I’m thrilled to welcome author Nicola Cornick to the blog today. Her newest release, “The Phantom Tree”, is reviewed here. Below, Nicola answers questions about the book, her characters, and a few of my favorite elements: Tudors and time travel.
1. RHP: I’m always interested in what draws writers to certain eras and historical characters when they begin a book. What drew you to Tudor England and specifically to the usually overlooked Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour?
NC: Tudor England was my first historical love! I had an inspirational history teacher who made the era come alive for us and it prompted me to read widely on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. Jean Plaidy, Margaret Campbell Barnes, the golden box set of books about the wives of Henry VIII… I was totally hooked.
I’ve always been interested in the lesser-known characters in the big historical story, or in a different perspective on well-known eras and people. It was this that originally drew me to tell Mary Seymour’s story. It seemed extraordinary to me that the daughter of Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour could simply disappear from the historical record. It’s those sort of mysteries that are a gift to a historical novelist.
2. RHP: I’m fascinated by how you crafted this story. You write Alison’s story in third person but Mary’s in first. Many novelists would simply write both characters in first and switch perspectives. Why did tell the stories as you did and how does that approach change the readers’ insights into the two characters?
NC: When I started writing the story it was Mary who was the most real to me and I was deep in her perspective. It made sense to me to write her story with the immediacy that first person point of view gives. I got to know Alison more slowly and felt slightly more distanced from her so in her case I chose to write in the third person. I was a little bit worried that this would make Alison more difficult to know and to like, especially as she is something of a prickly character. However, writing about Alison in the present and then showing her as “past Alison” as a part of Mary’s life was the greatest challenge, to balance her so that she was recognizably the same person but had also grown and changed as a result of her experiences.
3. RHP: Alison gets to do something extraordinary and something rarely done in historical fiction which is to travel from the past into the future. It’s easy for us to pity those in the past, to think of them as uneducated, dirty, and poor, but Alison is in a unique position. She sees modern day humans with our smart phones, 24/7 news cycles, and hectic lifestyles. Do you think we’ve lost certain values or perspectives that people in the past held? Do you think Alison pities us a bit for what we do or don’t have now thanks to modern life?
NC: Yes, I think that Alison appreciates the benefits of modern life very much but that she also recognizes that busy and fast isn’t always good. In her time there was so much more space and time to think and to be still, and that can sometimes be beneficial. At the start of the story Alison is contemptuous of re-enactors who imagine that they are re-living the past when really all they are doing is living a sanitized version of it. I think she feels that even though life was more brutal, it was also character forming. That said she is a real urban girl who loves her phone and the Internet and modern medicine and equality…
4. RHP: Alison finds a good life in the present; she has the independent lifestyle she was denied in the past. But that comes at a cost – she is forever separated from her son, Arthur. That’s an incredible quandary, her freedom versus her son. There is no “right” answer. Do you think this is an issue that even modern women can identify with, even if we aren’t time travelers?
NC: I think that Alison’s situation is heartbreaking and I hope it is a universal quandary that people in any era could identify with. We all have very tough choices to make at one time or another, decisions where there are no easy answers…
Please join me tomorrow for the rest of my interview with Nicola!
Nicola Cornick is an award winning novelist and historian who wrote over thirty best-selling historical romances before she changed genre to write historical mystery. She studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford. Nicola volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at Ashdown House and acts as a consultant for TV and radio history programmes. In her spare time she is a guide dog puppy walker.