Today Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Anna Belfrage to discuss her latest release, The Prodigal Son.
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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary, Anna. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Prodigal Son.
Hi Erin, thank you for having me – even if I’ve had to scratch my head a bit over several of your questions. But that’s good, I think – it keeps me on my toes.
Right; The Prodigal Son. In many ways, the story told in this book is the story that first attracted me to write about the 17th century, namely the religious conflicts that dominated the century. Sadly, in many ways, we still live in a world where religion is hijacked into one political context or other, but from a European perspective the 17th century was something of a high point (low point?) when it comes to wars fought in the name of God. I have an indirect personal connection to all this religious upheaval in that my husband’s ancestors were forced to flee Scotland during this period due to religious persecution (this despite being a minor member of the powerful Stuart family). Also, being Swedish, the 17th century coincides with Sweden’s days of glory – all of it built on the wars we fought to defend the Protestant faith. Personally, I think there were other, far more secular, motivations behind all that fighting…
What research went into The Prodigal Son and what, if any, challenges did you face in adapting your research to fiction?
I read a lot about religion – a lot. And I am still less than enthused by theological thinkers such as Calvin and John Knox, even if I must give Knox credit for making divorce legal in Scotland already back in the 16th century. I also read a lot of books about the English Civil War and its spillovers into Scotland, plus I’ve spent many happy hours reading about Charles II, of whom I am rather fond.
The challenge is always to balance how much fact & detail you should load the book with versus what the reader needs to know. I could, should I want to, write an extremely detailed description of how Alex makes soap, or how she goes about stacking her winter apples, or how she makes tallow candles. I could also describe how Matthew spends his long winter evenings repairing the rakes, the wooden spades, the harnesses, but I think I’d end up with a boring manual rather than a novel – which is not my intention. So instead I try to have the odd detail here, the other there to create a sense of time. Also, I was really tempted to somehow work Charles II into the story, but my attempts were too construed and so I had to scrap them (sigh; big sigh). After all, what on Earth would Charles II be doing in Cumnock, Ayrshire?
What is your favorite scene in the novel?
Difficult question: I have several, but I have a soft spot for the scene in which Matthew returns home after having blown up the munitions shed, and I go all tense during the scene in which Alex is waiting for Matthew to return from the ambushed Conventicle. But the scene that always makes me smile and hug myself is from the last few pages in chapter 36, starting from “this is ridiculous, Alex berated herself…” After all, I aspire to write not only a historical novel, but also to describe the love story between two people who should never have met – but did. I hope I’ve succeeded, at least to some extent.
What scene posed the greatest challenges for you as an author?
The last few pages in chapter six were difficult, as I had to describe a lot of anguish for both my characters without POV hopping. Chapter 26 was tough – really tough – as I kept on crying as I wrote it and the subsequent chapter. There’s also a scene where Matthew and Alex aren’t talking – she’s tongue tied with anger at what she perceives as his betrayal, he feels he has no choice – which caused a lot of rewrites.
The Prodigal Son is the third installment of The Graham Saga. How does this book differ from its predecessors?
The single biggest change is that The Prodigal Son is entirely set in the 17th century. Yes, Alex Graham is still a modern woman who had the misfortune (or not; I keep on telling her she is one lucky girl to have met up with Matthew. Mostly she agrees, sometimes she doesn’t…) of being propelled three centuries backwards in time, and yes, she still has a modern take on a lot of things. But successively there are some minor changes; Alex is adapting more than she thinks – or is aware of. So, in this book there are no chapters set in the present (our) time, it is all in the past. Actually, that is valid for most of the coming books as well, even if Alex’ strange provenance does rear its head now and then, causing quite some complications.
On that note, what inspired the Graham series and what convinced you this was a story worth telling?
Alex did. She popped up in my head one night, and she just wouldn’t shut up! (My husband would tell you this is a trait she shares with me – I have no idea where he gets that from) When Alex made her appearance I was already very stuck in the 17th century, and the Scottish angle came from my husband’s family and so… It’s a bit like making a soup; one ingredient leads to the other, and suddenly the bouillabaisse is simmering on your stove.
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 in the series you wish you could have spent more time with?
Luke Graham – the bad brother. I have spent quite some time with him, but I chose to not have him grow into a character with his own POV, as I wanted to retain a clear cut line between the good guy (Matthew, in case you’re wondering) and the villain (Luke). In some of the future books I do give Luke some more space – mainly because he’s mellowed somewhat (and because he has a pivotal role to play).
Your books are sometimes compared to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. For those who haven't read your work, how would you say your books differ?
I love Diana Gabaldon’s books and would be very flattered should anyone compare my books favourably to hers. First off, I think my books don’t weave quite as many different strands as Ms Gabaldon’s books do, and also I have a heroine who falls back in time and stays there, while Ms Gabaldon’s Claire does return to her time – for a number of years. I also made a point of having a modern woman who has an education that is of no use in her new life – being a computer engineer is of little help when you’re learning to make cider.
One of my favorite aspects of the books is the realistic qualities of Alex and Matthew's relationship. In your own words, there are times she thinks he's an overbearing bastard and times he is sorely tempted to belt her. I completely understand these feelings, but why did you opt to depict their relationship this way?
No relationship is a bed of roses – at least not all the time. For a modern woman to have to cope with a man who has decidedly old-fashioned views on a number of things – starting with who does the actual deciding – must be very difficult. Matthew and Alex have a lot of values in common, but there are definite differences in opinion in matters such as how to discipline your children f.ex. While Matthew is very proud of his wife, he is also worried that at times she is too outspoken and he hates it when she isn’t adequately dressed, exposing her physical assets for other men to gawk at. (Major controversy about that in a future book….) I also think that with passion comes an overload of feelings – Matthew and Alex are never lukewarm towards each other, and so things explode into fights, but this is not an issue for either of them as they both know, deep down, that they belong together no matter what. Love is the rock bottom on which their relationship is built and the foundation is strong enough for them to disagree, quarrel and make up.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet somewhere and chat over coffee, who would you choose and why?
Matthew. Although he’d be rather skeptical to coffee (as am I)… Alex is easy for me to understand, but Matthew requires a lot of work, and so I spend a lot of time rooting about in his brain to define what makes him tick. (I can see him grinning, those beautiful hazel eyes of his crinkling at the corners. That’s because he’s convinced I have no idea what goes on behind his exterior – and quite often I don’t.) Anyway, I’d like to buy him a huge slice of carrot cake and have him tell me a bit more about his childhood and the mother he loved so much.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading The Prodigal Son or any installment of The Graham Saga?
The Prodigal Son – well, The Graham Saga – is very much about love – not only that of man and wife, but also that of parents towards their children. It is also about facing up to the consequences of your decisions, of having the courage to revisit and revise your convictions when necessary. I also think the dedication reflects some of the content of The Prodigal Son: “This book is dedicated to all those people who open their hearts to a child not of their blood and take it as their own.”
My books depict times when things were tough, when women were often mistreated unless there was someone to protect them, when childbirth was a major risk and children died of something as mundane as a strep throat. They also depict times of unrest, of savagery and fights, and as a consequence, there are violent scenes in them. And yet, I hope readers will close my books with a feeling of hope – hope that love prevails, hope that it is up to us to build our futures.
Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
Apart from the coming books in The Graham Saga, you mean? There’s a lot of work left there, but I do actually have a couple of other projects I’m working on as well. One is a book set in Sweden and England during the times of Queen Christina of Sweden. It’s a bit of a picaresque novel in that the heroine steals a casket of valuable jewels and must then flee for her life. I also have a contemporary fantasy trilogy that I now and then spend some time massaging, but there’s a LOT of work left on that one. Finally, I’d like to write something set in medieval Spain – I’m thinking Seville and the enforced conversions of Jews and Muslims in the late 15th century.
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About the Author: I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I’m multilingual and most of my reading is historical – both non-fiction and fiction. I was always going to be a writer – or a historian, preferably both. Instead I ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for my most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career I raised my four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive… Nowadays I spend most of my spare time at my writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and I slip away into my imaginary world, with my imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in my life pops his head in to ensure I’m still there. I like that – just as I like how he makes me laugh so often I’ll probably live to well over a hundred. I was always going to be a writer. Now I am – I have achieved my dream. For more information, please visit Anna Belfrage’s website.
About the Book: Safely returned from an involuntary stay on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, Matthew Graham finds the Scottish Lowlands torn asunder by religious strife. The government of His Restored Majesty, Charles II, requires all his subjects to swear fealty to him and the Church of England, riding roughshod over any opposition. In Ayrshire, the people close ranks around their evicted ministers, stubbornly clinging to their Presbyterian faith. But disobedience comes at a price – a very steep price – and as neighbours and friends are driven from hearth and home, Alex becomes increasingly more nervous as to what her Matthew is risking by his continued support of the clandestine ministers – foremost amongst them the charismatic Sandy Peden. Privately, Alex considers Sandy an enervating fanatic and all this religious fervour is totally incomprehensible to her. So when Matthew repeatedly sets his faith and minister before his own safety and therefore per extension her safety and the safety of their children, he puts their marriage under severe strain. The situation is further complicated by the presence of Ian, the son Matthew was cruelly duped into disowning several years ago. Now Matthew wants Ian back and Alex isn’t entirely sure this is a good thing, watching from a distance as her husband dances round his lost boy. Things are brought to a head when Matthew yet again places all their lives in the balance to save his dear friend and preacher from the dragoons that chase him over the moor. How much is Matthew willing to risk? How much will he ultimately lose?
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Check out all the stops on Anna Belfage's The Prodigal Son Virtual book Tour