Thursday, July 5, 2012

Interview with Author Karen Harper

Today, author Karen Harper discusses her latest novel, MISTRESS OF MOURNING (New American Library).
Q:  Welcome, Karen. Can you tell us a bit about your new novel?

A. I've always wondered about the first Tudors—King Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, the dynasty’s founders.  But my fascination with Henry VIII and the later Queen Elizabeth Tudor always kept me researching and writing in that later Tudor era for my novels. MISTRESS OF MOURNING has two heroines—Queen Elizabeth of York (mother of Henry VIII) and Varina Westcott, a merchant-era wax chandler.  These women bond during the time Varina is hired to carve death effigies for two of the queen’s children lost in childhood.  Varina too has lost a son and when Arthur, Prince of Wales, dies under mysterious circumstances while on his honeymoon with his bride Catherine of Aragon, the queen asks Varina to discover whether Arthur was murdered.  The novel also probes the murders of the queen’s two brothers, the Princes in the Tower.

Q:  So MISTRESS OF MOURNING  is murder mystery (three murders of young princes) within a historical novel.  Why did you decide to write a mystery instead of a “straight” historical as you have with your earlier books like MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE and THE QUEEN’S GOVERNESS?

A:  The era and the plot just ran smack into these murders, all of which are yet debated today?  Who murdered the Princes in the Tower is still argued today.  Many blame King Richard III, but there is another possible royal villain too.  (Yes, that’s a teaser.)  Later, in the Reign of King Charles II, in July of 1674, during some rebuilding in the White Tower, the bones of two children were found in an elm chest that was covered by rubble at a depth of about ten feet.  This was under a staircase that led to the king’s lodging.  At King Charles’s request, the bones were interred in a white marble urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren and placed in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, close to the tomb of their sister.  But who murdered them?  There are several ‘persons of interest.’

As for Arthur Tudor’s demise, that is yet being investigated.  Ground-probing radar has been used to pinpoint his final resting place beneath the limestone floor of Worcester Cathedral.  Professor John Hunter of Birmingham University has worked on the investigation, although so far the current queen has not given her permission for the exhumation of Arthur’s body to perform toxicology tests.  Of course, if Arthur had not died, Henry VIII would never have been king.  If the Princes in the Tower had not died, perhaps the Tudors would never have come to the throne at all.

Q:  So tell us more about the amateur sleuth for the novel, Varina Westcott.

A:  I found it fascinating that chandlers (candle makers) also produced waxen death shrouds as well as funeral candles in the Medieval and Tudor eras.  Best of all for this story, because their shops made these waxen wraps for noble and royal corpses, chandler often worked as undertakers.  So it made sense that Varina could be sent to Ludlow Castle in Wales where Arthur died to over see his preparations for burial—but also to learn if he was poisoned.

Coat of arms, Wax Chandlers Guild

Another fascinating thing about Varina is that she has inherited her father’s talent of being able to carve death masks.  Royalty and some elite of that day wanted effigies atop their coffins for the funeral processions, and the effigies had carved faces of how they looked in life.  Funeral candles were also a huge business.  Even the poor saved for years to buy votive candles for their funerals—the more candles, the quicker they believed they got out of purgatory.

Q:  Does this novel include a love story as did your earlier Renaissance era books?

A:  Actually, there are two romances in MISTRESS OF MOURNING.  The marriage between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York has been much debated since he was a rather austere character, yet they seemed to have a strong, loving marriage.  I give the reader a glimpse into that and show how it effected their children, especially Henry VIII who is only ten when the novel begins.  Varina falls in love with Nicholas Sutton, an ambitious courtier who is assigned to guard her, then helps her solve the murders.  In a way all good writing is suspense writing (What will happen next?), but writing a murder mystery really allowed me to increase the tension and danger.

Q:  Any interesting trivia you picked up in your research this time—things you didn’t know?

A:  One thing is that the title The War of the Roses did not come into existence until 1762.  It was a term coined in David Hume’s book History of England, so I reluctantly avoided using it in the novel.  The upheaval that put the Tudors on the throne was really a civil war.

Also, this is hardly trivia, but I had no idea that the status of few women who owned their own shops was so low at this time.  Varina only runs her chandlery because her husband died and left it to her.  Unless a father, brother or husband deeded a shop to a woman, she could not own it.  If she remarried, control of her business, finances and any minor children came under the new husband’s aegis.  Also, women like Varina were not admitted to the powerful merchant guilds of the city—hers would have been The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers.  Her shop could only be included through her brother-in-law, who worked for her, becoming a guild member.  (The one exception to this no-women-in-the-guilds rule was the broiders—embroiders—guild.)

Q:  So does Catherine of Aragon play a part in this book?

A:  She does indeed, and it is so interesting to see her as a pretty, appealing young woman instead of the sad figure we usually see in the Anne Boleyn-era novels.  I was interested to learn from the research that whether or not the weak, sometimes sickly Prince Arthur bedded her or not was a hot debate even at that time.  Of course, during Henry VIII’s later attempt to divorce her, that question was of key concern.

Q:  Part of this story takes place in Wales.  What was that like in the early Tudor era?

A:  It was still a place of legends, tribal chiefs and superstitions—and I took advantage of all that.  The area around Ludlow Castle is fens and bogs, deep forests.  I was even able to write a was-she-or-was-she not witch character.  The Welsh of that day believed their early hero Owen Glendower was coming back to throw the English out.  What a scary, great setting for a mystery, not that London of that day didn’t work well too.

Q:  I see the book has two different titles.  How did that come about?

A:  The book is titled MISTRESS OF MOURNING by my US publisher Penguin USA and THE QUEEN’S CONFIDANTE by my British publisher Random House UK.  The books have quite different covers too.  I think the UK releases of my historicals, which are making the bestseller lists there, are boosted by having the word queen in the title during this Jubilee Year and the royal wedding year previously.  I’m really looking forward to attending the Historical Novel Society Conference in London this autumn.  Any excuse to get to England for more research!  And it sounds like a great gathering of authors and readers.  Thanks for the interview and happy reading!

Learn more about Karen Harper's novels at her website.

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