New Voices: Hermione Eyre, Mari Griffith, Donald Smith & Lucy Sanna
Debut novelists Hermione Eyre, Mari Griffith, Donald Smith and Lucy Sanna introduce new landscapes and perspectives to readers of historical fiction.
When I discovered that German prisoners captured in Europe during WWII were brought to the US, I saw potential for homeland conflict,” says Lucy Sanna – and, thus, the seeds of her novel The Cherry Harvest (William Morrow, 2015) were sown. Through diligent research at local libraries and museums in Madison and Wisconsin, Sanna learned, she writes, that “POWs were initially housed on US military bases, but when the Army realized that they could pay their own keep by replacing migrant workers, selected POWs were sent to rural makeshift camps – vacated schools, fairgrounds, migrant worker camps – and were put to work in canneries and on local farms. Between 1943 and 1946, my home state of Wisconsin had 39 such camps.”
She knew from her own experience as a Wisconsin native that Door County “is a bucolic peninsula covered with cherry orchards,” she says. Sanna then asked herself: “What would happen if I were to plop a group of German POWs onto a sweet family orchard?” Her answer provided additional inspiration for her novel. As she explains: “In 1944, when The Cherry Harvest opens, my fictional family is threatened because there are no workers to pick the cherries. Nearly all the able-bodied men have left for war, and migrant workers have taken better jobs at the shipyard. This would be the second year without a harvest.
“I pictured a frightened family, the enemy just outside the door. As I dug into the history, however, I learned that in many rural areas the prisoners were needed more than feared. The war is raging overseas when my protagonist, 37-year-old Charlotte, persuades the county to release prisoners to work the family orchard. In doing so, she literally brings the war home.
“The community is at odds over releasing the prisoners, and Charlotte feels the chill. Her own son is in Europe fighting the Nazis. When Charlotte’s husband invites one of the POWs into their home to tutor 17-year-old daughter Kate, family relationships begin to falter as well.
“Because the Army suppressed and then destroyed information about this piece of history, I went to Door County and interviewed growers who lived on cherry orchards in 1945, when the prisoners were there. I contacted Fort McCoy, where POWs were held, I visited former rural camps, and I spent a good deal of time at the local library, going through historical references. By the time I left Door County, I had my story, and once my manuscript was complete, the curators of the Door County Historical Museum graciously gave it a thorough fact-check. I believe I caught the story just in time, because the people who remember are a small, diminishing group.”
The inspiration for Mari Griffith’s Root of the Tudor Rose (Accent Press, 2015) was, like Sanna’s novel in many ways, the consequence of a series of unanswered historical questions. Griffith explains: “Like most kids, I was taught history at school, and hated it! I detested having to learn a string of dates and names, and the curriculum included very little about the history of my native Wales. Now, in later life, I have come to realise what a crucial part Wales and the Welsh played in 15th- and 16th-century British history.
“I come from a professional background in broadcasting, and I was working on a BBC programme from Pembroke Castle when someone mentioned that this was the birthplace of the first Tudor monarch, King Henry VII. But he was an English king, wasn’t he? So what was he doing in Pembrokeshire? And why had his 13-year-old mother taken refuge here? Why did Jasper Tudor live in Pembroke? Why was Edmund Tudor in Carmarthen when he died of the plague? I was hooked.
“I quickly learned that the Tudors were not an entirely English dynasty, no matter what films and television series would have you believe. Nowadays, I’m always pleased to point out that the very first Tudor was Owain ap Maredydd ap Tudur, a man of impeccable lineage, connected either by blood or marriage to the three princely families of Wales and closely related to our national hero, Owain Glyndwr, Shakespeare’s Glendower.
“Owain shortened his patronymic Welsh name to Owen Tudor, and his place in history was assured when he befriended Catherine de Valois, the lovely young widow of King Henry V, who was ostracised by the English court. The pair embarked upon a sensational clandestine love affair which produced five children who were half-Welsh, half- French with no English blood at all. Catherine and Owen’s son, Edmund Tudor, was the father of King Henry VII.”
For Griffiths, it was important to finally “put the record straight,” whereas Hermione Eyre in Viper Wine (Hogarth, 2015) has chosen to focus on the consequences of vanity. Her novel, she says, “took about five years to write. It began when I saw the painting by Sir Anthony Van Dyck of Venetia, Lady Digby, on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, just outside London. She’s a powerful presence, presented as if she is asleep with her night-cap on and her dark-blue bed drapes drawn around her. But she is not sleeping, she is actually dead – this posthumous portrait was commissioned as soon as her body had been discovered. She was only 33 and she was – or had been – one of the greatest beauties of her day. It was said that she had died from drinking Viper Wine, a beauty potion then popular amongst fashionable ladies.
“I was instantly reminded of our own age’s strange craze for age-defying drugs, and worked some glances to our own age into the narrative. Vanity is an eternal theme, but instead of writing Venetia off as vain, I wanted to reconstruct her experience so we could understand how she got to the point where she sacrificed everything – she had an adoring husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, as well as two little boys – for beauty.
“My career was journalism, and I have been lucky enough to interview some great artists, models and actresses, which helped me think my way into her persona and that of Van Dyck, the artist who immortalises her. The setting is before the English Civil War in 1632, and I took a lot of delight from working with the vocabulary of this rich historical period, just after Shakespeare but before the Puritan revolution.”
The English Civil war provides the historical landscape against which Griffiths has set her novel, which contrasts dramatically with North Carolina in the 18th century, and yet both she and Donald Smith share a vital connection: they have both created plausible stories.
The Constable’s Tale (Pegasus, 2015), says Smith, “began as two lines in a 1930s family genealogy. My family has been in tidewater North Carolina since 1695. According to the book, a third great-grandfather was a volunteer constable around the time of the French and Indian war. This brief entry fired my curiosity. What was involved in being a volunteer constable in mid-18th-century America? What kind of a life might he have had? I quickly became hooked on the period, both in Carolina itself and the rest of the country – indeed the world: it was a time of great cultural and intellectual upheaval. Compared to flagship colonies like Massachusetts Bay and Virginia, North Carolina was a backwater. And what accounts for that? The more time I spent reading about the place and the period, the more I thought it would make a wonderful backdrop for a novel. ‘Virgin fictional territory,’ a historian friend observed. It had to be a murder mystery, of course, with spies, betrayals, moral ambiguities, and affairs of the heart.
“The best examples of historical fiction are time machines that transport us back to the period. They are researched to a fare-thee-well, but instead of the 32,000-foot view provided by a history, fiction allows the reader to get inside the bones of people of the time as they move through those landscapes and confront their worlds. Writers in this genre need to get the history right, but then to forget the aerial view and focus only on how it affects the characters on a personal scale. The writing gods allow us to make up things to fill in the historical gaps, bound only by imagination and the laws of plausibility. I like to think that someone from 18th-century North Carolina reading The Constable’s Tale would nod in recognition and say, yes, that’s the way it was.”
All the featured debut novelists have been inspired to transport their readers through uncharted landscapes, and, as Smith so aptly comments, to “confront” the worlds of their characters to entertain and inform readers.
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK admires the ingenuity of debut novelists and their ability to share new stories to entertain readers of historical fiction. Please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists you recommend.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 74, November 2015