INTERVIEW WITH PRISCILLA ROYAL
I am very pleased to welcome Priscilla Royal back to my blog for a discussion of her latest novel, Land of Shadows, the twelfth book in her mystery series set in thirteenth century England. This is good news for any readers who’ve not yet discovered her books; finding a new author who has an extensive backlist is always a blessing for book lovers. In the interest of full disclosure, Priscilla is a long-time friend. She is also a very gifted writer who shares our deep-rooted love of history, understanding that our past was someone else’s present; credit where due to the historian David McCullough for that apt turn of phrase. Priscilla has also generously agreed to offer a signed copy of Land of Shadows for a book drawing; anyone who posts a comment on this blog is automatically entered and eligible to win.
Tell us about your latest book.
Land of Shadows is a mystery, but it is also a tale of generational change, the complications that brings, and the tragedy of condemning the innocent along with the guilty. In March 1279, the queen has just given birth at Woodstock Manor, while Prioress Eleanor’s father is dying. Richard, her nephew, anticipates the arrival of his own father, a man he hardly knows, and dreads divulging a secret that will set them further apart. Brother Thomas is horrified to discover that Father Eliduc, his nemesis, has a troubling hold over young Richard. Elsewhere in England, hundreds of Jewish families also mourn, their loved ones accused of money clipping and hanged with little concern for truth. With their property looted and confiscated to enrich King Edward, poverty sharpens the agony of their loss. Violence always begets violence. When one of the queen’s ladies is found hanged, Prioress Eleanor and her monk are dragged away from their own sorrows to right a wrong and find a killer before another innocent is hanged for a crime not committed. Sons struggle with sons. Power shifts from one generation to another. What is the meaning of justice in a world turned upside down?
Why did you choose this particular point in history?
History is full of periods when prejudice is used for political gain. In the late 1270s, the mood of Christian Europe turned ugly as the crusades went badly, and the Jewish community became a scapegoat. Jews were hated as avaricious money lenders, foreign, and stubborn in refusing to convert from their faith. Politics joined hands with bigotry as kings sought to gain favor with popes and barons by persecuting the Jews, and Edward I wasn’t about to be left behind. In Sanctity of Hate, I dealt with one of his first anti-Semitic laws, but the sweeping night arrests for the treasonous act of coin clipping was lethal in 1278 and 1279. There was no doubt that some Jews did clip coins, but 13th century English Christians, who also committed the crime, suffered only token punishment. Hundreds of English Jews, men and women, were hanged with little regard for the truth of their circumstances. When the king discovered that many had been condemned based on planted evidence, he did stop the executions although he still made sure he benefited financially for such mercy.
You have said in the past that you would never write a real historical character. Yet Edward’s wife, Queen Eleanor, has a cameo appearance in this book. What made you change your mind?
Well, you have been hinting subtly! I also wrote my way into a corner and was unable to escape giving the queen a brief appearance. The murders in Woodstock occur when Eleanor of Castile is recovering from childbirth. Would she really not bother to thank Prioress Eleanor, a woman who left her own father’s death bed to catch a dangerous murderer? Maybe this meeting could have been done off-stage, but somehow that seemed like a cheap trick. So the two Eleanors meet, an event that gives my prioress pause even when she knows she has been honored. Although Eleanor of Castile was a charming woman, she also knew how best to use others to her advantage. Iron hand in velvet glove and all that. So my Eleanor has reason to worry about the future, now that the queen has met and evaluated her for future use.
Brother Thomas’ evolution in the series has been interesting. Would you talk a bit about the changes your auburn-haired monk has gone through?
In the beginning, Brother Thomas presented a problem. He was an excellent co-sleuth for Prioress Eleanor, but I was beginning to fear they were too perfect a couple. I did not want my two religious to discover a less than chaste joy in the monastic hayloft. Dear Thomas solved this for me by whispering in my ear as I fell asleep one night: “Don’t worry. I’m gay!” Fully awake, I turned to my fictional character, who was very chuffed with himself, and replied: “Do you have any idea how much research this forces me to do?” But the reading and pondering has been fascinating because medieval sexuality was primarily centered on who was supposed to do what to whom and when. The term “sodomy” covered a multitude of unacceptable sexual acts, and the concept of homosexuality simply didn’t exist. Gay men and women often did contract the obligatory marriages while doing what heterosexuals did to ease unsatisfying unions: they found sexual and emotional outlets elsewhere. After several books, Brother Thomas has finally recovered from the emotional trauma described early on and may have finally found a man who loves him. But Thomas is still a monk and honors his vows. Durant allows himself to “sin” with men anonymously, but “seducing” a monk is a “sin” he cannot countenance. It is a complex situation I’ll find challenging to resolve without resorting to pat answers. In the end, the realities of the era must be honored, but I promised my auburn-haired monk I would not provide a resolution that that did not respect the ways gay men and women have always found to “hide in plain sight”.
Why did you choose clerical sleuths and the Order you did?
First, I love to share surprises I discover while reading about the Middle Ages. I picked the Order of Fontevraud because it was a double house of men and woman, run by a woman. In the medieval era, women were not the equal of men. They were there to serve. So why was such an Order, and a very successful one at that, allowed to exist and how would a woman rule men effectively? Prioress Eleanor illustrates. I also chose religious sleuths over secular ones because the liege lord of a secular sleuth is a noble or a king. Religious sleuths speak to a higher authority. The Church and State were in constant war over power and wealth, but each usually respected the other’s traditional authority. Prioress Eleanor has the power of justice over those in her fiefdom, the priory. Outside, the monastic walls, she has moral authority. In the world of Edward I’s England, the rule of law was just beginning to be codified. Some leeway was possible for individual punishment. Like Brother Cadfael, the inspiration for my sleuths, Eleanor and Thomas seek a more perfect justice because their God is perfect.
What are you working on next?
With each new book in a long series comes the worry that it will not be fresh enough or very good. But I try to avoid that by posing myself a plot or character problem in each mystery. With the current work-in-progress, now called The Proud Sinner, I was inspired by Agatha Christie’s book, And Then There Were None, in which all the suspects die. Of course, there is no way I could match the mastery of a plot genius, but I loved her misdirections and wanted to try some of my own. My new story is a winter tale of seven abbots, all of whom dislike each other, who are stranded at Tyndal Priory after one falls ill and dies. Much to Prioress Eleanor’s horror, others begin to die as well, and even Sister Anne is perplexed. Of course, there are other problems in the book besides the murders. Crowner Ralf must deal with his hated brother, Abbot Odo, who is in the abbatial party and may be a suspect. Gracia, Eleanor’s maid, must decide whether to leave the priory or take vows. Brother Thomas has been dealt yet another emotional blow. But I have shown some mercy to characters in the book. All is well with Prioress Eleanor’s cat…
How can readers contact you?
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 on The Lady Killers at www.theladykillers.typepad.com.
Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to your blog. Your books have been an inspiration and a pleasure for so long. I am honored to be one of your interviewees!
Thank you, Priscilla, for agreeing to do this interview. By now, reading one of your novels is like visiting with old friends, with the added suspense of knowing there is a murderer in our midst. I had to read Land of Shadows in one sitting, and I will wager that most of you will do the same.
February 8, 2016