Long-time readers of the blog are probably quite aware of my enthusiasm for the work of Anna Belfrage–namely her B.R.A.G. Medallion-winning Graham Saga and now the start of her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy. I was so privileged to have been able to read and review the kickoff to the series, In the Shadow of the Storm. Kit and Adam, the novel’s protagonists, are no Alex and Matthew, which is a good thing, for they bring a whole new dynamic, perspective and fantabulous story to historical fiction.
I’ve chatted with the author before and we got to know each other over virtual tea and cake–chocolate, of course. A second interview came with my re-visitation of A Rip in the Veil–along with a review, both of which shall be forthcoming on these pages quite soon. I was treated to lemon meringue pie for that one! Now for a third time, we get to chat and I’ve brought along a treat for the chocoholic Anna Belfrage. Hope she’ll like it!
Good day, Anna Belfrage, and I hope this finds you well! I am so excited to see you yet again to talk a little about your new book, In the Shadow of the Storm.
About as excited as I am to be back here, in virtual Alaska. And even better, I see you have provided tea and cake. Have I ever mentioned I love cake? And tea? And having said that, I must say my present sojourn in the Middle Ages is a bit of a challenge. What did my poor characters indulge in when they needed a food binge? Dried peas? I must say… no: sorry. You have questions, Ms Zlitni. I shall focus on replying to them.
Don’t forget the cake! Well, brownies today. [Lisl uncovers plate.] Made with Ghirardelli chocolate! So … you mention in your historical note that the book is partly inspired by Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor. Did the story come to you as you were reading the book; perhaps at the end it all started to come together? Or was there a pivotal moment within when something clicked?
I have always had a thing for Roger Mortimer – long before I ever read Mr Mortimer’s books (and just to clear things up, they are NOT related). In fact, I bought the book just because it was about Roger – and then I read it page to page.
Before this reading, had you been considering a novel set in fourteenth-century England? Which figure(s) first captured your imagination? Edward II? Mortimer? The evil Despenser?
My first love has always been the medieval period – until I discovered the 17th century and went all wild and crazy over this absolutely fascinating era. But yes, I knew that at some point I’d want to write something set in medieval times, and originally I was looking further back, seeing as I grew up with a major crush on Richard Lionheart – utterly pathetic, given that he was dead since ages.
As to what figure captured my imagination, it was Roger Mortimer – and his love affair with Isabella. That’s just me, I guess – I gravitate towards the love angle. And I’ve always wondered what Mortimer’s loyal and abandoned wife would have felt about all this – something I touch upon in my books.
However, once I started reading up, I was more than sucked in by the political turmoil of the time. Edward II may have been a good man, but he was a weak king, things further compounded by famine and scheming barons. Ultimately, things haven’t changed all that much: create a void at the top of the power hierarchy and people will climb all over each other in their efforts to become king of the hill – which is what happened during the turbulent years of Edward II’s reign.
Do you find a fair number of readers are expecting another Graham Saga, or are (pleasantly) surprised when the story turns out to be completely new and different? Was there any part of it you worried readers would habitually compare?
I think the fans of The Graham Saga are not necessarily quite as enamoured with Kit and Adam as I am – at least not initially. But once I have them hooked with the story, I’m hoping they will enjoy this gallop through medieval England. After all, both series have at their core a man and a woman who will do anything to keep each other safe – no matter the risks involved.
The main difference is that Alex, the female protagonist of The Graham Saga is a modern woman thrown three centuries backwards in time. While she adapts, she is fundamentally still modern, so readers find it easy to relate to her, while Kit is very much a product of her time (as she should be). Not that being medieval in any way impinges on Kit’s ability to defend those she loves …
If I may ask, you once had told me you didn’t think this new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, would be my cup of tea. What made you consider this might be so?
Did I say that? I must have eaten too much ice cream that day, leaving me with a brain freeze! Somewhat more seriously, I think the fact that you so enjoyed The Graham Saga made me a bit nervous, so I was just trying to lower your expectations. Plus, I never got the impression you were all that much into medieval times – with the exception of the late 15th century. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? You did like it!
You mean I’ve never forced you listen to me carry on about Merlin? Well, yes, I do tend toward the latter Plantagenets, but have been enjoying discovery of other eras as well. Nosy sort of question: Are all the books already written, or are you still working on the end of the series? Do you ever find yourself considering reader sentiment when mapping out future events?
All the books are written – but not through the final edit. As to reader sentiment, in this specific case I am writing a series based on factual events – which at times is heart-wrenching. It also restricts my freedom as to what can happen or not in the books – which I must admit I occasionally find suffocating and challenging.
Yes, indeed, the historical events dictate rather a lot. Would you ever consider writing a series in serial form—evaluating reader sentiment as part of how events play out in newer installments? I myself only know of one author today who does this, and am unsure how prevalent it is. I think Charles Dickens got it all going and as audiences read each installment they would write letters about who they liked and didn’t, etc.
No. I have enough of a challenge handling my characters, who have this nasty tendency to take off in an entirely unwanted direction in the midst of an ongoing plotline. I have, however, taken to heart comments made by readers regarding the first few books in The Graham Saga and carried them with me into future books. As an example, people were very upset with Julian Allerton after book seven (as was I) so he was given an opportunity to make amends in book eight.
I do, however, find the idea of interactive writing intriguing. But I’m not sure I’d want to do it with a plotline/characters that are truly important to me – I somehow need to hold them close until I’ve seen them through to the end.
What do you suppose accounts for the immense popularity of series these days? It seems as if so many books—even young adult that I see in my son’s collections—are but one part of a lineup. The cynic, of course, could point toward profit, but readers don’t respond to poorly written stories, so I myself don’t buy that as an explanation (no pun intended!).
I actually think there are various reasons, but one is, in my opinion, closely linked to the speed with which things happen today. Our lives whizz by, change is ubiquitous, we rarely have the time or patience to see one TV show from end to beginning without zapping around midway through; as a species we are increasingly restless, increasingly moving onwards and upwards – or trying to. It fries our synapses to keep up with all that change, and so, when it comes to relaxation, I think we crave familiarity and a slowing down. I don’t know what things are like your end of the world, but here in Sweden I see more and more anglers, men who stand for hours and stare at the water while holding on to a fishing rod. They don’t speak. They don’t look at their smartphones. They just stand there, now and then pulling up a flash of silver as they land a herring.
I suspect reading a series delivers a similar feeling: you know the characters, you know the setting, all you need to do is sit back and allow yourself to be carried away.
As a writer, I’d say series spring from the fact that the characters grow on you, become voices that echo through your dreams, whispering seductively about new adventures just down the road. Plus it helps that you already know them.
Have you talked to Kit or Adam apart from the novel? If so, what are they like with you? Do they realize they are fictional characters? How you suppose Kit in particular feels about you being in control of their destiny, given her strong will to be her own woman?
“Have you talked to Kit or Adam …” Of course, I have! My characters have this nasty tendency to become fixtures in my brain, constant whispering presences. As Matthew and Alex (from The Graham Saga) also hang around in the more convoluted corners of my head, it is quite the noisy place at times.
I actually talk more to Adam than Kit. He is the one who has the roughest road to travel – “an honourable man burdened with too much integrity,” as Mortimer puts it – and there are times when all this political intrigue gets him down. Plus, he fears for his wife and their children – with valid reasons, one might add.
Fortunately for Adam, Kit is always there for him, a warm embrace to hold him close when the outside world is just too much. Likewise, anyone as much as looks askance at Kit, and Adam surges to his feet, all six feet and more of protective male.
What’s next for Anna Belfrage? Do you have any more stories up your sleeve?
Well, I do have a ninth book in The Graham Saga coming up … Matthew and Alex are in for something of a rough ride when one of their sons betrays their priest friend, and an unknown, very damaged, granddaughter shows up out of the blue.
Other than that, I am working on a trilogy called The Wanderer (the first book is called A Torch in His Heart) which is a combination of contemporary romance, paranormal stuff and time slip. I’m not sure it’s your cup of tea (wink, wink) …
In brief, it’s the story of Jason and Helle who originally met up at a time when the fall of Troy was still a memory, not the stuff of legends. Thanks to the ambitious, greedy and cruel Prince Samion of Colchis, things did not go so well back then, and what was supposed to be a Happily Ever After morphed into death and loss. Now, for the first time in 3,000 years, Jason and Helle are in the same time and place. Unfortunately, so is Samion, and it is time to finish what was started in the distant fogs of time …
Plus, I have a new series set in the 17th century, and possible a series of sequels to Kit and Adam, and … well: my poor brain is going to burst at the seams someday.
Do you ever think you spend too much time on any part of the writing process? What word do you find yourself using a lot, even too much, in your writing?
No. I spend the time required to write a book I am proud of. Sometimes, more time goes into the rewrites than the first draft, at others it’s the other way around.
As to words, I always end up stuck on one word/expression in each book I write. This is why one needs editors (well, not only…) so as to tell you that maybe you’re repeating “no more” ad nauseam as I did in the unedited version of the next book in the Kit and Adam series.
Which of any of your characters possesses a trait you would like to have?
All of them. I’d like to be as honourable as Matthew and Adam are, I’d love to be as brave as Alex, as persevering as Kit. But I am very happy to have few things in common with Hugh Despenser.
Hmmm … intriguing. Any hints?
As to what I have in common with Hugh? Ambition, definitely – but mine is tempered (I hope) by a strong moral compass. And the Hugh I’ve created has his moments of wit – as do I. Other than that, nada.
I must point out, though, that I find Hugh Despenser an extremely capable person. His misfortune was living under a king who couldn’t control him.
Knowing what you do about the time of King Edward II, would you be afraid to live in this era? Or confident about doing?
I’d prefer not to. First of all, as a woman, chances are you’d spend a substantial amount of your life pregnant and even die as a consequence of all these childbirths. Secondly, I’d find it difficult to live in an age so influenced by the Church – I’d probably be far too outspoken for my own good. Thirdly, as a woman I’d be relegated to the periphery – albeit that exceptions such as Isabella of France existed. And then there’s the sad fact that there was no tea and little cake – sugar was a luxury item.
And no chocolate—I can see where that is a dreadful consideration.
Tell me about it! Imagine an entire life without a Hershey gold nugget. Wasted, in my opinion.
[chuckles] What was the last book you read? What books recently jumped up onto your To Be Read (TBR)?
I’ve just had one of my “I must devour romance” phases, culminating with the fifth book in Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series.
Right now, I am reading an advance review copy of a book set in the 12th century called For King and Country by Char Newcomb. I loved her first book, so I have very high expectations.
As I am one of the final judges for the 2016 Historical Novel Society Award, at present four new books landed on my TBR: Aurelia by Alison Morton, Bloodie Bones by Lucienne B., Fossil Island by Barbara Sjoholm and When Sorrows Come by Maria Dziedzan.
Thank you so much, Anna, for joining us today! It’s been a pleasure and a privilege, and I hope we can do it again.
Absolutely! But next time, how about you drop by my place instead? And seeing as I know you don’t like chocolate (however incomprehensible) I’ll bake you something with apples instead.
Thank you so much for having me, Lisl!
The pleasure is all mine. Oh and just for fun, here’re a couple of pies my son and I have been exploring for next March 14.
From Anna Belfrage’s website…
I was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.
Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?) a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.
Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months …. It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.
Follow and learn more about Anna Belfrage and her work at her website, Twitter and Facebook. See my review for A Rip in the Veil here, and stay tuned for my review of that book revisited! Also, don’t miss more book reviews of her fantabulous stories, including in her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.
Images courtesy Anna Belfrage except where otherwise noted