Please welcome Alisa M. Libby, author of The Blood Confession and The King’s Rose, a historical novel about Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry the VIII. Thanks for joining us at Damsels in Regress today, Alisa.
1. How did you come to write Catherine Howard’s story?
I was instantly intrigued by Catherine: a pretty, oft-overlooked girl who caught the king’s eye after a few months in her new life at the royal court. Her story was magical and exciting, and also quite terrifying—like a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. I wondered what had really happened, what she had been thinking when she married the king. I wanted to imagine the story in her point of view, and (barring time travel) fiction is the best way to do that.
2. What kind of research did you do?
I read a lot about Catherine, King Henry and his previous wives, as well as the culture of the Tudor court, their clothes, their food, their religious beliefs. I listened to music composed by King Henry and looked at portraits from the time period. I also took a trip to England. My husband and I visited Hampton Court, where Catherine was first presented to the full court as their new queen, and the Tower of London where—less than two years later—she was imprisoned and executed. It was an amazing experience to visit the halls where Catherine likely reveled in being queen…and where she later awaited her fate, a woman condemned.
3. Was there anything you really wanted to discover about Catherine that you couldn’t find?
We can get close to history, but we can’t know every detail about what happened behind closed doors, or what people were saying or thinking. I was surprised by how often the historical accounts I read disagreed on different details, such as Catherine’s supposed affair with Thomas Culpeper.
According to legend, Catherine’s ghost haunts a gallery in Hampton Court. I fantasized about finding her ghost and asking her questions: did you really have an affair with Thomas while you were married to the king? Were you in love with Thomas? Did you worry about being caught? I fantasized about getting her blessing to tell my version of her story. When I walked down that haunted gallery on a “ghost tour” of Hampton, I kept thinking “I’m here, if you have anything to tell me, now is your chance.” I never did get a visit from her ghost, but I think that’s for the best for both of us. In the end it was up to me to choose what I thought would be the most interesting story to tell. This decision faces every writer of historical fiction.
4. I was struck by the cultural differences in Tudor England compared with modern day. I mean, a 15-year-old marrying a 50-year-old is rather disgusting to think about these days. Did you learn anything about the lives of young girls—age 12 and up—that you didn’t include in the book?
There were so many fascinating details that I couldn’t include: stories about previous wives, celebrations at court, religious festivals. There were also more details about Catherine’s life before court. My first draft of her story was nearly 500 pages long—I started from age ten and told the story of her entire life. I ended up cutting the first 190 pages in my first revision; painful, but absolutely necessary. A lot of those details were needed to understand Catherine’s character, but they could be folded into the main action of the story, which begins once she becomes the favorite of King Henry.
5. How did you get started in writing?
Since I was very young I had the urge to tell stories and record them. During my teen years I wrote mostly (very awful) poetry, much of it influenced by fairy tales and mythology. I loved playing with language, with the sounds of words, with description. I fell in love with language. I remember reading Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” in fifth grade, and it was like falling in love.
6. What were your favorite books when you were a teenager?
I read a lot of poetry, especially Edgar Allan Poe, Tennyson, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. As for favorite novels, at around twelve I read and loved The Last Unicorn (still one of my all-time favorites). In junior high I loved the Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), and in high school I was blown away by George Orwell’s 1984, which sparked my dystopian phase.
7. What are you working on now?
I’ve been writing contemporary fantasy/magical realism. I don’t have to worry about historical accuracy, which is truly liberating, but writing fantasy certainly has its own unique challenges, as does any book. I hope that I have another historical novel in me, as I found writing The King’s Rose such an exhilarating experience—history is so often stranger than fiction!
So true! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Alisa.
For more information on Alisa and her work, visit her website at www.alisalibby.com.