I've been a Tudorphile since I'm a kid, and wrote my first historical novel, THE JEWELS OF WARWICK, about Henry VIII and his uproarious court--with two fictional heroines. Sarah also writes Tudor novels, and we exchanged several of our books. I've read THE ALTARPIECE and thoroughly enjoyed it, giving it a glowing Amazon review.
Meet Sarah and read about her Tudor passions.
Sarah is the author of the novels Self-Portrait, with Ghost and The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The
King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series,
set in Tudor England. She has also
published seven books of poems. A
professor of English, 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 and the Virginia
Commission for the Arts.
Visit Sarah at her website.
Kudos for SELF-PORTRAIT, WITH GHOST
Self-Portrait, with Ghost is a
wonderfully told ghost story but, equally, a fascinating study of artistic,
familial, and generational rivalry, bringing to mind Henry James’s seamless
blend of the supernatural and psychological. Sarah Kennedy is a gifted poet,
and her attentiveness to language is another of this novel’s delights.
Ron Rash, author of Serena
and The Cove
In Sarah Kennedy’s Self-Portrait,
with Ghost, Zadie Williams struggles to deal with the
profound loss of her mother through the creation of art. As the novel unfolds,
Kennedy explores deeply and so intelligently the very purpose of art as her
character’s acts of creation become more about anger, revenge, and
self-promotion. We wonder if Zadie will rediscover the truth and purity of art
again, just as we see it exemplified so beautifully in Kennedy’s fine novel.
Marlin Barton, author of Pasture Art and The Cross
Chapter One of SELF PORTRAIT, WITH GHOST
When she heard her stepmother
saying that she’d seen a ghost, Zadie Williams wanted to kill her. Everyone claimed that specters walked all
over Chadwick, Virginia. They always had. But if the spirit of Zadie’s mother had
appeared in the Williams house, it was here for Zadie. It had to be.
After all, this was Zadie’s house, where her mother had lived and had
taken her last breath, and if anyone had a claim on the world of the dead these
days, it was Zadie herself.
so far, Zadie had seen nothing, and her stepmother was getting all of the
attention. Again. She lay on her mother’s quilt, under her
mother’s neat stitches, listening to the darkness finger the wooden beams of
the old structure. First the click of
the east wall, the one that faced Payne Street.
Then the long, knotted board under the big living room window. Then the threshold of the front door, its
slight umph of a groan. Then a sigh from
the gabled attic, just above her head.
The joists and lath and old plaster, settling in for the night. The cellar would be growing cooler, and Zadie
imagined she could hear, two floors below, the soft clink of wine bottle
against wine bottle down there in the old bookcase, where the overflow from the
dusty rack went. The stack of pots her
mother had left, unfinished and unglazed, bumping against one another.
father and stepmother had started up the stairs—the third step quaked
audibly—and Zadie closed her textbook.
She tiptoed to her bedroom door, placing her ear against the painted
wood, just as she’d done for years, while her mother was dying. Her stepmother was saying that they’d need to
get pictures, and her father was murmuring “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Zadie’s legs cramped and numbed as they came
up, a step at a time, but she had to hear it.
They were on the landing, the two of them, together. Zadie’s new phone whined from the bedside
table, but she didn’t move. She wore the
cotton pajama bottoms that her mother had been wearing at the last, and her
thumbs worried the thinning nap. “I hate
you,” she whispered in her stepmother’s direction. “I wish you would die.”
talk about it in the morning,” her father was saying. “I’m not sure about this.” Whatever
it was, he’d do it. He always did. The phone complained again, and the footsteps
that Sherry’s phone? Isn’t she home?”
asked the woman.
“She’s probably asleep,” said
Zadie’s father. “Don’t call her that to
her face. Please.”
“But nobody’s called
‘Zadie.’ It sounds made-up.”
device went off again, and Zadie leaped for it, glad for the woven rug that
slid her across the room. She fumbled
with the keys, not knowing yet how to work the thing. It was a graduation gift from her father, for
a celebration that hadn’t occurred.
She’d never had one before, never so much as used a computer outside of
the labs at college. She despised the
people who walked across campus talking to the air.
screen lit up, eventually, and she could see the message from her friend
Michelle: “A WHAT??!! WTF now?
Meet me in the a.m. Coffee shop.”
slid the slim gadget under her pillow and hurried to her bathroom. She left the light switch off, but turned the
tap high and stared at her face in the mirror.
The backing had grown old, and the glass bloomed with dim, rusty
patches. Pulling her eyebrows toward her
temples, she squinted until the room behind her flattened. She looked exotic, unreal. Her brown hair was almost red. Fiery.
Dark brown eyes, but pale skin.
She looked like her mother. But
when she dropped her hands, she was still Zadie Williams. No, she was the soon-to-be known painter
Scherezade Williams, and her stepmother’s small-town art would be left in the
shade. The moon cast a Vermeer light
across one side of her features, and she turned toward it, gazing at her
gibbous reflection. Not Sherry. Not ever.
Her stepmother might try to call her by an ordinary name to kill off her
genius. Well. She’d see about that.
The hot water had clouded the humid room, and
Zadie turned it off and listened. They
must be in bed, and if she stayed in here by the open window she’d have to
listen to their sighs and groans, like a couple of teenagers sneaking into
their parents’ bed. Her mother’s
bed. “Mother?” Zadie said to her own
face. “Mother?” She tilted her head to the right, then to the
left. She was alone. “Take her with you.” But her mother had been dead for two years
now. Why would she come back now?
scrubbed her face with her wet hands and went back to bed, clicking shut the
door behind her. The copy of Dr. Faustus was right where she’d left
it, marked to the page where the devil appears, ready to do the doctor’s
bidding. “’Marlowe’s mighty line,’” she
whispered. “’Sunt mihi dei acherontis propitii.’” Her hands tingled with pleasure. She laid the book, open to the page with the
illustration of a man in robes standing in a pentagram, and drew from her
nightstand drawer two of her stepmother’s best brushes, lifted from the studio
at the other end of the upstairs hall.
Stolen goods, all the better. She
had two cans of latex paint to go with them, black and red. They wouldn’t smell a thing.
rolled up the rug to reveal the pine floor.
She sketched the pentagram in fast sweeps, trusting her experience to
reproduce the angles. Black for the
star. Red for the round center. The bulls-eye. The landing zone. The sacred circle, marked in blood. She sat back on her heels. The lamplight licked at the wet spots, and
Zadie blew over it the unholy words. Hail, spirits of fire, air, water, and
earth! Prince of the East, Beelzebub,
monarch of burning hell! She halted,
listening. Tree frogs sang in the old
maple that hung over the eaves, and a couple of screech owls were whinnying
back and forth. Her father, with his ear
trained to sorrow, would hear if she ran through the whole speech. She flicked off the bedside lamp and stood in
the darkness, listening. Was her
stepmother still talking about a ghost?
Was she afraid?
wasn’t. If a ghost had come to live with
them, she’d call to it. She’d pray to
it. She’d conjure it into visibility
Kudos for CITY OF
true page-turner.”—Historical Novels Review
“Much of a historical novel’s success lies in
the author’s ability to accurately cement the story in its time and place, and
Kennedy excels in this aspect with detailed descriptions of the daily life of
her characters, from clothing to architecture to medicine. . . . It is not
necessary to read the first novel in the series to enjoy this book, but those
finding this their first introduction to Catherine will surely search out the
first novel to spend more time with this feisty woman in her richly detailed
“Having chosen William Overton, Catherine Havens Overton, in
Book Two of the Cross and the Crown series, now struggles to manage her wifely
duties in his house, where her extraordinary gifts in physic and healing are
feared as witchcraft as well as sought after by all, creating a difficult and
dangerous situation. Filled with drama, suspense, vivid scenes and
larger-than-life characters, City of
Ladies fast becomes impossible to put down. . . . Kennedy
is clearly as gifted as her main character, almost supernaturally at home in
the 16th century as she combines the striking vocabulary of the time with her
own poetic talents to create a rich and
original tapestry of language. Such writing! Sarah Kennedy brings a lost world
blazingly to life.”—Lee Smith
“. . . . In City
of Ladies Kennedy takes her place with Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton,
Rosemary Sutcliff, and Hilary Mantel as a writer of superb historical fiction.”
—Suzanne Keen, author
of Empathy and the Novel
An Excerpt from CITY OF LADIES
Yorkshire, January 1539
“Lady, there’s been a corpse
found,” the soldier announced. He lifted
one arm and in the raised hand dangled a veiled head.
Havens Overton started awake and found herself alone, but for the infant
sleeping beside her. She pushed off the
covers and wiped the sweat from her face.
She’d had the dream three times since her woman went missing, and it was
always the same—she a nun again, walking through the convent, her old herb
garden, bending to a sprig of sage, the man in armor seizing her habit. He was always somehow familiar and always
holding out the head in one hand.
shook out the sleeves of her nightdress and lifted the heavy cloak of her damp
hair from her cheek. She rubbed her
arms. It was only a ghost of the
mind. She was safe. She was here, at Overton House, a married
woman with a new daughter. The lady of
the house. Destined for the court, or so
her husband insisted. And now that the
baby had come, he would press for it.
Her missing woman would surely be found before they went. The watchmen would see to it.
fire had burned down to embers, and Catherine called for her new maid. No answer.
Shifting the baby into the crook of her left elbow, she eased her legs
from under the thick quilt. The night
had been bitter, even for midwinter, and the window showed a low grey sky. More snow coming, no doubt. She struggled from the feather mattress and,
thrusting her feet into the waiting slippers, felt the wad between her thighs
loosen. She had left a bowl full of
lady’s mantle nearby before she began her labors, and she packed the herbs
against herself before she tightened the bands around her waist to stop the
infant mewed, and Catherine uncovered the small head. “Hush now,” she said, studying her
child. A shock of ginger fluff at the
crown, fingernails like chips of shell.
Her husband would have been happier with a boy. There were already enough females in the
household, he would think. He might even
say it, after a jug of wine, if his sister had gone yet again through her
litany of traditions and the need for a male heir. She would of course let the word “legitimate”
fall in Catherine’s hearing. Then she
would smile. The tiny mouth gapped, and
Catherine laid her daughter on the warm feather mattress. “Let me warm us up, child.”
waddled across her wide chamber to the hearth, kneeling to stir the ashes with
the iron poker. She had tended fires
often enough without the assistance of a maid.
A pile of yew sticks lay to hand, and she built a small hutch of them,
then bent to blow gently across the spaces underneath. Soon the smoke licked upward, crackling into
flame. Opening her shift, Catherine took
the infant to the window, rubbing away the frost with the heel of her hand. The great grey stone Overton House sat on a
North Yorkshire hill, overlooking the gardens, sweeps of gorse-spiked moor, and
the fields their tenants used for sheep.
Catherine’s was the only bedchamber in use by the family that looked
directly down onto the back buildings, and she spotted her maid below,
flattened against the back of the stable, her skirts hoisted to her waist. The girl was short-statured, and bosomy, and
she was almost lost under the figure of one of the younger groomsmen, his breeches
dropped, who was thrusting against her.
She looked cold, even in her pleasure, if she could be said to be
enjoying herself. Catherine’s fingers
went to the latch, but a trio of men came riding into the courtyard, calling,
and the boy pulled himself free, buttoning up and running off with his cap in
his hand. The maid was left panting and
pushing her hair into place under her coif.
Catherine could see the girl’s breath, a white wraith in the cold
air. The mistress of Overton House
should not be shouting from the upper windows anyway.
husband William rode in behind the others, and he waved when his sister came
walking from the stables toward the house, holding her velvet cloak around her
shoulders. She did not linger to greet
the hunters. The men dismounted and hung
a large doe in the largest of the oaks by its hind legs, leaving two others
slung across the backs of a couple of sullen ponies. Catherine fancied she could hear the
squeaking of the leather thongs as the kill twirled slowly in the wind. The soft, pale belly was slit, and the
crimson entrails spilled into a wooden bucket.
The hounds circled, snouts in the air, and the groomsman peeled his
gloves off to toss them a wad of intestine.
He blew on his fingers, then thrust his bare hands into the gut of the
steaming carcass. The others laughed,
setting up a braying among the bloody-mouthed dogs. “Poor girl,” said Catherine, fogging the icy
heavy door of the bedchamber creaked, and Ann Smith came in, wiping her hands
on a coarse cloth. They had been sisters
together in the convent, and now they looked after the children together. “What are you doing out of the bed?” Ann
room was cold,” Catherine said.
that new maid? That Eleanor. I told her to stay with you.”
Catherine pointed with her
head at the window. “She had business
“Christ on a stick,” muttered
Ann, glancing out. “Do you mean she’s
got her head turned by one of the young men?
You should have left that girl in the country.”
not a bad one. Just young. Tell me, Ann.
How does my son?”
The other woman yanked the
woolen curtain at the window closed. The
brass rings clanged. “He will not be
coaxed from his room. You cried out
fierce at the last. Now, get back under
those sheets, or I will carry you there myself.
I have told him he could come now.”
should be acquainted with his sister.
Has William said aught about a name?”
The women were both tall, and Catherine put her finger on the thin scar
across her friend’s throat. It blazed in
the cold against Ann’s white skin. “That
has healed nicely.”
Ann traced the raised
line. “Thanks to you, I can still speak
my will. But much good it does me. Now, back to bed with you. We will choose a name ourselves.”
Catherine smiled. “Very well.”
She handed over the infant and slid under the covers. The linen was icy now, and she pulled the
blankets to her chin. “You may get in
with me. The room is frozen as Satan’s
“I haven’t washed my feet,”
said Ann. She rocked the baby. “She’s as beautiful as you are. And her eyes will be as green as yours inside
a year, mark me.” Ann studied the infant’s
red face and gently rubbed her nose against the baby’s. “She will be tall and fair of face. She will be springtime for your old
age.” The baby’s mouth bubbled milk, and
“The hair is all Overton,”
said Catherine, leaning over to dab her daughter’s lips. “We may thank God for it.”
“I don’t give a fig whether
there is a drop of Overton blood in her,” said Ann. “She can be all Catherine, like her brother,
and I will love her the more.”
said Catherine. Her eyes were on the
is nowhere within hearing,” said Ann.
“He just rode in. Just about now
he is out kissing his hounds’ snouts and cannot be bothered to see his
“It’s hard for him. Especially in this house.”
so hard to make her, was it?” Ann winked
at Catherine. “He was not so keen for
his dogs that day, was he?”
“Stop your mouth, Ann Smith,”
said Catherine, but she was smiling for the moment. Only for a moment. “How do the Sisters? Is there any word of our Joan?”
say that she was down in the village to teach the day she disappeared. The others are worried, every one. With you down, everyone fears she will not be
sought. Everyone except Margaret, as you
sister-in-law’s room was on the other side of the hall and Catherine listened
for footsteps before she spoke.
“Margaret won’t be able to speak against me now. This girl has Overton stamped on her
head. Tell the other women to
search. Tell them to go in pairs.”
“They fear the watchmen.”
“Tell them to wear Overton
colors.” Catherine lay back on the
pillows. “I have had the dream again.”
the man still hold a head?”
“Yes, every time. It is like a visitation from Hell. I can’t speak of it to William.”
leaned over and stroked the baby’s hair.
The child opened her mouth and clamped down on the air. “Perhaps its message is meant only for you.”
stroked the infant’s cheek with one finger.
“I wonder what he will want to call her.”
“I will name her myself if her
father will not,” said Ann. “I say she
will be little Veronica. What think you
pleases me. But I favor Mary. Mary Veronica?” Catherine winced and turned onto her
side. “I’m sore.”
labored the better part of the night. I
thought you would shatter the stones of the house with your shrieking.”
laughed out loud. But then her mind
sobered. “William wanted a boy. And a girl is not safe.”
safe if she’s an Overton. A confirmed
Overton. And your William has a
son. One he should love better. Ah, here’s our shining star.”
A black-haired boy toddled
into the room, and when he saw his mother, he inserted a thumb into his mouth,
here and meet your sister, Robbie,” said Catherine. She opened her arms and the child ran on
sturdy legs, scrabbling up the side of the tall bed.
on this side, you monkey,” said Ann.
“Your mother must be handled gently just now.”
child leapt over Catherine’s legs and scrutinized the newborn. “Scorch,” he said, pushing a chubby thumb
against the little cheek. “Have you
cooked her in the hearth, Mother?”
is red because she has just seen the light and her skin is still fine,” said
Catherine. “No fire has touched her.”
The boy solemnly separated the
tiny toes and rubbed each nail. He
pulled the blanket away and sat back with a gasp at the stub of cord. “Like a puppy.”
roared. “She is no puppy. She is your sister. And that?
That is her mortal mark. You had
one too.” She jabbed the boy in the
belly. “Look at where your mother has
left her stamp upon you. She held you as
tight as she held your sister.”
is an ugly thing,” pronounced the boy.
“But I will love it as Aunt Ann instructs me I must.”
and Ann laughed and the boy blushed, ducking his head under his mother’s arm.
is the jest?” William Overton came in,
red-faced from the wind, with his tall manservant behind him. The men brought the scent of snow and fir
trees and feathers into the room.
William still wore his hunting coat and boots, and Catherine could smell
the dog on him, too. His sister Margaret
peeked in behind him. She scanned the
room, saw Ann Smith, and backed out again.
come greet your daughter.”
placed the sleeping infant into Catherine’s arms, took up the boy, and slid
around the man. She touched Reg Goodall,
the manservant, on the arm as she left the room and he smiled after her.
Overton settled against the bedside and peered into the blanket. “She seems a hale girl.” He lifted a red curl. “An Overtop, I see, like my father.” William’s hair was brown but it flamed a
little when sunlight touched it. He
grinned, but when Catherine offered the bundle, he recoiled. “I’m filthy as a pig farmer.” He picked a feather from his coat and let it
drift to the rushes on the floor.
husband had taken up falconing at the same time he had begun to seek a place
for her at court. She asked, “Have you
had the birds out?”
William nodded. “Ruby.
The peregrine. She’s the beauty
of them all.” He spoke to his new
daughter. “She’s not as red-headed as
shifted the child so that her father could see better. “Will we call her after your mother?”
“Mary? A Papist name? The king has given us his permission but we
mustn’t move him to regret it.”
would have her Mary. It seems
right. Your boy after your father, your
girl after your mother.”
boy.” William bent and flicked a scrap
of dirt from his boot.
should be named after your parents.”
me hold this new Mary, then. Shall she
have another name?” He turned and saw
the open door. “Margaret? Where did she go?”
said, “I would like Veronica.”
“That surprises me. Do you think it wise to recall the convent so
“The woman was like a mother
to me. And no one remembers her save Ann
and me. Father has not even marked her grave.”
“She was good to you. Better than your mother.”
“And we could call the child
Veronica rather than Mary if it seems better to you.”
“That will do. Mary Veronica it will be.” William took the girl in his free arm now,
and she squirmed at his hold and opened her eyes. Her mouth puckered and she blatted a little
wind. “A female, no doubt. She is telling me what she thinks already.”
Catherine’s arms relaxed and
she realized how tight her muscles had been.
William handed the child back
and watched as Catherine loosened her shift and put the baby to breast. “There are nurses to do that for you.”
“Mm. And their charges die. You have made me a lady, but God made me a
woman and I will be one.” She slicked
back Veronica’s hair but it tufted into a curl again.
own charges are gathered below, howling like a pack of wolves. It has been enough to make a man mad. I believe they mean to conjure the constable
to our door.” He sat gently on the
bed. “Catherine, you must disband them
now. The time is ripe.”
Catherine glanced up. “Joan is still missing. It’s been three days. Someone must needs go look for her.”
rubbed his forehead. “Which one is she?”
“Ruth’s convent sister. From the North. You know her.
She’s thin and has a little sharp nose.”
one. She will be always in the village.”
good with the girls. You should see her
help them form their letters.”
“Letters. People say she teaches them spells. Listen to me, Catherine. You have work enough for your hands with this
child. And when others come, you will
need your strength to manage me and my household. God’s foot, every hag and housewife between
here and Durham is down there. They look
like disease itself. Turn them out, I
beg you, and give me some peace.”
are only a few. And they instruct the
younger maids. What harm do they?”
“Eat my cupboards bare and
look like Hell. There is talk, I’m
telling you. I cannot be a man whose
wife is on the tongue of gossips. They
say you keep a herd of starving witches and their familiars in your
kitchen. Men laugh at it.”
bit her lower lip. “Men will always find
something in women to ridicule.”
“And if the king hears of it?”
does old Henry care who sits in our kitchen?
They are just poor women. You
would not have me put them out in dead winter, William, would you? Where would they go?”
the devil, for all I care.”
“Come, Husband. Show a little heart. They do good.
It is what they are called to do.
They give me hands to help with the raising of this little Overton.” She looked at him. “And with your son.”
He jumped up and walked to the
hearth. “The fire is almost dead. I will send one of your sorceresses to tend
it. Put them to some use for once. Before you rid us of them once and for
all.” Slapping his thigh, he walked from
the room, pulling the door to a booming close behind him.
infant wailed and Catherine pulled it close.
“Poor child. To be born a girl to
such a world of men.” She lifted her
eyes to the window. The snow came down
like a quiet reprimand.
An Interview with Sarah
I’m a reader, writer, teacher, and animal-lover—not necessarily in that
order! I live in a little A-frame house
in Rockbridge County, Virginia, with my husband and my hound, Gypsy. I’ve always loved to read, and when I’m not
out walking with Gypsy or working in my garden, I’m usually curled up with a
novel or watching a movie. I grew up in
Indianapolis, which has grown to be quite a big city—and I do love cities, but
for short visits rather than a place to live.
I also birdwatch quite a bit, as we have everything come through our
yard from red-tailed hawks and pileated woodpeckers to rose-breasted grosbeaks.
I’m the author of seven
books of poetry and (so far) four novels.
I’m in the middle of a series about Tudor England, focusing on the
religious changes of the sixteenth century and how they affected ordinary
people. I also like to write about
Americans, though, and my latest book is Self-Portrait,
with Ghost, a stand-alone contemporary novel about artistic competition and
If you have 2 hours free
time tonight, what would you rather do? Why?
I would open a novel or
watch a movie. I always have a stack of
books that I want to read, and there is never enough time to get through them
all! When I’m tired, though, I love to
sit back with a good film, especially films in interesting historical periods
(Tudor England, medieval Europe, World War I or II, the Civil War in America)
or beautiful settings like Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, or Ireland. If there is no movie available, I will watch
an episode of Foyle’s War, which never gets old to me!
What kind of books do you
love to read? Why?
The books I love are
probably not much different from the movies I like. I love mysteries of all kinds! I also love historical fiction that doesn’t
just tell the “big” stories we all know, like the histories of famous monarchs
or famous battles. I like to delve into
the lives of everyday people and see how they react to significant historical
What is your stress buster?
Working in the garden and
taking long walks through the woods with my dog are the best ways for me to
deal with stress. I am rather fidgety,
and when I’m stressed, I crave physical activity. But I have to be able to let my mind wander while
I’m doing it, and pulling weeds or walking fast do wonders!
What is your favorite food?
What food do you seek when you’re sad, sort of a comfort food?
Anything that’s rich in
carbohydrates: good, real bread;
spaghetti, macaroni and cheese. I just
have to be careful not to make myself sick on it!
Describe yourself in one
What’s your biggest regret in life?
Wasting time worrying about
mistakes that can’t be changed—made either by me or by someone else.
What is the most adventurous
thing you’ve ever done?
Quitting a tenure-track job
to go back and get an MFA in Writing.
What makes you
happy/sad/disappointed/frustrated/hopeful/angry? (Pick one)
Failing to help a student
who is struggling in school makes me sad, because I feel that my job as a
teacher is not only to provide information about writing and literature but to
reach out to students who have a difficult time, whether they’re unprepared,
stressed, or facing health/family crises.
Students are whole people, not just marks on a page.
What are your wildest
My wildest dream is to buy a
cottage in Scotland, near the sea.
Cornwall or Wales would do, too.
How would readers find out
more about you?
When did you write your
first book? How long did it take you to write it?
My first book was a collection of poems, and it
took me several years to write. It’s
hard to say exactly, because I started writing poetry in my early twenties,
then quit while I was finishing a PhD. I
slowly came back to it in my mid-thirties.
My first novel was finished in
about a year. That was five years or so
Did you encounter any
obstacles in writing? What are they? How did you overcome them?
Most of my obstacles have
been self-created: prioritizing to give
myself time to write; giving myself permission to write when other people
wanted me to be more social; letting the house just get dirty if I didn’t have
my writing done.
How did you feel when you
receive your first contract? What did you do? Any celebratory dinner, dance,
event, etc to commemorate the occasion?
It’s probably strange, but
my first contract was very informal, with a small poetry publisher, and we’d
been discussing the manuscript for a while, so it didn’t come as a big
surprise. Now, with my second book (also
poems) I won the Elixir Press Award—and that was exciting! I was so shocked that I actually called the
publisher to make sure it wasn’t a mistake.
Any writing peeves, things
you wish you could improve on, things you do with exceptional talent?
I wish I could stop using
progressive verbs and the word “just” so much!
I always have to go back and do an editing just looking for those
quirks. I just can’t seem to stop, lol.
What kind of books do you
love/hate to write? Why?
I love to write fiction with
historical settings, because I love to do research and travel (which is, for
me, the best way to really get to know a place, even if I’m in the
present). I always enjoy visiting old
houses and ruins. They make me feel as
though I can hear the voices of the people who lived there. I also like snarky characters; they are fun
to imagine and write.
What do you think about
It’s necessary. I teach writing, so editing is second nature
to me. I try very hard not to pay close
attention while I’m drafting or it will kill my momentum, but I am a grammar
hound, so I actually rather like the editing process.
Where and when do you write?
Tell us about your favorite work place and time. Any special reason?
When I wrote poetry, I wrote
anywhere and everywhere—home, my office, sitting in the living room while my
husband watched football or basketball.
I was fitful and couldn’t work in long stretches at all. Writing fiction, I sit at a narrow desk in my
study, facing the wall (though I have a sliding door beside me that looks out
onto a little side garden). I use a
laptop, but I seldom move it. In that
room, my dog can come and go through the door (she also has a couch beside my
desk for rests), and I know she’s content while I work. If I get stuck, I can always sit back and
stare out the door (or the glass if it’s winter).
How do you write? Do your
characters come to you first or the plot or the world of the story? How do you
go on from there? Maybe you can give us an example with one of your books.
I always start with a
character in a specific place. I can
usually see the person and the setting—and until that happens, nothing happens
with the plot. With my first novel in
the Cross and the Crown series, the novel began with Catherine Havens standing
in the little room above the porch of the church, peering out the window at the
men coming down the road to evict her and the other nuns. That didn’t end up being the beginning when
the novel was finished, but that’s where I started.
Tell us about your hero or heroine.
Give us one of his/her strengths and one of his/her weaknesses.
The heroine of the Cross and the Crown series,
Catherine Havens, is strong-willed and intelligent. She is brave when she needs to be. Her great weakness is making poor choices
about men. She should listen to her
friend Ann Smith more often!
What books can you recommend
to aspiring writers to improve on style, character development, plot,
structure, dialogue, etc?
The one I’ve used
successfully with students is James Thayer’s The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel. It’s very readable and written in a
common-sense way that aspiring writers can really use. My students have liked it a lot.
What is your advice to
Revise, revise, revise. Think of words as your raw materials, a
natural resource that you have to refine in order to get something useful out
of them. They won’t look the same
afterward, but the process is necessary to getting the book done. First drafts are not finished
manuscripts—sometimes even fifth drafts are not finished manuscripts.
Listen to your readers, even
those who have criticisms. Hearing
someone say that something isn’t working hurts—it can really hurt if the reader
isn’t sensitive!—but consider every comment you get. Make your own decisions in the end.
Where do you get your ideas? Do you jot them down in a notebook, in
case you forgot?
I don’t really know the
answer to that! I always seem to begin
with a character, but I’m also working on a novel that began with a tiny,
almost parenthetical, story that I read in a family history. But there again—it was the character who was
briefly mentioned who caught my attention and then began to nag at my
Have you ever wanted to
write your book in one direction but your characters are moving it in another
direction? What did you do in such a situation?
Yes, this happens all the
time! It can be surprising, even
frustrating, but I try to listen to the character and let them go where they
Any new projects, work in
I’m finishing the Cross and
Crown series right now. The fourth book
in the series is set under the reign of Mary I, just after she is crowned
queen. It focuses on the difficulties
she faced as a single woman on the throne of England as well as her desire to
revert the country to Roman Catholicism.
That book is finished, and I am now drafting the fifth and final book in
the series. This one will move to the
beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, because I want to compare and contrast the
first months of these two queens.
I’m also working on the
novel I mentioned earlier, that had its origin in that family story. It’s no longer recognizable as a plot from
that history, but it takes place in two time periods: contemporary and Reconstruction Arkansas.
It’s a big departure for me, both in structure and subject, so I’m having a
satisfying struggle with it.
If you could have one skill
that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
Carpentry. I am tragic with a hammer, and it frustrates
me like crazy.
Bookmark! I have only dog-eared textbooks a couple of
times when I absolutely had to remember something and had forgotten a bookmark.