfortune. It would’ve thrown off the balance of the book to include it with the other, much shorter, stories. For another example, the story of Seven Noble Knights is literally epic and required a novel in two parts to properly tell it.
What is your next project and how far advanced is it?
After the chaos of Our Lady’s Troubadour’s dual-language book launch, I’m settling in to do the research for what promises to be a thrilling novel of power struggle and intrigue in thirteenth-century Spain centring on Alfonso X’s queen, Violante de Aragón.
What is the last great book you read?
The Labyrinth of Spirits, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (the whole series of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books).
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