INTERVIEW WITH HISTORICAL NOVELIST SOPHIE PERINOT

Just released this month was The Sister Queens from New American Library, the debut novel of Sophie Perinot. Sophie was gracious enough to grant me an interview.

Tell us what drew you to this specific era and these two sisters?

I am a character junkie.  Someone interesting appears—I catch a glimpse of a historical figure out of the corner of my eye or, as in was with my sister queens, in a footnote—and I have to pursue her/him.  I have to discover, for my own satisfaction, what makes that character tick.  So the amazing daughters of Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence brought me to the 13th century and held me there in their thrall.

I stumbled upon these women while researching a 16th century project.  There they were, a side note in a book on the history Notre Dame de Paris (Marguerite’s image is carved over that great church’s Portal Rouge).  These four sister were raised at a court which was considered model in chivalric terms, were connected to a “celebrity” family of the middle-ages (the Savoyards), and had all made politically important marriages, yet I had never heard of them.  I wondered how such significant women could have slipped through the fingers of history.  The fact that they had made me angry.  So, I started a file folder with their names on it and vowed to come back and tell their story.  The Sister Queens is the result of that vow.

Ultimately I chose to focus my novel on the eldest two sisters for personal and practical reasons.  The relationship between Marguerite and Eleanor moved me.  I am a “big-sister,” and my relationship with own sister defines me and has since the day she came home from the hospital. Marguerite and Eleanor were the closest of the four sisters, despite being separated by theEnglish Channel for long stretches of time, and their relationship of mutual support, tinged with rivalry, really spoke to me.

I wanted my book to examine the early reigns of these important queens (both France and England were major powers at the time in a way that the kingdoms the younger Provencal sisters ultimately ruled were not), while they were finding their feet in strange lands and establishing roles for themselves as queens, wives and mothers.  Therefore, my novel (which covers a twenty year period between 1234 and 1254) actually ends before either Sanchia or Beatrice had achieved crowns of their own.  So that effectively limited the roles of the younger sisters to supporting players

How much is fact and how much is fiction?

That’s what author’s notes are for 🙂  In telling the story of my sister queens I attempted to remain faithful to the chronology of their lives.  The precise dates of a number of events from the period were far from certain or agreed upon, however.  In cases where legitimate sources differed, I chose to assign dates based on the needs of my narrative arc (e.g. various sources place the birth of the girls’ youngest between 1231 and 1234, I selected the earliest date so that her older sisters could know her before they married away from Provence).  In a few cases, I deliberately moved an actual event for story-telling purposes and I come clean about that in my author’s note.

The bottom line is, whenever you put words in historical figures’ mouths and thoughts in their heads you are engaging in story telling not academic history and that’s okay because we are writing historical fiction.

What makes your novel stand out from the multitude of novels about royalty?

I believe a couple of things make The Sister Queens stand out from other royal tales.

First and foremost, The Sister Queens is a tale of sisters who happen to be 13th century queens not vice versa.  Yes the book is set in the High Middle ages and the atmosphere, politics and history are richly detailed and appropriate to that time period but I focused my novel on that which is timeless—the way our sisters shape us whether by challenging us or by supporting us.  So, anyone who has a sister or who has been a sister should find issues in the novel that resonate—even if she/he is not generally a historical fiction junkie.

Second, the time period in which The Sister Queens is set is underrepresented in the genre.  I believe there are lots of readers out there eager to visit time periods beyond the oft written about Tudor period (not that I don’t love a good Tudor tale myself), and discover women of power and influence who might currently be off their radar screens.  Gosh I hope I am right.

How long did it take you to write The Sister Queens? How many drafts, etc.?

The Sister Queens was written rather quickly (by my standards).  I’d done much of the research while querying my first manuscript.  That manuscript snagged my marvelous agent but ultimately failed to sell.  So my agent (who thankfully is into career building rather than quick sales) said, “write me another one.”  When your agent says that you get right to work—or at least I did.  I believe I had a draft ready for him in about nine months.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a novel driven by the mother-daughter relationship.  It is set in 16th centuryFrance and my main character is Marguerite de Valois, sister to three kings (Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III) and wife of a fourth (Henri IV).  Here is the tagline I am using to focus my writing:  “The mother-daughter relationship is fraught with peril—particularly when your mother is Catherine de Médicis.”  Yes, Catherine.  I know she is a popular character in historical fiction but I don’t believe we’ve ever seen her through her daughter’s eyes 🙂

I understand you are a fan of nautical fiction such as the Hornblower series. Do you think you will ever write Age of Sail (historical) fiction?

I wish I had the expertise and the guts.  I never get tired of Horatio, but I don’t have the knowledge of ships (Age of Sail or other) to tell a story in a naval officer or other sailor figures that prominently.  It occurs to me though that what I love most about the Hornblower books isn’t the ships—it’s Horatio’s strong sense of duty and honor.  I can always count on him to do what is right and that makes him utterly irresistible (even if Ioan Gruffudd *drool* hadn’t played him in the mini-series).  I do have the ability to create that type of character on land.

How would you describe your experience during the process of sale to publication?

The general reading public, and even some writers at the beginning of their journey in pursuit of publication, tend to think the trip from finished manuscript to the shelves of Barnes & Noble is shorter and easier than it really is.  I remember when I finished my first manuscript well-meaning friends kept asking “do you have a publisher waiting for it?” and “when can I buy the book?”  Anybody who has ever queried a manuscript doubtless has coffee squirting out their nose after reading that, lol.

Then when I signed with my agent aspiring writer friends jumped on the “you’ve made it” bandwagon.  And they started asking about a sale and publication date, apparently not realizing that when you secure representation you are only at the first base camp on the mountain and holding a published copy of your book is still a long perilous climb above you.  Only about half (or less) of agented writers get a book deal for the manuscript that secured representation for them.

Assuming you’ve got luck, talent, and a patient agent you may eventually get a book deal.  Once you have a contract—miracle of miracles—the pre-publication process takes about twelve to twenty months (at least if you are with a major house).  I could write a separate book on that part of the publishing journey (mine was fifteen months from contract to release) but rather than lay out all the milestones here, I suggest writers on the road to publication visit the blog “Book Pregnant” (http://bookpregnant.blogspot.com/).  This blog is the “public face” of a group of debut authors (myself included) with books releasing in 2012 and 2013.  It is dedicated to sharing what we’ve learned and giving other writers a look at what to expect when you’re expecting… a novel.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

To aspiring authors generally I would say it’s not enough to hone the craft you have to learn the business (unless you are just writing for your own satisfaction).  While you are polishing your manuscript, take some time to learn about publishing.  That way when the happy day arrives and you have an agent and a book contract, the facts of life (e.g. authors need to be involved in marketing and promotion) or simple definitions (do you know what it means to “earn out”) won’t stop you in your tracks.  If you haven’t taken the time to learn about the business than you shouldn’t be looking for an agent or a publishing deal no matter how ready your manuscript is.

To historical writers specifically I would say respect history but don’t be smothered by it.  When I read a work of historical fiction I want accurate historical detail yes, but I need a compelling story.  If you are giving me pages of “historical detail dump” I get annoyed even if the facts themselves might fascinate me in a non-fiction book.

And remember history is fluid—any academic historian will tell you that interpretations of history change and even the “facts” as we know them aren’t set in stone.  New information and artifacts are discovered.  Old theories and artifact identifications are discredited.  You get to make choices based on evidence.  If you change something that is currently accepted as “fact,” please mention that in your author’s note.  But if you have conflicting sources don’t hesitate to choose the facts that support the narrative arch you are trying to build.  This is fiction.

You can buy The Sister Queens at your local bookstore or online at such sites as Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Sister-Queens-Sophie-Perinot/dp/0451235703/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332181331&sr=8-1

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