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Interview: March 16, 2007

March 16, 2007

Former English teacher and librarian Brenda Rickman Vantrease is the author of the acclaimed debut novel THE ILLUMINATOR. In this interview with's Stephen Hubbard, Vantrease talks about what drew her to the particular period in history that she portrays in her latest release, THE MERCY SELLER, and discusses the challenges of cohesively blending fact with fiction. She also explains why she decided to set this sequel years after her first book takes place, and shares how her experiences as an educator has taught her the discipline and patience needed to be a writer. While a follow-up to THE ILLUMINATOR, your first novel, THE MERCY SELLER begins many years later and focuses on Anna, the granddaughter of Finn and Kathryn. What inspired you to start at this point instead of where THE ILLUMINATOR ended?

Brenda Rickman Vantrease: I get inspiration from history. After the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was brutally squelched, the Lollard movement begun by John Wycliffe's ideas of religious reform was driven underground in England. But thanks to a student exchange program between Oxford University and Prague University, Wycliffe's ideas resurfaced some years later in Prague, Bohemia, and found new life with Jan Hus and his preaching. That resurgence was strong and ripe for conflict, so that was where I started digging for my story. However, I wasn't quite ready to let go of the movement in England --- or Finn and Kathryn. So the story developed on two tracks, much like the movement itself.

BRC: Anna is seemingly stuck in a pendulum, quite strong at times and yet terribly weak in others. Was it at all difficult to balance this shift, and for her to find some goodness in all of the gloom that seemed to follow her?

BRV: It is always difficult to convey complex characters. Anna grew up sheltered in her little "bubble" of learning and relative tolerance for reformist ideas and free thinking. When that bubble burst, she was ill-prepared for the testing time. I wanted to show the influence of her suffering as a strengthening factor, but not in a straight line. That's not the way growth happens; there are sometimes setbacks along the way.

BRC: One of the more intriguing, and tragic, characters in THE MERCY SELLER is Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard sympathizer. What is it from his life and his history that compelled you to include him in the novel?

BRV: The fact that he is celebrated in history and literature for all the wrong reasons fascinated me. Who knew the prototype for Shakespeare's hard-drinking, lusty Falstaff, debaucher of the young prince Hal --- England's Henry V --- really died a Christian martyr? I didn't, until I started digging into Lollard history. I loved the character of Sir John. He almost took over my story.

BRC: The man we come to know as Gabriel is often one who brings news or information, which is a striking similarity to the arch-angel Gabriel, the messenger. Was this an intended similarity?

BRV: It was intended as an ironic use, at least in the beginning. His message is counterfeit --- as Anna sees it and the reformists in the Church --- since true mercy is free to the recipient. But the potential is there for him to become a messenger of truth, or so the reader can infer. Also, I like the fact that his mother gave him that name because she thought he looked like an angel.

BRC: THE MERCY SELLER opens with a book burning, a purging of heretical thought and text. What are your opinions on such events as book burnings?

BRV: As an "event," a public book burning is just one more arrow in a tyrant's quiver. It is an attempt to exercise mind control. The suppression of free expression is always prologue to a greater evil. (Though I will admit to wanting to burn a few.)

BRC: Prague, France and England all serve as stages in THE MERCY SELLER. Why were these countries specifically chosen for the novel? Did they serve a particular political angle for the purposes of the story you were trying to tell? Are these areas that you've personally explored?

BRV: Those are the locations to which the historical events of the pre-reformation movement took me. It seemed logical for Anna's grandfather, when he fled England, to relocate in Prague near a great European university. He could make a living as an illuminator and raise his granddaughter in a city that tolerated his philosophical and religious beliefs. One of the papal seats of power during the Great Schism was in France. I wanted to reference both the schism and the strained relations between England and France during this time. It was natural for Anna to travel through that country on her physical journey from Prague to England. I've visited France and England, but I've not yet been to Prague. For all three, I made extensive use of guidebooks, photos, old maps, architectural drawings, etc. I'm spatially challenged. I'd have to use a guidebook and map to write about my hometown. The medieval town, castle, manor house, cathedral and abbey are settings with which I'm very familiar. I have visited many.

BRC: In THE MERCY SELLER, religion plays a key role, and often a shadowy and deceptive role. Do you feel that religion today is similar in any ways?

BRV: Faith is a powerful force. Consider what wonderful leaps civilization has made because of religion. But consider, too, the sacrifices --- and atrocities --- humans have been and are driven to because of their religious beliefs. Tyrants of every stripe know that if a belief system can be manipulated and controlled, so can an individual or group of individuals --- even a nation. History makes a powerful argument for the separation of church and state. Personal faith, and the collective exercise therein, are treasures to be guarded from exploitation with all vigilance.

BRC: What is the meaning behind the title THE MERCY SELLER?

BRV: It is an ironic use. Mercy, by its very nature, is free. Of course, within the framework of the novel, it refers to the sale of indulgences by pardoners such as the one castigated by Chaucer in his CANTERBURY TALES. Friar Gabriel, the pardoner of my story, is exchanging grace for money with the sanction of the Church. "When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs." Some very good things were done with the money: almshouses, hospitals, great universities, and even the building of St. Peter's in Rome; but in many cases, the money was extorted from the poorer classes by the exploitation and abuse of belief by powerful, greedy men.

BRC: The research for THE MERCY SELLER must have been extensive. Can you describe your research process? Did you research before you wrote or as you went along?

BRV: Both. In the general history of the period, some aspect, some emerging pattern or conflict sparks my story and gives shape to it. I find my themes and conflicts and the characters that intrigue me in history, and then try to create the fictional characters that might have interacted with them. Then, as I go along, I dig out pertinent period details that serve my story.

BRC: Did you base any of your characters in THE MERCY SELLER on specific historical figures?

BRV: Sir John Oldcastle is an amalgam of both the historical figure of Sir John Oldcastle and his fictional representation as seen in William Shakespeare's character of Sir John Falstaff. Archbishop Thomas Arundel and King Henry V are actual historical figures, although I'll admit that Shakespeare's creation of the character of the young Prince Hal (Henry) influenced me greatly. Other actual historical figures such as the cleric Flemmynge make cameo appearances.

BRC: The success of THE ILLUMINATOR was quite remarkable. Do you find that the worldwide acceptance of the book made THE MERCY SELLER easier or more difficult to write?

BRV: In the beginning, it was much more difficult to write. Suddenly, I had an editor, an agent, a bunch of readers and some translators --- all for whom I was, and continue to be, extremely grateful. But before I was so blessed, I was writing for myself and only two or three writer friends. At first the thought of so many readers peering over my shoulder paralyzed my writer's imagination, until I learned to turn those thoughts off and let my story emerge.

BRC: How much of a challenge has it been molding fact and fiction into one cohesive and entertaining story?

BRV: It's the most fun part. That's why I write historical fiction and not history or contemporary fiction. It's like weaving two very different fabrics, like linen and silk, or blending colors and different media into some new, richly textured thing. Of course, the dates and timelines are the hardest --- matching the timelines of my fictional characters with the conflict points in the history timelines. For example, I knew in THE ILLUMINATOR that I wanted my story to end with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The events of my characters' lives: conflict points, back story, everything had to come together for that grand climax, and I could not change that date. In THE MERCY SELLER, in order to be true to my story and the historical timeline, I had to begin with the historically accurate execution of the students in Prague and end with the arrest of Sir John Oldcastle in England.

BRC: Prior to becoming a successful novelist, you were a teacher. Did being a teacher have any effect on how you approached writing?

BRV: The teacher always learns more than the student. I tried to teach my students the elements of good fiction: how to take a story apart and see how it was made. I probably learned more from those exercises than they did. It also taught me discipline and patience.

BRC: To write historical fiction, especially with the detail in which you have written, the author must have an affinity for history. What is the lure of history for you?

BRV: Patterns and perspective. Study any historical event and you can pull out the protagonists, the antagonists, the innocent, and the guilty and the way patterns of human behavior repeat. Sometimes I see passing strangers and I imagine them in period dress, try to figure what roles they would have played. Everything depends on angle and light. Studying history is like looking in a photograph album. The same event from a different perspective or even just camera distance takes on a different look. I am old enough to remember some of what is reported as "history." I am also drawn to history as place, particularly European history.

BRC: At the closing of THE MERCY SELLER, civil war has broken out in Bohemia and fertile ground seems to have been laid for a continuation of the story. Do you intend to further this line, or do you have something new in store for your readers?

BRV: Maybe one more. There is so much there. I am fascinated by the influence the printing press played in the reformation, but I'm also thinking about Dante in Florence and lace-making in Renaissance Venice and…