10 April 2016

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Annie Whitehead on TO BE A QUEEN

This week, we're pleased to welcome author ANNIE WHITEHEAD with her latest release,  TO BE A QUEEN, set in the early English medieval period of the Anglo-Saxon queen Aethelflaed. One lucky visitor will get a copy of To Be A Queen - this giveaway is open internationallyBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

One family, two kingdoms, one common enemy ...

This is the true story of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy.

She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life.

When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.

**Q&A with Annie Whitehead**

What made you choose to write about Aethelflaed?

Many years ago, when I was a history undergraduate, I heard my tutor say of Ethelred of Mercia that “nobody knew where he came from.” This interested me and I felt that one day I would write his story, this man who appeared on the pages of history with no fanfare and no backstory. Years later, once I began researching, I realised that there was an even more compelling story, that of his wife, Aethelflaed. She showed incredible resilience, being married off as a ‘peace-weaver’ and yet evolving into so much more than a political pawn. It is clear that at first the Mercians did not take to her and yet somehow she became so beloved that they followed her even into battle. This remarkable woman has barely been written about, either in fiction or non-fiction.

That must have made the task of researching the novel quite difficult?

I think that one of the reasons she’s been neglected is that there is very little documentary evidence about her life. Although Mercia was a separate kingdom at the time of her birth, it eventually became a satellite of the kingdom of Wessex, and it was the Wessex kings who subsequently became kings of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks of Wessex, so it tends to have a bias which reflects that. I was able to look at various other documents, though, and piece her life together. Of course, the fun for the historical novelist is filling in the gaps!

So how accurate is the book, historically?

I’ve only played with the chronology once, and I do mention that in the author’s notes. I gathered all the known facts and stuck to them. When using less reliable documents I’ve been careful to make suggestions, rather than assertions. I’ve filled in the remaining gaps as plausibly as I can. I’m a historian - when I read historical fiction, I understand that I’m reading a story, but I also want to be able to trust that it’s based on fact, and I hope that readers of ‘Queen’ will be able to experience that too.

Having studied this period for your degree, did you find it easy to turn it into fiction?
My historical training helped, in so far as I knew where to look and who to ask when I was researching the actual history. I had the story in my head and had developed the characters, but what I found difficult at first was the conflict between the historian in me, who knew that certain characters were present at specific events, and the writer in me who decided that these people didn’t move the story on and played no part in the drama - I hated leaving real people from history on the cutting-room floor! I also quickly realised that whilst I knew about the political history, I knew very little about how folk actually lived, so I had to do an enormous amount of research into their diet, the tools and weapons they used, their farming techniques and the sort of clothes they wore.

Can readers expect settings that they might recognise from things like Beowulf?

Not really, although in Anglo-Saxon England you’re never far away from a mead-hall! The period known as the ‘Dark Ages’ spans six centuries, which is about the same length of time from the Tudor period to present day, so there were great changes between the beginning and end of that era. My characters could perhaps be better described as ‘Early Medieval’ - they have sophisticated governments and laws, and there are no monsters, elves or dragons. I’ve tried to make the dialogue authentic but, unless I had to, I did not use Old English place-names. I’ve also simplified the personal names wherever possible, or given nicknames to make them easier on the eye. Although these people lived a long time ago, I don’t want them to appear too distant, or other-worldly; I wanted to give an insight into their world, but bring them ‘alive’ in the process.

Are you working on anything else?

My second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, was released a few weeks ago and is also set in Mercia, about 50 years after ‘Queen’ ends. Once again, there are some very strong female characters in the story of the earl of Mercia who was pivotal during the reigns of four Anglo-Saxon kings. I’ve completed a third novel, also set in Mercia but a few centuries earlier, which I hope to release later this year or early 2017. I’m pleased to say that ‘Queen’ was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and I’m currently working on a novel which won a prize in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, although this one is not an historical novel.

Learn more about author Annie Whitehead