A wonderful Tudor treat today on Author Chats, as I talk to acclaimed historian and writer Sarah Kennedy about the challenges of staying focused on writing (does gardening, laundry, dog-walking sound familiar – those are my excuses too!) and how she doesn’t take sides when talking about the Tudor royal family. First, a blurb about Sarah’s latest novel:
Queen of Blood
(The Cross and the Crown, Book 4)
By Sarah Kennedy
Queen of Blood, Book Four of the Cross and the Crown series, continues the story of Catherine Havens, a former nun in Tudor England. It is now 1553, and Mary Tudor has just been crowned queen of England. Still a Roman Catholic, Mary seeks to return England to its former religion, and Catherine hopes that the country will be at peace under the daughter of Henry VIII. But rebellion is brewing around Thomas Wyatt, the son of a Tudor courtier, and when Catherine’s estranged son suddenly returns from Wittenberg amid circulating rumours about overthrowing the new monarch, Catherine finds herself having to choose between the queen she has always loved and the son who seems determined to join the Protestants who seek to usurp her throne.
Let’s chat! Tell me a little about yourself. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Writing generally energizes me, once I get started. Sitting down to write is often extraordinarily difficult for me; I’ll do almost anything—laundry, gardening, mopping—to avoid that moment of settling in front of the screen. I don’t know why this part of writing is such a challenge, but once I make myself do it (and I often have to force myself), I get engaged very quickly and then have trouble stopping! The process itself is very active for me intellectually, and when I do leave, usually at a point where I know that I can pick up tomorrow, I am filled with goodwill and happily go off to do something quite physical. I often take my dog for a brisk walk or work in the yard to wind down from a writing session.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I don’t like to generalize, but I think the main trap for an aspiring writer is to write too much too fast. One always dreams of the big contract and the big prizes, and it’s easy, especially now that social media allow people to keep track of what others are publishing, to think about getting that book done and then the next one and then the next one. The possibilities of fame and fortune often drive writers, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can make the sentence-to-sentence writing less of a focus than the finished product. I tell my writing students that they need to keep their focus on the writing before them and make it the best it can be before they think about that publishing contract and the next book.
What does literary success look like to you?
I’m probably in the minority in this, but literary success, to me, looks like a shelf of books that I know I put everything I could into producing. It’s lovely to get great reviews and to win awards, of course, and I have some of those, but what gives me the greatest feeling of success is knowing that my books contain the best of me.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Male characters are interesting to me, and I like to write them. My main characters are almost always women, but I want the men to be believable. The greatest challenge for me is not to make them all alike and not to rely on stereotypical behaviors or attitudes. In historical fiction, this can really present a challenge, because it’s easy to make the men all wife-controlling patriarchs, and that simply wasn’t (and isn’t) the case. I don’t even want my main character’s two husbands to be similar! I find it very useful and important to listen to men and try to use speech patterns that I’ve actually heard to construct male characters.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I do, sort of. I think it’s easy to get exhausted because writing is hard work. At the end of a big project, the prospect of beginning a new one can be very daunting, and that can really impede the creative process. I’m not sure that’s exactly “writer’s block.” I also know from experience that procrastination is always a temptation and that sometimes the writing time feels wasted if the words don’t feel right at the end. I sometimes feel that I’m word-empty, and that makes sitting down at the computer a chore. When I feel that way, I read. Difficult, challenging novels and poems fill up my word hoard, and I always feel that, once I’ve filled the well of my imagination with words, going back to my own writing is easier.
About your latest book: Queen of Blood, Book Four in The Cross and the Crown series. What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
My work schedule for writing has really changed since I started writing fiction. I began my writing career as a poet, and I was the most fitful writer imaginable. I also teach, and sometimes a student would use a word in class that stuck with me, and I would run back to my office and make changes to a poem in the ten minutes I had before the next class. As a novelist, I’ve had to make myself sit and work for longer periods of time. That means I have to do it every day. Every. Day. I usually try to get my teaching done (I teach a lot online these days) in the mornings, so that I’m not worrying about whether my students need me later. I eat lunch, and then I make myself write. Early afternoon is probably not a common time for most writers to have their busiest working session, but that’s what gets me into the chair and gets me writing.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
This question is probably very different for writers working in periods more recent than mine. My latest novels are set in Tudor England, and it’s so far in the past that I don’t feel much difficulty in the ethics of writing about the historical figures. Now, I also don’t take sides about the Tudor royalty, though I know many Tudor fans have favorite queens among Henry VIII’s wives. I try to think of them all as people, and since my POV is third person limited to my own main character, the Tudors and their relatives are seen through her eyes. She can be quite harsh in her estimations, particularly of Henry and his cronies, but she is also pretty sentimental about Elizabeth and Mary Tudor. That provides me with a way in to their characters, and it also allows me to develop my own sense of their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t want any character who appears at any length to be one-dimensional.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read book reviews now and then, though I generally try to stop myself. Good reviews are wonderful, of course, and they make a writer feel terrific. Bad ones can be quite painful! I try not to read them at all because I don’t really enjoy either of those feelings. The temptation to brag about the good reviews on social media is very strong, and I don’t want to put myself into that position. The bad ones hang around in my head too long. I end up arguing with them to myself, which is completely unproductive and wasteful of my time. So unless someone directly points me to a review, I try to avoid reading them altogether to maintain my equilibrium. I have to have that peace of mind to write the next book!
Sarah Kennedy is the author of the Tudor historical series, The Cross and the Crown, including The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, The King’s Sisters, and Queen of Blood. She has also published a stand-alone contemporary novel, Self-Portrait, with Ghost, as well as seven books of poems. A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.