Sunday, August 9, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Janet Wertman, author of The Boy King

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Janet. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about THE BOY KING and its place in the Seymour Saga.
First, I just have to say how thrilled I am to be here. I have followed your reviews for a long time - and especially appreciate your comments on my own books!

The Boy King is the final book in my Seymour Saga trilogy, the story of the unlikely dynasty that shaped the Tudor era. The Seymours have been overlooked and ignored – but they were central players in just about every key story of the time. From Jane Seymour who married Henry VIII just ten days after Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped-up charges, to Edward Seymour who managed to grow his power during Henry’s crazy years, to Edward VI who took the throne at age nine and was forced to execute two of his uncles. They started out as a relatively common family (even though they could trace their ancestry to Edward III) that almost added their bloodline to the crown lineage. The trilogy is the story of that attempt.

Can you tell us a bit about how you approached characterizing Edward VI? 
Edward VI lived a highly public life from birth, so I had the benefit of a number of contemporary reports. We know he was on the skinny, delicate side; we know he was serious and a little pompous. We know he had this incredible sense of duty and can guess that he must have been overawed by and little scared of a father who was larger than life. So I started with that. 

We also have this additional insight into his personality: he kept a diary. Admittedly, its entries were still part of his “public-facing” façade, but they do tell us more than he intended to reveal. Like the way he begins his Chronicle with the equivalent of “Once upon a time.” Or the chilling entry that everyone uses it to sum up his character: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning.” To me, giving the right context to that single sentence was the key to his whole story. 

Both of your earlier novels, JANE THE QUENE and THE PATH TO SOMERSET, feature adult members of Henry’s court. THE BOY KING shifts perspective to that of a nine-year-old boy. As a writer, did you find it challenging to adopt the voice and views of an adolescent? 
It did take me a while to settle into his voice! It helped that close friends have a nine (now eleven) year old boy that I could squint at for inspiration. But really, it was all about showing how incredibly young he was to be dealing with the stuff that came up – and that was about showing him puzzling through the different events, sometimes analyzing things correctly and sometimes not. 

That was actually the harder challenge: to have readers discern a different truth than what the point of view character believed! For that, I needed careful descriptions of people and events to help discern the flaws in Edward’s logic… 

Edward died young, but I have to ask, what kind of king do you think he’d have been if he’d lived long enough to rule in his own right? 
It could have gone either way, actually. Edward was smart, committed, and sincere – but he was also somewhat myopic and stubborn. Still, I think overall he could have been really good for the country. 

Admittedly, the whole Jane Grey episode shows a lack of judgment, but he was only sixteen. Similarly, he was terribly manipulated during his time on the throne, but most of that occurred during the earliest years, and the people who did the manipulating were people he should have been able to trust. By the end, he had a healthy dose of the skepticism he would have needed to manage his own court, so he really had the chance to be one of the greats…assuming of course, that circumstances didn’t conspire to thwart him as they did his father, turning Henry VIII from an idealistic young man into the Nero he was in the end!

Edward’s older sister, Mary, plays an interesting role in the story. What can you tell us about her character and the challenges she faces in THE BOY KING? 
Mary was principled, stubborn, and very brave. She was basically the flip side to Edward, the Catholic to his Protestant. The two siblings were equally fanatic in their own points of view, they both saw the divine hand in many of the events of the times…they just drew different conclusions. 

The thing is, Mary was convinced she was right – and most of the world (well, Europe – the world they knew) backed her up. Because of her powerful Spanish relatives, she was convinced that she had the right to stand up to her brother on religious matters…at least until he turned eighteen. She was not about to give up her faith a second before then (and actually, she would have figured out how to keep her faith even after that – it was more than just a form of worship, it was her very identity: to Catholics, she was Henry VIII’s only truly legitimate child since Edward’s mother was married by the Church of England).  

Do you have a favorite scene in THE BOY KING? 
I have two. My very favorite one is where I give Edward the puppy. The universe gave me an incredible gift: as I was writing the scene, someone brought a tiny ten-week-old puppy to my house and so I got to describe it in real-time. The softness, the puppy smell, the curling up to sleep in my lap…. My various critique partners loved the way I captured the moment, they also thought it humanized the boy and was just a wonderful, warm episode to include right then. Meanwhile, my Tudor fans will experience a sudden flash of recognition…

I also am proud of the scene where Somerset makes Edward promise that he will sign the next death warrant presented to him…

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE BOY KING?
Sigh. I wish I could have spent a lot more time with pretty much everything in The Boy King, but I forced myself to focus everything on the basic story. Even with that, I was on the hefty side of how long a book should be. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of THE BOY KING, who would you cast?
I have always had a problem with this question because my characters live inside my heads, and they are unlike any actor I have seen. Except for Keith Mitchell, he will always be Henry to me, and Glenda Jackson will always be Elizabeth – but that’s cheating. 

Still, because it was you, I tried. It was hardest to come up with an actor for Edward – not a lot of child actors could do this (no offense to Macauley Culkin but…). The closest I came was Danny Lloyd, the boy from The Shining (he quit acting and is now a college professor – seemed appropriate given Edward’s intellectualism!). Then it got easier. I decided Trudy Styler – cool and badass – would make a great Katherine Parr…though a young Trudy Styler could also make a great Elizabeth. Since I was hiring Trudy, it was a small step to bring in Sting in as Edward Seymour – he’s got that intensity and that reserve. Then it hit me that Kevin Spacey (as he was in House of Cards) would make a great Northumberland (except I don’t want to work with him anymore after the #metoo revelations…). And best of all, Tim Curry for Tom Seymour – the ultimate seductive villain. 

I can see Frank Underwood (the character, not Spacey) as Northumberland, but I have to say, love your selection of Tim Curry. Fabulous casting choice. 

What do you hope readers take from their experience of THE BOY KING?
I want people to realize that Somerset’s signing his own brother’s death warrant reflected compassion for his young nephew. I want people to understand that the cold diary entry (“The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning”) shields overwhelming emotion. But bottom line, I really just want readers to HAVE the experience. Somehow, this is the first time anyone has told Edward’s story from his own point of view (well, the story of his reign anyway – a hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper showed us the boy right before he acceded the throne). Given everything that happened to him, his story should have been told long ago.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
My original thought was another trilogy: the story of Elizabeth Tudor, picking up where the Seymour Saga leaves off. I even have a rough first draft of the first book that I am working through, thanks to National Novel Writing Month. But as I get deeper in, I realize that her story has to begin earlier…so when I say I’m in the middle of a total rewrite, I am literally taking it apart and starting again – and it is incredibly exciting.

As a creative soul and a fan of the written word, I completely understand the desire to get it right, but as a fan, the word 'rewrite' is agonizing! That said, I wish you the best of luck with the new book and can't wait to read it. 

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