Launch: Rilla Askew’s Prize for the Fire

INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH

Rilla Askew is the author of five novels, a book of stories, and a collection of creative nonfiction. She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist, recipient of the Western Heritage Award, Oklahoma Book Award, Violet Crown Award, and the Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Fire in Beulah, received the American Book Award in 2002.

What is your ‘elevator pitch’ for Prize for the Fire?

From the fenlands of Lincolnshire to the teeming religious underground of London to the court of Henry VIII, Prize for the Fire is the gripping tale of English writer and martyr Anne Askew, a young woman who defied the patriarchal conventions of her time, ultimately braving torture and the fires of martyrdom for her convictions.

Most of your writings have been set in your home state, Oklahoma. What led you to Tudor England and Anne Askew, a protestant martyr, in particular: she didn’t have a fun time of it! Is she an ancestor?

No, she isn’t but I was drawn to her because we share a last name. Ultimately, I was interested in looking at what makes someone believe in something so much they are willing to die—and in Anne’s case burn—for it.

Historical fiction readers will certainly recognize Tudor figures and appreciate the research, but for me the language and style is more in the literary genre than typical historical fiction. Would you agree?

I would probably be a more popular author if I gave the dominant readers what they want. But for me as a writer, there’s the art or craft of writing and there’s the business of it and the wanting to sell books. I could have made this a historical romance. We know Anne wanted a divorce from her husband, and I could have invented that she fell in love with someone else, but that’s not the book I was writing. That being said, there are plenty of adventure elements for her! But I don’t change her story. I was trying to stay authentic to what I thought Anne’s story was. It was always only about her.

The necessary religious themes might have made the book a candidate for Christian bookstores, but it deserves a wider audience, and I wonder how you will market it.

It was not my intention to target a Christian readership. It’s not anything I aspired to. I was trying to stay true to the power of faith in Anne’s story and in that era. That’s what fascinated me. There are necessarily a lot of biblical references, so I expect it will be picked up by those bookstores, but I am not particularly wanting to market it that way.

Some of the story is in Anne’s first person, some in others’ third. Why not all in Anne’s voice?

I didn’t know how I was going to get to the violence at the end. It couldn’t be in Anne’s voice, I realized, so I added other perspectives. Her maid Beatrice especially had been insistent on entering the narrative long before, and so I used her most often and to help the reader at the end.

We often ask about the relevance of historical fiction today. Where does Tudor England fit in and in particular Anne’s character?

Actually, I never had the fascination with Henry VIII and his wives like many others do, but I did become fascinated during the research. I loved that Anne was a writer, stood up for her beliefs, stood up against the church powers that were, was sassy, and sought a divorce, even changing her name back to her maiden name. Modern women can relate. But sacrificing everything for her faith is difficult for us, in a largely secular society, to understand, and I wanted to investigate that. I had to make that belief authentic for myself, so I could get Anne to the fire in peace. Of course, we have just commemorated 9/11 and there are parallels to make today with those Muslims who believed enough to die. I wanted to understand how someone could kill and die for faith.

When did you start looking at Anne as a protagonist?

Back in 2001. Of course there was no internet back then, so I haunted used bookstores, bought lots of books, read all kinds of histories, went to London, went to Lincolnshire three or four times. But I don’t know that I’ll write another book about the era. Prize For the Fire was always about Anne.

What was it about her?

I liked that she is not well known. She was certainly a religious fanatic, but I have made her softer in the novel and she was courageous and sassy. I have tempered her fanaticism with love of her sister whom she lost young, using scripture to cope with the loss, and also admired her resistance to being under her husband’s stubby thumb and wanting her independence. Religion gave women that independence through their writings—it was the one place where women of the era could have intellectual agency. Sadly, her martyrdom was used for Reformists’ propaganda all the way up through Elizabeth I’s reign—men such as Bale, Latimer and Cranmer—holding her up as the example of perfect womanhood. They used her name to further their doctrinal, theological, and political arguments.

Tell us about your writing career. Your “day job” is as professor of English and Creative Writer at the University of Oklahoma, so you have a leg up on many of us!

I will say I didn’t set out to become an historical novelist. My last book was about the Tulsa Race Massacre. I grew up in OK not knowing about it.  It was really difficult to find out anything in the archives—it’s our hidden history. Therefore, as a HF novelist I’ve always tried to uncover how it was, what it was, and how the characters believed in their world: what did they believe—not just their religion but how did they see the world—and not comment on it but write from inside it in a way that’s accessible to contemporary readers. That’s my goal! A really important element in writing HF is that we determine for ourselves how faithful we need to be to the characters within their time.

As fellow authors, we are always interested in the difficult publishing process. How was yours? 

Publishing was so hard in 2019 and the pandemic, and I failed to find a traditional publisher even with an agent. So I went back to University of Oklahoma Press, as I had with my other books. As a professor there, I was a known entity, and they took it on. They have put a lot of energy into it, I’m happy to say.

What was the last great book you’ve read?

Joan by Katherine Chen. I really liked how she reimagines St. Joan—the very religious Joan—for our secular age. She puts flesh on Joan’s bones. The book is a very strong example of a writer who has chosen what I did not do in my book: using a contemporary lens to give us a very personal Joan. I was intrigued and awed!

 


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