Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Interview with Jenny Barden, author of The Lost Duchess

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Jenny Barden to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, The Lost Duchess. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jenny. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Lost Duchess.
‘The Lost Duchess’ is an epic Elizabethan adventure with a love story at its heart. The backdrop is the endeavour to establish the first permanent English colony in America – the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke.

What inspired you to write this story?
While researching the historical setting for my first book, ‘Mistress of the Sea’ (about Sir Francis Drake’s raid on the Spanish ‘silver train’ in the Caribbean), I came across a reference to the Roanoke Colony in a biography of Drake by John Sugden. He described how Drake called in at Roanoke on his return from the sack of Santa Domingo in 1586 and evacuated Sir Walter Raleigh’s garrison. I knew very little about that first attempt to establish an English foothold in America, and after finding out more I became hooked by the stories that I could see developing within the history. They had all the ingredients to get a novelist excited: an epic context, endeavour testing endurance to the limit, the best and worst of humanity within a ground-breaking conflict of cultures, layers of enigma and mystery, dramatic action and intense emotional tension. I wanted to harness all that! 

How does The Lost Duchess differ from other fictional stories of the Roanoke settlement? 
Well, ‘The Lost Duchess’ doesn’t involve abduction by aliens or any other particularly outlandish theory! I’ve tried to arrive at a plausible explanation for what happened, at least one that’s possible if not probable, and to tie that in with what was going on at the time in the court of Queen Elizabeth by including one of her ladies in the enterprise. I’d say that provides quite an interesting and original slant.

What research went into ‘The Lost Duchess’, and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
The research was many faceted; I moved rapidly from an internet trawl to the history books and then to the first-hand accounts. The internet pointed me to works of reference, and it gave me leads to ongoing investigations. While I was still in the midst of unravelling the history, the news broke of the discovery of a patch on a map in the British Library which was found to conceal the icon of a fort. Then speculation ran rife that this might mark the spot where the ‘Lost Colonists’ had relocated. I decided I’d try to work that finding into my story as well. Most of the first-hand accounts relating to the Lost Colony are contained in ‘The First Colonists – Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America 1584-1590’ edited by DB and AM Quinn. This became my bible and was always on my desk; it includes Governor John White’s record of the 1587 expedition which he kept as a kind of diary. I soon whittled down the non-fiction texts to a handful that were really useful to me, and Giles Milton’s ‘Big Chief Elizabeth’ was amongst the best of them, as was Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s ‘Roanoke – The Abandoned Colony’. Just as important were two catalogues of paintings by John White with expert academic analysis of his work and its significance. Then the next stage of research kicked in, and I set off for North Carolina to spend over a week exploring the Island of Roanoke, the Outer Banks, and the wider area around the Pamlico Sound. This was followed by trips to Puerto Rico and the sites of some of the old royal palaces in England, at Greenwich, Richmond and Hampton Court. I also went to Plymouth, and the tiny village of Fifield in Oxfordshire, and a host of other places with a connection to the story. The final layer of research was all to do with detail and the recreation of the experience of living in the late sixteenth century and through the events at the core of the story. I visited museums and art galleries, castles and period houses. I went back to the ‘Golden Hinde’ reconstruction near London Bridge to remind myself of how damp, dark and confined it must have been below decks in a galleon, and I pored over volumes of Elizabethan maps, costumes and recipes. I listened to the music of Tallis, Byrd and Dowland, read Shakespeare afresh, grew quince from  a tree specially planted in my garden, and even rubbed rosemary for the smell before settling down to write!

The main surprise was that so little has been found of the ‘City of Raleigh’ given that so many people were left on and near Roanoke during the early attempts at colonisation, and that archaeological investigations have been extensive. The only traces remaining seem to be a ring, pottery shards, gun flints and a few copper farthings, none of which can be definitively linked to the 1587 expedition. One explanation may be that the City of Raleigh now lies under the Pamlico Sound due to the effect of hurricanes, erosion and shifting sand formations. On a more personal level, the iconic nature of the paintings of John White was something that took me aback. For centuries White’s paintings formed a template for the way in which Native American Indians were perceived by Europeans. Take White’s depiction of a festive dance, for example (I’m attaching a copy). This image became transmuted into depictions of the capture of John Smith before his rescue by Pocahontas; it then morphed into images of Indians dancing in triumph around captured Europeans. It’s strange how these perceptions originated and still persist.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
That’s such a difficult question to answer, Erin, as you plainly guessed it would be! I’m going to flag up a spoiler alert here. If I’m restricted to one scene then it would have to be the build up to the final battle, beginning with the preparations the night before, when Emme and Kit come together fully as lovers, after Kit has revealed the truth about who he is to his son. Emme sees the settlement barricaded and facing ruin, along with the destruction of everything the colony has tried to build, and in the midst of this she releases the depth of Kit’s love for her. By the end of the scene, Emme and Kit are ready to look death in the eye together. Oh yes, I enjoyed writing that!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
I think possibly the first chapter was the most difficult. It’s one long scene culminating in a rape, and that’s a subject inherently problematic for any author to deal with. Obviously I didn’t want the writing to be prurient, or so overtly hideous as to put the reader off wanting to continue. Emme’s reactions and the events leading up to her abuse had to be completely convincing, but the behaviour of the man who takes advantage of her also had to be understandable, and not so irrational or out of keeping with what is known about him as to make the scene implausible. That scene was revised several times. In fact sharp eyed readers will be able to spot a few changes between the taster chapter that appears at the end of ‘Mistress of the Sea’ and the first chapter as it appears in ‘The Lost Duchess’!

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of their story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I enjoyed writing about Queen Elizabeth and those close to her such as Raleigh and Walsingham, and I would have quite happily carried on writing about these ‘big’ true life characters in history, but my story was about the Lost Colony and two fictional characters caught up in that adventure, so I could not spend too long in and around the Royal Court. I think that with historical fiction that involves larger than life real personalities there’s always an element of keeping them on a tight rein – but it’s good to feel them tugging at the bit!

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?
I’d love to talk to Kit; he’s got a really interesting back story, and after two books with him I feel I’ve got to know him quite well. There are many episodes in his past that I’d love to know more about. What exactly appened to him during his imprisonment by the Spanish, for example, (a subject touched upon in ‘Mistress of the Sea’)? How did he survive that ordeal and then slavery? What was life like for him after his escape when he lived as a runaway with the outlaw Cimaroons and took one of them as his wife? Kit has seen much and suffered great hardship yet he’s a charismatic natural leader. He’s also been around the world with Drake amongst many other adventures. I’d like to find out more about those exploits and the circumnavigation, his life after his return form Roanoke, the troubled relationship with his son, and the childhood experiences that fired his wanderlust. I think Kit and I would probably carry on talking all through the night!

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I hope they’ll feel enriched after reading ‘The Lost Duchess’, that they’ll be energised and uplifted by the story, and identify with the heroism of America’s early settlers. I also hope readers will close the book with a sense of satisfaction, feeling that anything is possible with conviction, fortitude and generosity of spirit.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’ve got many ideas and several outlines for other books that I’d really enjoy writing. The logical follow on to ‘The Lost Duchess’ would be another epic Elizabethan love story with the defeat of the Spanish Armada as its backdrop. The threat from the Armada was the event that curtailed the relief effort for Roanoke and it reached a head only a year later in 1588. I’m working on a proposal for that book now…

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About the Author: I've had a love of history and adventure ever since an encounter in infancy with a suit of armour at Tamworth Castle. Training as an artist, followed by a career as a city solicitor, did little to help displace my early dream of becoming a knight. A fascination with the Age of Discovery led to travels in South and Central America, and much of the inspiration for my debut came from retracing the footsteps of Francis Drake in Panama. The sequel centres on the first Elizabethan 'lost colony' of early Virginia. I am currently working on an epic adventure during the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada. My work has appeared in short story collections and anthologies and I've written for non-fiction publications including the Historical Novels Review. I am active in many organisations, having run the 'Get Writing' conferences for several years, and undertaken the co-ordination of the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference 2012. I am a member of that organisation as well as the Historical Writers' Association, the Romantic Nevelists' Association and the Society of Authors. I'll be co-ordinating the RNA's annual conference in 2014. I have four children and now live on a farm in Dorset with my long suffering husband and an ever increasing assortment of animals. I love travelling, art, reading and scrambling up hills and mountains (though I'm not so keen on coming down!)

About the Book: An epic Elizabethan adventure with a thriller pace and a high tension love story that moves from the palaces of England to the savage wilderness of the New World. Emme Fifield has fallen about as far as a gentlewoman can. Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America where nobody has ever heard of the Duchess of Somerset. Emme joins Kit Doonan's rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia. But such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least. As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep... Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement in Virginia was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; 'The Lost Duchess' explores what might have happened to the ill-starred 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke.

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