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Author Talk: August 22, 2019

Philippa Gregory is the author of many New York Times bestselling novels, including THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, and is a recognized authority on women’s history. Her latest book, TIDELANDS, kicks off her Fairmile series, which spans 250 years and three continents. In 1648 England, the king and parliament are at war. Alinor, a poor woman from the marshlands of the southern coast, is among those trying to find peace during this difficult time. But when she meets a stranger named James, her life takes an unexpected turn for the better. In this interview, Gregory talks about what drew her to Cromwellian England as the setting for this new series; the research she conducted, especially as it pertains to the scene between James and King Charles; why she decided to write TIDELANDS from the third-person perspective, as opposed to her novels about royalty, which are told in the first person; and how her wonderful charity, Gardens for The Gambia, was born.

Question: You are best known for your series about royal families. But Cromwellian England is a time when the monarchy is out of power. What drew you to start your newest series during this time period?

Philippa Gregory: It’s true that I have set many previous books in the royal courts, but what interested me about them was not the royalty but the concentration of power and therefore jeopardy --- which is the heart of any dramatic story. Also, in the royal courts, we have records of women that are completely absent further down the social scale, and it was the stories of historical women that I wanted to tell. Further ahead in time, there are more records of what ordinary women and men were doing, which I could draw on to root the fiction in a historical reality. By making Alinor a wholly fictional character, I was able to write a historical novel that was true to the time. I don’t know that there is any record of the life of an ordinary working woman in this period. The diarists and letter writers simply were not interested in them, so any account is going to have to be mostly fictional.

I wanted to leave the world of the royals --- I have tried to write about them without “rose-tinted” vision --- but inevitably these are elite people, and their difficulties and dangers, though sometimes extreme, are not the difficulties and dangers of people on the edge of poverty. This first book is where my family starts, in poverty. They’re going to rise in the world, but they come (as most English families do, however grand they are now) from agricultural laborers on the edge of survival. It’s a very leveling thought!

Q: You have a great ability to flesh out characters only briefly mentioned in the historical record. But at the time Alinor lived, there would be almost no original source material for a poor woman with no social status. Were you still able to use the same research process to build her character?

PG: There is a wealth of material about working people and working women from historians who are interested in the supporters of Cromwell and parliament --- so ordinary people. Though there is nothing (that I could find) about people living in this particular area, there are surveys and reports of poor parts of England as the armies went through. For unruly women there are criminal court records, and a lot of complaints from ministers and vicars and magistrates. There are records of midwives, and herbalists, and of course there is a wealth of documentary evidence when literate men (almost always men) supervised witchcraft hunts and trials and so reported (probably the first time they had ever considered) the private lives of poor women.

Q: History is said to be written by the winners. But your novels tend to show what it is like to be both in the favor of the powerful and out of favor with the powerful. What inspired you to make James a spy for the losing side?

PG: James is a spy for the elite --- the upper classes --- so he starts his life as one of the “winners.” His family adhered to the Roman Catholic faith when the rest of the country turned Protestant, but there were many elite Catholics who survive to this day. He would have thought he was on the winning side for most of the war, and I don’t think he genuinely imagines defeat until he is responsible for one of the many failed escape attempts by the captured king. Of course, ultimately, he is on the winning side, as the monarchy is restored in the king’s son Charles II.

In fiction terms, I wanted a character who would be able to show the weakness of the monarchy case and a character who would expose Alinor to more danger. This was a civil war; it divided families, and I wanted to show that, too. Also --- this was a book that was very fictional in process as well as outcome --- as I was writing, James ran into the book, as he does into Alinor’s life, and he turned out to be a royalist spy. I didn’t know that was what he would be when he first arrived. I thought he would be a recusant priest, but all the rest unfolded.

Q: When you wrote the scene between James and King Charles, was there anything in your research that particularly helped you portray the king?

PG: There’s a lot of biographical material about the king and especially about his deterioration during his imprisonment. There are quite a lot of accounts of failed rescue attempts at this stage of his imprisonment, too, so there was a lot of history and historians’ opinions to draw on to write this completely fictional scene.

I was especially interested in Charles’ change of attitude during his captivity. From his own letters, we know that he started confident that he could outwit and outnegotiate the parliamentary representatives, and he was certain that he would negotiate a return to his throne. This was partly because he was convinced that kingship was a state of being, a divinely appointed state, that nothing could alter. He thought everyone would come to realize that they could arrest him, but that being a king was intrinsic to him --- he would always be king. Ultimately, I think he came to think that to be a martyred king was the best way to demonstrate this.

It’s hard for us in the modern world to imagine that someone should think that they are a genuinely superior being to another person --- we’re so inculcated with democracy now! But Charles believed that he had been chosen by God to be king of England, and that meant that he was a father to his people, and that they could not reject this relationship.

Q: Your novels about royalty are told from the first-person perspective. TIDELANDS is written in the third person. Why did you decide to make this change? Was it a challenge or a thrill?

PG: The first-person characters are women at the royal courts and include commoners (like Mary Boleyn) and indeed imposters (like Hannah in THE QUEEN’S FOOL), so the point of moving from first to third person was not about status but about the story I wanted to tell.

In TIDELANDS, I wanted to be able to describe the inner world of more than one person; I wanted to be free to describe events that happened far from the primary character. I wanted Alinor to live like an uneducated woman in a highly complex world --- it was important that she was not present at great events. So if I wanted the reader to see James’ life at his college in Douai, I had to write in third person (or have a series of first-person narrators). Contradictorily, when it came to the execution of King Charles, I did not use third person! Instead, I found it really useful to imbue the account with emotion by letting James and Ned be reporters.

How to tell the story is a huge decision when starting a novel, but since this is book one of a series, I knew that it would be less of a wrench if I did not change the narrator with each book.

Q: Alinor and Alys are both very compelling women. The reader is able to see their problems from both their points of view. Was it difficult to write the scenes where they are at odds with how to fix the situation in which they find themselves?

PG: No! Delightfully the mother/daughter conflicts were very fluent to write. I could see each one’s point of view. The development of Alys in the story came from her growing up so that she was more than her mother’s daughter, but was someone with her own ambitions and opinions.

Q: You have announced that TIDELANDS is part of the Fairmile series, spanning 250 years and three continents. How long did it take you to write this first novel? How much of the series did you have plotted out before you started writing?

PG: The joy of writing historical fiction, which is not fictional biography, is that I am so much more free to develop the characters and develop their lives as I wish. I knew at the outset that I wanted to tell the story of an English family that rises in prosperity, as so many English families did through the revolutions in agriculture, industry and then especially empire. Beyond that, I didn’t really have a plan. This first novel developed as I wrote it, sometimes surprising me, and took two years to write --- longer than usual. The next one is going to start in London but probably move to Venice and from there probably east. But I think that Ned is the sort of man who would follow his conscience to America.

Q: You graduated from the University of Sussex. Had you always wanted to write a novel set in that area? Or was there something about this story that drew you back there?

PG: The novel is set in an area that I lived in for several years, and was where I spent most of my childhood holidays. I love this undeveloped, unspoiled stretch of coastline. It’s very peaceful, very rich in wildlife, and incredibly evocative. It’s not very large, and it’s not very famous, so it’s very lovely to visit and write there. It’s not far from where I set my first novel, WIDEACRE, so it is now both a fictional landscape and a real place for me.

Q: Did the #MeToo movement affect how you wanted to write the character of Alinor? Has the persistence of this current women’s movement affected your plans for the series as a whole?

PG: My commitment to feminism as a way of understanding the world and as a hope for the future goes back a long way, and the #MeToo movement has been an inspiration to me in seeing courageous women stand together. I have been guided in this fictional series by my simultaneous work on a new nonfiction book of history that is going to trace the lives of ordinary women (and the obstacles they faced) over a long study from 1066 to 1966 in England. I hope to publish this within five years. As a historian, I am particularly interested in the roots of women’s oppression and ill treatment, and I think I can make the greatest contribution to the movement by showing how the past contributes to our lives now. It’s really shocking to understand how little improvement there has been in terms of assaults on women while we have made great strides in political representation.

Q: You are very involved with the charity Gardens for The Gambia. Can you share how that came about?

PG: I founded the charity Gardens for The Gambia with a headmaster of a rural Gambian primary school in 1993 to provide water for wells in the gardens of rural schools in The Gambia. The vegetables they grow provide school dinners for the poorest children in school, who would otherwise have nothing to eat all day; the surplus produce is sold, and stationery and educational equipment is bought with the profit; and the children learn the basics of sustainable agriculture. The gardens are planted rather like an English allotment. They grow all sorts of vegetables and salad vegetables. Usually the school also plants an orchard of citrus trees and walnut trees. Often pupils from the senior class of these primary schools will be made responsible for the health of their particular tree. They fence it to protect it from straying animals, and they water it every day from the well. We dig the wells with local labor, and we go down about 16 meters to tap clean water. We provide a rope and a bucket and --- job done!

It’s a beautiful little scheme that makes a difference to about 200 children in every school, and we’ve completed nearly 200 wells. I pay for it from my own money and from donations --- it’s only £300 per well [almost $400], so it’s extraordinarily good value for money in transforming the lives of the poorest people in Africa. I’m very grateful to people who donate to share this project with me.