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Interview: Annie Whitehead

Author of To Be A Queen

Today I have the great pleasure of presenting an interview with Annie Whitehead. Ms. Whitehead is the author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction. I reviewed her novel To Be A Queen,  about Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, here on the blog a few weeks ago. Ms. Whitehead is not only an author, but she is also a historian in her own right, a member of the Royal Historical Society, writes on two blogs (!) Casting Light Upon the Shadow, and Reads, Writes, and Reviews. She is also on the editorial team for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Her website highlights all of her work!

Annie, I am really excited to have this chat with you today! Thanks so much for being willing to do this interview. Let’s start with the novel that I reviewed on my blog. I really enjoyed reading To Be A Queen. You came to the story very much from the background of a historian, as your bio says that you studied the Anglo-Saxon era as an undergraduate. What was it that intrigued you about this era?

Thanks so much for inviting me! I’ve always loved history, some periods more than others. I’d done a project on ‘The Celts’ for my A-Level, so when it came to my degree course it seemed natural to pick all the ‘Dark Ages’ modules. I was lucky to have a brilliant tutor who brought it all alive for me.

I know that you have done some non-fiction writing as well as your novels. What drew you to writing historical fiction instead of strictly sticking to non-fiction?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but not a writer necessarily of historical fiction. My first novel was supposed to be a dual timeline, but the more I researched the ‘then’ story, the less appealing the ‘now’ bit became. That novel eventually became Alvar the Kingmaker.

The story of Æthelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, is a fascinating one. What drew you to her story in particular?

As with most of my stories, the seeds were sown during that undergraduate course. I initially found her husband the interesting character since he rode onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere. I soon realised though that the interest for a fictionalised account lay with his wife, not him!

Awesome! It’s always great when the women get a chance to shine! Because of your background as a historian you were able to add a great deal of historical details and depth to your novel. How did you balance the need to share all the interesting tidbits of historical interest with your readers while still keeping the focus on telling a good story?

I was keenly aware of the adage that writers should show their research lightly. When I write, I don’t put the historical detail in straight away, so my drafts are something like this: She walked up to the dais, where plates of [food] were laid out. She pushed back the sleeves of her [add details about dress]. In such a way, you can ensure that you only put in what needs to go in, whilst concentrating on the story itself.

Yes, I know what you mean. I have a lot of blanks in my first drafts, too. You gave Æthelflaed the nickname “Teasel” in the book. Could you tell us what was the origin of this, and why you chose to give her this nickname?

As you’ll be aware, that particular period of English history is littered with people whose names begin with Æthel and Ælf so I wanted to give her a nickname, preferably something which had an Old English origin. Teasel fitted, because it is Old English and gave the opportunity for there to be some confusion as to what it means; her husband-to-be assumes that she is ‘prickly’.

I really liked the way you were able to enter into Teasel’s point of view in this novel. It’s very difficult for us as modern women to be able to enter into the perspective of a woman who has such different experiences and backgrounds from ours. Did you find this difficult? Is there anything that you would have liked to include in the book about Æthelflaed’s life but ended up leaving out, and why?

There is in fact so little written about her life that it was more a case of fleshing it out than omitting anything. It’s a very interesting question regarding perspective and now I think about it I don’t think it was difficult. When approaching historical subjects for me it’s natural to think about all aspects of that history, which includes the sensibilities of the age. I already had a good idea who Teasel was, how she would act and think, and what her frustrations would be.

In the book you have given Æthelflaed another love interest besides her husband. Is there any historical fact for that? I really enjoyed the way you presented Aethelflaed’s relationship with her husband and with Alhelm. How did you decide to write this part of Aethelflaed’s story in the way that you did?

No, there’s no historical basis for it, although Alhelm was a real person. I added that storyline for some dramatic tension and I hope I succeeded in making his actions and speech open to misinterpretation by a love-struck girl. It was also a device to show how her husband inspired loyalty among his men and to allow a deeper emotional aspect to the very real fact that she was married off to an older man.

Your books seem to mainly focus on Mercia. What fascinates you about that particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom?

It just seemed to be the place where the really interesting characters came from/lived. From Penda, the pagan king, untiring in his efforts to push back the Northumbrians, Æthelflæd (of course) and her husband, King Offa, and the ‘evil’ Eadric Streona, who changed sides so many times during the wars between Cnut and Edmund Ironside that he must have made himself dizzy! There’s also Lady Godiva, and Wulfrun, after whom Wolverhampton was named. The history of Mercia is written by their enemies, in the main, which gives them a bit of an underdog persona, and it is said that the dialect of the Black Country is the closest we have to Old English.

Interesting…I didn’t know that! What was the hardest part of writing this book, and what did you enjoy the most? Did you learn anything unexpected?

The hardest part was finding the ‘human’ detail. The timeline of the history was fairly easy to establish, but I found I knew less about eating habits, cooking methods, and wedding/baptism ceremonies, etc. I learned that flour dust is highly flammable, a fact which I used in one scene in the book.

You have a lot of projects on the go, including two blogs, a website, and all of your writing. How do you manage all of that (asking for a friend, of course)?

My children have all grown up and left home, and I am able to work pretty much full time on my writing, aside from the odd freelance teaching contract. I’m in awe of writer friends who have full-time day jobs as well as their writing careers. I do treat this very much as a ‘nine-to-five’ job although it does tend to extend to seven days a week most of the time. Luckily I enjoy it! I set myself daily, weekly and monthly deadlines to give some structure to the whole process.

Can you tell us about your other books, both fiction and non-fiction?

My two other novels are Cometh the Hour(about the afore-mentioned King Penda and his struggles against the northern kings) and Alvar the Kingmaker, set in tenth-century Mercia and in a time of scandal and regicide. I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of the events leading up to Hastings and I have two nonfiction books – Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.

Wonderful! Besides everything else you do, you have a great Twitter feed @AnnieWHistory where (among other things) you find some intriguing (and down-right weird!) pictures from medieval manuscripts and create hilarious captions for them. How did you get going on that, and how on earth do you find all the pictures?

It started by accident, really. I was trying to think of something to Tweet and captioned a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I remembered all the weird images in the medieval manuscripts and somehow began a daily commentary of the lives of Bob, Phil, and Ursula and their mishaps.

I know you have a new book (non-fiction) out, just published on May 30, 2020: Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Tell us about it!

I’d given a couple of talks during which I had mentioned some incredible women from the period and realised that they’d never been given their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ so I set about doing just that. I put the idea to my publisher and they gave the go-ahead. Originally I was going to categorise them: queens, abbesses, murderesses, etc, but soon realised that many fell into one, more, or all of those categories. So I’ve presented them chronologically, grouping family members together and looking at all the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms along the way. These are pen-portraits of the women of influence of the period, and in many cases I’ve not only brought them out of the shadows but also tried to restore their reputations.

That sounds so interesting. I will definitely be giving it a read.

Thanks so much for inviting me over to the blog – I’ve really enjoyed chatting about my writing.