Launch: Patricia Bracewell’s The Steel Beneath the Silk
INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH
Do you now have your “elevator pitch” for this third book learned by heart?
I’ll try! It covers the tense time in Emma’s life during the transition between her marriage to Ethelred and his Danish successor—and enemy, Cnut, and what leads up to how I think it came about. The first two books, Shadow on The Crown, and The Price of Blood, trace Emma’s journey from her father’s house in Normandy to a loveless marriage with the elderly Ethelred of England’s during the years of the Viking attacks on Britain.
It is not necessary to read the earlier books. I worked really hard — lots of revisions — to make this novel stand on its own. It wasn’t easy, because my initial drafts leaned too much on the first books, and that wouldn’t be very welcoming to new readers. An editor helped by suggesting where I might want to add backstory, but I took great pains to make sure that any look back was brief so that it wouldn’t bore readers who were already familiar with the earlier novels. I tried, too, as often as I could, to use a different viewpoint character when I revisited an earlier scene. For example, if I was recalling a scene between Emma and Cnut from Shadow on the Crown that was originally written in Emma’s point of view, in this book we see the event through Cnut’s eyes. So it doesn’t just look back; it moves the story forward.
Is there a love story?
There are two! In the first two books, Emma finds love at court [with someone younger than her grandfatherly husband] but as queen she cannot act on it. In the third, she finds love in an unexpected place.
You spent 15 years with Emma in three books. How long do you think it will take before you don’t think about her morning, noon and night?
I have never written an end to a trilogy before, so it was quite difficult to feel I had come up with the right ending. I don’t think I will ever quite eradicate Emma from my life, and as she lived into her 60s, I still think about her second marriage and life as queen mother—to two kings. Just like Meghan and Harry are doing, Emma seized her own narrative after her second marriage. I thought, there is another story in there, but I would need to do more research. My husband and I talk about whether I should write another book, but truthfully it all depends on how well this one does!
Can we talk about POV in your books? It certainly is Emma’s story, but you don’t always have Emma present, so we get differing POVs throughout. Many editors frown on “head hopping.” Did any of them deter you from writing multiple POVs?
I had a number of editors over the three books, and none ever mentioned it. I was very careful when I switched POV in the middle of a scene and always stuck with the second character’s POV once I had left the first. For example, one scene between Emma and Ethelred started off in Emma’s head and then I moved it to Ethelred’s deliberately to make a dramatic point. I actually had four POVs in the first two books, and increased them to six in the third.
It began when I was a little girl and I had a picture-book version of some of Shakespeare’s plays, and it blossomed from there as I got older. I have also written two romance novels that no one wanted to publish. So, I was looking for something grittier [to focus on] when I bumped into a reference to Emma on-line: queen to two kings of England, and mother of two more. “She sounds pretty interesting,” I thought, “why haven’t I heard of her before.” After doing some research, I was astonished to find no one had written a novel about her before.
You use the well known Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as chapter guides, but it’s the lesser known work that is really interesting, isn’t it?
The very first thing I learned about Emma was that she had commissioned this book, Encomium Emma Reginae, when she was in her 60s and twice widowed. It relates her version of the events of her life beginning with her second marriage in 1017. It was written by a Flemish monk and we have two copies that date to the 1040s. Of course, it has her political spin and isn’t always the same retelling as we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I had to navigate between the two versions, and there are of course other primary sources available. I found Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edithenormously helpful, too.
When we first meet Cnut in the first book, he is a young teen Viking and Emma’s first husband, Ethelred’s, enemy. Did your opinion of Cnut, who eventually wins both Ethelred’s crown and his queen, change during the writing of the three books?
I always knew that, at the end of the last book, I had to bring Emma and Cnut together somehow. I had invented a scene in the first book, when 13-year-old Cnut first sees Emma and she observes him watching her. At that point I felt I laid the groundwork that here he is smitten by this young queen. Later he woos her with many gifts. So no, my opinion never changed: I always thought he would come out to be the great king that he was—given that he was a man of his time.
With the present publisher penchant for HF set in the 20th century or no further back than Hamilton’s time, what advice would you give a budding author who wants to plunge him/herself into the Middle Ages and still have a chance at attracting a publisher?
Oh, it’s so cyclical! I think the public right now has a voracious need for stories. Any stories. Medieval will come back again, I’m sure—it happens to be my favorite period—and after all there is far more time and history between the Dark Ages and Renaissance than there is between Hamilton and WWII. I always advise, write what you want to write. If you are drawn to it, that’s what you should write—and then cross your fingers.