Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Sisters of Treason

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Elizabeth Fremantle to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, Sisters of Treason. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Elizabeth. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Sisters of Treason.
Sisters of Treason opens with the execution of Lady Jane Grey about eight years after the end of Queen’s Gambit. Mary Tudor is on the throne, dragging the country back to strict Catholicism, and keeping a close eye on Jane Grey’s younger sisters for fear they might become the focus of plots to oust her. These Grey girls, living in constant danger, are the focus of the novel and their story is interwoven with that of royal portrait painter Levina Teerlinc, who offers an outsider’s perspective of the complex court politics. When Queen Mary dies childless it is her half sister Elizabeth who ascends to the throne, but things become increasingly difficult for the Grey girls. Their story is heartrending and tells of women, power, politics and thwarted love.

What inspired you to write this story? Where did it begin?
It is a natural progression from Queen’s Gambit in which we meet the three young women, Jane Grey and Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, who will all become queen. The stories of these women, and those of the younger Grey girls whose lives are inextricably enmeshed, allowed me to continue my exploration of the theme of women and power. 

Lady Catherine and Lady Mary Grey are rather well-known in the world of Tudor fiction. How did you approach characterizing these women for your story?
I’m not sure I agree that Katherine and Mary Grey are well known and I was particularly drawn to them as I felt they were less familiar than some other Tudor women. There is a fair amount about the girls in the historical record due to the fact that they were so close to the throne, so I extrapolated a sense of their personalities by researching the events of their lives and how they responded to them.

Jane Grey is makes a brief appearance in the novel, but leaves a lasting impression. Can you tell us a little about her role in the novel and how her fate affects Catherine and Mary?
It was my intention for Jane Grey, with the weight of her deeply tragic story, to haunt the narrative. In a sense she becomes the reason why Katherine and Mary become the women they do.

Your third narrator is Levina Teerlinc. Who is Levina and what about her appealed to you as an author?
I’m always interested in women who break the boundaries and Levina Teerlinc is one such woman. To have earned her living as a court painter was remarkable in an age when women were expected to be little more than obedient wives and mothers. Women, like Katherine Parr, who were early female writers are fascinating as they sought to find a voice from within a culture that denied them the right to be heard. It seems to me that Teerlinc, through her art, was seeking to express herself too. Very little is known about her life but her links, through her portraits, to the Grey family gave me the idea of interweaving their stories for the purposes of the novel. 

I personally loved your interpretation of Elizabeth. Why did you chose to portray her as you did in Sisters of Treason?
My portrayal of Elizabeth was dictated by the experiences of the Grey girls, as she is seen from their perspective and it seemed clear to me that they would have regarded her with great suspicion. I find her an endlessly fascinating woman who defies straightforward explanation.

Another character who stands out in my mind is Frances Grey. Can you tell us a little about her character?
Frances Grey has long been vilified on the strength of a single piece of hearsay recorded as the words of her daughter Jane suggesting that she was a harsh and violent mother; and because of her supposed overarching ambition she has been judged as largely responsible for her eldest daughter’s rise and subsequent fall. I chose to adopt the view of historian Leanda de Lisle (whose biography of the Grey girls is exceptional) who is of the mind that Frances has been misjudged. I wanted to show Frances as a woman thrust into an intolerable position and also as one who sought to put the safety and interests of her children above everything. 

Tudor England was very much a man’s world, but your story is told by women. How did you find balance between the masculine setting of the novel and its feminine voice?
For me it is precisely this tension that is interesting and was the reason I embarked on the Tudor trilogy.   

More than four hundred years separate you and your readers from period in which your story takes place. How did you bridge the gap in time to recreate Tudor England?
Almost all my research is textual and there is a great deal of historical material dealing with the era – from deeply personal letters to receipts and recipes – but beyond that architecture, portraiture and artifacts helped me build a plausible environment in which to set the action of my novels.   

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
It may sound macabre but my favourite scenes to write are death scenes; they are so invested with emotion and I find myself completely immersed in them whilst writing. Though perhaps it is a stretch to call the task enjoyable, it is entirely absorbing and I am usually in floods of tears as I write. In Sisters of Treason it was probably the execution of Lady Jane Grey, as it is such a pivotal event in terms of the narrative.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
It is not so much individual scenes that pose the greatest challenges but in making all the scenes hang together in a cohesive whole and making the narrative flow so that the reader remains engaged.  

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
There was an event in Katherine grey’s life that I had originally included but which slowed down the narrative at a crucial moment. I resisted making the cut because I felt it was such an interesting episode but my editor was right in that it took the focus away from the drive of the main story. There are a thousand digressions one could potentially make in any historical story and it is my job to decide which to follow and which to leave out. I like to include biographical notes at the end of the book to air some of those stories.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Sisters of Treason and if so, what did you alter and why?
Much of history is disputed and as a fiction writer I have to take a position on a particular version of events and stick to it. There is no place for indecision in fiction, as characters would end up being implausible. It is my policy to be entirely respectful of the history we know and it is in the gaps between that knowledge where I allow my imagination to reign. For example there is no record of a close relationship between Frances Grey and Levina Teerlinc but for me there was enough – the portraits of Katherine Grey, shared religious beliefs and that they had both been in Katherine Parr’s household – to support my creation of a fictional friendship within the world of the novel. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Probably Mary Grey because, as a disabled woman, she held a unique position at court. I admire greatly the courage and defiance she showed.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire?
My characters all exist fully formed in my head so it’s impossible to imagine them played by actors, but I have sold the screen rights to Queen’s Gambit so I suppose I might one day discover what it is like to see my creations depicted in that way. 

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
I write a strict minimum of 1,000 words a day and I’m very disciplined about this. I am of the school of thought that writing is ten percent talent and ninety percent discipline. 

Who are your favorite authors?
Stephan Zweig is a particular favourite – Beware of Pity is an astonishingly good novel. I enjoy the work of women writers of the early twentieth century like Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamund Lehman and have a particular fondness for Elizabethan poetry: I can read Sidney and Shakespeare’s sonnets endlessly. Of contemporary authors I’m a fan of Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. 

What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Elizabeth Buchan’s forthcoming novel, I can’t Begin to Tell You, about female spies in Denmark in WW2. I’m finding it hard to put down.  

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I’m a cinema fan, and have a particular liking for 1930s screwball comedies. Much of my leisure time is spent visiting galleries, museums and old houses, which is essentially research – I suppose I am hardly ever not working, even when I’m walking my dogs I’m thinking about my writing. 

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Tea, most definitely, strong and with a drop of milk please! 

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I have just delivered my third novel, which completes my Tudor trilogy. It focuses on the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign and the Essex uprising. The story is set around Essex’s sister, Lady Penelope Devereux, a woman who was no stranger to controversy. Following that I have planned a Stuart quartet, which will begin with the story of Arbella Stuart a girl raised to be Queen of England whose expectations were tragically thwarted. 

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As a child I was the one in the corner with my nose in a book who wanted to be a writer, but with the onset of a turbulent adolescence I left school under a cloud aged fifteen with nothing more than a fistful of O Levels and a hapless sense that things would somehow work themselves out. Eventually, after working in various dodgy dives – I've served grey scrambled eggs to squaddies at 5.30am; I've served vintage champagne to raucous hoorays; I've pulled pints for all and sundry – I managed to find myself, much in the way Forrest Gump always landed on his feet, working as a dogsbody on a fashion magazine. From there I climbed the slippery pole that is fashion, working for titles such as Vogue, Elle and The Sunday Times and contributing to many others.

Marriage took me to Paris, a stint at French Vogue and the birth of my two gorgeous children but divorce saw me back in Blighty where I have happily remained, in London, the city that spawned me. Fuelled by frustration with the fashion world I decided to complete my truncated education, enrolling on a BA in English at Birkbeck and miraculously achieving a first – I couldn't have surprised myself more. I followed that with an MA in Creative Writing and driven by blind optimism had the barmy idea that I would fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. 

A decade on that is what I am, but had I known it would be as hard as it has been to get to this point – a trio of what I now think of as 'practice' novels; a file stuffed with rejection letters from agents and publishers; touting for other work to support my writing habit – I wonder if I would have done it... I think I probably would.

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"If you love historic royal fiction (with a dash of romance) you'll want to pick up Elizabeth Fremantle's Sisters of Treason, about two sisters reeling after the execution of their teenage sister, having been on the throne for just days." - PopSugar

“An enthralling story of love and tyranny, Sisters of Treason brings the Tudor Courts to life again, in all their romance and horror.” - Leanda de Lisle, author of Tudor: The Family Story

“Tudor fiction fans will enjoy Fremantle’s fresh take, marked by solid writing and absorbing detail, on a rather well-told tale.” - Library Journal

"I did not expect to become so involved in this story, but I did. Lots of detail, spectacular writing, and an engaging plot kept me involved right to the very last page. Definitely a book not to overlook, especially if you are a fan of English history!" - Great Historicals

"There is no doubt that this new voice in historical fiction really knows how to bring the royal court alive in a believable and realistic way. Beautifully written and meticulously researched Sisters of Treason abounds with danger and political skulduggery, and offers a unique insight into a royal court where being a potential Tudor heir and female was fraught with danger, and which ultimately would have no happy ending for any of the trio of Grey sisters." - Jaffareadstoo, Amazon Reviewer

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: July 8, 2014
Released by: Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 978-1476703091
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Colleen Turner said...

I can't wait to read this book (and the first book in the series..I haven't had the chance to read that one yet either!). Tudor fiction is my all time favorite and I have heard nothing but great things about these books. Thanks for the awesome author post!

Diana Silva said...

Fantastic interview. I could kick myself for not having read it already.