Interview with author Karen Maitland

Oct 25

My true love is to read. I am far past a bookworm plowing past bibliophile. My home is littered with books stacked waist high from the door onward. It is a literary adventure within these walls. This past year I have been fortunate enough to read some excellent books and one of them Company of Liars: A Novel by Karen Maitland sent me head-over-heels for historical fiction.

I wrote a review post about Company of Liars: A Novel which you can read here. I contacted the author recently to ask some questions so I could fill inthe author information for her on another book lover website. Whilst exchanging emails with this most gracious and eloquent writer I mentioned the possibility of having an informal email interview. I sent her a bunch of questions, asked her to pick her favorites and respond at her own leisure. And respond she did. I am sharing her responses with all of you in this post. Karen Maitland is both thoughtful and eloquent in her responses, thank you Karen!

Karen Maitland

Karen Maitland

Year of Birth: 1956
Place of Birth: UK
Gender: Female
Nationality: British
Official website:
Genres: historical fiction, medieval fiction, thriller, modern thriller


Tell us your latest news?

My next medieval novel The Owl Killers: A Novel is due to published in America in September 2009, so I am really looking forward to seeing copies of that.

I’m delighted to say I’ve just had another two-book offer from Penguin UK, for two more historical novels The Mandrake’s Tale and Falcons of Ice and Fire.

And I’ve just finished a novella for The Sacred Stone, the next joint Medieval Murderers novel. It was such a privilege to be invited to join five of my most favourite authors for their sixth joint novel – Bernard Knight, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and Michael Jecks.

When and why did you begin writing?

From about twelve onwards I used to scribble dreadful angst-ridden poetry instead of doing my schoolwork. I continued to write as an adult, but I kept it a secret for fear of failure, and I didn’t really have the confidence to try to write for publication until about sixteen years ago. Then it was because I had lived in Nigeria during in a time of bloody civil unrest, followed by Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the ‘Troubles’. I started writing a novel because I desperately wanted to make sense of the horrors I’d witnessed, so I wrote a futuristic thriller called The White Room about terrorism, which was short-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. The novel is now out of print, because tragically real events have overtaken fiction.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I wrote a series of comic stories for a local magazine, about a pacifist Viking called Ulf who was forced to go to England to govern a village of sulky Saxons, along with his frustrated henchman, Gunter, who really wanted to be a berserker and beat-up the Saxons. The editor of the magazine said she’d try one out, but she was sure her readers wouldn’t like it, but they did. In the end I wrote one a month for two years. I wasn’t paid for the stories, but the day I felt like a real writer was the day someone excitedly stopped me in the street and asked me what was going to happen to Ulf and Gunter next, because they couldn’t wait for the next episode.

What inspired you to write your first book?

My first historical novel came about because I was commissioned to go on tour with a multicultural show that was playing in remote villages the length of England. I was asked to write a book about the company’s experiences. We traveled for three months in the middle of winter, arriving after dark to set up in tiny church halls miles from nowhere, often discovering the only place to get something to get eat was shut. Many of the villages we went to were founded in medieval times, and as we journey through the dark narrow country roads in the driving rain, I began to imagine what it must have been like to earn your living on the road in the Middle Ages, tramping in the wet and cold from village to
village never knowing what lay around the corner. So the idea for Company of Liars: A Novel was born.

Do you have a specific writing style?

People tell me I have a distinctive style and that they can recognise it. I think that’s true of every writer, though it is often hard to define a writers’ style in words. But every writer’s style changes a little from book to book depending on the subject matter, characters and genre of the book.

How did you come up with the title?

I can’t settle down to write a story until I have a title for it, unlike some authors who don’t decide on one until after they’ve written the book. At the time there was a series of articles in newspapers and on TV with the banner headlines ‘The Real Truth Behind…’ which revealed scandals in the private lives of great artists, actors or composers. It was as if the program makers were trying to suggest that these people’s art was a lie, because it didn’t reveal their private life.

I thought that was so unfair, because no in the world reveals everything about themselves to every person they meet. You don’t tell your car mechanic your deepest wildest fantasies. You might not even tell your partner. So in that sense everyone lies, even though they tell ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’, they rarely tell the whole truth about themselves.

Besides, isn’t fiction itself just beautiful and wonderful lie, and wouldn’t it be sad if we lost those lies? Each of the characters in Company of Liars: A Novel tells a story about themselves which is a lie in one sense, but also contains a very deep truth. Stories often communicate a far greater truth than facts, which why so many religious leaders of the world have used them.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I don’t believe it’s a novelist’s job to deliver a message. I think our function is primarily to entertain, but all art also has the role has of encouraging people to question things. You used to get competitions in which a familiar object like a pencil was photographed at an odd angle and people had guess what is was; novels are a bit like that. Sometimes, the novelist can hold up familiar subjects at a different angle for the reader, such as disability, love, judgement, truth and lies, which causes the reader to view these subjects in a new light. Maybe the reader will decide that their own opinion was right along, or maybe they will question what they thought in the past. That doesn’t matter; the point is that you’ve given them space to think about it.

How much of the book is realistic?

I’ve tried wherever possible to make the details of life at the time historically accurate, although the characters and plot are purely fictional. The facts about the Black Death and the kinds of superstitions people practiced to try to ward off the plague such as the “Cripples Wedding” are based on documented events and the places the Company of Liars: A Novel travel through are real.

Although today we think of “Sendings”, rune magic and monsters as myth, people at the time believed they were real. In fact the Church itself declared that werewolves really existed. Medieval people didn’t distinguish between the natural and the supernatural, as we do today. It was all real to them, and I’ve tried to reflect that in the novel, so that readers are plunged into a world of fear and superstition where the Plague was regarded as Divine Punishment not a natural biological illness, and where angels and demons were just as much part of their everyday lives as harvesting crops or lighting a fire.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

You might say I lived the medieval life for real. I worked in Nigeria for over a year and lived without electricity, running water, sanitation, or any means of preserving food over night. Water for washing and drinking came from the river. I had to bargain in the market place for food. I couldn’t plan what I would cook. I just had to make a meal out of whatever I could get on that day. I just hoped there would be some food to buy and I could find some fuel to cook it with.

The nights were very long and dark. All I had to see by was a light of a candle flame or oil lamp, which was bit unnerving if I heard an animal prowling around outside or someone trying to break in. As in the Middle Ages, I couldn’t ring for the police or an ambulance if I had an accident, or if there was a knife-welding maniac on my doorstep. So believe me, I know the terrors of the dark.

What books have most influenced your life most?

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. It was the first adult book I read as a teenager and through it I realised the power of an author to create such an atmosphere that would transport the reader to another time and place. It was also the book in which I first discovered that novels could be written about real people, who weren’t impossibly handsome, brave heroes defying death, but human beings with bad teeth who were scared witless and quite understandably just wanted to survive. Other books which have really had a profound effect in teaching me what is possible in literature are Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, Midnight’s Children by Salmund Rushdie and the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

That’s so hard. In terms of novelists whose books I so greatly admire and there would be such a long list. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Isabel Allende, Sarah Dunant, Patrick Suskind and Stephen Fry to name just a few. One brilliant novelist and poet who really has been a mentor to me is William Bedford. He gave me some very sound advice about writing historical novels – Remember first and foremost you are telling a story, not writing a history textbook. Also more recently the historical crime writer Michael Jecks, whose books I love, has advised me on all kinds of practical things I didn’t know about being an author, like which societies to join.

What book are you reading now?

I always have at least two novels I’m reading at the same time. Currently one is Molly’s Millions by Victoria Connelly, a light-hearted romp about a woman who wins the lottery and tries to give it all away before her family finds out. The other novel in complete contrast is The Best of Men by Claire Letemendia, about a plot to assassinate the king during the English Civil War in 1642.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I love the comic detective novels of Ruth Dudley Edwards. She’s been writing for a good while, but I only recently discovered her and fell in love with her work. Anyone who reads regularly or writes will love her novel Carnage on the Committee about murder on Literary Prize Committee and be able to spot disguised references to several well-known writers and literary types. It’s wickedly funny.

What are your current projects?

I’m putting the finishing touches to the novella for the Medieval Murderer’s novel The Sacred Stone. Then it’s back to writing The Mandrake’s Tale and at the same time doing the research for The Falcons of Ice and Fire.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

My brilliant agent. You need an agent who is tough enough to fight your battles for you, but also one who will be a “Mary Poppins” to the author and will not only give the author confidence, encouragement and good sound advice, and but knows when he or she needs a spoon full of sugar to make any nasty medicine go down.

Do you see writing as a career?

In as much as I write fulltime and hope to do so until I drop dead, it is a career, but it is really an obsession, a passion. Ever since I was a small child I used to make up serial stories at night in bed to tell myself. In fact I couldn’t wait to go to bed to dive back into my stories. Writing them down is just an extension of that. I don’t think I could not write. In fact if I don’t write for a day or so I start to get fractious and irritable.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Once a book is finished and the editor wants no more changes, I don’t think about the novel again. By then I am totally immersed in the next world of characters. All I can think about is the story I’m writing at that moment, not what I’ve written in the past.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

The Mandrake’s Tale is set in the reign of King John, when the whole of England was under sentence of excommunication (among other issues, King John wouldn’t accept the Pope’s choice of Archbishop). Can you imagine the chaos—all the churches closed, King John in retaliation arresting every priest who hadn’t fled and the people terrified of dying in sin without the last rites? No burials were permitted on consecrated land, no marriages were conducted, no babies baptized. But I don’t want to reveal much more, except to say the plot involves people-trafficking, murder and oh yes…a very feisty dwarf and a eunuch with a hunger for revenge.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Each book provides its own challenges. In The Owl Killers: A Novel it was finding a natural way to help readers to understand what a beguinage is, knowing that many people haven’t heard of them, without putting in a detailed description or slowing down the thriller plot. In the Medieval Murderers novel it was solving the puzzle I’d set the characters.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

I travel all over Britain and Europe to do the research for the books, as there are many surviving medieval buildings and artefacts in mainland Europe. I also travel all over Britain to give talks on the books, which I mostly do by train and I discover the most wonderful facts and characters by talking to fellow passengers. When I was writing Company of Liars: A Novel, I took a train journey and found I was sitting opposite a druid bard and rune master, who taught me lots of things I couldn’t get from books about runes.

My British publishers are hoping to send me to the Caribbean later this year to speak to a Reading Group there. I haven’t yet been to the States, but I’d really love to do Book tour in America. Fellow authors come back in England raving about it, and tell me the conventions there are fantastic and the readers are so enthusiastic.

Who designed the covers?

Not me. As with most authors, cover design is entirely in the publishers’ hands. And it’s is always fascinating to me to see how the covers vary for the different translations of my books. Each designer pulls out something new from the story. I love the idea of a new work of art in the form of a book cover being inspired by a story I’ve written. In the past I’ve written poetry for dance performance and it’s wonderful to see dancers interpret your words in a way you never imagined. It’s a similar thrill with book covers.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Stopping the research and starting the writing. I love the research and I’d go on doing it forever if I didn’t stop myself. The toughest part of the actual writing is getting the bare bones of the complete first draft down on paper. Once the bones are there, you can start to put flesh on it and play around with the words. That’s the really fun part.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

With every book hopefully you learn a little more about your craft. I actually started to write The Owl Killers: A Novel before Company of Liars: A Novel. I had one character, Camelot, in The Owl Killers: A Novel who was only supposed to deliver the Prologue and the Epilogue, but as I began to write this character’s background story, I realised that Camelot was far too interesting to be relegated to a minor role and was demanding his own novel. So I had to put The Owl Killers: A Novel on hold and write Company of Liars: A Novel, just to shut him up. From that experience I learned to listen to my characters.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Write what you want to read. Write what a story you are passionate about, not what you think is fashionable. It’s a long hard slog to write a novel and if you don’t want to write that story with all your heart and soul, you won’t finish it, or if you do it will feel phony to the reader.

Secondly, read as many modern novels as you can in all kinds of genres; you learn something different from every author. I love audio books because I can get through twice as many novels if I have an audio book on in the kitchen when I’m cooking or ironing. With audio books you learn to hear the rhythm of language and it makes you more aware of the structure of the novel and chapters. It’s a brilliant training for a writer.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Every book is a unique reading experience for each individual, because each reader brings to that book their own personality, experiences, likes and dislikes, personal hang-ups, dreams and fears. So only half the book is written by the author, the other half is written by the reader from their own imagination. That’s of course why some readers will love a book which leaves others cold and vis versa, but that is also the joy of reading. No one else can read the book like you do, or can imagine the characters the way you do or experience the same feelings as you do as a reader. The novel is just as much the reader’s creation as the author’s. Without a reader, there is only a half a novel, so thank you for reading my stories and making them complete.

How long does it take you to write a book?

A year, but that doesn’t include the research which, in the case of The Owl Killers: A Novel I started twelve years before I wrote the novel.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I try to be at my desk at 9.30am. I take an hour for lunch when I usually do domestic things like gardening, or preparing the evening meal whilst listening to an audio book. Then after lunch I write again until about 6pm or 7pm. But a large chunk of that time will be answering emails from readers, publishers etc. I try not to edit my work, until the next day, when I begin by editing what I did the day before. In the evening I usually spend time checking facts in references books which I’ve made a note that I need to check as I’m writing.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I know when characters are coming alive because I start to dream about them. In my dream I’m doing something ordinary in the modern world like sitting on a bus and I look up and one of my medieval characters is sitting opposite me watching me. That’s not so bad when it’s a nice character. But if it’s a nasty character my dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

I try to visit locations because that always helps if you can touch, smell and listen in building or place. I obviously use a lot of historical reference books, but if I have specific questions, say about the size and design of a medieval boat, I will visit a specialist museum. I wanted to describe Red Kites scavenging in Company of Liars: A Novel so I went to the Red Kite Feeding Station on the Welsh border to observe the birds, even though it is only one paragraph in the novel. Watching the birds, I learned that Red Kites work with ravens when they feed. I hadn’t found that detail in a reference book. For the scene set in the glassblowers works in Company of Liars: A Novel, I went to watch several glassblowers at work, because if you talk to craftsmen they often tell you about problems you wouldn’t have thought of, which gives you ideas for scenes.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love traveling abroad and that always generates ideas, not necessarily about the country I’m in, but about characters and plots. I have three dolls house – A Medieval Hall, a Georgian rake’s town house and a Victorian country cottage with garden. I enjoy hunting for tiny items in junk shops that will fit the dolls’ houses and also collecting old toys that were given away as advertising gimmicks. I love ballet, opera and the theatre, but don’t get to go as often as I’d like. I do enjoy visiting gardens and growing herbs, fruit and vegetables, though in my garden it’s a case of survival of the fittest – if they can survive my attempts at caring for them, they can stay.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

How advanced medical knowledge was in the Middle Ages, although there was a great deal of magic and superstition mixed in with sound medical knowledge. They knew effective ways to prevent wounds getting infected. They could drill and fill teeth. They had crude anaesthetics and performed quite advanced operations, including a form of skin graft, but all of that knowledge was to be lost during the Reformation.

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

I’ve written three novels, and seventeen commission non-fiction books. My favourite is always whatever I’m working at that moment.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

It’s wonderful to get emails from readers. They sometimes ask questions about some detail in the books linked to something they are interested in, such as strangely the use of sulphur. Others just write to say how much they enjoyed the books which, if I’m having a bad day or self-doubts, really gives me the most tremendous boost. Some people write to say how much they relate to one of the characters. Recently I’ve had a Readers Group ask me for Medieval Recipes they can make for their group meeting, as they always tried to produce food which is linked to the book they are discussing, which I think is a brilliant idea.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

A dancer or an actor. I think in many ways, fiction writing and acting are quite similar, because like an actor, when you are writing you have to get inside the characters’ heads and think about what motivates them and how they would speak. You also have to use a form of Method Acting when writing emotional scenes. You may not have had a miscarriage like your character, so you draw on the experiences of friends who have been through it, and combine that with recalling times of loss and grief in your own life to create the emotion in the character. This is what many actors would also do.

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