Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Interview: Sophie Perinot, THE SISTER QUEENS

Yesterday, I reviewed Sophie Perinot's debut novel, THE SISTER QUEENS. Today, Sophie answers some questions about her book.

Q: Usually when novels feature more than one viewpoint character, the author writes from each perspective in the third person. You, however, chose to write in alternating first person points-of-view. What was the biggest technical challenge this posed? How did you strive to differentiate between Marguerite's and Eleanor's voices?

A: I was surprised when this book came to me in first person. I’ve always thought of myself as a third-person writer and I am certainly, generally, a third person reader. I was even more shocked that the story of my sister queens demanded to be written in the present tense.

I suppose, as a writer, I could take charge and make a conscious POV decision up front, but that is not my process. Rather, once I have the inspiration for a particular book, I begin researching—digesting material until my brain is swimming in it. As I am collecting and processing information I am waiting for what I can only call the “genesis moment,” when one or more of my characters begin to speak and act for themselves almost without my volition. The timing of this moment varies. When it happens I often “hear” or visualize a scene in its totality. In the case of The Sister Queens, Marguerite spoke to me first, offering me the lines that would become the opening of Chapter 7. Her voice was first-person present-tense.

Once I heard Marguerite’s voice, the biggest challenge became exactly what you’ve identified—making sure Eleanor developed a distinguishable voice. I was assisted in this by the fact that I had VERY strong impressions of each sister from my research and had concluded they had disparate personalities and disparate roles in their courts. Based on these impressions I prepared personal character profiles for the women as if I were an actress studying for a role. And that’s how I wrote them—by slipping on their skins in turn and becoming alternately Marguerite and Eleanor for the time necessary to write their personal sections of the book.

Q: As the two protagonists mature, they swap many traits: Marguerite, the docile and proper eldest daughter, becomes daring and deceitful in pursuit of her own happiness; Eleanor, the wilder child, learns to reign in her willfulness and place her husband's and her kingdom's good above her own. Which character do you feel achieved the best balance in the end? Did you find yourself identifying or sympathizing with one sister more than the other as you wrote?

A: I am interested that you find Marguerite “deceitful.” Yes she tells a lie (a large lie) and keeps something from others, but the word deceitful encompasses a negative judgment of her behavior that I don’t, personally, feel I am competent to pass.

I think sisters, real and fictitious, often look to each other’s behavior for ideas and life-strategies when their own approach to situations isn’t working. I know I do. When being Sophie doesn’t crack a difficult situation open I often ask myself what my sister, who is very different from me, would do or say. We learn by example from our sisters—sometimes consciously and sometimes unknowingly. I think Eleanor benefitted from adopting some of Marguerite’s more mild and accommodating attitudes, particularly during the mid-life crisis in her marriage. And I think Marguerite benefitted from a dose of Eleanor’s boldness. Being a good person (or a good queen) doesn’t mean never putting what we want first (though I think a lot of women have been conditioned to think it does).

As for personal preference or identification, you’ve touched upon a bit of a family controversy here. When I wrote The Sister Queens I really grew close to Marguerite. I started to identify with her and “own” her voice. Then my sister read the manuscript for the first time and said, “Oh my gosh, you as SO Eleanor.” I am SURE she is right but still, just once I’d like to get away with thinking of myself as the patient, forbearing type without getting called on it.

Joking aside, I was moved by Marguerite’s story—her struggle to find love with her husband, her struggle to be recognized as a person of strength and political intelligence—but my own marriage (like my outspoken personality) is much closer to Eleanor’s. I am not saying my husband is professionally inept (do you hear that, dear?) as Henry III clearly was, but he is a man who, like Henry, cares deeply for his wife and children and delights in their happiness. I also have always felt like an equal partner in my marriage and I think Eleanor, like her mother Beatrice of Savoy before her, was valued as a political player by her husband.

Q: Louis IX is revered as a saint in the Catholic Church, known not only for his piety and zeal but for his kindness and good humor. Were you at all apprehensive about tackling this exalted figure and exploring his private life?

A: Yes, because taking on a Saint and saying “Hey, look this guy was something of an idiot” can make one unpopular in certain quarters. In addition, I am not the sort to practice character assassination as a sport.

I didn’t come to this project intending to sully Saint Louis’s name or to rehabilitate Henry III of England. But as I moved along I became more and more frustrated by the common perceptions of each man, and I started to believe that how we are used to seeing them has as much to do with what matters in “H”istory as it does with who they were. Traditional political and military history celebrates men who are effective rulers. The personal aspects of their lives are either ignored or attached little value. But I came to this project with a background in women’s and social history. Those fields have a different view of what is important. I also came to this story as a woman—a very married woman. So, while I was working on the book I was persistently confronted by this question: it better to be married to a successful man who cannot spare time for you or to a good and loving man who is an epic failure?

Louis IX of France is still considered one of his country’s greatest monarchs. After his death his family waged a successful campaign to have him made a Saint. During that process only one person close to Louis declined to testify before the committee of prelates gathered at St. Denis – his queen, Marguerite of Provence. Striking. It seems to me that Marguerite had good reason for her refusal. Louis may have reformed French government and behaved with compassion and justice to his people, but he was a poor husband to her and an uninvolved father to their children. In Marguerite’s eyes Louis was NO saint. Because I saw with her eyes and wrote with her voice it became imperative for me to illuminate the imperfect man behind the image of the Saint.

In contrast to Louis IX, history does not remember Henry III of England kindly. Considered naïve and unsuited to leadership at best (and downright simple at worst) he is ranked one of the least among English Kings. There is no denying that Henry was not an able monarch, but he was a kind husband and good father. The historical record is replete with evidence of this. In thirty-six years no hint of scandal ever touched his marriage to Eleanor. Again and again he exhibited a deep caring for both his wife and their children. Henry became sick with grief nearly to the point of death when his youngest child, Katherine, who was physically handicapped and likely developmentally handicapped as well, died at age three. He continued to worry about his children’s wellbeing even once they reached adulthood, intervening repeatedly in his daughter the Queen of Scotland’s marriage. Eleanor saw all this—lived it. Seeing Henry through her eyes I realized that, at least from my point of view, he was the better man.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the role of women in the Crusades? Was it unusual for Marguerite and her women to accompany Louis and his army to the Holy Land?

A: I am NOT a crusade expert. I want to make that very clear because there are many of them—including academic historians with encyclopedic knowledge of the crusades, exquisite understanding of the issues underlying each, and very informed opinions on their military, social and political impacts. That said, and without trodding on more knowledgeable toes, it was not uncommon for women to accompany crusading armies, even though Pope Urban II banned them from fighting. Women of the lower classes and tradeswomen might accompany crusading armies to provide material support for the soldiers. Noblewomen travelled with their spouses to offer moral as well as physical support. One of the most famous examples of a Queen who took the cross is Eleanor of Aquitaine who accompanied her husband Louis VII of France in the 12th century. Of course papal ban or no Eleanor went into battle. And the great crusade poem The Chanson d’Antioche suggests she was not the only woman to do so:

When the husbands saw their wives gathered in the field, such was their love and pity for them that they changed color. Then they closed the visors of their helms and tested the edge of their swords which they brandished at arms length. And in their rancor they swore that before they would lose their wives they would make these treacherous pagans pay dearly.

Marguerite and her ladies, however, did no fighting while in the Holy Land, though Marguerite shouldered the responsibility for holding the city of Damietta after Louis was taken captive.

Q: How do you think history might have been different if Marguerite had married Henry of England and Eleanor Louis of France?

A: I think there would have been more significant historical changes had either Louis or Henry NOT married one of the sisters from Provence. Imagine, for example, if Louis, rather than his brother, had married Jeanne de Toulouse. Might we have seen the rivalry and animosity between the girls’ fathers – the Count of Provence and the Count of Toulouse – which often brought them to arms over the years in the Midi, played out on a much larger, international stage? Or imagine if Henry had succeeded in marrying Joan of Ponthieu (his “intended” before Eleanor) and the Savoyards (not only Eleanor’s uncles but a slew of clerks, knights and lesser nobles) had never come to England. While the English barons liked to label them a disruptive “foreign influence” (particularly rich since many of these same barons had connections on the continent and Simon de Montfort was French) and blame them for every ill, I tend to take the view that Henry’s rule would have been more of a failure not less without their political savvy and service.

Surely though, things would have been different had the brides been reversed. For one thing, I believe Eleanor would have just about killed Blanche of Castile . . . and possibly Louis as well. I doubt she could have changed either of them, but there would (at least while she was young) have been a state of open war in the French Court. As Queen of France, Eleanor would have been cut off from the Savoyard Uncles who proved to be her best political advisors and closest friends in England (and whose very presence and independence from the English crown gave her status). So, like her sister, she couldn’t have hoped for much impact on the policies or politics of France. She may even have had less impact less than Marguerite did, because Marguerite came into her own after returning from crusade and began to work around Louis a bit. Certainly Eleanor would NEVER have had the opportunity to act as regent in France as she did in England.

On a personal level, Eleanor would surely have been unhappy with Louis, and perhaps less firm in her convictions that there is a “special circle in hell for women who cuckold their husbands.” She also would have had less certain and less frequent access to her children which would have been devastating to Eleanor who was very much a mother-hen. I wonder, given my predicted state of acrimony between husband, wife, and mother-in-law, if the 1259 Treaty of Paris, between Louis IX and Henry III would ever have happened with Eleanor as Louis’s bride?

Marguerite would have fared better as Henry’s bride than she did as Louis’s. Despite her severely curtailed sphere of influence at the French court, she showed both political acumen and, while Louis was captive in the Holy Land, the ability to lead an shoulder responsibility. Imagine then how much more she would have been able to exercise her talents and exert her influence with Savoyard kin present as allies and given the ear of a husband willing to listen and consider her point of view. On a personal level, Marguerite would certainly have bloomed under the care of a loving husband and Henry—craving domesticity as he did—would surely have shown her respect, affection and kindness. One wonders, however, if the man who loved fiery Eleanor so very much would have been as drawn to her milder sister?

Q: What do you hope readers take away from their reading of your book?

What a reader ultimately takes away from my book will depend on what she brings to it. I think the very best books allow us to approach issues in our own lives from the comfortable distance of a fictional setting.

The Sister Queens is a sister story first and foremost. Yes, it is set in the 13th century and the atmosphere, politics and history are detailed and appropriate to that time period but the book focuses on that which is timeless—the way our sisters shape us whether by challenging us or by supporting us. So I suspect many readers will use the book as a catalyst for reflecting on the sister issue in their own lives. But there are a number of other themes/questions raised by the book—Is every long-term romantic relationship doomed to a period of stagnation? How do couples work past that? Does society place too much value on professional competence and too little on competence as a husband or father in judging a man?—that offer food for reflection.

The Sister Queens includes a reader’s guide with questions delving into themes sounded by the book. I don’t want to answer those questions (or any questions raised by my novel) for readers. I want to leave them free to draw their own conclusions informed by their life experiences.

Q: What has been the most exhilarating moment for you as an author? The most humbling? What did you learn about yourself during this odyssey?

A: The most exhilarating moment was, without doubt, launch day. I was able to lunch with a small group of members from the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Historical Novel Society including the marvelous Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray. Afterwards we walked to the nearest Barnes & Noble. The minute I crossed the threshold I spotted The Sister Queens on the “New Releases” table. Pure bliss. Needless to say, many pictures were taken.

The most humbling moment came about a week later. I took my youngest child to a Barnes & Noble near our home so that he could see my book on the table. He took one look, shrugged (really) and said something along the lines of, “That’s nice but the hardback books at the front are displayed standing up.” Wow. Yeah, that pretty much deflated them moment.

As for what I’ve learned . . . some years ago while writing my very first manuscript a portraitist friend asked me, “What are you going to do if this book doesn’t sell?” I told him “Write another, and another, until one does sell or until I get tired of writing.” I learned during the odyssey that is pursuit of publication that I really have the perseverance and optimism to live up to those words. As you know Julianne, the novel that hooked my wonderful agent didn’t sell. That was a scary moment. But my agent had faith in me and said, “Write me another one.” When I successfully finished The Sister Queens on deadline, I didn’t know if it would sell either but I knew I could DO THIS—I could write as a business proposition and even in the face of initial failure.

Thank you, Sophie, for taking the time out of your busy writing schedule to answer these questions. I hope this interview has given readers a feel for the amount of research and careful deliberation that went into the crafting of THE SISTER QUEENS.

Please visit Sophie's website to learn more about her novel and her path to publication. Enjoy the book!


Genevieve Graham said...

Gorgeous interview. I love the depth of these questions and Sophie's brilliant responses. Can't wait to read this one.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you! I'm glad you liked it and hope you'll like the book.