Thursday, February 5, 2015

Interview with Patricia Bracewell, Author of THE PRICE OF BLOOD

Today the second installment of Patricia Bracewell's Emma of Normandy Trilogy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, publishes from Viking Books. A gripping, richly textured continuation of the story that began with SHADOW ON THE CROWN (Viking, 2013), THE PRICE OF BLOOD dramatizes Queen Emma's efforts to protect England from the Viking armies ravaging the kingdom. Patricia has graciously offered to answer some questions about eleventh century history and the crafting of her novel.
1.  An excerpt from a twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, opens the book, describing how King Æthelred was “hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood.” Had you located this quotation before you began writing the novel, or was it a later, fortuitous find? From what you can tell, was William of Malmesbury, who wrote 100 years after Æthelred’s death, the first to draw a link between Æthelred’s disastrous reign and his guilt over his brother’s murder, or was this curse, so to speak, acknowledged by Aethelred’s own contemporaries?

I found the Malmesbury quote early on in my research. It was what gave me the idea for a ghost that haunts the king. As to whether William of Malmesbury was the first person to equate Edward’s murder with the disastrous events in Æthelred’s reign, it’s difficult to say. Certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, Wulfstan, claimed in a sermon that “laws of the people have deteriorated entirely too greatly, since Edgar (Æthelred’s father) died… Edward was betrayed, and then killed, and after that burned…things have not prospered now for a long time…and the English have been entirely defeated…through the anger of God.” So there was definitely a connection drawn between great sin in the land and God’s punishing hand via the Viking raids, and certainly the unpunished murder of a king was one of those sins.

2. You structure THE PRICE OF BLOOD, as you did the first novel of the trilogy, by year, prefacing each section with a corresponding snippet taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How did you go about fleshing out this rather sketchy record of battles and troop movements? Did the spareness of the account help or hinder your imagination?

The spareness of the account was sometimes frustrating, and I often wished for a lot more information. The Chronicle frequently tells us rather vaguely WHAT happened, but it rarely gives us adequate background. It never says HOW or WHY something occurred. My story, though, is not history; it’s fiction. It’s about people and their relationships with each other, what drives each of them, what they love and what they hate. It’s about jealousy, passion, tenderness, sorrow, regret – human emotions and human endeavors. That doesn’t exist anywhere in the chronicles, so filling in the blanks was really a matter of creating characters that I found believable based on what I knew of the history, putting them in conflict with each other, and taking that emotional journey with them.

3. What aspect of eleventh-century life has proven most difficult to research and how have you compensated for the lack of information?

Trying to discover what an average day in the life of an eleventh-century royal was like was not easy. How large was a royal household? Would the queen know everyone in it? What did she do in the course of a day? The thing is, an average day in anyone’s life is not all that compelling to read about. So a good story has to be about the days that are different, when people are sick, or someone has died, or word comes that a Viking army has invaded Canterbury. So I would highlight little things – women stitching an embroidery, a man stirring honey for mead, the king out hawking – but almost as soon as I described such an activity, I disrupted it with a disaster of some kind. The setting is important. The story is even more important.

4. This novel continues to pit two strong female characters, Queen Emma and Elgiva, daughter of a powerful northern nobleman, against each other, although this time from a distance. How did you strive to meet the challenge of nuancing Emma and Elgiva to prevent them from becoming simple “good girl/bad girl” foils? Was it difficult to keep Elgiva and her antics from overshadowing Emma, who finds herself sorely constrained by the king’s determination to sideline her?

Yes, it was difficult to keep Elgiva from taking over the book! Her scenes are all quite dramatic. One reason for that is because we know nothing about her in those years, so I had a much freer hand in inventing her story than I did with Emma. I also kind of like to torture Elgiva. But she’s tough! She can take it. The nuancing – and I’m thrilled by your description of that – comes from the fact that I’ve given both women back-stories and interior lives. At least, that’s what I’ve tried to do. And neither one of them is all good or all bad. Emma’s motives are purer than Elgiva’s, but she’s not perfect. She keeps secrets from the king, for example; she is at a loss as to how to control her step-daughters; and she sometimes puts her own needs before those of her children. Elgiva is more self-centered, but she’s adept at managing her property and her people, and she’s like a tigress when she wants something. She’s not shy about going after it. Emma is all about duty; Elgiva refuses to behave. They’re both strong women, but they react to adversity in different ways.

King Athelstan of England.
Earliest surviving portrait of an English king.
5. The rift between Æthelred and his son Athelstan continues to grow, especially as Athelstan finds himself supplanted by the king’s advisor Eadric. What aspect of Athelstan’s character intrigues you most? What would you consider to be his greatest flaw?

I suppose the thing that intrigues me the most about Athelstan is his unwillingness to seize his father’s throne. Historically, he did not rebel, although he clearly had strong ties to the northern lords who were dissatisfied with Æthelred’s rule. As a result, I had to come up with reasons why he didn’t make that move, and I explore those in the novel. As for Athelstan’s greatest flaw, I suppose it’s his habit of backing off when things don’t go the way he thinks they should. He doesn’t push his father hard enough or enlist the support necessary to sway the king around to his way of thinking. It sounds strange to say that this is a fault, but Athelstan is not devious enough. He’s too honest in a world where strategy, intrigue and ruthlessness are the keys to success.

6. Oftentimes an author will find herself writing a scene she never set out to write, a scene that flows almost effortlessly and winds up playing a key role in the development of the plot. Did you have such an experience while writing THE PRICE OF BLOOD? Which scene in the book was the most satisfying to write? Which one had you tearing out your hair in frustration?

Honestly, I don’t think I had any scene that flowed even close to effortlessly! One scene that comes to mind as one I didn’t set out to write occurs early on, when Elgiva and Alric are in a wattle and daub hut together. I had no idea what was going to happen there, or where they would go afterwards. They sort of worked it out between them, and I wrote it down. The scene that was the most satisfying to write was the scene in the hunting lodge at Corfe where there is a lot of interaction between the sons of the king. I especially enjoyed writing about Athelstan’s perceptions of his brothers and Edwig’s drunken, smart-ass comments. As for scenes that had me tearing my hair out, there were lots of those, but especially the scenes with the ghost. I wanted each spectral appearance to be similar to the others, yet unique in some way. It was a real challenge.

7. Can you believe you will soon be deep into the third book of the trilogy? What has meant the most to you on this journey?

What has moved me the most has been the response of my family – husband, sons, siblings – who have all loved the book and have been so proud of me. The reactions of readers have meant a lot, too. Many of them have become great fans of Emma of Normandy, and because my goal in writing this trilogy has been to resurrect Queen Emma’s name from the footnotes of history, the many readers who have “discovered” Emma have made me believe that I’m accomplishing what I set out to do.

Thank you, Patricia, for answering my questions, and congratulations on this exciting day! Readers might like to read my review of THE PRICE OF BLOOD. The drawing for a free copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD or SHADOW ON THE CROWN will be open until February 12, 2015. Enter in the comment stream following the review.


Patricia Bracewell grew up in California where she taught literature and composition before embarking upon her writing career. She has always been fascinated by English history, which led to her studying Anglo-Saxon history at Downing College, Cambridge University. She has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia and her books and view the list of her upcoming author appearances, please visit her website and her blog.

No comments: