Hi Karen, congratulations on the release of your book, The Nevills of Middleham: England’s Most Powerful Family in the Wars of the Roses and thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Welcome to History…the Interesting Bits.
Tell me about your book – how did it come about?
My name was very kindly passed to History Press by my friend, Amy Licence, when they first came up with the idea of a book about the Nevills. Of course, despite doubts and nerves, I jumped at the chance.
Chronicling an entire family is a huge undertaking, what made you write about the Nevills? What is it about them that fascinates you?
“Warwick rose toweringly. His rose-dappled mantle swirled; black hair curled on his brow. Everything of him was puissant and challenging and might have said: Behold us! We of the blood royal, of Edward the Third.”*
I read that paragraph when I was about fifteen and was intrigued. I wanted to know more. Who was this guy? I’ve spent years – decades – since then trying to find out! It hasn’t always been easy. Before the internet, books weren’t always easy to come by and primary sources next to impossible. The whole family fascinates me, as you say. I think any 15th century family has the potential to fascinate and intrigue but it was the Nevills who claimed me.
*Hawley Jarman, Rosemary, 1973, The King’s Grey Mare, Collins, London, p53
Who is your favourite Nevill? And why?
Well, that changes depending on my mood! They all have something to recommend them. The one I’ve got to know best over the last few years is Thomas so he might be my current favourite. I’ve also got a huge soft spot for Alice and her husband, Henry Fitzhugh. I have no idea why! The Fitzhughs didn’t live that far from Middleham and Alice and Henry would have grown up together, though I’d hesitate to even suggest the ‘childhood sweethearts’ thing. They knew each other all their lives and while her sisters all married men who lived far away, Alice remained close to her old family home until Henry’s death.
And which Nevill do you like least?
There isn’t one!
The Nevills were involved in some of the greatest events to shape English history, but eventually lost everything, do you see them as heroes or villains?
Neither. Both. Sometimes one and sometimes the other but mostly, I think, they inhabited the shadowy in-between of moral ambiguity. Enlightened self-interest is one of the more interesting driving forces of change, and Warwick certainly operated from that principle when pushing for reform and regime change, but he could also be unconscionably self-interested in a most unenlightened way. To use a rather tired phrase often trotted out to cover a multitude of sins, they were of their time. But, at times, Warwick could be far more ruthless than that. The executions in Calais in 1460, the extra-legal killings of earl Rivers and the Herberts, the bloodbath after the battle of Hexham (which wasn’t Warwick’s responsibility alone, his brother John and Edward IV were also behind this orgy of executions that lasted days and stretched from Hexham to York) all point to a man with scant ability to forgive. Handing out second chances was not something Warwick tended to do. I think those people who wandered into Warwick’s unreality field certainly saw him as a hero. To the people of Burgundy, he has gone down in history as one of the vilest villains of all time. Like a lot of things, it depends where you stand.
You have written both history and historical fiction – which is the easiest and which the most fun?
Non-fiction is easier to write. While you can speculate some – indeed, you kind of have to from time to time – you don’t have to dream up motivations and relationships. If you don’t know where someone was for six months, you just make a note of that and move on. There’s no gap filling to be done. But it’s that very difficulty that makes writing historical fiction so stimulating. You can’t (always) just leave a six month gap, you have to find somewhere for them to be and something for them to do, you have to establish how they felt about the various other people in the story, you have to give them a voice. I think the exercise of researching more rigorously and writing non-fiction will make me a better writer of fiction but the proof of that will be in the pudding.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
It’s a bit like breathing. I’ve never stopped to ask why I do it. I just have to. Thinking about it now… when everything’s flowing and the words are just pouring out (good or bad), when every sentence sparks the next, when fictional characters pick up their story and take off with it, when a sudden realisation hits you that this is why someone did something, or that is what drives them… those are the best bits.
What is the worst thing about writing?
How do you organise your writing day?
I don’t! I get up, sit down at my desk and maybe I start work. Or I get up again and do something else. Or I put on some music, crank it up and dance until my dog tells me to stop. Organising isn’t my strongest suit. It’s probably why it’s taken as long as it has before I’ve got serious about writing. I’ve been writing all my life. I couldn’t wait to start school coz they were going to teach me how to write and that would mean all the little stories that were locked in my head could be set free. But I had to work for a living for years and that became my focus and my priority, along with growing my children up. Since making the decision that, if I didn’t get something happening soon, it was never going to, I have the freedom just to let it all flow. I can write for hours one day and faff around for hours the next. No self-discipline, that’s my problem! Writing The Nevills changed that to a large degree, as I had a deadline imposed from without. That meant more days writing and fewer faffing.
How long have you spent researching the Nevills?
Years! Decades! For a long time, it was pretty desultory. I bought books when I could, though they weren’t always easy to come by. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what was available. Then along came the internet! The decline of bricks and mortar bookshops is lamented by many but I can’t quite feel the same hostility towards Amazon (and the like) I know others do. Living where I do, a long way from bookshops of any kind, online book stores have been an unalloyed blessing. And there’s so much primary source material on the internet! I’ve spent hours and hours tracking down a reference to some obscure text and, nine times out of then, I’ve found it. So, in the last few years, particularly since I started writing The Nevills, the research has got more intense and deeper.
Do you find social media – such as Facebook – a benefit or a hindrance?
Oh, definitely a benefit! The support I’ve had from friends is incalculable. Discussions and debates, someone pointing out a source I hadn’t come across before, the flourishing of ideas… it’s been great! If I hadn’t stumbled across Susan Higginbotham’s blog several years ago now I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, a book about the Nevills would probably have been written but not by me. I cannot stress enough how much facebook friends like Susan, Amy and you, Sharon, have helped me on this journey.
What is your next project?
I really want to get the first Nevill novel finished. It’s nearly done but I think my imminent trip to the UK will feed into that beautifully. Apart from that, I have a zillion ideas waiting to be explored – a fantasy series I’m about halfway through writing, a science fiction idea that refuses to go away, a crime novel with a BDSM theme, a book I’ve been working on for decades that needs either to be dusted off and looked at again or shelved permanently, the rest of the Nevill fiction… then, the other night, a news story about North Korea sparked yet another idea. I either need a guaranteed next life or a dedicated team of offsiders!
A huge ‘THANK YOU‘ to Karen for taking the time to chat and answer my questions. I wish her every success with the book.
About Karen’s Book
The Nevills of Middleham: England’s Most Powerful Family in the Wars of the Roses: In 1465, the Nevills must have thought they’d reached the pinnacle of power and influence in England. Richard Nevill was the king’s right-hand man and married to the richest woman in the kingdom; John Nevill was an accomplished soldier who’d done much to stabilise the new dynasty; and George Nevill was not only chancellor but newly enthroned as Archbishop of York.
The Nevill women were as active as their male counterparts. As sisters and wives, daughters and daughters-in-laws, they had the ears of the elite in England and were not afraid of wielding their influence. And they were not always on the same side.
Cracks in the stability of the most powerful family in England began to show. Rivalries led to serious conflict that worsened when King Edward IV impulsively married Elizabeth Wydeville, a choice of bride that did not please everyone. The Nevills had already lost a great deal for the Yorkist cause. Within six years, as the Wars of the Roses turned into one of the bloodiest periods of English history, they’d lose even more for the Lancastrians.
The Nevills of Middleham is available now from the History Press.
K.L. CLARK’s research of the Nevill family and the Wars of the Roses spans over a decade and she is currently working on a series of novels about the Nevills. She has presented two papers on the Wars of the Roses to the Richard III Society, writes the popular blog A Nevill Feast and is an active member of the Facebook history community. She lives in Australia with her family. http://www.nevillfeast.wordpress.com.
©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.