Launch: Patricia Bracewell’s The Steel Beneath the Silk

INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH

 

Patricia Bracewells recent novel, The Steel Beneath The Silk, is the last in her trilogy about the 11th century English queen, Emma of Normandy. There will be a giveaway for the book in May.

Do you now have your elevator pitchfor this third book learned by heart?

Ill try! It covers the tense time in Emmas life during the transition between her marriage to Ethelred and his Danish successorand 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 Emmas journey from her fathers house in Normandy to a loveless marriage with the elderly Ethelred of Englands during the years of the Viking attacks on Britain.

Writing a trilogy means you needed three different arcs for each book and yet an over-arching arc for all three. Do readers need to have read the first two books to fully appreciate this third?

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 dont 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 dont 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 motherto 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 Emmas story, but you dont 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 characters POV once I had left the first. For example, one scene between Emma and Ethelred started off in Emmas head and then I moved it to Ethelreds deliberately to make a dramatic point. I actually had four POVs in the first two books, and increased them to six in the third.

When did your affinity for English history begin, and how did you settle on Emma in particular?

It began when I was a little girl and I had a picture-book version of some of Shakespeares 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 havent 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 its the lesser known work that is really interesting, isnt 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 isnt 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 Staffords Queen Emma and Queen Edithenormously helpful, too.

When we first meet Cnut in the first book, he is a young teen Viking and Emmas first husband, Ethelreds, enemy. Did your opinion of Cnut, who eventually wins both Ethelreds 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 wasgiven 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 Hamiltons 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, its so cyclical! I think the public right now has a voracious need for stories. Any stories. Medieval will come back again, Im sureit happens to be my favorite periodand 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, thats what you should writeand then cross your fingers.

There is to be a giveaway of The Steel Beneath the Silk in May


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