A conversation with author Judith Arnopp
Hi Judith, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Thank you for hosting me. As you know, my name is Judith Arnopp and I live in Wales. We recently moved from a small farm near Lampeter, to Aberporth on the west Coast. I write historical novels and articles, do a few talks and lectures. My more recent work focuses on the late medieval and Tudor period. My other interests include history (of course), gardening, crochet and needlework, walking and reading. I grew up in a small town north of London, but we often took holidays in Wales and it became a childhood dream to live here one day – I’ve been resident in Wales for twenty odd years now and hardly ever leave, not even for holidays.
What were you like at school?
Well, it was a long time ago but I think I was a mixed blessing as far as the teachers were concerned! I was bored and disruptive in some lessons, and eager and interested in others. My final exam resulted ranged from an abysmal grade 5 in CSE Maths, to A+ in A level English, which illustrates quite clearly where my interests lie.
Which writers inspire you?
I love the classics. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens etc. and I aspire to the talents of more modern authors like Hilary Mantel, Michel Faber. As a young girl I read a great deal of Historical novels: Jean Plaidy, Rosemary Hawley Jarman were among my favourites then. Something must have rubbed off on me, for when I began to write seriously historical fiction was my automatic choice. Having a master’s degree in medieval history makes things easier.
So, what have you written?
I have written nine novels. My earliest works concentrated on the Anglo-Saxon/early Norman era. Peaceweaver is set around 1066; it tells the story of Ǣdgyth, who made two political marriages, her first to Gruffydd ap Llewellyn of Wales, and her second to her first husband’s enemy, Harold II of England. She is tied up in the struggle for the English crown which culminates at the Battle of Hastings.
The Forest Dwellers is set just after the invasion; it is a fictional tale about a family of Anglo-Saxons fighting to survive beneath the stringent Norman rule. The Song of Heledd is set in 7th century Powys, based upon a fragmentary poem the Canu Heledd. The only parts of the poem that still survive today are the beginning and the end. We know who she was, where she lived, her family members etc. and we know from the ending that she feels great guilt for causing the destruction of not just her family but her entire dynasty. What the poem doesn’t tell us is what she did, or why. So I fictionalized the middle part to produce what is probably my most dramatic and heartrending story.
These early works were quite well-received but the most frequent question I was asked was ‘Have you written any Tudor novels?” People can’t get enough of the Tudors. I was between books so I thought I’d give it a try. I came up with The Winchester Goose which is from the perspective of a prostitute from Southwark. Joanie Toogood is a wonderful creature, with a unique view of the events going on across the river at the court of Henry VIII. I thoroughly enjoyed my first venture into the Tudor court and The Winchester Goose is still one of my best sellers. I think most authors who write in the Tudor period can’t resist trying their hand at the best known wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. In The Kiss of the Concubine Anne gives her version of events. It has some great reviews.
Intractable Heart is the story of Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katheryn Parr, and A Song of Sixpence goes back a while in time to visit Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck. The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicles traces the early part of Margaret Beaufort’s life. It looks at her dramatic childhood and first marriage, and the birth of her son, Henry Tudor, at Pembroke Castle. I have recently completed The Beaufort Woman: Book Two of The Beaufort Chronicles which follows Margaret through the wars of the roses to 1485 where she finally achieves her life’s ambition at Bosworth Field.
I have plenty more books up my sleeve but I am presently enjoying a break before embarking on Book Three of The Beaufort Chronicles: The King’s Mother. Then, I think I will tackle … well, you will have to wait and see.
Where can we buy or see them?
All my books are available on Amazon, either as Kindle or as a paperback. I keep my prices as low as I can – cheaper than a cup of Starbucks coffee anyway, and they are often included in Amazon’s special seasonal sales. You can order them from local bookshops, or from the library, direct from the publisher, or signed copies are available from me. Better still, come to Carmarthen Book Fair in October and stop me and buy one. Author.to/juditharnoppbooks
What genre are your books?
What draws you to this genre?
I enjoyed history at school and studied it at university so, when I decided to write professionally, historical fiction was the natural choice. I like to strip away the finery of well-known historical people and consider what they were like underneath. Imagine our queen with her feet up watching Strictly Come Dancing – off duty, her guard down. I usually write from a female perspective. Women, especially medieval women, were poorly represented in the historical record and very often their experiences are only traceable from the records of the men whose lives they shared. It is fascinating to follow their path, consider the whys and wherefores of their actions, and flesh out the bones of the facts we know about them. I always stress that I write fiction but it is very heavily reliant on research.
I don’t believe in evil. I think everyone has a dark side and sometimes our murkier nature takes over, so there are no villains, there are no saints, just a bunch of people fighting inner battles – as we all are. I try to humanize women who have previously been demonized both historically and, more recently, in fiction.
How much research do you do?
Tons of it! Most of my reading consists of research, and to ensure I glean a balanced view of the person I am writing about, I have to study them from all perspectives. Perspective fascinates me; the same person is many, many things to different people. For instance, the character and motives of Margaret Beaufort alters depending on the stance of the author. Those who favour York see little good in her at all, and those who follow Lancaster cast her as a saint. In reality, she is more likely to have been somewhere in between. I like to present as balanced a picture as I can. In A Song of Sixpence Margaret doesn’t come across in a positive light at first, because in that book, she is viewed from Elizabeth of York’s eyes. There are often tensions between a new bride and her mother in law, and Margaret was very interfering. Toward the end of the book, when the two women find some common ground and become friends, Margaret’s character softens and becomes more likeable. In The Beaufort Bride, Margaret tells her own tale and is able to put the record straight.
My house is full of books, not just written histories but contemporary records, medieval music, portraits (prints of course) and then I like to study the historiography of my subject to consider how he/she may have been received by different generations. Part of my job is to visit the relevant castles, palaces, towns and even gardens that form the backdrop of the world I am creating. I do medieval style embroidery, dress up in Tudor clothes to see how they feel, how you put them on, how easy they are to rip off – ha ha. I watch documentaries, dramas (the good and the bad), read contemporary poetry, plays etc. Research is never ending but I love it. Sometimes only a tiny portion of the things I learn actually make it into the book but I put it to good use by using it in my blogs or articles or in talks and lectures.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I didn’t really decide. I have written since I was a small child, never stopped, even when I was a mother to four demanding children. I just used my kids as character studies, and wrote stories featuring them. I never let anyone see anything I wrote until I went to university as a mature student. I was most surprised when the tutors there encouraged me to take it further. When I graduated in 2009 after studying a B.A. and an M.A., I decided to try my first novel. That one will never see the light of day but it was good enough to make me want to do another. Peaceweaver was published in 2009, and I haven’t looked back. It makes my mind boggle to think I’ve now written nine books since then; I don’t know where I find the time!
Do you write full-time or part-time?
Full-time. I work from home; my desk faces a window that overlooks Cardigan Bay, five minutes from the beach and cliff path. I am often tempted away from the desk to spend my lunch hour walking on the cliff, working out the next scene in my head.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
I am a morning person, so it is best to do any brain work while I am fresh. I answer emails and social media messages etc. straight after breakfast, then I write all morning, spend an hour or so walking or gardening at lunchtime. If I am not too drained I write again after lunch. Then I either garden, or crochet depending on the weather. My cut off point is 3.30pm, or earlier if I feel like it. Somewhere in between I find time to fit in my family. They are all grown up now and have moved to Cardiff but we see each other often. I am very privileged to have such a great job and I am so grateful to my readers for allowing me to live this life.
Where do your ideas come from?
Usually they spring from research. The Tudor court is full of women who have suffered injustice or tragic ends. It was a tough time to be a man but women had it even worse. I sometimes come across a character during fact finding for one book and realise that they’ve never been covered in fiction, and I take a note of their name. Sometimes it is as if they are calling to me while I am still writing the first book and I have to be very firm with them and tell them to wait their turn.
What is the hardest thing about writing?
It is tiring and lonely. You wouldn’t think sitting at a desk all day could be so draining but sometimes I come away at the end of the day and I can barely think, let alone function. I am a great believer in power naps. Ten minutes on the sofa can see me though the rest of the day.
Marketing is a pain. I am not very good at bullying people to buy my books, I am quite shy and this prohibits some of the more drastic measures authors have to take. But I find historical blogs seems to reach the right people, a subtle link at the end points those who are interested toward the sale links. Once a new reader has enjoyed one book they go on to buy the rest so that is a great help, and keeps my back catalogue healthy.
The solitude can be difficult but most of the time I am happy in my own company. Sometimes I only see the dog and the postman all day and it suits me fine; other days I feel cut off from the present day. I get so deep into the past that when I go out, I don’t seem to belong in this time anymore. After a day in 1484 I return to this world, switch on the news and realise it is no better now than it was 600 years ago.
What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?
The Wars of the Roses is a mine-field. There were so many battles, so many Edwards, Margarets, Elizabeths and Henrys, and people didn’t keep to one side throughout the wars but chopped and changed allegiance, making it a nightmare for an author. There are so many dates, and so many deaths, and they had the irritating habit of calling each other by their titles, Buckingham or Somerset etc., you have to constantly check whether they are referring to the first or second duke – arghhh! There were times during The Beaufort Woman when I wanted to give up and write something easier but the thought of all those furious readers who are waiting to read it, kept me plodding on. Poor old Margaret had a rough ride and it helped me to consider how much harder it was for her to live it; I shouldn’t really complain about just writing it. I am trying not to think about beginning Book three!
What is the easiest thing about writing?
I don’t think there is anything easy about it but there are very nice aspects to it. Being my own boss is lovely. I answer to no-one, please only myself and my readers. I don’t have to leave the house, or put up with fellow office workers. There are always ups and downs with writing a novel, just like there is with every aspect of life but it isn’t all up hill.
A rough day or a difficult part of the process is always cheered up by finding a lovely review or a nice letter from a fan. I always keep these to take out and read again when I am flagging. Sometimes it seems to drag, I get down in the dumps, believe the book will be as dreary as I feel but other times, when the part I am writing really appeals to me, I fly through the scenes. When I’ve finished for the day I come back to the here and now with a bang, take a walk to the beach, sit in the sun with an ice cream. It is a brilliant life – nothing difficult about it at all.
Do you ever get writer’s Block?
No. Although I sometimes get what my mum used to call ‘lazyitis.’ It is not easy to write for long periods of time, you can get bogged down and stale. I find a walk or a change of scene with some good company can work wonders. I love it when my daughter-in-law and baby grandson come for the day so I can forget about Margaret (or whoever) and just be Nanny.
My husband, John, is very supportive. Apart from being my biggest fan, he is the first person to read each book, and he gives honest feedback, spots typos and continuity errors etc. He is also very good if I am having trouble with a scene, I talk it through with him and discuss certain aspects of the characters and somehow it all begins to make sense again. I couldn’t do it without him.
If I do get stuck on a certain scene I usually rejuvenate my creativity by writing something completely different. Take my mind right away from the time period and concentrate on something modern – that way I am glad to get back to the 15th century.
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
I use my kindle to read fiction; if the book turns out to be a keeper then I buy a copy for my shelf. When it comes to non-fiction, I prefer traditional books as it is easier to bookmark and quickly check facts. I don’t think e-books will ever replace traditional ones but they are kinder to trees. Most of my books are kindle copies, and my paperbacks are all produced as print on demand because when I think of how many large print runs end up pulped every year it makes my blood boil.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I am not reading anything at present. I am currently editing and rewriting parts of The Beaufort Woman and I don’t like alien ‘voices’ intruding when I am in ‘the zone.’ However, my to-be-read pile is as long as my arm. I plan a week on the beach very soon.
Are you looking forward to the Carmarthen Book Fair 2016? And if so, why?
I am looking forward to it very much. I am a bit of a coward when it comes to meeting the public but I met so many lovely people, both authors and readers, at the Llandeilo fair. Many of them are also going to be at Carmarthen, so it will be fun to catch up and meet some new people too. I also should have a new book to promote by then and it is always good to give a book its first outing.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
I am very prominent on the world wide web so just google my name and I pop up all over the place. New friends and followers are always welcome on Facebook and Twitter, and I have a blog http://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.co.uk/ and a webpage www.juditharnopp.com so please, come along and find me. Author.to/juditharnoppbooks
Thank you for chatting with us today Judith, we look forward to seeing you at the Carmarthen Book Fair.