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Susan’s Interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

As many of you know, Susan has been interviewing several well-known authors for their views on Philippa Gregory, “The Tudors,” and the responsibility of fictional representations to historical fact.   Today, in celebration of reaching 1536 ‘likes’, we present Susan’s interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not?

 
Great question. Many people learn most of their history from fiction, which gives novelists and filmmakers something of a responsibility, even if they shrug it off.

Where I find historical fiction really works is when it fills in the gaps in the historical record imaginatively, sensitively and poignantly, and brings the past to life.

For example, one thing that historical fiction has to do is to imagine what historical figures thought and felt, because, especially for a period like the sixteenth century, there is often a dearth of ego-literature – there are rarely helpful diaries with our characters’ reflections in them. We have some letters, we have some recorded speech, but fiction has much to add in filling in the gaps about people’s motivations, feelings, and thoughts.

But going beyond that, I find that there are two ways in which historical fiction can sometimes go too far for me:

1) getting basic facts wrong – like having Anne Boleyn executed with an axe or making Mary Boleyn the younger sister – things that can be easily verified (though because of that, I don’t mind it nearly as much – because interested readers can check the facts for themselves – as…)

2) failing to recreate the mentality of the period, e.g. a common occurrence is making a character essentially atheistic at a period when that was very rare, or sexually liberated in a very 21st century way, or otherwise transposing modern day attitudes to a historical character. This is what bothers me most: the tendency to suggest that people in the past were exactly like us in all their thoughts and feelings, rather than focus on the mysterious difference, as well as the shared humanity.

Ultimately, the key is whether readers are able to distinguish between fact and fiction if they want to.

 
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 
Wolf Hall does what I suggest above – it fills in gaps in the historical record, but it impressively remains true to the sensitivities of the early 16th century (I remember, for example, Mantel commenting that novelty was a bad thing in the 16th century, which is absolutely true and contrasts with today’s sense of ‘brand new’ being good) and also stays pretty close to the known facts. The Tudors is a very different kettle of fish – it plays constantly fast and loose with established and basic facts about the period, it projects a 21st century mindset onto the past, it dresses its actors in non-historically accurate clothing (generally, making it far raunchier than the Tudor would have worn) etc: I think that’s why it has received greater criticism than Wolf Hall.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?

 
Yes, this is interesting. Philippa Gregory, of course, has a doctorate in history[1], so is essentially trained as an historian and knows what she’s doing. But she does create alternative narratives, at times, which because of her standing have a tendency to stick. Also, I’m not sure I completely believe that everything she writes is based on ‘historical probability’: I can certainly think of exceptions in her writing. I think she does probably want to claim both roles.

 
I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

 
I think it’s a really good idea, and really helps the readers distinguish fact and fiction. My father-in-law is a historical novelist, funnily enough, and in his last series of books, he put an Author’s Note at the end to explain the research on which he had based the book, and the controversial decisions that he had made in staging the events as he did. I think it’s really useful for novelists to do this; I imagine authors don’t because they don’t feel any sense of responsibility to do so, and because their own narrative has become firmly lodged in their head.

 
In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?


I think it’s also related to:
1) a general decrease in historical education, certainly here in the UK (even today, there’s an article about 156 schools in the country not offering history at GCSE, i.e. from 14 to 16 years old),
2) the influence of postmodernism (as Portman says below) – all things are seen as equally believable and therefore also equally valid or invalid.

 
Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

 
I remember reading this interview with Natalie Portman and was shocked by the cavalier attitude it reveals. Of course, it’s a very postmodern view, and historians do provide different interpretations on sources – there’s no ‘book of facts’ out there. Yet, there are still verifiably accurate and inaccurate understandings, facts and fictions. And The Other Boleyn Girl as a film is full of historical nonsense that any historian would have been able to point out.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that actors haven’t researched, though it helps – what matters is that the writers and directors have. I recently saw a play produced by theatre company Red Rose Chain called Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn by Joanna Carrick, which managed to combine deep and accurate research with a dramatically moving, compelling story. It is possible – especially with the Tudors, whose stories are so incredible without fabrication.

In the end, I have mixed feelings. I strongly believe that people come to history through film and novels, and I’m very keen, as an historian, to meet people where they are at, and not create barriers to entry. If watching The Other Boleyn Girl makes them turn to a history book, or encourages them to visit Hampton Court, I’m all for it. But – I do think that the truth is often more interesting than the some of the fictions we are given.


[1] Note from SB:  Gregory’s doctorate is actually in literature.

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Susan’s Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Mademoiselle Boleyn

Author Robin Maxwell

You’ve written two best-selling novels about Anne Boleyn.  Can you tell us something about your inspiration for them?

I wrote The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn because I thought she was totally misunderstood, especially about her part in the Reformation. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened without Anne Boleyn but it happened when it did in England because of her. And then, too, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the relationship between Anne and her mother.  In the biographies and histories, I never could find more than a couple of sentences about it. And as I started to get older- I didn’t write this book until I was close to fifty–the more I realized that it doesn’t matter how old you are or whether your parents are dead, they continue to have a huge influence in your life. Even if Elizabeth didn’t speak her mother’s name until twenty years after she died and even if she believed the spin around her and all the bad press–that her mother was a whore and a witch, and so forth- even so she would be influenced by her.

And history provides some intriguing hints. We know that very shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, within a couple of years, she started giving honors and grants and lands and titles to the Boleyn relatives who had lived through Henry’s reign.  She started wearing a ring (some say a locket) with her mother’s miniature in it.   Perhaps, I thought, her attitude toward her mother changed at some point?  And if so, what made her change?  Did she learn something about her mother? And I thought, well, if she learned the truth about her mother and how strong her mom was, and how false the rumors and the charges were, that would impact Elizabeth’s life.

And, you know, it touched a nerve.  The books have been published in fourteen languages.

It seems as though a big reason for its success, besides the fact that it’s a wonderful read, is that it explores an emotional terrain that has deep meaning for most of us.

Right, probably the most important relationship in our lives.  And it also “answers” some questions about Elizabeth, because the way I tied it up is that when she learned about the power of men from her mother’s diary, she realized that you needed to hold on to your power when it came to men.  That was the reason—a fiction, but something I do believe—that she decided never to marry.

Mademoiselle Boleyn

And what about Mademoiselle Boleyn?  How did the idea of that come to you?

Actually, I had been doing the research for Signora da Vinci, and when I read that Leonardo was in the French court of Francois I around 1515, it occurred to me that those were the years that Anne and Mary Boleyn were there.  I went back to my Boleyn research books and found that it was true.  The sisters were very much in the “inner circle” of Francois’ court, and the King considered Leonardo his best friend.  He went to visit him every day at a chateau just a couple of hundred yards downriver from Amboise (sometimes using a secret tunnel).  I deduced that Anne must of met the Maestro while she was a teenager (and during the time Mary was Francois’ mistress).  That was the germ of the idea.  Then I realized that no historical fiction had ever shown this period of the Boleyn girls’ lives in any depth.  So much happened to Anne.  It was the place (and under the tutelage of the King’s sister, the Duchess Margaret D’Alencon) that Anne received her “progressive” religious training, as Margaret was a Lutheran (in a deeply Catholic court).  And it was here, I reckoned, that Anne – watching her sister be handed around to all of the courtiers when Francois tired of her –  realized she needed to withhold sexual favors (which she did for six years with Henry) if she wanted to keep any control of her life.

What do think fiction can do that non-fiction cannot?

It allows us to do what I call “extrapolation.” I’ll give you an example. Remember the scene when Anne is in the Tower of London after her arrest, and she’s hoping that Henry is going to come and intervene and get her out of this mess–and instead Cranmer shows up?  Every book I read took me up to that moment where Cranmer came in to the her tower room with a document that he said Henry wanted Anne to sign, claiming that Elizabeth was a bastard child.  But nobody knows what actually happened between them in the tower and it’s especially intriguing because he was a good friend of hers, who shared her religious views and who was seriously shocked when he found out about the charges against her.  All we know, though, is that he came in with that document, and walked out with it signed.  To me, filling in that chasm of unknowing was one of the greatest challenges, to take everything I’d learned about Cranmer and Anne…and turn it into the drama of that chapter. I still think it is one of the best chapters I have ever written.  Is it historically verifiable?  No.  But it gets us from  point A to point B in a way that the actual history can’t. And it was such an important moment because Anne had struggled for all of those years to ensure that Elizabeth was a legitimate princess. She sacrificed a lot and she’d taken a lot of chances. Then with a sweep of the pen, she gave Elizabeth up.  She must have done that because she knew it wouldn’t go well for her daughter if she didn’t.  Anne was facing her end, but wanted to make sure that Henry didn’t come after Elizabeth.  Tragic—and inspiring.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.”  While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?

I always feel like I am stepping on eggshells when I talk about Phillipa Gregory because her books have been so wildly successful, and she’s brought many readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read historical fiction to our genre, so it can sound like sour grapes.  But the fact is that I find what she has done disturbing.  Because of The Other Boleyn Girl, an entire generation of readers, mostly young women, believe that Anne was a horrible, scheming woman who would steal her sister’s child, sleep with her brother, was involved in witchcraft, poisoned people, had a horribly deformed child.  It’s just incredible!

And you’re right, I think part of the reason why some readers are so annoyed with Ms. Gregory is that when she is questioned she defends the historicity of it.

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

When TOBG was written, our common editor at Touchstone asked me if I would give the book a blurb because Secret Diary had been published several years before, and it was the only historical novel in quite a while to have tackled Anne Boleyn.  Our editor sent me the manuscript and I read it. It was a great read, a page turner, but I was completely appalled at the path she’d taken with Anne. Every false rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about her, Gregory turned into the truth in her book.  ­­­­  This wasn’t a blunder.  It was intentional.  Clearly she did her research, but then she decided what was going to be most dramatic and entertaining, and that was what she wrote.  I’m sure she is a scholar and knows what is truth and what’s not, but what’s going to work in the storyline that will hook the most readers is what seems to matter­­ to her. It’s really hard to fight it, though, because when you are that successful, publishers don’t care.  And you can argue that she has every right, because she’s a historical fiction author.  The upshot for me was that when I was asked to blurb the book, I said no. I refused the blurb on principle.  I had come to love the person that Anne Boleyn was.  I deeply respected her.  I felt she had stood up to a half-mad male despot and lost her life for her courage and convictions.  I thought The Other Bolyen Girl was an unnecessary smear-job.  A poke at a long-dead woman who couldn’t defend herself.  I hope people will read Secret Diary so they can see the other perspective, and let them decide for themselves what kind of person Anne was.

Along the same lines, Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding.  It was a great cast but a bad movie.  There was no chemistry between any of the characters, and the story (unbeliebably) was forgettable.  How could THAT story be forgettable?

What did you think of “The Tudors”?

I was addicted to the show.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

I didn’t like “Elizabeth,” the movie that Michael Hirst did, and of course he wasn’t completely sticking to facts with The Tudors, either, but I thought his portrayal of Anne was pretty darn decent.  I mean I loved Genevieve Bujold in “Anne of a Thousand Days”, but that whole movie in retrospect, as wonderful as it was,  gave all of the credit for the Protestant Reformation to the men. I think Natalie Dormer was fantastic.  I think she is the best of the lot of actresses who’ve played Anne.   Of course, having such an extended series, not having to squeeze everything into a two hours movie, helped as well.  I actually thought it was especially good as far as Anne’s potrayal was concerned.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Well, I am working with an Australian producer on developing The Wild Irish and the Queen’s Bastard as a cable series.  I’ll co-produce, and I will be one of the main writers, as I’ve adapted a number of my novels into screenplays.  I was actually a screenwriter long before I started writing novels.  The Wild Irish (the fourth in my Elizabethan Quartet) show Elizabeth in her later years –  after she went from being her mother’s daughter (audacious, courageous) to her father’s daughter (manipulative and murderous).  She basically killed half the population of Ireland in trying to colonize the country and subjugate the people,  Where she had been a heroine in the first three books of the quartet, she became the villain in the fourth.  The heroine was Grace O’Malley, who was brought up by her father on a pirate ship and became a female “Braveheart” and the Mother of the Irish Rebellion against England. In the midst of the revolt, when Grace would have been considered a traitor, she sailed her ship up the Thames, parked in front of Greenwich Castle, marched in and demanded an audience with Elizabeth–which she got–and in front of the whole court made three huge demands on Elizabeth.  One, to release her son, who was also an Irish rebel, from the English prison in Ireland.  Two, to remove a particularly brutal captain that was ravaging Western Ireland, and three, she demanded a pension from Elizabeth. Elizabeth granted all of her demands!

In The Secret Diary, the book was prompted by a question – Why did Elizabeth change her mind about her mother?  In The Wild Irish, the question was – why did Elizabeth grant Grace O’Malley her three demands?  If you like Anne Boleyn you will love Grace O’Malley!

My next novel – it won’t be published till September 2012, is JANE:  The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.  It’s set in 1912 and it’s fiction, so I suppose it could be considered historical fiction.  But it was written (with the full authorization and support of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate) as a Tarzan classic.  It’s the first novel in the ERB Tarzan franchise to be penned by a woman, and the first of the series written from Jane’s point of view.  It crosses several genres (adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and women’s literature), but at its heart it is, like all my other books, the story of a strong, fabulous woman who stands tall under extraordinary circumstances.

Any final words for our readers?

I’m constantly aware that if it hadn’t been for Anne Boleyn and her extraordinary life I never would have had this career. So I feel like I have a very personal relationship with her. It was because of her that my husband, Max, and I were able to move out of LA, and now own 22 acres in a high desert paradise.  It’s extraordinary.  For years after we bought the property, and sometimes even now, we come in through the gates, and we cannot believe what we have, and we say “Thank you Anne”, “Thank you Henry.”  It’s bittersweet.  Sometimes I think: the tragedy of her life…it made my career.  Thank you, Anne Boleyn, thank you!

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Susan’s Interview with Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule?  And if not, do you think “anything goes”?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?  

Since my goal is to resurrect the person (as much as humanly possible, so they would be pleased and say, “hey, that’s just the way it was!”) that means I am a stickler for accuracy and don’t have much truck with the idea that ‘history is what you make it’—‘well, who can say what really happened’ etc.  I ran into a lot of that with Cleopatra, where people said that as long as there was one iota of ‘doubt’ (usually meaning their own doubt, not experts’ doubts) then the gate was wide open to claiming just about anything.  (“Well, how do we know she was a Ptolemy?”)  This can reach ridiculous lengths and come to ridiculous conclusions.  Then they hide behind, “Well, it’s fiction!”

I’ve always felt those people give a bad name to the rest of us.  It’s too bad that ‘historical fiction’ as a blanket term isn’t very defined or precise. It covers such a spectrum, all the way from the absolute accuracy crowd (which tends to be kind of boring) to the most outlandish things.  Some perpetrators shall go unnamed!
However, people often say, why not write a nonfiction if you are that picky? without realizing they are different art forms.  For one thing, nonfiction allows for (even demands) multiple interpretations, whereas a drama has to select one.  Also, a drama can create dialogue and set scenes and fill in missing pieces.  In short, it’s more fun and also can reveal truth in its own way.  Nonfiction does not have a monopoly on truth.
Can you tell us something about your inspiration for The Autobiography of Henry VIII?

When I was visiting Hampton Court in 1970 and heard the story of Catherine Howard and her shrieking ghost in the Haunted Gallery, I wondered why Anne Boleyn is so famous and Catherine Howard an unknown, when their stories were so similar.  They were cousins and even looked alike, and met the same end.  It struck me that maybe Henry was like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo”, where he was responsible for the death of his love, and then tried to re-create her in someone else and have it turn out differently, only it didn’t.  So from that idea I knew I was pursuing a ‘psycho-biography’ of Henry VIII.

Incidentally, the Catherine Howard section of “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” is still my favorite and the one I enjoyed writing the most.  No one else seems to choose it, though, when asked for their favorite part.
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 Well, I haven’t read “Wolf Hall” yet, but I did see “The Tudors.”  I doubt that Hilary Mantel twisted and trampled on history as wantonly as Michael Hirst did, who either didn’t know the facts or just didn’t care.  He made religious and strait-laced (in real life) women into promiscuous babes (like Edward Seymour’s wife), invented more promiscuous babes whenever it suited him, and let’s just say, you would learn as much about Tudor history from “The Tudors” as you would about prehistoric man from “The Flintstones.” (Not that they aren’t entertaining—but that isn’t the question here.)  From what I understand, “Wolf Hall” is more the psychological portrait of Thomas Cromwell and what it was like to serve Henry VIII.  In that sense it is an ‘imaginative universe.’  But an honest one.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?  

Philippa Gregory is trained as a professional historian but I’ve noticed that people who have credentials as ‘real’ historians seem to enjoy the freedom of fiction after the strictures of nonfiction, for example, Carrolly Erickson and Alison Weir.  Maybe they feel it’s OK to let loose?  And have some fun? So perhaps their definition of fiction has more latitude than fuddy-duddies like me allow themselves.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s very important and I have that in all my books.  Originally I suggested it for “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” and was told that fiction didn’t have bibliographies or afterwords, but by the time the paperback came out the publisher changed its mind.  Readers seem to really want that—they need to know whether this or that scene really happened, or where certain information came from.  I think more and more writers are asking that it be included.

I love the titles of your work because in themselves they “announce” that they are works of fiction.  That is, we know that Henry VIII didn’t write an autobiography and Cleopatra didn’t leave any memoirs.  It seems to me that this firmly establishes that what you are doing is from a  fictional point of view.  Is this something that you deliberately want to make clear to readers?  In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?  

Well…I did once overhear someone saying, “This is just a lie!  Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!”  But, aside from such readers, I think most people can figure it out.  My editor thought I should always have the name of the character in the title so it would be absolutely clear who the book was about.  That got harder and harder—after using up ‘memoirs’ and ‘autobiography’ I had to resort to just the names.  (Although I would have loved ‘The confessions of….’ but the publisher wouldn’t let me.)

And I absolutely agree—people don’t seem to distinguish between fiction and reality anymore.  For one thing, the ‘reality’ TV shows aren’t real at all, but staged, yet people believe them.  And the Oliver Stone stuff…!  Apparently most people get most of their history from TV and movies now and have no idea what happened in real life.  For example, everyone is certain (if they’ve heard of her at all) that Livia poisoned lots of people in ancient Rome, because of “I, Claudius.”  But that was Robert Graves’ fiction and historians say that never happened.  But the script and the performance were so compelling they were utterly convincing.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond reading PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses (in spite of Natalie’s Harvard degree).  Lazy.  Un-intellectually curious.  (Now how’s that for a value judgment?)  As for hiding behind such a dumb and dismissive statement as ‘all you got from historians was competing views, anyway’, I wonder if they carry that philosophy over into their medical treatments?  (“What the heck, they can’t decide how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, so I’ll just ignore it all!”) Frankly, they all gave dismal performances in TOBG because they were all miscast (Eric Bana as Henry??) except for Scarlett, who acted somnolent through the whole thing even though from a distance she kind of looked like Mary Boleyn. And sorry, Natalie just isn’t a vixen—not convincing as someone who could topple a throne.  Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.

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