Judith Arnopp is a master storyteller, talented gardener, and an inspirational re-enactor. I’m so happy to have Judith on Author Chats today, for I’ve loved her books for a long time, and have been eager to hear more about her writing process. Her newest release, A Matter of Conscience, is unique in its perspective – told to us in Henry VIII’s own voice. Not since Margaret George’s Autobiography of Henry VIII has something been written this fresh and innovative, and none better than Judith to make one of history’s most controversial kings relatable and readable. Judith, thanks so much for coming.
A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years offers a unique first-person account of the ‘monster’ we love to hate and reveals a man on the edge; an amiable man made dangerous by his own impossible expectation
Starting with that challenging author question (as we all reach a certain maturity)…does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
These days, writing exhausts me. When I first began, ten years ago, I was so inspired and it was all so new, I could sit at my desk all day but now I can only manage to write in the morning. If I am lucky, I might manage up to three thousand words but my back forces me to change position and do something different. If I sit at the desk too long, I suffer for the rest of the week. I have learned to divide my days into sections, the morning at my desk, the afternoon in the sewing room or garden, and crocheting in the evening. My life is so very rock and roll – lol. It was dull enough before but now with lock down going on for so long it is just one cycle of eat-write-sew-sleep. I know I am not alone in this and am far luckier than many people. Although I’ve been shielding, I usually try to walk every day too, but COVID-19 has made me uneasy, so exercise is difficult. Given the chance I would wind down with my grandchildren, but like many other grandparents, I haven’t seen them since Christmas, and it is awfully hard.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I am so thankful that Henry VIII was the man he was – ha ha! That is probably a bit harsh on Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard in particular, but if he had been a mild, amiable king, my stories wouldn’t be half as interesting. I never tire of reading or learning new things about him. I have skirted around the idea of writing in his voice for years. I have written in previous books about most of his wives and now I am tackling him. When it is told from Henry’s point of view, everything about the story we all know so well alters. The same events, the same people, the same places but it is a vastly different story.
I am also thankful to Catherine of Aragon for not obediently retiring to a nunnery when he wanted to end the marriage – her insistence that she was the only lawful queen adds so much drama. It’s the same with their daughter, Mary. If she’d lived a trouble-free life, The Heretic Wind would be as dull as dishwater. The Tudor era is a colourful period to write in and without Henry at the centre it would be far less intriguing.
What does literary success look like to you?
For me, the most important thing is that people read and enjoy my books. Of course, I want them to buy them too so I can keep writing. Since I am very shy, I find promotion difficult, I would hate to be famous enough to have to make television appearances. I do give talks and I used to do a bit of coaching when I was younger, but I don’t relish the spotlight. It is very difficult for me. I would rather my books were spotlighted while I stayed home and write. As far as I’m concerned, interest should focus on the books. That used to be the way of things but these days an author is expected to be a celebrity. I am not good at that. I am not glamourous, or terribly good at conversation. The interesting things happen inside my head and can only reach the outside world via my writing.
I am glad and thankful for so many readers, for the lovely emails and messages they send me. I am always getting invitations to visit far-flung places, but I rarely leave Wales. This is my place, and it is uncomfortable to leave it. A couple of years ago I had a couple who enjoy my books visit me all the way from Canada. They were planning to visit the UK anyway but not my tiny, out-of-the-way part of Wales. They were glad they made the diversion though and plan to come again. They were surprised to find Wales is full of castles and ancient churches/monasteries. It is a well-kept secret. So, to answer your question, literary success to me is contact with my readers, the acknowledgment of their enjoyment is worth a pile of Booker prizes.
Having said that, if any film producers are reading this, please let’s make a movie!
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I’ve written male characters previously. In The Forest Dwellers there are a few male narrators, and Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr is partially narrated by Thomas Seymour. I think women tend to write men more successfully than men write women. I remember reading one whose female character was fixated on her body, so aware of her sexuality to be convincing – unless that’s just me, of course. But if other women do think like that, I want to know how they get anything done around the house. I am sure there are male authors who can do it, of course, there must be – I just haven’t come across any. Anyway, when I set out to write as Henry, I did not want to make similar mistakes. I think it is important to know men well and since I’ve had two husbands, have three sons and a stepson, plus several grandsons, I have a good idea how their minds work.
I did not delve as deeply into Tom Seymour as I have with Henry. As a young man Henry is insecure, passionate, a worrier but he sees those emotions as weakness and hides behind a brash, merry confidence. He cares deeply about the people close to him and grieves longer than necessary when he loses someone. With Henry, it is only his outward show that is particularly ‘male’ because he conceals his real self. He worries the world is laughing at him (and it probably was.) He is too aware of his own failures which results in increasing paranoia. I found that in verbalising Henry’s insecurities and having him make excuses for various misdeeds, a new Henry began to emerge.
I had Henry as a sort of imaginary friend for a long time while I was writing. He sat in the corner of my study and each time I had a question, he helped me work it out. Yes, I am a bit crazy. I think it goes with the job. Worryingly, I found it quite easy to slip into Henry’s shoes and speak in his voice, but my husband says he isn’t surprised at all – ha ha!
Tell us more about “A Matter of Conscience”. What did you edit out of this book?
Not very much at all. I am quite concise and rarely waffle so I don’t delete many long passages. I have a tendency to run-on sentences which I crop and repunctuate as I go. My practice is to read through the piece I wrote the day before and then continue with the plot. I find this helps with the flow and also cuts down on edits later. Usually when I get to the end of the first draft I don’t have enough material and I hate to fluff it out. I revisit a few key scenes and expand them if I think they need it. My books are as long as the story needs to be. A Matter of Conscience has an intentionally abrupt ending, just before Henry and Anne ride off leaving Catherine of Aragon behind. As far as Henry is concerned, that is where their marriage ended, and I didn’t want Anne taking over in a book subtitled The Aragon Years. I recently began to write Book Two however, in which Anne has a more prominent role.
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
I’m usually very disciplined, sit down for a scheduled writing time but with this book the schedule has been all over the place. I began writing in January 2020, then when lockdown began in March, I expected I’d have far more writing time than usual. How wrong I was! The weather here was wonderful, with warm sunshine from March to the end of August. I am a keen gardener and I live at the beach so instead of writing, I was either tending the flower beds or walking in the surf. I’ve never been so lazy in my life! I did manage to do some background reading on my garden swing but there were no words put to paper. When the summer finally cooled down, I found I was way behind and had to write like crazy to catch up. Luckily, I managed to do so and am now ahead of schedule for Book Two … until the sun comes out again, at least.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I don’t make a point of reading them. My husband checks them often and reads me the good ones, or the dire ones. I like constructive reviews, but I abhor troll reviews and think Amazon should find a way to deal with them. Fortunately, I’ve not had many. The one that has upset me the most came in quite recently for Sisters of Arden, which features a girl with learning difficulties.
The book does not stipulate she has Down Syndrome, since the condition hadn’t been identified but I modelled the character on a family member who has the condition. I was intrigued by how people with disabilities were treated, how they managed to survive. The reviewer, in her very long review, accused me of perpetuating hate against disabled people with cruel descriptions and unfair representation of DS sufferers. I was aghast, it was as if she had read a different book to the one I’d written. In the book, Sister Francis actually emerges as the heroine. Her friends love her, and she often speaks innocent truths and shames her companions with her humanity. She is treated as a disabled person would have been treated in the Tudor era – it is true some descriptions of her are not pretty, but they reflect the attitude of my characters, not mine!
After I’d stopped crying, I broke my own rule and responded politely to the review, pointing out that it was a work of Historical fiction, a genre that reflects the era it is set in. I have written of rape, of execution and torture but that does not mean I agree with the practices. I am unclear if the reviewer had ever read a book before, let alone a historical fiction book. It took me a while to recover from her accusations, but I was somewhat soothed when the magazine, Making Chromosomes Count, contacted me to say how pleased they were that a person of DS had been given a prominent role in a HF novel and asked me to do an interview.
As you can imagine I now approach reviews with trepidation but fortunately I have so far received more positive than negative …Or I had. We have yet to see what the Henry haters will make of A Matter of Conscience.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Without question, the death of the babies. It always is. I love babies. I adore everything about them, their soft hair, their chubby cheeks, the way they smell, their hot little hands, their toes … I cannot imagine how it must feel to lose one but writing in an era with such high infant mortality means I have to imagine it quite often. I am not an overly sentimental person but just thinking of it now is bringing tears to my eyes.
The death of an infant is always hard, but it was especially hard for Henry and Catherine who needed an heir so badly. Henry had been brought up knowing the importance of male heirs. No king could be without them. One was not enough, he needed three or four – sons not daughters. He entered marriage with Catherine certain that she would provide him with sons and as each child perished in the womb, or died shortly after birth, Henry’s confidence shriveled a little more.
There are no written records of Henry’s grief because he would have grieved in private. One record mentions that he forbade his council to offer him condolence after the loss of Prince Henry in 1511. This has been interpreted as heartlessness, but this may be unfair. It is hard when people express their regret, condolence often results in the bereaved breaking down. I think Henry was ensuring he could maintain his stiff upper lip. Within a few days, he was dealing with matters of state as if nothing had happened, but he had little option. He was a king and Henry was not the sort of man, especially at this stage of his life, to let his emotion show.
So, yes, the scenes when the babies die are the hardest to write. At the end of the writing session, I am bereft, and it takes a few hours to cheer up. When I read through the final drafts, months after I’ve written them, I often make myself cry.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
One of my favourites is a fictional scene after the birth of his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroi. Henry slips away from court to visit his mistress, Bessie Blount and see the child and while he is there … well, here is a brief (unedited) excerpt.
Henry Fitzroi is four days old before I find the opportunity to call upon them both. A blushing maid shows me into the bedchamber where Bessie reclines upon pillows. I sit on the bed, pick up a lock of her hair and raise it to my lips. It smells different. She smells different. The seductive scent she uses has been replaced by sour milk and infant vomit.
I sit back.
“Are you well, my dear?”
She smiles and nods.
“I feared for a while I’d not survive to see you again, Your Majesty, but … it passed. Our son awaits you in his crib.”
The bed ropes creak as I stand and move hesitantly toward the cot. I peer at the tightly swaddled infant. He sleeps soundly, his crumpled face almost as pale as the bands that wrap him.
I wave a hand at the waiting nurse.
“I want a closer look,” I say. “Wake him up, unbind him. I want to see his legs … his …”
I want to be certain he is a male child. I want to see the colour of his hair, hear the strength of his cry, test the grip of his fist.
She glances at Bessie as if she can gainsay my command, and Bessie nods her permission. I watch impatiently as the boy is lifted from his cot and his limbs unwrapped. When the chill air of the chamber strikes his skin, he squeals like a pig, then stretches his legs, clenches his fists and opens his mouth.
A stream of piss arcs through the air, anointing my velvet coat and making the nurse jump back in alarm. Bessie’s look of horror dissolves when I emit a bark of laughter and reach out to lift my naked son into my arms.
I nestle him in my elbow, let him clutch my forefinger.
“He is straight of limb and seems a good weight,” I remark. “The Princess Mary was much lighter, and my son … m-my first son, Henry … was smaller still and lacked the hair this one has.”
“I think he will be auburn haired, like you, Your Majesty.”
“I think he has the Tudor temper too,” I say, raising my voice above his indignant protests. “And a fine pair of testicles, I see. Nothing lacking in that department.”
I wink at her and draw the cover over his body, not wanting him to be chilled. He quiets a little, sucks his fist and snuggles into my chest. Gently, I jiggle him up and down, hum a little tune, keeping my eye upon him until he dozes again.
“Little Henry,” I murmur. “Little Henry Fitzroi.” May the Lord God let you thrive.
And lastly, give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
I am a member of several on-line writing and HF groups, and they are invaluable for confidence, assistance with the writing process, publishing process and marketing. We share posts, chat, offer and ask for advice. I have discovered new and exciting authors that I would never have found if I wasn’t part of the gang. The group I participate in most is The Coffee Pot Book Club and I couldn’t do with out any of them. I’d like to shout out first to Mary Anne Yarde and her assistant Ellie who do so much for so many authors. Also, to the group members – you know who you are. Pam Lecky, Elizabeth St John, Mary Ann Bernal, Cathie Dunn, Katherine Meyrick, Sam Taw, Sharon Bradshaw, Wendy Dunn, Elizabeth Keysion, Brook Allen, my Maroney, Grace Augustine, Deborah Swift, Penny Hampson, Vivienne Brereton. Anyone I’ve missed from the group; I am very sorry. Also, a shout out to old buddy writers Paula Lofting, Annie Whitehead, Judith Barrow, Thorne Moore, Helen Hollick … I’d better stop now.
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.
She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women but more recently is writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.
Her novels include:
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, the Aragon Years
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle
The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Social Media Links:
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