Q:The traits that make Henry a great king--arrogance, daring,
single-mindedness, a love of conquest and power--do not necessarily
make him a great husband, father, or friend. What
price does Henry pay for his kingship?
A: A very high price, indeed. All of the above-named traits are not
virtues in a domestic context. Nor did it help that Henry was something
of a control freak. At least where his family was concerned, he
seems to have found it almost impossible to relinquish any real authority
and this reluctance doomed his relationship with his sons.
Q: Would you agree that betrayal--Becket's betrayal of Henry
and Henry's betrayal of Eleanor--is at the center of this novel?
A: Yes, I would, but we must remember that betrayal is rarely clear-cut
or unambiguous. Becket certainly did not believe he'd betrayed Henry.
Nor did Henry see his affair with Rosamund Clifford as a betrayal of
Eleanor, for it was understood that he'd take other women to his bed
when he and Eleanor were apart. Of course Rosamund was not just a
convenience. But as his emotional involvement with Rosamund deepened,
he at first refused to admit it and then managed to convince himself
that Eleanor did not realize Rosamund was not like his other
bedmates; she was much more than a casual conquest.
Q: The people Henry trusted most in the world--his mother,
his wife, and Becket--all questioned his decision to appoint
Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Why did he ignore their
warnings in this critical instance?
A: One of Henry's failings was his reluctance to accept advice once
he'd made up his mind. Hisstubbornness did not serve him well in this
case. Nor did his utter faith in Becket's friendship. He was so sure that
he knew Becket better than anyone, even Becket himself--with tragic
Q: Becket was not of noble blood; he was the son of a merchant.
Henry overlooked Becket's humble origins, but others,
most notably his wife and mother, did not. Did his lack of rank
shape the course of his life in medieval Europe? Did his ambitions
and achievements come under extra scrutiny and criticism
because of his extraordinary upward mobility?
A: Most definitely. Many men looked at him askance from the first, resentful
that he'd been able to soar so high from such a lowly perch. Any
man as close to the king as Becket would have become the target of
jealousy and suspicion. But Becket's shame about his origins gave his
enemies a potent weapon to use against him. Our belief in equality
never took root in medieval soil. Even Henry, wanting to hurt Becket
during their confrontation at Northampton, instinctively lashed out
with a taunt about Becket's modest lineage.
Q: For the most part, your readers are not made privy to
Becket's inner thoughts and motivations. Why did you decide
to make him such an unknowable character?
A: Thomas Becket has remained an enigma for more than eight centuries;
I wasn't so egotistical that I thought I could solve the mystery of
this man in a mere five hundred pages! I made a deliberate decision to
distance myself from Becket and to filter impressions of him through
the perspectives of other characters. We see Becket through Henry's
eyes, through the eyes of his devoted clerks, skeptical fellow bishops,
the barons who loathed and mistrusted him, and the English people,
who readily accepted him as a saint in their midst.
Was he driven by raw ambition? Did he experience a religious
conversion that compelled him to forswear his worldly past? Did he
shed his identity as a snake sheds its skin, taking on the coloration of
each new role like Hwyel's chameleon? I thought it only fair to allow
my readers to make up their own minds about this most controversial
of archbishops. I realize that not every one will agree with my tactical
choice, but I felt most comfortable with this approach, which seemed
particularly well suited to Becket's quicksilver, inscrutable character and
Q: One notable instance in which readers are given some insight
into Becket is when Henry tells Becket he wants him to
become Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket tells Henry he does
not want to jeopardize their friendship and asks:"Are you sure
I can serve both you and the Almighty?" Henry sidesteps the
question with a joke. What would a truthful response from
Henry sound like?
A: I suspect that Henry did not differentiate between his needs and
those of the Almighty, truly believing that if Becket served him well,
God would be satisfied, too.
Q: How much blame must Henry bear for Becket's murder?
A: Not as little as Henry thought or as much as his enemies claimed.
Henry twice did public penance for Becket's death, once at Avranches
and then again at Becket's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. The first mea
culpa seems to have been a pragmatic political response, but his second
act of atonement appears to have been more heartfelt, less a pro forma
gesture than one of genuine emotion. I don't believe that Henry ever
felt much guilt over his complicity in Becket's death. It is human nature,
after all, to rationalize away the unpleasant, and kings are more adept
than most at that particular skill. I do believe he sincerely regretted that
he should have given his enemies such a sharp sword and that Becket
had come out the winner in their war of wills; not even a crown can
trump sainthood. And it is likely that there were some private regrets for
the man he'd once loved, the man he'd once thought Becket to be.
Q: Becket is not the only character in this novel with divided
loyalties. Ranulf is torn between his loyalty to Henry and his
loyalty to Wales. Did Henry serve well all those who were loyal
A: When Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, was charged with treason by King
Henry VIII, he had a moment of belated epiphany and said, "Had I but
served God as diligently as I have served the king, He would not have
given me over in my grey hairs."
This would never have been said of Henry II. Whatever his other
failings, he did not discard men who were no longer useful, as too
many kings were wont to do. Henry rewarded loyalty with loyalty.
Q:The issue of crown versus church jurisdiction in criminal cases
involving church officials is an important theme throughout this
novel. Do you think this historical conflict in any way echoes
contemporary debates in the twenty-first-century United States
over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?
A: When the current scandal spilled over into the public domain, it
definitely struck familiar echoes with me. Even after eight centuries,
we have not been able to agree where the boundaries should be drawn
between church and state. Little wonder that this incendiary issue set
Henry and Becket upon a collision course to disaster.
Q: Eleanor was counseled to either learn to love Henry less or
to accept him as he was. Has she truly managed to do either at
the close of this novel?
A: Yes, I believe that she did. Unfortunately for Henry, she took the
first road, not the second.
Q: Does Henry recognize the depth of his estrangement from
Eleanor or the depth of her anger once Rosamund Clifford enters
A: No, he did not, and his blindness was to cost him dearly. Henry
never learned to view life from any perspective but his own, and he
seemed to be genuinely surprised when his family's festering discontent
burst into outright rebellion. He continually made excuses for his sons'
lack of loyalty and refused to believe the Count of Toulouse's warning
that Eleanor was conspiring with his sons against him. Even on
his deathbed, he was still proclaiming his faith in his youngest son,
John; it was only when he was presented with incontrovertible evidence
of John's betrayal that he turned his face to the wall and spoke
Q: What made you choose Henry and Eleanor as subjects of
their own trilogy? What have been the rewards and the drawbacks
of focusing on two of the most celebrated and studied
figures in medieval Europe?
A: What novelist could resist the allure of such larger-than-life characters
as Henry and Eleanor? No Hollywood screenwriter could rival
their reality. They loved and schemed and fought and forgave and
fought again on a world stage, and eight centuries after their deaths,
people still find them as fascinating and elusive and compelling as their
contemporaries did. So I'd say the rewards are obvious.
The drawbacks? Perhaps the greatest one is that I had to forfeit the element
of surprise. My novels about medieval Wales were set in unexplored
terrain; my readers did not know what lay around every bend in
the road. Henry and Eleanor's story is far more familiar, even to people
not particularly enamored with the Middle Ages. Who hasn't seen The
Lion in Winter, after all?
Q:This novel covers a large canvas over a twenty-five-year period.
Was it difficult to decide what to stories to tell and what
stories to mention in passing or leave out entirely?
A: That is always a challenge. Usually some stories leap right off the
page, practically screaming to be dramatized. Where Henry and
Eleanor are concerned, there was almost a surfeit of riches. This is why
I chose to tell their story in trilogy form; that way being able to do justice
to all the critical events of their lives while not producing a book
that would make Moby Dick look like a minnow, size-wise!
Q: In your "Author's Note," you discuss when and where your
narrative deviates from the historical record. What particular
challenges does historical fiction pose? How are you constrained
by the historical record? How do you decide when to
take fictional license?
A: In writing my historical novels, I obviously have to rely upon my
imagination to a great extent. I think of it as "filling in the blanks," for
medieval chroniclers could be utterly indifferent to the needs of modern
novelists. Sometimes it is necessary to "invent" essential details; for
example, chroniclers often report a death without specifying the cause.
But there is a great difference between filling in the blanks and distorting
known facts. I also attempt to keep my characters true to their historical
counterparts. I do my best to build a strong factual foundation
for each of my novels and rely upon my Author's Notes to keep my
Q: How long did the research take for this novel? Do you do
research in the beginning and then start writing or do you research
as you go along?
A: It usually takes me about three years to research and write one of my
historical sagas; this is one reason why I take medieval mystery breaks,
for they can be completed in only a year.
Chance was so long in the making because of circumstances beyond
my control. My first mystery, The Queen's Man, was nominated for
an Edgar and it was decided that I should follow it up with another
mystery. I therefore put Chance aside--much to Henry and Eleanor's
dismay--and wrote Cruel as the Grave. The plan was then to finish
Chance once I'd coaxed my pouting Plantagenets into cooperating again.
I did not expect to come down with mononucleosis and I most definitely
did not expect it to lay siege to my immune system for 18 months!
I research as I write--that is, I do specific research about a particular
castle or town or battlefield.
Q:What kinds of sources did you use for this novel? Did Henry
or Eleanor leave personal papers or diaries behind?
A: I make use of secondary sources such as historical biographies and
translations of primary sources like chronicles, letters, charters, and
government records. I do not have the linguistic skills to read medieval
Latin or medieval French and I am sorry to say that Welsh continues to
elude my best efforts. Fortunately, I have always been able to find translations
of the materials I need.
There are some extant letters written by Henry and a few by
Eleanor which are part of the correspondence of state and therefore
not that personally revealing. A notable exception is the outrage that
sears through the formal phrasing of the ill-advised letter Henry sent to
the French king after Becket's flight into exile, which I quote in Chapter
17 of Chance. And Thomas Becket's letters to the Pope also shine a
light into his psyche, displaying his aggrieved sense of injury, his instincts
for high drama, his weakness for self-pity, and his stark, stubborn
courage. Moreover, as I said in my Author's Note, the Henry-Becket
schism is probably the best-documented episode of the Middle Ages, a
veritable treasure trove for historical novelists.
Q:Which writer would you invite to a reading group meeting to
discuss what work? What would you most like to ask him or her?
A: Emily and Charlotte Bronte, if I'm not limited to the living. If I am,
I'd love the opportunity to meet Harper Lee and to ask her why she
never wrote another book after her classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Q: What other titles would you recommend for a reading
A: Any of my books! Seriously, I do think Here Be Dragons would be a
good candidate, as would The Sunne in Splendour. If you want to stray
from Penman territory, I would highly recommend anything by Alice
Hoffman or Barbara Kingsolver.
Q: How would you describe your average workday of writing?
A: I work on a chapter at a time and do not sit down at the computer until
I have all the research done and the scenes in my head, waiting to spill
out onto the page. I do not set specific work hours as some writers do. I
generally stay with a chapter until I am satisfied, do very little rewriting,
and if a scene is going well, I've been known to keep night owl hours.
Q: What will The Devil's Brood, the final installment in the
Henry and Eleanor trilogy, cover? When can your readers expect
to find in the bookstore?
A: I plan to begin The Devil's Brood with Henry's return from his self-imposed
exile in Ireland, when he reluctantly agreed to do public
penance for Becket's death, taking a solemn oath before the papal
legates that "he neither ordered it, nor willed it, and that when he
heard of it he was greatly grieved." The final entry in my trilogy will
deal with Henry's fraying bond with his wife and sons, surely one of
history's most dysfunctional families. I expect to end the book with
Eleanor's release from confinement upon Henry's death and Richard's
accession to the throne.
As to when it might be in the bookstores, I do not want to tempt
the fates by making any predictions, for my memories of mononucleosis
are still too vivid for comfort.