Sharon: I am very pleased to have this chance to interview Priscilla Royal, whose medieval mysteries have long been favorites of mine. We share many of the same readers, so I know this will be a popular interview. And Priscilla has generously agreed to do another book giveaway. To enter, you have only to post an entry on this blog. The winner will receive a signed copy of The Proud Sinner. Now before we get started on the new book, Priscilla, you said you have two announcements you are eager to make.
Priscilla: My first book in the series, Wine of Violence, is being reissued in specially identified trade paperback and e-reader versions on February 3, 2017. The edition is special because one of the finest historical novelists of our time, Sharon Kay Penman, was generous enough to write a new Introduction for it. Am I thrilled? For once, I’m without words. Thank you, Sharon, for taking the time to do this. As I have already told you, I am deeply honored.
Poisoned Pen Press is also publishing a volume of short stories by 35 of their writers to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the press. It is called Bound by Mystery: Celebrating 20 Years of Poisoned Pen Press. It will be out in trade paperback on March 7, 2017. Included is my only short story, The Paternoster Pea. It is Prioress Eleanor’s first case and written long before the series began to see if she and I could get along as character and author. It worked, and we are happily engaged in a long collaboration.
Sharon: I was delighted when Poisoned Pen asked me to write the Forward for this new edition of Wine of Violence. I still remember how much I enjoyed my first reading of Wine, for I knew I wanted to keep visiting Tyndal Priory and its inhabitants. I plan to post the first chapter of Wine of Violence in a later blog so those of you who’ve not yet read it can see for yourselves what you’ve been missing. But for now, it is the Proud Sinner on center stage, the latest in your medieval mystery series. Tell us about it.
Priscilla: As readers, we are often intrigued by where fiction authors get their inspirations. I find my best ideas usually arrive when I am trying least to come up with something.
The Proud Sinner was inspired by watching the 1965 movie version of Dame Agatha Christie’s book retitled And Then There Were None after the original title was thankfully junked. This film, Ten Little Indians, is the one with Fabian. (Yes, him, for those old enough to remember. Awful actor but fun.) The plot involves characters marooned on an island. All are killed. So who was the murderer? Not only did I reread the book, but I watched all movie versions. You can imagine what hard work it was to do that!
Although I am not the clever writer Christie was, and pompously didn’t like her ending, I thought it would be fun to strand a group of querulous abbots, each of whom could easily epitomize one of the seven deadly sins, in one of the worst recorded winters in English history at Tyndal Priory. As they sicken and die, one by one, and Sister Anne is mystified by the causes, the terrified abbots begin to point fingers at each other and grow violent. The ending, however, is not Christie’s. That’s as much as I’ll say!
Sharon: In each of your books, you have chosen to highlight some aspect of the medieval era. What is highlighted in The Proud Sinner and why this particular choice?
Priscilla: After delving into the coin-clipping pogrom against English Jews in Land of Shadows, I needed a short break from murderous bigotry that was beginning to feel a bit too modern. Even though I love drawing characters, I decided to concentrate on a more devious plot as a craft challenge. My editor suggested I highlight medieval food, something which is often assumed to be bland, putrid, and not exactly healthy. For those of us who grew up after WWII, the English diet we knew suffered horribly from rationing and shortages. The medieval diet did not. Meat was usually fresh, often killed the same day as eaten. Spices enhanced meals, as they do today, and were never intended to disguise rotten food. Middle Eastern cuisine, especially the spices like saffron, was brought back by the crusaders. Queen Eleanor of Castile introduced recipes from her native land as well as carpets. Vegetables and fruit were fresh, local, and organic. So I integrated monastic food habits into the book, as well as meals found in inns, and threw in a little lethal element as extra spice.
Sharon: This is the thirteenth book about Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas, yet you have kept the series fresh. How have you done that?
Priscilla: Thank you for the compliment! As a reader, I start to get bored with a series when the author seems to be doing so or the voice loses freshness. Of course, I won’t mention names, but there is one writer I still read because the plotting remains excellent, but the main character hasn’t changed in years. Yet readers, and I’m among them, long for one more story even when the authors are so sick of the main characters they want to kill them off. Example is Conon Doyle with Sherlock Holmes who had to bring him back from death because readers demanded it—and he also found it hard to turn down the royalties.
One way I try to keep my series fresh is to take chances. Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas continue to evolve. I give them vacations by highlighting the stories of major secondary characters, a lesson I learned from reading Ian Rankin. On occasion, I introduce new secondaries, like Eleanor’s young maid, and give old secondaries new roles like my prioress’ former maid who married the crowner. Most importantly, from my viewpoint, I still find all my characters as interesting as old friends.
A series must have a natural ending, but characters, pacing, and voice determine that. The Swedish masters, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, saw each of the ten novels in their Beck series as chapters in one larger book, called The Story of a Crime. For my series, I set up a very long arc of novel-chapters. So if a reader wants more of a character or feels a story line is left incomplete, I can pretty much promise that they will get their wish or find the desired resolution in due course.
Sharon: You have chosen to age your characters normally over the series which means they must change. How have you done this with Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas?
Priscilla: Each stage in our lives has a different emphasis and strength. Youth may lack experience, but it offers society fresh ideas and direction. Middle age is often centered in family and the drive to succeed in the world. The later years include reflection and perspective. Prioress Eleanor is no longer the young woman in Wine of Violence but an experienced business woman, clever solver of mysteries, and someone who is learning to be a worldly diplomat. She has entered the second stage of her life. Brother Thomas has traveled a different path, but he, too, has entered that second stage. The priory members have become his family and the suffering his children. Yet he still longs to bond with another man. One thing he has learned at Tyndal is that love owns many manifestations. His struggle now is to still find a way to form that loving bond but within a medieval God’s law. Like many in any era, he is beginning to suspect that a rigid Deity is more the product of mortal men’s imagination and the real one might have some flexibility. Aelred of Rievaulx discovered that. Brother Thomas might too.
Sharon: What are you working on next?
Priscilla: I’m a bit of a contrarian, often choosing topics less well-known because few others have used them in stories. When I got intrigued with the many military Orders during the crusades, I opted to concentrate on the Hospitallers, not the Templars, and found them much more intriguing. So the next book will take Prioress Eleanor, Brother Thomas and Sister Anne to Minchin-Buckland Preceptory in Somerset, the only priory of Hospitaller nuns in England to which a small commandery of Hospitaller brothers is attached. When the trio arrives, they discover that the prioress they expected to meet has been judged guilty of murder. Although the woman has never contested this verdict against her, she now begs the Prioress of Tyndal to prove her innocence after reading the private letter carried by Eleanor to her from Baron Hugh. What was in the letter than made the condemned woman change her plea? And who did kill the victim, a woman hated by so many that the suspects were all too numerous?
Sharon: How can readers contact you?
Priscilla: Should anyone have questions about my books, they can reach me through my website at www.priscillaroyal.com. And I am one of several mystery writers blogging every other Tuesday on The Lady Killers at www.theladykillers.typepad.com
Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to your blog. You are truly a modern day bard, and I am honored to be one of your interviewees!
Sharon: It was my pleasure, Priscilla. I hope you will come back for your next book!
February 17, 2017