This week I have had the good fortune to review a wonderful new joint biography of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville by author and historian Amy Licence.
Amy was also kind enough to answer a few questions for me; about her love of writing and history.
What made you become a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, since I could write, since I could formulate a narrative. I wrote my first story when I was three and I decided that was what I wanted to do when I was eight years old – that was after I rejected the possibility of being a ballerina, an actor, an architect and an interior designer. I sent off my first novel at sixteen – it was rejected, of course! Since then I’ve always written, it was just something I had to do, I don’t feel right it I’m not writing: if I’m breathing, I’m writing. Words – their meaning and rhythm – are how I make sense of the world. I kept doing it all through university, and while I was a teacher, having articles, poems and stories published, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I finally signed a contract!
With young children around, how do you discipline yourself to write?
Luckily for me, it’s not a question of having to discipline myself. Writing is my escape and my relaxation; I feel most myself when I’m writing, so it’s essential for me to do it. Finding the time can be difficult though, so I write by stealth, whenever and wherever I can. It’s not too hard because I love it; I always have a book in my hand to research from or a notebook to jot ideas in. My hands will be changing a nappy while my head is in the fifteenth century. I have to be very organised to divide my time between my children and my work so I choose how I spend my time and try not to waste it. I don’t watch a lot of TV, for example. I have to be able to switch in and out of it quickly, as I’ll be writing and then a plaintive voice will ask for a drink, or for a story to be read, so I’m off for ten minutes then back to finish my thought.
How do you organise your writing day?
Usually it fits around the school day, so it’s balanced between getting my eldest son ready and out on time and playing with my younger one. I manage to do my best work in the morning once I get back, between about 9 and 11, often with my younger boy sitting beside me, drawing or playing. We’ll have lunch together and play in the afternoon. The boys will happily play together for about an hour when we get in from the school run so I sometimes manage another hour then. I’ll try and do some more in the evening too, or at least sit with my family if they’re watching TV with a pile of books and do some research. We try and spend as much time together as we can on the weekend but if I have a deadline looming, my husband will take the boys out for a morning.
How many projects do you have going at once, or do you concentrate on one at a time?
It depends upon my deadlines. I usually have four or five ideas for different things running in my head and work on them at different speeds. Typically, I might have one main book to be written, which I’m preparing for a deadline, and a second in the planning and research stage, plus a couple of novels I’m tinkering with and a number of articles and/or reviews. Each has a different speed. I have two reading piles too; one with books for my writing, which I’m dipping in and out of, and another for escapism reading. I like to have four or five books on the go that are totally different to what I’m writing about – the Post-Impressionists, Ted Hughes, D.H Lawrence and Tolstoy at the moment.
How long do you spend researching your subject before you start writing?
This is an odd one because it has been a slow-burning process. I’m not coming to any of my topics new, so although I’m writing about them now, I’ve been reading about them for 25 years. By the time I was 15 I’d read all the books in my local library about the Tudors and I completed my MA in Medieval and Tudor history in 1995. Since then I’ve been reading everything new about them I can get my hands on. So the general research has been on-going. With each book though, I do more specific “honing” research, which is the trawling through primary sources and that can take between 6 and 9 months.
What do you enjoy most about writing as a career?
I actually enjoy the process of writing! It’s lovely when a book comes out and the reviews start to come in; it’s great to see my name on Amazon and it’s a real buzz to give author talks to people who are interested in my work. Best of all though, is just me sitting down at the computer and writing. It takes me to another place.
What is the worst thing about writing as a career?
That it’s not a viable career. I work long hours, very hard, building on years of perseverance and dedication, overcoming rejections and I get paid less than if I was working in a supermarket stacking shelves.
How long does it take to do a project from start to finish?
Again this can vary, given that the ideas have been brewing for a long time, but the period from signing a contract to submitting the book is usually about a year, sometimes more.
Have you ever considered writing a novel? What would it be about?
Novel writing was my first love. I worked for ten years with a top literary agent and submitted about five novels to them; they loved them and said my writing was beautiful but that the market wasn’t quite right for them. I like to write literary fiction; my heroes are Woolf, Dostoevsky, Gorky and Nabokov but the current market isn’t particularly welcoming for new authors in this style. I have written historical fiction too; while I was at university I wrote a novel about the death of Amy Dudley and more recently, one about a teeth stealer on the battlefield of Waterloo, plus I’m half way through one about Edward IV. It’s just finding the time to finish it!
Who are your favourite personalities from history?
Quite honestly, I get interested in most characters I research. I don’t go for particular sides or affiliations, but I am drawn to people who challenged or defied the rules in some way, either breaking the law or transgressing social boundaries. I’m interested in people’s motivation under duress and the people who really carved out their own niches and made their own luck so I am fascinated by the lives of Edward IV and Richard III.
Which is your favourite and why, the Wars of the Roses or the Tudor era?
I like both very much, I like the century straddling the two, from about 1450 to 1550. I think we tend to perpetuate something of an artificial divide between them and I’ve just submitted a book proposal that covers exactly this period, both Wars of the Roses and Tudors and looks at the continuity. If I had to choose between one or the other, I’d probably go for the court of Edward IV, simply because the Tudors have already received so much attention.
Why Edward IV and Elizabeth? What is it about them that fascinates you?
I think there are so many interesting things about this pair, individually and collectively. The more I research Edward, the more of an interesting figure I find him, in terms of his personal rule, charisma and abilities: he was a supremely able man who conquered the country twice and held it together by force of his personality. I really think he has been overlooked by history. His marriage to Elizabeth and their relationship intrigues me too. I also feel that she has had a very raw deal from historians, almost written up as a caricature, typifying the notions of patriarchal history and “cherchez la femme”, and she deserves to be analysed far more objectively. Despite the initial objections to her background, birth, age and marital history, Elizabeth can be seen as conforming to contemporary notions of ideal queenship; beautiful, fertile, submissive. She is a paradox who has divided historians for centuries, but much of that is the repetition of a patriarchal mind-set that has remained unchallenged until recently.
What era that you haven’t yet written about would you like to get your teeth into?
Good question. Definitely the English Civil War and its aftermath; I’d love to do something on the failed experiment of the radical sects in the C17th, or on Charles and Cromwell, or the period slightly before. I’d also quite like to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine and I’m very keen to do another early C20th book, about some of the makers of Modernism. I have plans in the pipeline for that last one.
A lot of your work has been about women in history. What attracted you to their stories?
I wrote my first published book, In Bed with the Tudors, because I’d just had my first child. I was interested to explore the experiences of women during pregnancy and birth in the past, so I suppose it does have a lot to do with the fact that I am a woman. However, I’m also drawn to write about marginal figures whose stories have been overlooked and I’m fascinated by alternative narratives. In my forthcoming “Red Roses” (The History Press, March 2016) I trace an alternative thread to the male metanarrative that has dominated historiography, connecting the women of the Lancastrian dynasty between the 1340s and 1509 and seeking common themes in their lives. The study of women’s history is comparatively new and it’s shocking how often their lives are simply retold in the same ways, without attempts being made to get inside their heads and see things from their perspectives.
Do you every get writer’s block? If so, how do you get round it?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you’re a serious writer, you have to be professional about it and just get on with it. There is always something to be done, even if it turns out not to be perfect. If you’re finding one section difficult, write another part, or go back and revise. If writing is tricky that day, research, read, make notes, collect images or jot down some ideas. You can always go back and change them, or reject them entirely, but it’s a process of crafting and clarification, so the next time you attempt that bit, it will be that little bit better. If you produce nothing, you have nothing to work with, you’re still at step one. My mantras are: “the worst thing you write is always better than the best thing you don’t write” and “the only way to do it, is to do it!”
Do you find social media – such as Facebook – a help or a distraction?
Both. It has been invaluable for connecting me with wonderful, like-minded people from all round the world. I thank them profusely for their friendship and kindness, for sharing their thoughts and research; I’ve made some great friends on Facebook who have inspired and influenced me and kept me sane. It is also my shop-front and without question, has helped me reach a far wider audience and update people about my work and appearances. However, it can be a huge time waster. Sometimes, especially with deadlines looming, I have to step back from it, or else I would get nothing done.
What is your next project?
I’ve signed three contracts and am about to sign one more, to keep me busy for the next couple of years. I will keep some of those projects secret for a while, but can tell you I’ve begun writing a huge biography of Catherine of Aragon. Catherine tends to get often in terms of her gynecological record and marriage to Henry but I want to analyse her as a queen in the context of her childhood and parentage. I want to explore the influence of her mother Isabella – who expelled the Jews from Spain and founded the secular branch of the Inquisition, as well as patronising female humanist scholars – and how this shaped the mind-set of a woman who never forgot she was Isabella’s daughter and resisted Henry’s demands because she felt the higher calling of God. I want to see Catherine as a Renaissance woman in her own right. Henry is definitely taking a back seat for this one.
I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Amy Licence for answering all my questions and giving us an insight into her writing life. Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance is available from Monday 15th February in the Uk and Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort is set for release in early March.