Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Sophie Perinot, a witty historical fiction author (with a wicked sense of humor) for Between the Sheets. This week her debut novel—a tale of two sisters who also happen to be 13th Century Queens—was released by New American Library. I’ll be picking up my copy today!
Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted.
Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love?
Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?
What inspired you to write about these particular women?
More than seven years ago, while researching a totally different project, I came upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (whose kneeling image is carved over that great church’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters. These remarkable 13th century women were the daughters of the Count of Provence and related, through their mother, to the house of Savoy. The Savoyards were celebrities in the High Middle ages—a family of considerable political and marital power, whose members were renowned for their personal attractiveness. All four of these extraordinary sisters made politically significant marriages yet I had never heard of them. I wondered how these women could have slipped through the fingers of history. It seemed utterly unfair. I started a file folder with their names on it, vowing to come back and tell their story. With The Sister Queens I fulfill that vow.
How does your own life play out in terms of sibling rivalry in the novel?
I decided to frame the story of my queens as a story of sisters rather than a story of political events for very personal reasons. I am half of a pair of incredibly close sisters. My relationship with own sister, a professor of history, defines me and has done so since childhood. My sister and I were actually college roommates and we still speak nearly everyday by phone. I get tired of books portraying sisters as back-stabbing, hyper competitive rivals. That is NOT my experience of sisterhood. Of course there is a bit of sibling rivalry in every relationship, but I believe lots of sisters draw tremendous strength from each other and stand together to face life’s challenges.
My finished novel weaves together the stories of the two eldest Provencal sisters—Marguerite who became Queen of France, and Eleanor who became Queen of England. They were the closest of the four sisters, despite being separated by the English Channelfor long stretches of time, and their relationship of mutual support, tinged with just a bit of competition, really spoke to me. It’s that sisterly support that I wanted to celebrate in my book, both in honor of my own sister and because I believe it will resonate with sisters everywhere.
Are you in love with a particular time period, or are you inspired by certain characters?
Characters. 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.
Don’t get me wrong, history fascinates me (particularly French history). Heck I was the first member of my college graduating class to declare herself a history major. But issues and relationships that are bigger than history, that are timeless, really inspire me. So, while The Sister Queens is set in the 13th century and Marguerite and Eleanor are “of their time” what interests me the most about them is their relationship as sisters. They faced many of the same relationship challenges and drew strength from each other in many of the same ways that sisters do today more than 700 years later. My current work in progress explores the always complicated mother-daughter relationship with a historical twist.
What makes historical fiction unique?
What does it mean to be family? What does it mean to be loyal? What does it mean to love unsuitably? Why is every child desperate for parental approval, no matter how unsuitable the parent? What does it mean to sacrifice personal happiness, or even your life, for a child? These are the kinds of BIG questions that books do and should wrestle with. When they confront life’s major issues, books can make readers fully aware of their own humanity and help readers parse through issues in their own lives. Historical fiction should play this role just as other genres of fiction do. What makes historical fiction unique is its setting, which I would argue is more than decorative. Historical context gives writers the chance to highlight just how universal certain themes are. It also provides a distance of sorts to help readers approach themes and thoughts that might seem too raw or too personal in a contemporary context. Finally, of course, writing historical fiction gives us history-geeks a chance to share historical facts and details with readers who may *gasp* (because I know “educate” is a dirty word) learn something new about the past while they are reading.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
To aspiring authors, 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.
Historical fiction writers, specifically?
To historical fiction authors 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.
Thank you, Sophie and congratulations on your launch!
Prior to being reincarnated as writer, Ms. Perinot was a lawyer. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, Sophie was quite naturally drawn to writing historical fiction. As someone who studied French inSwitzerland, and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point.
Sophie is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences. At the most recent conference she had the great good fortune to meet novelist and “Between the Sheets” blogger Heather Webb. Sophie is also an enthusiastic resident of the virtual world where she is active among the literary Twitterati,on Facebook, and at the two group blogs she is proud to be a member of Book Pregnant (what to expect when you are expecting a debut novel) and From the Write Angle. For more information on Sophie and her novel The Sister Queens, please check out her website.