If you could speak to your favourite writer, what would you ask them? Would you explore some facet of their private lives, or is there an aspect of their work that you would attempt to understand? And what if your hero knew that you too were an author? What do you think they would ask about your work?
That is, perhaps, intimidating enough, but how would an author react if their favourite author had been dead for a century? Impossible, I hear you cry!
Or is it?
In a new series of interviews I want to see what the inspirational quotes of some of literature’s most famous sons and daughters can entice from a select group of the most outstanding writers working today. How will they reflect on the well-known words of Wilde, Dickens and Bronte? What will literature’s most famous lines reveal?
Carol McGrath has published three exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched books about the lives of the women at the very centre of the tumultuous times following the Norman Conquest of England. Heart-breaking and insightful, The Handfasted Wife – the first in The Daughters of Hastings series – introduced us to Elditha Swan-Neck, the first spouse of King Harold II, who was set aside when her husband took the throne. The Swan-Daughter told the story of their child, Gunnhild, and her unhappy marriage into the ruling house of Brittany while the painstakingly well-researched trilogy is completed by The Betrothed Sister and sees Thea, another of King Harold’s daughters, travel to the very edge of the known world to find a way to return home. But her battles will see Thea fight to win her Russian husband’s respect as well as to maintain her independence in a society which aims to take it from her.
I’m delighted to welcome Carol to my blog and to find out in what way she will reflect upon literature’s most famous lines.
‘Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail a little and see the watery part of the world.’
I love this quote, particularly as I enjoy travelling as well as writing. It all began when I was studying for my first degree at Queen’s University, Belfast. During these years summer work was scarce in Northern Ireland and so I took advantage of student visa programmes to work in America. In fact, I had been a nanny in the summer before I turned nineteen in upstate New York. As a student I worked as a waitress
in Underground Atlanta which had recently opened and was an imaginative reconstruction of the Gone with the Wind city as it was in the mid nineteenth century. At the end of the summer I visited Nashville, Arkansas and Virginia, all places I have loved. It was a time when Black Americans still rode in the backs of buses, but when there was great exuberance because Civil Rights had only been granted some years previously. Old habits die hard. I fell in love with Blue Grass music and Southern literature, particularly William Faulkner. Absalom, Absalom! is one of the best novels I have ever read. Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison rate highly in my best reads list. The list could go on. I lived in a house on Peachtree Street, an old mansion which a student friend of mine was renovating so his mother could use it to sell antiques from. A walnut tree grew outside my bedroom window. I never sailed the Mississippi but I did cross it some years later on my way to California. At the end of the 1970s San Francisco was a thrilling place to live and work. Our daughter was born in that city. Since then, I have travelled extensively to Russia, India and the Far East. Recently, we have taken a long term rental on an overgrown cottage in the Greek Mani. We are shadowed by the Taygetus mountain range to our back. To the front we look out to sea. It is the perfect place to write. I am not as talented as a previous neighbour, the writer Paddy Leigh Fermor, though I spend around four months of the year here writing books set in Medieval England which I research during winter in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
‘You and I, it’s as though we were taught to kiss in heaven and were sent down to earth together to see if we know what we have been taught.’
I met my soul mate, my husband, at university and we are still in love. The above quote is relevant in many different ways, both literally and metaphorically. How do we live the best and kindest life that we can within our power to do so? I think, too, of how one of my heroines, Edith Swan-neck, the handfasted or common-law wife to Harold II of Hastings fame, was celebrated by the romantic Victorians, who, looking for a pre-Norman Conquest English identity, decided that this was the love she had for Harold. I think that although I kept to history as far as possible in The Handfasted Wife, and in the two books that follow, I love the romance in this love story which ends so sadly. Harold famously set her aside to marry another when he was crowned king. It was a strategic move but I like to imagine that Edith, mother of his six children who were known to history, was the love of his life and that this pair were sent down to earth to see if they knew what they had been taught.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
Life is, of course, sewn out of its ups and downs which make us who we are. One of the downs for a writer is rejection. My advice is keep going, enjoy the process. Determination is the key and this means listening to advice, seeing what is useful and making your manuscript the best it can possibly become. Remember the reader too. Make it accessible. Even if a manuscript ends up in a bottom drawer you learn from every story you write. I have two unpublished works. One is a two-time story based on a family story called Looking for Mr Karpass. It is set in Ireland 1942 and San Francisco 1978. The other, Love and Linen, a love story with a political background, was written on my Creative Writing MA and is set in 1910 in Ireland. I shall revise and work both these novels up one day. The best time in my writing life was when I held that first published novel, thoroughly edited and with a superb cover, in my hands. My first published novel was The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press, and I have not looked back since. It has, to my surprise, sold 18k kindle downloads in its three year life and many paperbacks. So, you see, the best of times can outweigh the writer’s worst of times! Never abandon hope.
‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’
This is applicable to any time really. The most important things in life are certainly not material although financial security and independence can help. I am aware that I had a precious childhood in an untroubled Northern Ireland. My parents gave me my love for books and for History early. My father also always said over and over that your health and your happiness are the most important things in life. Happiness can indeed be found in small things. I really love listening to birdsong morning and evening. Also, it is a joy to wake up in the morning. To write is a gift that I cherish and to be published and share it is a bonus. It has been a great joy to raise two lovely children in the security of an Oxfordshire village and send them out into their own lives. The list continues.
‘We are the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.’
I think I do. My characters certainly did. Women are the footnotes of history but whilst the kind of life they lived can be researched, they only get the barest of mentions in chronicles. Sometimes, though this has been enough to get a feeling for the person she might have been in the past. There is, of course, more freedom to invent and that can be a gift for a writer. I do wonder what these women would think of the lives I give them. They really do dwell in the gaps between the stories of others - those of their husbands, brothers, uncles, grandfathers. In life, perhaps the most memorable things happen in the gaps between stories as they often are the small things, generally special everyday moments shared with friendships, family and community.
Ruadh: Many thanks Carol - and the very best of luck with the new series set in the Tudor period