Gillian has been a friend and mentor for many years and I’m delighted that she’s agreed to answer some questions today about her life as a writer and as an expert on all things medieval. The recent publication of her book The Middle Ages Unlocked: a guide to life in Medieval England 1050-1300, co-authored with German archaeologist Dr Katrin Kania, is a must-read for writers AND readers of medieval history and historical fiction – and I was lucky enough to see one of the very first drafts while writing my first Janna Mystery. Lucky because I found a wealth of information that helped me to imagine the world I was creating and how people lived within it.
Q: I know The Middle Ages Unlocked (aka ‘the Beast’) has been a project close to your heart for many years. What gave you the idea to write something like this?
It wasn’t my idea! It was a group of historical fiction writers and fans. “We need it,” they said and the eternal teacher in me said, “Well, if you need it…” This is why I was delighted when you wanted to check out the early draft. I wanted to make sure the Beast developed to fit that initial need.
Q: Would you like to say something about the difficulties you encountered while writing the Beast and then finding a publisher for it?
There were three basic problems. The first (which was a problem right until we sat down with our editor at Amberley) was how to decide the precise approach that would suit that need for a book. It had to be learned and popular both at once. It had to cover a lot of ground and be quite specific and yet not be pedantic or too long. It had to have a critical apparatus, but not be academic.
Finding the right balance took a lot of work and a lot of time. Katrin was invaluable in this. Because she wasn’t there early on, she brought fresh eyes to the project. Some areas were written from scratch (textiles and clothing most of all, for they’re her area of specialisation and ignoring a specialist is not a wise approach) and some were rewritten because I’d been working on it for so long that I didn’t know how much needed to be explained to the new reader. We went through every single word and checked it and this is the single biggest reason the final of the Beast is quite different to the early drafts. We met that original need – but when people say “Will you write another one on another period” I mostly say “Have you heard about my new novel?” (My new novel, by the way, is The Time of the Ghosts and Canberra will never be the same.)
The second was the sheer length of the project. Over time, peoples’ lives change and their capacity to work on a long term project changes. The acknowledgements section of the book demonstrates some of those changes. Tamara Mazzei, for example, did a lot of work on the original. When she had to move on to other things, I didn’t keep her work because we wanted to have the line of rights clear, but she was a big influence and her wonderfully clear mind and editing skills helped get the Beast off to a really good start.
The third was that Medieval Studies is constantly changing. Since I began my studies of the Middle Ages some of the old certainties have been torn down. Medievalists know what we need to know and we’re working on finding them out as fast as we can, but each cut in money spent on the humanities at university is a cut in our capacity to research. If there are no jobs, there will be no research. If there is no research funding, then capacity to research is limited. Katrin and I, therefore, had a long think about how to handle concepts such as feudalism, where knowledge is in a state of flux. We opted throughout the book to make a clear statement of where research was at the time we did the research for that section. We didn’t second guess the tracks it might lead to. We tried to find overviews that reflected actual knowledge. In some cases (for the section on courtesy, for instance) we did new research and filled in some holes ourselves. Each time there was a major change in the approach, we checked recently released books and articles. We tried very hard to make it the best current overview that it could possibly be.
The Beast represents the Middle Ages as we understand them now. Some of it will last, but for some subjects it will become dated. I know this is the case for most histories, but this is a book for the general public. My feeling (and I felt so strongly about it that it became our whole approach) was that the general public is not stupid. Intelligent readers will find the Beast and they are entirely capable of understanding that knowledge of history changes over time. They may well read the Beast in ten or twenty years and enjoy it just as much, but in ten or twenty years they’ll read it alongside books that show the new research and the new understanding. I love writing for intelligent readers and I’ve discovered that if I assume my readers are inclined towards being thoughtful they will be. And my vision on this was fundamental to the initial approach and has never gone away. (Photo: Detail from Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire, an example of medieval buildings not all being as brilliantly conceived or built all at once.)
Q: You were kind enough to share early drafts of the Beast with me while it was still a work in progress, and I found so much helpful info in there that is just not covered in regular ‘histories’. Did you find it helpful to work with writers with a view to also providing a helpful handbook for writers of historical fiction, or was this originally intended to give readers of historical fiction a better knowledge of what life was like in medieval time?
You were one of the select few I tested it on because that profile is exactly what the Beast needed. Historical fiction writers are wonderfully educated and thoughtful and most of them are not professional historians. I’d do a ton of work and write it as I thought it should be, then I’d read your draft novel and chat with you about your book and find out where my draft was lacking.
We couldn’t include everything that would work, because there isn’t evidence on a lot of the things writers need, but it was very handy in finding direction and asking sources the right questions. It’s a major reason why we dropped the political history. Your work suggested we needed more detail about daily life and that people got their political history and general timelines from books that were already out there. So I listed subject matters from the work with you and other fiction writers, and tested concepts by how easily you were able to use them in your work. It was only quite recently, when the publishers said “This can be marketed to the general public” that we realised that you were our test audience but not our sole audience. Your needs are specialist, but they also reflect the wider public.
Katrin and I appreciate every writer who got involved, but you and Elizabeth Chadwick supported the project throughout and this was good for it, but also good for me. It’s very hard to stick with a fifteen year project without such support.
Q: You have numerous degrees (including two PhDs!) What prompted your interest in history?
I have to understand things. I’ve always had to understand things. My parents wanted me to do science, but I was besotted with history. I went to museums when we were on holiday and visited sites of interest and tried to understand them. It’s the people. I need to learn about people and who they are and how they live and have lived and what happens over time. I want to know if their bad jokes are as bad as my bad jokes: they’re worse. In fact, some medieval jokes are so bad that I don’t share them, and I am known for my appalling sense of humour. There’s a French play that’s full of the sort of things that six year old boys would giggle about. I want to know what ball games they played, whether young men had the equivalent of injury or death by stupidity and whether they grew out of it at the same age: yes, and yes – medieval coroner’s reports demonstrate this in spades. I want to know so many things! And I’ve wanted to know them as long as I can remember. (Photo: Mikvah in Montpelier – a bath used for ritual cleanliness.)
Q: You’ve already had several works of fiction published. Can you tell us a bit about your other books?
I have five novels in print, and, due to an amazing stroke of fortune (and the vision and courage of Satalyte Publishing) have several more coming out. Let me just introduce the new ones. My latest is The Time of the Ghosts, about a haunted Canberra, defended by three women of mature age and their enthusiastic teenage sidekick. It also contains a Jewish fairy, who tells unreliable stories about her own past. Before that came The Art of Effective Dreaming, which tends to be called the cursed novel (do not ask about the curse! All that matters is that it has been broken – and that it was mentioned in Wikipedia), which captures unhappiness and that moment between sleep and wakefulness when dreams can become real.
For people who need more Middle Ages, I wrote a time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) where a bunch of mostly-Australians (and a sole American) travel back to the south of France in 1305. They’re recruited for their specialist skills, not their wisdom, and things go pear-shaped in a very different way to the pearshapedness in other time travel books.
Q: What’s next in the writing pipeline?
I’m researching a novel about women travelling in the 17th century which won’t be out for a while. I’m also in the final, final stages of another non-fiction book, which will be released next year. It’s about how writers use history in their fiction, and it brings together a lot of my more interesting research over the last little while. I’ve pulled the results of the questioning together and followed up with more research and discovered all sorts of exciting things about writing and writers and history.
FYI Here are some details of Gillian’s books for you to check out:
2016 History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories Peter Lang, (forthcoming)
2015 The Middle Ages Unlocked, co-authored with K. Kania, Amberley Press
2011 Five Historical Feasts, Conflux/Eneit Press
2015 The Time of the Ghosts Satalyte
2015 The Art of Effective Dreaming Satalyte
2014 Langue[dot]doc 1305 Satalyte
2012 Ms Cellophane Momentum/PanMacmillan. (Published originally as Life Through Cellophane (Eneit Press, 2009). Shortlisted, 2009 DitmarAward for best novel)
2003 Illuminations Trivium Publishing, USA (paper only, available from online bookshops)