Today on my blog I’m featuring Joanna Courtney. Thanks to Pan Macmillan for setting up the interview and to Joanna for answering all my questions.
Ever since Joanna sat up in her cot with a book, she’s wanted to be a writer. She’s had over 200 stories and serials published in women’s magazines and has battled for years to make it as a novelist. She’s therefore delighted that Pan Macmillan have now published The Chosen Queen, the first of her historical trilogy, The Queens of the Conquest, telling the stories of the too-long-neglected women of 1066.
1. Tell us a little bit about The Chosen Queen…
The Chosen Queen is my first ever full novel so I’m very, very pleased to see it out on the shelves. It explores England in the time leading up to 1066 from the women’s side – a long neglected and hopefully engaging way of looking at a year of battles that shaped the country’s history forever. It’s the story of Edyth of Mercia, granddaughter of Lady Godiva, whose family are exiled to the wild Welsh court where she is married to the charismatic King Griffin. This match catapults her into a bitter feud with England in which (in my interpretation of her story) her only allies are Earl Harold Godwinson and his handfasted wife, Lady Svana. But as 1066 dawns and Harold is forced to take the throne of England, Edyth – now a young widow – is asked to make an impossible choice that has the power to change the future of England forever…
The Chosen Queen is the first in the Queens of the Conquest trilogy, with the next novels following the same period but from the viewpoint of two other queens – Elizaveta of Kiev, wife of Harald Hardrada, the Viking king; and Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the eventual conqueror. They will come out in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
2. When and why did you start writing?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember and I’m not really sure why – I just have this itch to shape the world into coherent narratives! My mum says that as a toddler I used to be happy in my cot for hours as long as I had plenty of books, and I’ve always been a voracious reader. For me that lead naturally into writing. I used to make up stories for my siblings on long car journeys and, as I loved Enid Blyton, I was writing my own boarding-school books by the time I was about ten. I’ve never really stopped!
3. Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m not sure. I like to think of the style belonging more to the book than the author. I started out writing short stories, as it was easy to fit in between looking after my young children, and one of the things I really enjoyed was trying out lots of different styles. I could move from a classic romance, to a sharper, more acerbic comedy, to a darker crime piece. These days I mainly write historical fiction and that brings its own issues of style as I need to create a smooth narrative that engages a modern reader but doesn’t feel anachronistic. It’s a bit of a tightrope and one I’m still learning about but in essence I strive to be a straightforward storyteller. I’m not especially literary so I don’t go for clever effects or any sort of self-conscious styling (although I admire it hugely in those that can). My core aim is to involve my reader in my heroine’s world, so I try to craft a fluid, dynamic and hopefully dramatic narrative to do that.
4. Who is your favourite author and what strikes you about their work?
My favourite author is probably Elizabeth Chadwick. She’s been writing in the medieval period (slightly later than me, mainly post-conquest) for many years now and creates wonderfully lively, exciting and believable narratives with vibrant heroines and strong heroes. I sometimes feel that there are too many books about the Tudors, brilliant as many of them are, and it was partly Elizabeth’s Chadwick’s fast-paced, involving novels that convinced me that it was possible to bring an earlier (and far more sparsely documented) era to life for readers.
5. What was the hardest part about writing The Chosen Queen?
In a strange way I think the hardest part was actually starting to write and I found the same with the second book in the trilogy, The Constant Queen. I love doing research, both finding out about customs, places and ways of life, and, perhaps even more so, mining out characters and events to bring to life in my fiction. It is also, however, very ‘safe’. Learning things doesn’t ask as much of you as writing about them, but there comes a time when you have to leave the security of wading through facts and strike out on your story. Once I’m into it, I love it, but making a start is scary.
6. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on book 3 of my trilogy – The Conqueror’s Queen. I’ve been researching it for the last 6 months or so and working hard on getting under the skin of the ‘enemy’ as this one is about Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror who has so far been the ‘bad guy’ of the 1066 story. I’m loving looking at the events of 1066 from the other side of the channel and I’m hoping (though, as discussed above, I’m also slightly terrified) to start writing it in September.
7. When you aren’t writing, what do you get up to?
I have two children and two stepchildren, so mainly I run around after them! They all seem to have hectic social and sporting calendars (far, far more so than mine) so keeping up with all of that is challenging but loads of fun too. I still love to read when I get a chance and my favourite relaxation is probably a good book in the bath with a nice glass of crisp white wine.
I’m also a bit of a real ale fan and as we live in Derbyshire, the heart of real-ale country, I’m spoiled for choice and love discovering new pubs with friends. If I get a minute between all of that, I like to keep active. In my younger days I was an avid rower, and even have a couple of Henley medals to my name, but these days it’s more about nice long walks with our dogs.
8. What books would you recommend to the readers of Words Read & Written?
For historical fiction, anything by Elizabeth Chadwick – perhaps start with The Greatest Knight.
For slightly more literary history, then I do think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and, perhaps even more so, Bring up the Bodies, are wonderful books.
For contemporary fiction, I’ve recently discovered Liane Moriarty and am now an avid fan. In particular, I would very highly recommend her most recent book, Big Little Lies.