An Interview with Joanna Courtney

We're excited to bring you not one, but TWO, new titles from a new author to our list this year! Here, historical fiction writer Joanna Courtney tells all on her Shakespeare's Queens trilogy and her poignant, feel-good love story Bonnie and Stan, written under Anna Stuart. 

When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

Pretty much from the moment I could read. My mum says I was happy for hours in my cot as a very young child as long as I had books in there with me and I was an avid reader from an early age. I loved Enid Blyton and wrote my own boarding school novel aged ten. I just wish I still had the manuscript for it!

Is there a book or author that has inspired you most?

I’ve always loved Nick Hornby. I think his grasp of real characters is wonderful and he writes such warm, honest, relatable novels. On the historical front I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Chadwick who was one of the first female authors to really open up the Saxon period.

Do you have a strict writing routine or approach to planning?

Very. When I’m writing my historical novels I start, obviously, with lots of research. I then decide the characters I want to include and the way I understand the shape of their story. Often the novels cover long periods of time so I spend ages deciding which events to include and how to link them up smoothly for a reader. I like to produce a full chapter-by-chapter summary to write from and then, when the time is right, I sit down and get on with it. That’s not to say the story doesn’t change at all as sometimes characters still say and do things I wasn’t expecting but on the whole the shape of the novel is settled before I start writing it…My new contemporary novels don’t need quite such intricate forward planning as there are no facts to constrain the plot. That’s very liberating as the characters can do what they want when they want but I also found it almost disorientating to have all those decisions to make for myself! 

Have you always been interested in history?

I have. I remember as a ten-year-old going to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh with my grandparents and being fascinated by the (presumably re-touched) bloodstain on the floorboards where David Rizzio was killed by Lord Darnley. It seemed astonishing to me that I was standing on the very same spot where that had actually happened and I have had a strong sense of the ever-present nature of history since that moment.

How do you go about researching the historical periods behind your novels?

I like to start with a really wide net. I read all the books, articles, webpages and, yes, even Wikipedia entries, on anything to do with the period I am going to be writing in and then slowly but surely hone in on the things that I want to feature so I can do more in-depth research...I keep a file I call “cool stuff to use” full of little bits and pieces I think readers would find interesting and whilst they don’t all make it into the novels, I find them a good starting point for making scenes in the core narrative interesting for modern readers.

"I really enjoy research and my favourite bit is finding nuggets of information that can spark characters or plot points."

Do you have a favourite period to write about?

I’m very much an ancient history girl. I studied English literature at Cambridge University and specialised in medieval and Arthurian literature and I’m fascinated by the so-called “dark ages”. It’s a term I hate. That period is only “dark” to us because we have so little information about it. A quick look at some of the exquisite jewellery of the times (much of it is in the British Museum) tells you at a glance that these were, at least at the highest level of society, a people of great sophistication and taste and I consider it my personal mission to open up this much-neglected part of society to readers.

How difficult is it to combine history with fiction?

I really enjoy it so I guess I don’t find it difficult at all. For me the key is in the motivations of the characters. My principal characters are mainly real people from history so I have to work with all the facts we can possibly find (which are sometimes all too few) about what happened to them and the countries they were ruling. What was not really recorded in this period, however, was how people felt so the key to getting under their skin is to attempt to establish their personalities as accurately as possible from what we know and then use that to give drive and coherent shape to the narrative.

"For me, why people did what they did is the driver of historical fiction."

Could you briefly introduce us to your new trilogy, Shakespeare’s Queens.

Shakespeare’s Queens will explore the real lives of three of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragic heroines. Blood Queen tells of Lady Macbeth, a forward-thinking and extremely effective Queen of Scotland by her own hereditary right from 1040–55. Fire Queen introduces Ofelia, she-warrior captain of Prince Hamlet’s guard in 600 AD, his closest protector in his journeys to England and Scotland and leader in his reclaiming of power in Denmark from his usurping uncle. And Iron Queen takes us all the way back to 500 BC where Cordelia is youngest daughter of Lear, chieftain of the Coritani tribe in what is now Leicestershire, in a time of matrilineal descent and true equality for women.

What inspired you to explore Shakespeare's queens?

I love Shakespeare and admire him hugely as a writer, mainly for knowing his craft as a dramatist and exploiting it mercilessly. Shakespeare was never one to let truth get in the way of a good story and that was one of the secrets of his success…What fascinates me, however, is the truth behind that lively and supernatural-infused piece of stagecraft, and that’s what Shakespeare’s Queens seeks to reveal…The catalyst for the series was when my research for The Queens of the Conquest, turned up several mentions of Macbeth as king of Scotland at the time when England was gearing up towards the momentous events of 1066. I was fascinated to find out he’d been a real king and I knew for a long time that I wanted to write his and Lady Macbeth’s story. It seemed, likely, however, that Lady Macbeth was not the only great female Shakespeare had mined out of history and sure enough further research showed the likelihood of a real Ofelia and Cordelia too. 

How important is it to reveal the real women behind your characters to modern audiences?

It’s crucial to me. A thousand years is a miniscule amount of time in the evolution of man (and obviously woman) and it is my firm belief that the people in the pre-1066 period, despite having very different technologies and social attitudes, were similar to us in what it is to be innately human. People laughed and cried, loved and lost and had many of the same hopes and aspirations that we do today, just in a slightly different setting and I love to try and draw out the similarities between us and them, rather than dwell on the differences.

If you had to compare yourself to one of your queens, who would it be? 

That’s a really tricky question. I think I’d like to be like Elizaveta, heroine of The Constant Queen, because she’s so fiery and passionate and hot-tempered but that’s not really me at all. I do see a lot of myself in Cora, Lady Macbeth, heroine of Blood Queen. I don’t have the “itchy royal blood” that makes her yearn to rule but I am just as restless and impatient as she is (ask my husband!), though I hope I’m also as strong and determined too. I also feel strongly that she is the one who has been most unjustly served in terms of her reputation, thanks to the wonderful Shakespeare, and feel a real yearning to correct that in the public mind. 

Do you have a favourite Shakespearean play?

I’ve always been rather fond of Romeo and Juliet as I studied it for GCSE and then directed it at University. A close look at the play shows us that Juliet is a far feistier character than she is often given credit for as she’s really the mover-shaker in her relationship with the dreamy Romeo. I do, however, also love Macbeth and I think it’s very telling that Lady Macbeth is one of the Shakespearean roles that actresses would all love to play. The Bard has her, of course, as a “baddie” which I do not believe for a moment she was, but he has at least picked up on what I am sure was her very determined and ambitious nature.

What inspired the shift in genre for Bonnie and Stan?

I cannot claim the credit for that as it must largely go to my agent and my editor at Trapeze. I first signed to my agent, Kate Shaw, a long time ago with a contemporary novel but when we failed to sell that I chose to shift into historical fiction. Kate backed me all the way in that decision, which proved to be a good one, but she also knew I could write modern novels so when Sam Eades approached her looking for an author to run with an idea she’d had Kate very kindly thought of me. I was stunned when she called me up but also very excited at the chance she was offering. Sam’s inspiration had come from an advert in the New York Times by a woman who was dying of cancer seeking a new wife for her husband after she was gone. It was a poignant and moving piece and one Sam felt would work well in a novel. She, however, wanted to look at it as a man seeking a new husband for his wife and with an older protagonist. I’d been thinking a lot at that time about the fact that today’s supposedly “old” people are now a product of the revolutionary sixties and so I seized on the chance to explore that with Bonnie and Stan.

How does writing as Joanna Courtney and Anna Stuart differ?

That’s quite hard to say as I don’t consciously change the way I write but there are obviously some key differences. As I said above, I plan my historical novels rigorously as they are necessarily formed around a spine of known facts and that will drive the narrative in a more formal way than with my contemporary work. They also tend to take place over quite long periods of time so I have to try and establish smooth transitions from year to year to create a fluid reading experience. There are also some language constraints. Deciding what tone to write in is really tricky with historical fiction and must, of necessity, be something of a game as in my period none of them would have been talking in recognisable English anyway. Even those in England would have been speaking something more akin to Norse than the language we know now so all I can do is write in a way that does not sound either like joke history (all thees and thous) or jarringly contemporary language….Writing contemporary fiction has been, in comparison, a much freer experience but also a bit scary when you’ve been used to a more rigid scaffold for your story. It took me a while to relax into writing that way but once I got going it felt very natural again and good editing is obviously still absolutely vital.

Could you briefly introduce us to Bonnie and Stan. What are they facing at the start of the book?

Bonnie and Stan are a devoted couple who have been together ever since they met in The Cavern in Liverpool back when the Beatles were huge, Bonnie was an architecture student and Stan was in a band called The Best Boys looking to be the next big thing. Despite a traumatic start to their relationship they’ve had a long and happy marriage and, as Stan turns 75, they are building a beautiful house in which to enjoy retirement together. That all changes, however, when Stan’s routine medical tests throw up a shadow on his liver – a shadow that turns out to be cancer. Stan is devastated. He doesn’t want to die, but even more than that he doesn’t want to leave Bonnie on her own. Looking after her is what he’s devoted his life to and he hates the idea of abandoning her – that’s when he comes up with the idea of finding someone else to look after her for him. Needless to say, his unusual choice of dating path doesn’t run smoothly….

Why did you choose Liverpool as a setting?

Once I’d decided that the flashbacks sections of the novel were going to be set in the swinging sixties there was only really one choice of setting! I loved looking into that era and the research trip to the pubs and clubs of Liverpool was the best one ever!

How does writing a standalone novel compare to a trilogy?

It isn’t actually that different as all my historical novels can be read as standalone books. The three narratives in The Queens of the Conquest are concurrent rather than consecutive…They can be read in any order or without the other two, so although having all three hopefully enhances the reader’s understanding of that amazing period they do not rely on each other in any way. The same goes for Shakespeare’s Queens as the only true link is that the great playwright chose to use them in his plays. Other than that, they are standalone stories with their own characters and settings so I very much buried myself in each one as I was writing it.

How important are libraries for an author?

I think libraries are hugely important to everyone and it breaks my heart that the government are closing so many down. There is still plenty of money in the arts and it seems wrong to me that we should continue to fund privileged places like Covent Garden Opera house and not keep libraries going. Don’t get me wrong – I love the theatre and I think it’s vital to a civilised society to keep exploring all arts, but I do understand that sometimes, for the country as for us all, there is only so much money to go round.

"They are often the only places where many people will be able to access books and that, to me, is the most important thing of all."

What are you currently working on?

I am currently developing the plot of both Iron Queen and the standalone novel that will follow Bonnie and Stan. I’m hoping to get writing on one or other of them very soon as that’s the really exciting bit!

Blood Queen is out now on CD and MP3 CD, read by Sally Armstrong, and Bonnie and Stan will be available on CD and MP3 CD in your local libarary from 1st March 2019, read by Peter Kenny and Victoria Fox. 

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