Author Interview with
Catherine Hokin is the author of Blood and Roses, a novel about Queen Margaret of Anjou, published by Yolk. Her novel has been described as a page-turner, a very well-researched and fabulous book.
I am delighted to have been able to interview Catherine and thank her for her time to answer my questions.
Could you share with us a little about the process of writing Blood and Roses?
It grew out of a fascination with the central character, Margaret of Anjou. I have been enthralled by the Wars of the Roses since I was very young – my father was a member of the Richard III Society and an avid war-gamer so I grew up half-believing the players in the conflict were still alive! Margaret intrigued me because she roused such passions and these were always negative – I felt there had to be more to her, even then. I went on to do a history degree, with a medieval specialism, and studied her as part of an examination of women and political propaganda. I was hooked. The actual writing process, as with all historical fiction, began through all-consuming research of both primary and secondary sources. I was writing part-time then (1 day a week) so the process was long: the initial research took about 8 months, then I went through about 4 drafts, and 1 complete re-write, before I got to the final published novel, plus ongoing research. It was a two and a half-year process. Thankfully I am now writing full-time so things are a little faster.
What was the most difficult challenge in writing this book?
Margaret is very much someone suffering from the old adage, ‘history is written by the victors’ and the incredibly negative perceptions of her are hard to shake-off. Most people first meet her through Shakespeare’s demonized character in the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. Not for him the“grete and strong labourid woman” as described by her contemporary John Boking in 1456 or the woman recognised in one of the key chronicles of the time to be “more wyttyer then the kynge”. Shakespeare gives us “a foul wrinkled witch’ and a ‘hateful with’red hag” and attributes a series of malevolent/immoral actions to her including adultery and animalistic cruelty. Margaret is portrayed in one scene wandering round Court clutching the severed head of her supposed lover the Duke of Suffolk. In another she rubs a cloth soaked in his son’s blood over the Duke of York’s face before placing a paper crown on his head and stabbing him, all the while prophesying evil falling on the House of York like a medieval Cassandra. “I pray him, that none of you may live your natural age, but by some unlook’d accident cut off! This demonization of a woman who proved herself capable of leading armies and formulating policy has its roots firmly set in propaganda with little relevance to historical fact. It is also a portrayal that does a complex and driven woman a disservice by reducing her to the limited ‘she-wolf’ dimensions of a stereotypical villainess. The Wars of the Roses was a period in which propaganda became recognised as a powerful weapon, by both sides, and a later re-shaping of history to meet the pro-Yorkist demands of Shakespeare’s Tudor masters is to be expected. However, xenophobia and, more particularly, misogyny play a key part in creating the myths that have gathered around Margaret and these myths persist – colouring even relatively recent examinations of her character.
Who is your favourite person of the 15th Century and why?
That’s such a fascinating and difficult question! Obviously Margaret is high up there but I’m also intrigued by the Kingmaker: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. He was right at the centre of all the key events, playing one side against the other, switching sides, securing incredibly strategic marriages for his daughters while remaining (if you read the less one-sided accounts) very popular. He must have had wit and charm as well as cunning and nerve to pull off what he did and keep his head. I’d like to have a drink and pick his brains.
If you had the power to change the past and re-write anything that happened during the Wars of the Roses, which event would you choose to change?
A dangerous game as the whole house of cards we currently know as the world would come tumbling down! I’m reminded of the Stephen King novel 11/22/63 when the time-travelling hero stops JFK being murdered and returns to a post-apocalyptic twenty-first century nightmare rather than the peaceful world he was so certain would result. JFK was a better hero in our imaginations in King’s version. I think I would leave well alone – I don’t believe, for example, that saving Richard III at Bosworth would have given us a dynasty of kings who were any better than the Tudors. They were all self-serving and ruthless, no matter the family name!
If you could ask any historical person a question, who would you ask and what would it be?
Sticking firmly with the fifteenth century, I think I would join a cast of thousands and want to know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower. I wouldn’t ask Richard III or Henry VII as I am pretty sure the question would be followed by a swift axe. I would ask Elizabeth Woodville – I’ve always believed she knew what happened. Let’s be honest – it was either her brother-in-law or her son-in-law behind it; no family secret is that easy to keep.
Do you have a favourite ‘Wars of the Roses’ related place?
A very long time ago I was on a business trip and found myself, in the middle of winter, driving past Bosworth Field. I made my colleague (who thought I was quite mad, it was snowing) stop and just took a moment. It was such an ordinary, unremarkable place for such a momentous event – that was what really struck me and what has stayed with me ever since. No matter how wonderful the great cathedrals and castles are and how thrilling it is to visit them, sometimes remarkable things have happened in the quietest of places.
What was the last book you read?
Summertime by Vanessa LaFaye. It is a wonderful book set in 1930s Florida which weaves together the worst hurricane to hit that area with racism and the treatment of WWI veterans. It is a visceral book and I devoured it. I have just been signed by Vanessa’s agent – it was a humbling read!
What is your favourite book?
That’s always such a hard question as I never know what I’m going to read next. I have 3 books I go back to when I want a comfort read – they are all magical realism which I love but they are all very different: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Wise Children by Angela Carter; The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I still love the first two despite having taught them both multiple times so that must be a testament!
What three new skills would you like to learn?
I want to take-up German again – I got the basics at school but I want to get fluent. I would like to be able to draw like Arthur Rackham – I seriously can’t do anything other than colour-in and I’m rubbish at that. And I would love to learn historical clothes conservation. I’ll get round to it all.
What do you like to do outside writing?
Music – I go to a lot of concerts (Biffy Clyro was the most recent) and have music on all the time, of the loud guitar-driven kind. I love to travel – Berlin, the Rhine Valley and Sicily this year and last year’s highlight was a 3 week California road-trip. I honestly thought I was in a movie. And I’m helping with the organization of the Havana Glasgow Film Festival so I’m busy!
Describe for us a day in your life when you are writing?
I keep office hours – it’s a hangover from ‘proper jobs’ I can’t shake. I have 3 books in different stages: Blood and Roses is out and there’s still a lot of publicity to do; book 2 is with my agent; book 3 is in research/draft/fear stage. I start the day with admin, emails and social media which is currently round Blood and Roses – then research/reading moving to writing in the afternoon when I’ve been for a head-clearing walk. It’s quite ordered but I like it that way!
What does your writing space look like?
It’s lovely! My 1920s desk faces the River Kelvin in Glasgow and I’m surrounded by favourite movie posters (Macbeth and Only Lovers Left Alive) and images. One wall is boards covered in notes and writing maps, I have a sofa for ‘thinking’ and an internet radio. It’s my first study – the children are no longer allowed home…
Your book Blood and Roses was published in 2016, are you presently working on a new project?
I am indeed. Book 2 is set in the fourteenth century and is an exploration of the relationship between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt with a bit of help from Chaucer. That is with my agent and you can find out more here. While that is being dealt with, I am busy on book three which is set in the twelfth and sixth centuries – more interesting women…
Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories - she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine - and regularly blogs as Heroine Chic.
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