In our Author Chat today, I’m excited to interview Annie Whitehead, whose fiction and non-fiction work on Anglo-Saxon England is inspiring in its depth of research and compelling stories. Thanks for joining me, Annie! Let’s get started.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’m not sure if it counts as a literary pilgrimage, but on a recent trip to Gloucestershire I was finally able to visit the burial place of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of her remarkable life as daughter of Alfred the Great and the only female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. She was instrumental in staving off the Viking invasions of Mercia and as well as writing about her in a novel, I included her in both of my nonfiction books. I gave a talk about her and how I fictionalized her life at the Tamworth Literary Festival in 2018. Having ‘lived’ with her for so long, I found it incredibly moving finally to see her resting place.
What is the first book that made you cry?
It was probably The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. The relationship between Maggie Tulliver and her brother was one which I found deeply affecting. At the end of the book I sobbed (but I won’t say why in case people haven’t read it and want to!)
What music do you listen to when you write (or don’t you)
I tend not to listen to music while I’m writing, but it does inspire me, and certain songs ‘speak’ to me of characters and their emotions. Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol seems to me to be a song about a lover asking just to lie quietly and gather strength from their partner, which is exactly the sentiment expressed by Æthelflæd’s husband in To Be A Queen. You’re Beautiful by James Blunt epitomises the situation in which the protagonist of my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, finds himself with regard to his deputy’s wife. When I was drafting one rather emotionally draining scene in my third novel, Cometh the Hour, Sarah McLachlan’s The Arms of an Angel happened to be playing on the radio and it really helped me to pour my emotions into that scene.
What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take you?
My newest release is Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England and it’s a work of nonfiction (naturally Æthelflæd features strongly, as indeed she did in my last book, also a work of nonfiction called Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom.) Research was a three-fold process. Firstly I had to sift through all the known primary sources to see what had been written about these women, then through the secondary sources, and finally take trips to the locations associated with them. Because I’d spent the previous two years or so working on the Mercia book I had many of the sources still to hand, but it’s a slow process, checking and verifying facts, and took longer to research than it did to write.
What did you edit out of this book?
I didn’t necessarily edit much out, as I was writing nonfiction to a very specific brief. But what I did have to do was make sure I only included the minimum amount of information about the kings, bishops and archbishops. This is a history of influential women, so I wanted the focus to be on them, not the men.
What would you want readers to think when they reach “the end.”
I’d like readers of this latest release to close the book at the end and feel that they’ve been reading about real women and not far-off, inaccessible names on a page. There is a definite line drawn across history and it happened in 1066. Sometimes it is assumed that medieval women had a bad life, with very few rights and that they were wholly controlled by their husbands. This is certainly not true of Anglo-Saxon women, who were allowed to own land in their own right, who could not be forced into marriage, and who were often literate; one was even responsible for the education of bishops! They were fascinating women, very influential, and there’s a lot more recorded about them than one might suppose. Ultimately, I’d like readers to say, “Well, how interesting, I never knew that!” (And perhaps even say, “Now I’d like to read the novel about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.”!)
Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee
Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon!
Dark or Milk Chocolate
Both, but the dark has to be really dark; 85-100% cocoa solids!
When were you the happiest?
Probably when we lived in the Netherlands when I was around 9 years old. And any time my kids reached any kind of milestone, from being born right through to graduating and getting engaged.
Favourite Children’s Book
It’s more a YA series, but I have always loved KM Peyton’s Flambards.
Favourite Adult Novel
Hmm, not sure I have one favourite. But if pushed, I’ll go for The Reckoning by Sharon Penman.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto the blog to chat about my writing!
PS. Thought I’d share this image I keep on my desk – The picture that inspires me to write. I love poppies, because they remind me of my old home in Norfolk, and a poppy picture inspired my winning entry for the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story competition in 2017, A Poppy Against the Sky. Now I keep this picture on my desktop, to urge me always to keep going with my writing, because that win led to some fabulous developments in my career, but also because of the Dunnett quotation, which reminds me every day what I should strive to achieve in my writing.