Exclusive interview with author Sharon Kay Penman and a review of her novel about Richard the 1st *** Three Stars
By Gabrielle Pantera
Hollywood CA, (Gosh!TV) 2013/1/26 – “Richard himself was the greatest surprise,” says Lionheart author Sharon Kay Penman. “My Devil’s Brood research had already shown me that he was not as one-dimensional as I’d once thought. The Richard who emerged from the pages of the crusader and Saracen chronicles was not the man I was expecting to find. He had a sardonic sense of humor, could be playful, irreverent, and unpredictable, and showed a commendable concern for the welfare of his soldiers.”
It’s A.D. 1189. King Henry is dead. Long live the king, King Richard that is. With the experience of ruling his mother’s lands of Aquitaine, he’s ready to rule and to fight to protect what’s his. He didn’t expect to be king of England, not with two older brothers before him. After being crowned King of England Richard sets off for the Holy lands.
Eleanor is finally freed after being locked up by Henry for decades. Richard’s younger brother John feels it’s his right to be king as he was their father’s favorite. Joanna, Richard’s favorite sister, and his wife Berengaria of Navarre, accompany Richard and are a big part of the story.
Penman uses lots of details on the war and battles. She delves into the relationship between Berengaria and Richard. Penman’s grasp of historical events is strong. She brings alive both Joanna and Berengaria. Her descriptions are vivid.
“I’d known he was often insanely reckless when it came to his own safety,” says Penman. “Today we’d wonder if he had a latent death wish. So I was very surprised to learn that he was such a cautious battle commander, as careful with the lives of his men as he was careless with his own. I was also surprised to discover that he never demonized his Saracen foes, that he formed friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs. I was astonished to learn that he even knighted several of them in the midst of a holy war. The real Richard turned out to be more complex than the Richard of legend, and therefore, more interesting.”
“I’d never had a favorable view of Richard I, although my knowledge of him was admittedly superficial,” says Penman. “When I began to research my novel, The Devil’s Brood, I discovered that there was a disconnect between Richard the legend and Richard the man. And in the course of the novel, I began to see that his was a story worth telling. Devil’s Brood was meant to be the final book in the trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once it was done, I found myself pitching the idea to my publisher of continuing with Eleanor and Richard and his troublesome brother, John, who was always good copy. My publisher liked the idea, and the result was Lionheart, which concludes with the treaty between Richard and his equally famous adversary, Saladin, as Richard plans to return to his own lands. Luckily for him, he had no idea what lay ahead of him, two shipwrecks, a mad dash through enemy territory with a handful of men in the dead of winter, and then capture by the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich…a nasty piece of work. I will be dramatizing these events and the remainder of Richard’s reign in the sequel, A King’s Ransom.”
For her research, Penman says she always makes use of biographies and histories, patent and close rolls, charters, and whatever she can find. “My favorite research source has always been the medieval chronicles, and with Lionheart, I had a treasure-trove to draw upon…chronicles written by men who’d accompanied Richard on crusade and by men who were members of Saladin’s inner circle. I actually had eye-witness accounts of battles written by men who’d fought in them, and because I had access to both crusader and Saracen chronicles, I was able to get a balanced view of the warfare between Saladin and Richard.”
“I was able to find translations of letters by Richard and Saladin in biographies of both men. Information about Richard’s charters were contained in The Itinerary of King Richard I, by Lionel Landon, which allowed me to track Richard’s whereabouts on any given date. I found this to be an invaluable source while researching Lionheart.”
“It was unusual for medieval chroniclers to be at the scene of battles and their accounts had an immediacy that I’d encountered only once before,” says Penman, “when reading descriptions of the murder of Thomas Becket by men who’d actually been with him in Canterbury Cathedral that day.”
“When the Saracen chronicler, Baha al-Din, wrote of Richard storming ashore at Jaffa, a sword in one hand, a crossbow in the other, it was memorable to me because I knew Baha al-Din had been at Jaffa to see Richard’s assault for himself,” says Penman. “It is fortunate that I wrote Lionheart when I did, though, for had I attempted it twenty years ago, none of these rich sources would have been available to me. They were not translated from Latin or Arabic until fairly recently.”
“I relied upon medieval chronicles whenever possible,” says Penman. “They are not always accurate. Sometimes they reported rumors as fact, and they had their own biases, of course. They are such an odd mix of the familiar and the foreign. A chronicler will spend pages complaining about corrupt sheriffs, bad roads, and high prices. Then he will casually mention that two green children were found in Kent. Or, my own favorite medieval chronicle entry, one tells us when King Richard was released from Purgatory, 37 years after his death.”
“I think it is very important for historical novelists to strive for as much accuracy as is humanly possible when writing of people who actually lived,” says Penman. “Obviously there is much we do not know about a time so far removed from our own. Historical novelists must, of necessity do what I call filling in the blanks.”
“I think it is unfair to the reader to distort known facts or to portray historical figures in ways not supported by the evidence,” says Penman. “Readers have to take an author on faith and I think we need to bear that in mind. If we are going to use their lives for dramatic fodder, we should try to avoid character assassination. My fellow writer, Laurel Corona, expressed this very succinctly when she said, do not defame the dead. If it were in my power to do so, I’d make that the Eleventh Commandment for historical novelists.”
Marian Wood is Penman’s editor. “She’s been my editor for my entire writing career, since my first novel, Sunne in Splendour, was published in 1982,” says Penman. “That’s almost unheard-of in a publisher, and when I tell this to other writers, they are astonished and envious. I’ve had different British editors over the years, but I’ve recently returned to my first British publisher, Macmillan. Jeremy Trevathan is now my editor on that side of the Atlantic.”
“I met Marian, my editor at G.P. Putnam’s, back in 1981,” says Penman. “She was then with Henry Holt & Co, and at our first meeting to discuss my 1,200 page manuscript of The Sunne in Splendour, she asked me if I really wanted the death of so many trees on my conscience. We did save a few trees by paring down the manuscript by about 10%, but it still made it into print at a whopping 1000 pages.”
“After I submit the manuscript, Marian reads it while I wait as nervously as any defendant counting the hours until the jury’s verdict comes in,” says Penman. “If she feels a scene doesn’t work or needs revision, we discuss it and I do what I can to remedy the problem. She is almost always right.
“New writers sometimes find it painful to submit to editing, for we all like to think that our prose is perfect as is,” says Penman. “But the truth is that there has never been a writer whose work could not be improved by a good editor. Yes, even Will Shakespeare.”
“I think all writers suffer with deadlines, but it is especially acute for historical novelists, as half of what we do involves intensive and time-consuming research,” says Penman. “I actually started to have nightmares about swimming with a hungry shark called Deadline, panicking at the sight of that sinister fin slicing through the water as it moved in for the kill.”
Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Agency is Penman’s agent in the U.S. Mic Cheetham of the Mic Cheetham Agency is her agent in the U.K. “Molly and Mic have been my agents since the beginning of my writing career,” says Penman. “A friend of mine, Julie Wolff, knew a senior editor at McCall’s Magazine. She asked him if he could recommend an agent. He quite correctly said he could not do that unless he read my novel, not wanting to waste an agent’s time if it was not very good. So I took it up to him in N.Y.C. and he liked it enough to send it to Molly.”
“Molly then sent the manuscript to an editor she knew, who happened to be Marian Wood,” says Penman. “I found out years later that Marian was not a fan of historical fiction. Yet Molly sent her this 1,200 page saga by an unknown writer, the perfect example of an agent’s intuition at work. Mic was then working with a British firm affiliated with Molly, and that is how we connected. Since I spent so much time in the U.K., we developed a closer relationship than writers normally enjoy with agents in other countries.”
Penman has written eight historical novels. The Sunne in Splendour, a revisionist history of the Wars of the Roses, a trilogy set in 13th century England and Wales, Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning, and then my quartet about the Angevins, When Christ and his Saints Slept, Time and Chance, Devil’s Brood, and Lionheart. She has also written four medieval mysteries set in late 12th century England: The Queen’s Man, Cruel as the Grave, Dragon’s Lair, and Prince of Darkness.
Her first mystery, The Queen’s Man, was nominated for an Edgar. Her last three historical novels made the New York Times bestseller list.
Penman us currently writing the Lionheart sequel A King’s Ransom. After that, she’s writing a novel about the Kingdom of Jerusalem, The Land Beyond the Sea, that will feature some of the characters who appear in Lionheart.
Penman lives in New Jersey, but has lived in York in the United Kingdom. She was born in Greenwich Village in New York City. She’s lived in the U.K. to research Sunne in Spleendour and in North Wales to research Here Be Dragons, the story of King John, his illegitimate daughter Joanna, and the Welsh prince she married, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.
Penman’s website is www.sharonkaypenman.com. She writes a blog you can find there. “I spend a lot of time on Facebook, as I have a personal page and three fan clubs set up by my readers,” says Penman. “I love Facebook, for it is a wonderful way for writers and readers to interact. I have not yet ventured onto Twitter, but I suspect I will eventually take the plunge.”
Lionheart: A Novel author Sharon Kay Penman Trade Paperback, 624 pages, Publisher: Ballantine Books (January 1, 2013), Language: English, ISBN: 978-0345517562 $16.00