Author Interview: Judith Arnopp
JMR-Welcome, Judith, to the Books Delight. Tell us where you live? What do you do for fun? What does the perfect day look like?
JA- Hello. Thank you for inviting me to your blog. I live on the coast of West Wales in the UK. My house overlooks the sea and is the target for seagulls and winter gales. My husband and I moved here about five years ago after spending twenty-five years on a smallholding, a few miles inland. It was an idyllic lifestyle with poultry, ponies, goats and dogs but once our children grew up and left home the smallholding became too much work for us. We downsized to the coast. It is not so peaceful here, I miss the solitude. We have close neighbours but I am getting used to that now. I try to write every week day, usually in the morning. Then I like to spend an hour walking either on the beach or along the cliff path before coming home and either garden or sew, depending on the time of year. I am member of a reenactment group called The Fyne Companyee of Cambria so I make Tudor clothes, French hoods etc. for myself and other reenactors.
I also like to garden. Apart from spending time with my family and grandchildren, I enjoy this more than anything. At the smallholding we had an acre of garden to play in but now we have a much smaller, easier to handle plot. It is very pretty, filled with roses, clematis in one part, and I’ve an area close to the house where I grow exotic bananas and palms. My perfect day is one spent out there with my Old Fella, getting muddy and tired.
JMR- Wow, Judith, that sounds amazing. So beautiful. I spent some time at RAF Brawdy, on the Welsh coast and did some exploring. I'd love to go back!
JMR-You have a MA in medieval studies and a BA in English and Creative Writing. Was it always your intent to write historical fiction?
JA- I was very fortunate to be able to spend twenty years bringing up my children and I didn’t get to university until I was in my forties. Although I dreamed of being an author, and have written all my life, it was never a realistic option to do so professionally. Once I graduated with a Master’s degree in medieval studies, and had my own computer, and had learned to ‘write long’ my life changed. I’ve always read historical fiction. When I was at school, I loved Jean Plaidy, Daphne Du Maurier, Rosemary Hawley Jarman but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would write one. I am now on my thirteenth HF novel and there are plenty more to come.
JMR- I admire your perseverance and waiting for the right time to write. I too, love Daphne Du Maurier, she has been a big influence on my writing.
JMR-You have twelve books, set from Saxon times to the glittering world of the Tudors, can you choose a favorite period in English history? Why?
JA- I am intrigued by transitional periods. The Norman conquest, the wars of the roses, the Renaissance, WWI and II but for me, the period covering the wars of the roses and the Tudors is top of my list. Although my first three novels are set much earlier, I was deterred from writing Tudor because others advised they’d been done to death and I should write something else. Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers and The Song of Heledd were well-received but most people were disappointed that I hadn’t any Tudor books in my catalogue. I wrote The Winchester Goose as an experiment and it outsold everything I’d written so far. It remains one of my best sellers. It gained me many loyal followers who told their friends, who also liked it and encouraged me to write more. I always advise new authors to listen to their instinct. If you are born to write Tudor, then write Tudor; don’t force yourself to anything else. I still hear almost daily that people are sick of the Tudors but there are heaps of readers who aren’t, and there is always a new generation of yet to become Tudor lovers just lining up round the corner.
The Tudor era has everything. Romance, intrigue, terror, politics, violence, oppression as well as splendid castles and fabulous clothes. I really don’t see what’s not to love.
JMR- Who is your favorite historical female? Why? If you could ask her one burning question, what would it be?
JA- When I began to research for the three books that make up The Beaufort Chronicle, I wasn’t very familiar with Margaret Beaufort but I knew she was nothing like the Margaret we see depicted on the television. During the course of my studies I discovered Margaret Beaufort was an admirable woman. She was strong, loyal, and intelligent. I think her strong piety and the surviving portraits that show a dour, elderly woman has not endeared her to novelists who prefer their protagonists to be ravishing. I have presented her, not as a termagant, but as a flawed human being, sometimes bossy, sometimes compassionate; annoying and loveable in turn, as most people are. If I could ask her one question, it would be Have you read my books, and did I get you right?
JMR- You are lucky enough, from my American point of view, to live close to the historic sites where your characters lived. What place, palace, battleground, Cathedral, etc. have you felt the closest to your characters?
JA- I live in Wales which has some of the most fabulous historic monuments in the UK. Raglan Castle is my favourite and appears in a few of my novels. It was the place where Henry Tudor spent much of his childhood as guest/hostage of William Herbert. The ruin is still very impressive. If you squint your eyes you can easily imagine it in its full glory. They hold many reenactment events there and The Fyne Companyee of Cambria particularly enjoy the Tudor weekend. I’ve visited big places like Warwick Castle but, for me, their commercialism is in danger of obliterating the history. It is difficult to see past the wax work figures and reproduction tapestries. I prefer the castles that are stripped bare, where you can discover witches marks on the walls, stone that’s been worn smooth by countless hands, twisting stairs that take you along a labyrinth of corridors and dark, secret rooms. Many people from overseas when they visit the UK head straight for Hever and the Tower of London. Both are fabulous historic monuments but in Wales there are free to enter castles; you can walk in at dusk, wrap yourself in a blanket and watch the sun set across the sea, and stay to see it rise again in the morning. There is nothing like the atmosphere of a Welsh castle at night. It is the best way to immerse yourself in the past.
JMR-Who do you believe is the most underrated historical figure in English history? Overrated? Most misunderstood?
JA- Oh, it has to be Henry VIII. I know he did some dreadful things that cannot be excused but he wasn’t a monster. Monsters only exist in story books. There is so much more to Henry than just tyranny. I think he was self-critical and gullible with a massive inferiority complex. He’d been taught as a boy that a male heir was imperative and his failure to beget one increased his severe paranoid. It was desperation that drove him to commit atrocities not cruelty. Despite the constant presence of servants and courtiers, he was lonely, blundering like Frankenstein’s monster, searching for someone who’d love him for himself. A social animal, Henry was starved of real friendship and paranoia drove him to destroy the few friends he did have. He was running from failure, from parental censure and from misery, blinded by the manipulative lies of lesser men: self-serving men whose agenda was not to improve England but to use the king’s gullibility for their own ends.
JMR-Often the main character of historical novels acts in way completely out of norm for their time period, breaking taboos, social customs, or rebels against gender roles, family rules, etc. How as a writer do you ensure that your character remains believable?
JA- I really dislike the way historical women are being presented these days. I haven’t watched The Spanish Queen but I’ve heard they have Catherine of Aragon ride into battle at Flodden! This is not only untrue but incredible. Catherine was pregnant at the time; can you imagine Henry allowing his unborn heir to be put at risk? Recent television shows are full of bolshie, sword waving women arguing with their male counterparts, flicking their long hair around and generally breaking all the social taboos of the day. If you study Tudor portraits there are no bosoms on show, this is a Hollywood trope. Women kept their hair covered and I can testify that Tudor clothing is extremely difficult to get out of. You require an army of lady’s maids to help you dress and undress so all those raunchy bedroom scenes that allow the man such easy access are way off target.
It is strange that, on one hand these women are being sexualized and on the other, they are empowered. I understand the desire for women to be portrayed as something more than pawns and dormice but for me, that negates the authentic female role. Yes, there were women like Margaret of Anjou who led armies; there were women who fought in Anglo Saxon times, women who stood up to oppression, but it was never the norm. Most women were bound by the social customs of their day. While men fought, women remained behind and held the castle, assumed the running of the estates, nurtured the children. This wasn’t an easy option. Life was hard then. Even for the rich, every day was about survival. Famine affected everyone; it was essential the crop was brought safely home. It was vital that pestilence was kept at bay, and bodies were kept healthy and strong. There were constant life-threatening occurrences: childbirth, disease, accidents. When Henry VIII rode off to his (not so glorious) war in France, he left his queen as Regent. In his absence, Catherine of Aragon, a woman and a pregnant woman at that, nurtured England and ruled as well as any king. She and didn’t only keep the realm safe but won a major battle that destroyed the Scottish king, and for a while subdued Scotland. When the authenticity of that story is embellished to make it appear ‘sexier’ for the modern-day audience it does Catherine and the role of all historical women a great disservice.
In my novels, I allow my women a voice. The reader has access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Sometimes she may speak out and put forward an argument but without recourse to vulgarity. I keep her within the boundaries of the world she lived in by researching and knowing as far as is possible, the world in which I am writing.
JMR- Great answer. It really turns me off to see how these women are portrayed on TV and movies. I have stopped watching many for these very reasons. When I first saw the ad for The Spanish Queen, I was not sure who they were talking about!
JMR-As a writer myself, I love to get positive review. But sometimes a negative one comes along. Do you view negative reviews as a learning opportunity and if so, what impact did a negative comment have on your writing?
JA- Everyone has occasional negative reviews and authors just learn to deal with them. I don’t read them myself but my husband does and if he thinks one needs my attention, he lets me know. Sometimes a negative review will have a very good point and, if that is so, I take it on board. Sometimes they are just troll reviews which I ignore. I learned very early not to feed the trolls. But I had a review recently (not a troll review) on Sisters of Arden that I felt obliged to respond to.
Sisters of Arden is about a small community of nuns who are forced to leave their priory during the dissolution of the monasteries. One of the sisters has Down Syndrome. I included her because I have several family members with this condition and people with learning disabilities are very seldom included in novels. Sister Frances is one of the main characters, very much valued, very much loved. In fact, she is the most positive character in the book. Her inclusion in the novel highlights the perception of people with Down Syndrome and illustrates, in an honest way, how they were regarded during the Tudor era. Perhaps I should say here that most people with disability did not survive to adulthood. In the novel, Sister Frances is fortunate because as an infant she is left at the priory for the nuns to deal with.
Anyway, someone left a one-star review claiming that my book perpetuates hatred and prejudice against the disabled. I was horrified that this reader had completely misunderstood not only the plot but the function of historical fiction as a genre. The review was lengthy, quoting what she saw as negative representations and totally missing the fact that it was not an endorsement of such things but a condemnation. This reader had not left any other book reviews and does not seem to be a habitual reader of historical fiction. I left a reply to her review, explaining the role of a historical fiction author. I pointed out that my job is to present the era in which I am writing as honestly as I can, even if it is distasteful. I often include executions in my novels but that does not mean I endorse capital punishment. I was upset for weeks and it took me some time to realise that those reading the review will see the huge flaw in her argument. The review taught me that no matter what you write or why you write it, you cannot control the way it will be received. The success or failure of a book is fully dependent on the experience and mindset of the reader. Fortunately, most of my readers understand that when they open one of my books, they are entering an entirely different world; a world that is not safe.
JMR- I think it's wonderful that you included a character with Down Syndrome. I spent 17 years working with adults with disabilities or special abilities if you prefer. They so rarely appear in writing and yet we know they lived and played a role in their time.
JMR-Where do you go for inspiration? Is it a place, a book, a building?
JA- Inspiration for my next book usually springs from a snippet of research or theme in the one I am currently working on. For example, when I was writing The Kiss of the Concubine: the story of Anne Boleyn, I began to wonder about Katherine Parr and that gave me the idea for Intractable Heart. Intractable Heart gave me the idea for Sisters of Arden … and so it goes on.
If I am stuck on how to write a scene or how to portray a character a walk on the beach usually clears my head, or a stint of heavy duty weeding in the garden. Thinking too hard about something seems to increase the problem but if I let go and think about something entirely different, my mind is refreshed and the problem I thought I had has disappeared.
JMR- Judith tell us about your next book, I believe you have one coming out in January 2021.
JA- A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years is written from the perspective of Henry VIII and covers his childhood and early reign. I have wanted to tackle Henry for a long time but have been skirting around him. He is difficult to ignore though. My last book, The Heretic Wind, tells the life of his daughter, Mary I who has also been assigned the unofficial title of ‘tyrant.’ It was so well received that I was encouraged to take the bull by the horns. Of course, the early part of Henry’s life is relatively free of monstrous acts. He progresses from a fun-loving infant, through his fraught teens to his years as an optimistic young king. There are plenty of pageants and jousts, war with France and his maturing relationship with Catherine and his mistress Elizabeth Blount. Henry’s slow decline into paranoia is intriguing and I must be constantly on guard against knowledge of what is come. Book two, however, which will likely cover his life with his five other queens will be more difficult to write. A Matter of Conscience should be published in the first half of 2021 but due to Covid 19 restrictions and delays, perhaps not January.
JMR- What writing plans do you have for the future? Are you going to write more Saxon stories?
I don’t think so. I think my Tudor fans would throw up their hands in horror. I will stick with the Tudors until they stop selling. I am looking forward to doing some non-fiction so the next few years are covered until 2025 at least, and who knows where I will be then. I doubt I will ever retire; I will just get slower at it.
JA- I’ve book two of A Matter of Conscience to write and I’ve recently signed a contract with Pen and Sword books for a non-fiction title on Tudor fashion. How to Dress like a Tudor won’t be published until 2023 but I promise the wait will be worth it.
JMR- Judith tell our readers how they can find you on social media and the web.
JA- Just google my name – lol. I am on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and have just begun flirting with MeWe.
JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?
JA- Erm … You didn’t ask me if I’d like a slice of cake which is the question I most like to be asked but other than that, I think you’ve covered everything. I’ve really enjoyed answering and am grateful you didn’t ask me my favourite colour, or movie, or where I get my nails done. Ha ha, thank you for having me.
JMR- Sorry about the lack of cake! Judith we want to thank you for one of the best interviews we've done. I love it when writers take time to not only talk about books and writing but about history and the need for accuracy when we write about the real people who now inhabit our books! Readers I know you'll want to check out Judith's books, if you haven't already. Click the link below for more info.
Judith Arnopp Author Bio:
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.
She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women, but she is currently writing a novel from a male perspective, that of Henry VIII himself.
Her novels include:
A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years = coming soon
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle
The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.