Hey, welcome to my stop on the VIII by Harriet Castor blog tour! It's especially exciting today, as it's release day, and I'm lucky enough to be celebrating with a Q&A with Harriet herself! The answers are great, and the book is so good, so if you're a historical fiction fan (and even if you're not), read on! :D
Hi Harriet, welcome to Cheezyfeet Books! Tell us a little bit about yourself!
Hi Cheezyfeet! Many thanks for having me here. Well, I’m a Tudor history obsessive, trained dance notator and Fred Astaire fan. (Erm, does that sound like a weird combination?) I’ve had more than 40 children’s books published, plus 1 adult novel, but VIII is my first YA novel. And I’m so excited about it!
Why did you decide to become an author? Was it always a dream of yours, or did a story idea just pop into you head and you just had to write it down?
I’ve always loved writing stories, but I wrote my first published book almost by accident. I was 12 years old, it was the summer holidays and I was bored. I decided to write a story (about our family cat), and then, once it was finished, I decided to send it to a publisher – just for fun. My mum was a bit alarmed – she warned me it would get sent straight back, and didn’t want me to be heartbroken. But I was immensely lucky because it never did come back! Instead it was published as ‘Fat Puss and Friends’, by Viking Kestrel and Puffin. It took me a very long time to realise that this doesn’t happen to everyone when they’re 12.
Absolutely. I’ve loved history – and especially Tudor history – since I was at primary school. My elder sister was really into it, and she was a big influence on me (you may have heard of her – she’s the historian and broadcaster Helen Castor, so the enthusiasm has lasted for both of us). I studied history at university, and since then I’ve written a lot of non-fiction history books for children. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to write historical novels, but it has taken me many years to summon up the courage. Training as a historian teaches you the vital importance of getting things as accurate as possible, and that can feel pretty daunting in combination with the creative leap that a novel requires.
As for Henry VIII… for many years, if you’d asked me, I would have said I was more interested in the people around Henry than in the man himself. I loved reading about his wives, his children… but the longer I skirted round him, the more I came to realise that he was like a spider at the middle of this web of incredible stories – and the more I became fascinated by him.
The idea for writing this specific book came from the fact that, though Henry is such a well-known figure – he’s featured in countless TV shows, films and of course books – I’d never found anything that convincingly explained to me why he took the extraordinary decisions he did. He seemed such a mass of contradictions: passionate and yet cold; sentimental but cruel; highly intelligent and domineering, yet strangely child-like and insecure too. One night, when watching Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors, I found myself throwing cushions at the telly, yelling, “No, he wasn’t like that! That wasn’t how it was at all!” All right, I thought. Pull yourself together. You clearly have something to say, here. And shouting at the telly really doesn’t help. That night I decided I had better start writing!
How much of VIII is based on historical fact and how much is fictional?
I did a huge amount of research for the book and I’ve used as many known facts as I possibly can. Being faithful to the evidence is immensely important to me. However, the known facts can only take you so far. There are gaps that, as a novelist, you need to fill in. For example, in the surviving documents Henry is very difficult to ‘see’ during his teenage years. He was kept under close wraps by his father, and we don’t know very many details about what he was like, what he experienced, how he felt. However, some of the details that we do know are intriguing… for example, it was said that on one occasion his father had to be physically restrained from attacking him. Just turn this over in your mind for a moment. It’s a compelling image – and pretty shocking. It’s well known that Henry and his father were chalk and cheese, as personalities. But a detail like that… well, from my point of view, needing as I did to reconstruct Henry’s relationship with his father, that detail was dynamite.
As a novelist it’s vital to remember that your job is not to produce an exhaustive textbook (in my case on Henry’s reign). That’s not a novel! My aim was to climb inside Henry and look out through his eyes. I wanted the reader to identify with him, to see him as a loveable young boy, a feisty, troubled teenager, a golden, athletic 17-year-old king… and to find themselves understanding him, rooting for him, even as he begins to slide – despite his best intentions, despite his dreams of glory – towards evil. I am interested in his psychology – and it is an intense, thrilling story of idealism, the struggle for perfection, and eventual psychological meltdown.
No one can know what it felt like to be Henry – no one now, and no one (other than himself) during his lifetime. It’s territory that academic historians cannot touch. But the attempt to understand why people did what they did is, in my view, vital to our understanding of the past – and of the present, of ourselves, too. This is what a novel can explore. And what’s more, it’s a fantastic story!
Everything came from the research, first and foremost – from the known facts. I was certain from my research, for example, that Henry sent Anne Boleyn to the block knowing that she was innocent of the crimes she was charged with. Yet it seemed also true that he believed in her guilt in a wider sense – in the way, you might say, that Stalin believed in the guilt of his victims, so that it didn’t matter what specific crimes they were charged with. Right there I had an intriguing conundrum. How does that kind of thinking work, inside Henry’s head? I read psychology books, and spent hours talking to a psychotherapist and a Jungian analyst. Through that process I pieced together, I feel, a truly plausible psychological journey. It’s one of the aspects of the book that I’m proudest of.
Any writing plans for the future? More YA historical novels or something completely new?
More YA historical novels! These are what I’ve always wanted to write, so it’s a wonderful feeling. I’m working now on a novel about Henry’s two daughters, who become two queens: Mary I and Elizabeth I. I’m focussing on their relationship as sisters: how did they feel about one another? What’s especially compelling about it is that Mary and Elizabeth had so much shared experience: each was born a princess, the heir to the throne; each was then declared illegitimate and lost her title and status. Each lost her mother in heart-rending circumstances caused directly by her father. Yet these two girls had radically different personalities, and reacted to their traumatic experiences in dramatically different ways. It’s every bit as fascinating a story as the story of VIII.
Thanks for stopping by Harriet! Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
You’re welcome! I’d like to say that I’d be really interested to hear readers’ responses to VIII. Authors don’t know what readers think of their books unless readers tell them – and it’s really important to me! You can contact me through my website – www.hmcastor.com - or find me on Facebook. I’m on twitter too: @HMCastor. Please come and say hi!
Finally, Cheezyfeet, I’d like to say thanks so much for letting me visit. You’ve asked fantastic questions and it was fun answering them. I love this website and it’s an honour to be here!
Thanks Harriet, that was awesome! If that hasn't convinced you to read the book, you can go and read my review here, or if you want to order it, you can do so here, at amazon.co.uk! :D Thanks for stopping by guys, and here are the links to everyone else on the tour!
26th September: Guest Post at The Book Zone
27th September: Exclusive Extract from VIII and giveaway at Daisy Chain Book Reviews
28th September: Guest Post at The Overflowing Library
29th September: Q&A at A Little Sun Shy
30th September: Guest Post at Floor to Ceiling Books
1st October (release day!): Q&A at Cheezyfeet Books
2nd October: Guest Post at A Dream of Books
3rd October: Q&A and giveaway at The Book Bug