As part of the blog tour for her latest release, Her Highness, the Traitor, I'm please to welcome Susan Higginbotham today to answer a few questions.
I’m always interested in how authors became writers. How did this happen for you?
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. Even before I could write, I remember lying in bed and telling myself stories. When I was little, I used to make up stories about my cats, and gradually that progressed to stories about my favorite cartoon characters, and that eventually progressed to my first work of historical fiction—a story about five orphaned siblings living through the Blitz, who had oodles of money and no adults to bother them. (Except for the Blitz, which hardly anyone noticed, they had it pretty good!) I whiled away many a study hall in junior high school with that story.
I wrote the usual vaguely autobiographical novels in my twenties, which to the credit of the publishing industry no one accepted, and writing took a back seat to other pursuits until one evening when I was surfing the Internet, I happened to re-read Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second. For some unknown reason, I became fascinated with researching the historical background to it. Along the way I encountered the story of Edward II’s niece, Eleanor de Clare, and I thought her story would make such a good novel, I decided I had to write it. I didn’t have the patience to shop the finished novel around to a publisher, so I self-published it. An editor from Sourcebooks read it and offered to reprint it, and things took off from there.
As the writer of historical fiction you must have an interest in history. Was there something in particular that sparked that interest?
I had a mild interest in history before I did the research that led me to write The Traitor’s Wife, but it was doing that research that really got me interested in medieval England. At the same time I started doing research, I started reading more historical fiction, and that propelled me into reading about—and writing about—the Wars of the Roses and Tudor England.
Your books tend to focus on historical figures who generally have not been treated kindly by history – Edward II, Margaret of Anjou and now, Frances Grey. What draws you to write about unpopular individuals and to try and rehabilitate them?
I have a law degree, and maybe it’s the frustrated trial attorney in me! I like to see injustice righted.
I believe that it’s important for a historical novelist to check primary sources—letters, contemporary accounts, and so forth—and to take a fresh look at historical figures instead of simply drawing on how those characters have been portrayed by other novelists or popular historians. One thing I realized when I began doing research was how myths and misconceptions accumulate around historical figures and cling to them, and how often writers perpetuate those myths and misconceptions by simply regurgitating what’s been said by earlier writers. Frances Grey is a perfect example. As I realized when I read Leanda de Lisle’s excellent biography of Frances’s three daughters, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen, the lurid picture of the insanely brutal and ambitious Frances that’s been a staple of biographies of Jane Grey for the last couple of centuries simply isn’t borne out by the contemporary sources. The real Frances was neither hated nor even controversial in her lifetime; she’s really rather a shadowy figure.
It’s often said that historical fiction is FICTION, and should be read with that caveat in mind, but the reality is that many readers get their notions about history exclusively or mostly from reading historical fiction. With that in mind, I hope that by presenting traditionally maligned figures in a sympathetic, fresh light, I’m adding a bit of balance to the picture.
During your research did you discover anything unusual or unexpected?
I came across a letter from Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, in which she begs the recipient to intercede with the queen’s ladies in hopes of saving her husband’s life. It’s a moving and a heartbreaking letter, and it made such a strong impression on me I ended up telling half of my novel through Jane Dudley’s eyes.
To continue on in the vein of your last question, there’s a story that after Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour, Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, disgusted over having give precedence to Katherine Parr, remarked, “If master admiral [Thomas Seymour] teach his wife no better manners, I am she that will. ” When I researched the statement, I was shocked to find out that Anne never said it! It’s recorded by a seventeenth-century author, Peter Heylyn, merely as something she was thinking—which, of course, is something Heylyn was hardly in a position to know. Yet writers have repeatedly attributed this remark to the duchess as something she actually said. It’s a perfect example of history gets shrouded in myth over the centuries.
I have a fascination for book covers. What do you think of the cover for Her Highness, the Traitor?
I like it, although if I had my druthers it would have had two or three women on it. I know some writers and readers don’t care for the “headless women” covers, and some even object to them on ideological grounds, but I prefer them to the generically beautiful models in period costume that are beginning to pop up on some historical fiction covers. My favorite of my own covers is that for The Traitor’s Wife. Incidentally, the cover for the original self-published version of The Traitor’s Wife is brown, and one reviewer wrote, “This novel is gloomy, like the cover.” I thought that was one of the more clever bad reviews I’ve had.
Have you had the opportunity to travel to the places you write about and if so, what has been your favorite place to visit? If not, where would you most like to visit?
I’ve been to some of the places I’ve written about, but I have a full-time job and family responsibilities and can’t travel as much as I would like to. One of my favorite places to visit was Caerphilly Castle in Wales, where some of the scenes in my first two novels, The Traitor’s Wife and Hugh and Bess, take place. It was a thrill going into the great hall and knowing that my characters dined there.
I’ve been to the Tower of London, but the Chapel of Peter ad Vincula wasn’t open to visitors when I was there, so I would love to go back there and pay my respects to those who are buried there, who include several of the characters in Her Highness, the Traitor. I would also like to see Windsor Castle, particularly the tombs of Edward IV and William, Lord Hastings.
If you could be one person in history for a day, who would it be and why?
I think it would be fun to be Elizabeth I. I like the idea of having courtiers desperately trying to please me, and of tickling Robert Dudley behind the ears.
What do you like to read for “fun”?
I love Anne Tyler’s novels, and I enjoy reading about the American Civil War, especially about the Lincoln assassination. I read historical fiction too, but I’ve started getting pickier, so these days I’m reading more nonfiction than fiction. I like to read pretty much anything having to do with English history from around the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, even though I am “on duty” in a sense when I’m reading such books.
When you aren’t writing or doing research, what else do you like to do?
I like to travel and spend time with my husband and children, and my husband and I have a weakness for cemeteries—one of our first dates was at the cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, where Dorothy Parker’s husband was buried. (I knew my husband was the man for me then.) I enjoy collecting vintage Barbie dolls, and I love to go to the beach. I’m also a subway aficionado.
Who is your favorite character from your books? Your least favorite?
Probably Eleanor de Clare is my sentimental favorite, as it was her story that got my writing career started. My least favorite is hard to pin down, because sometimes the historical figures I like the least, like Roger Mortimer and Richard III, can be some of the most fun to write about!
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
I’m working on a novel about Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who found herself on the wrong side of the Tower walls on several occasions. I’m also doing a nonfiction book about the Woodville family—speaking of those who have been maligned by history!
My thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer my questions. I love Caerphilly Castle too!
About the book: A daughter can be a dangerous weapon in the battle for the throne of England
Frances Grey harbored no dream of her children taking the throne. Cousin of the king, she knew the pitfalls of royalty and privilege. Better to marry them off, marry them well, perhaps to a clan like the Dudleys.
Jane Dudley knew her husband was creeping closer to the throne, but someone had to take charge, for the good of the country. She couldn't see the twisted path they all would follow.
The never–before–told story of the women behind the crowning of Jane Grey, this novel is a captivating peek at ambition gone awry, and the damage left in its wake.