Please help me welcome Sophie Perinot, author of The Sister Queens, a compelling novel about 13th century sisters Eleanor and Marguerite of Provence who became, respectively, the queens of England and France.
I met Sophie and learned about The Sister Queens at last year’s Historical Novel Society conference, and I’ve been anticipating this book’s release. I started reading it last night, and so far have loved every page.
1. Sophie, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northern Ohio. A little-known fact, but something I continue to be proud of—I was a nine-year member Ohio 4-H, and was once a county fair queen (where IS that tiara?). I stayed in the Buckeye state to earn my BA in history (College of Wooster). So I am pretty solidly mid-western in my upbringing.
2. You recently wrote a fantastic blog entry (titled Gifts My Sister Gave Me) about how your sister inspired you to write. How does the rest of your family feel about your writing career?
They are very excited for me. There is a little apprehension on the part of my teen daughter that some of her friends will be reading a book that includes sex written by her mother, lol, but other than that my children, husband and parents have all been incredibly supportive. And they’ve put their time where their mouths are. My husband, sister and mother were all early-draft readers. My eldest daughter did an insane 5-day read through after I finished my line-edits to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything or pasted anything into the wrong spot before I turned the final version of the manuscript over to my publisher.
3. What inspired you to write The Sister Queens?
The Sister Queens was inspired by a chance encounter and driven forward by my innate sense of justice.
More than seven years ago, while researching a totally different project, I came upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (whose kneeling image is carved over that great church’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters. These remarkable 13th century women—daughters of the Count of Provence and Savoyards on their mother’s side—all made very politically significant marriages yet I had never heard of them. I wondered how these women could have slipped through the fingers of history. The fact that they had seemed utterly unfair. So, I started a file folder with their names on it, vowing to come back and tell their story. With The Sister Queens I fulfill that vow.
4. Authors of historical novels walk a fascinating line between truth and fiction. How do you draw the line between historical accuracy and imagination?
My mantra is “respect history but don’t be smothered by it.” When I read a work of historical fiction I want accurate historical detail yes, but I need a compelling story. So when I write historical fiction I like to keep narrative arc in the driver’s seat.
It helps to remember (both as a writer and a reader) that history is fluid. Any academic historian will tell you that. Interpretations of history change and even the “facts” as we know them aren’t set in stone. New information and artifacts are discovered. Old theories and artifact identifications are discredited. As writers of historical fiction, we get to make choices based on evidence. Where there are conflicting sources I don’t believe that a historical writer should hesitate to choose the facts that support the narrative arch we are trying to build. This is fiction.
When historical writers do make a choice that might be controversial or when we bend or adjust history to suit our stories, I believe an author’s note is key. I’ve included such a note in The Sister Queens because I believe that I owe it to my readers to tell them why I’ve made the decisions that I have and where I may have deviated from the record.
5. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Can you share a fact or scene from The Sister Queens which actually happened (or existed), but seems too strange to be true?
Oft times truth IS stranger and more dramatic than fiction. In The Sister Queens many of the ickiest facts about Louis IX—like his eating the leftovers of a leprous monk, or his burning off the lips off someone for blasphemy—are entirely true.
On a more positive note, many of the most heroic actions of my sisters are fact as well. In one particularly dramatic scene Marguerite, on crusade in the Holy Land, must persuade a collection of hardened Pisan and Genoese sailors not to abandon the city of Damietta from her childbed, having given birth only a few hours before.
6. Do you have a favorite author? If so, who and why?
Jane Austen is my ultimate “comfort food” author. Her books have been my constant companions since I was in my teens. During college and law school I made a point of re-reading one of her novels during every exam period to keep myself sane and relaxed. There is not a word out of place in Austen. And even though I know how every one of her books ends, they still manage to keep me thoroughly engaged each time I pick one up. They also celebrate values that, while no longer in fashion, I consider very important. Particularly duty. Perhaps my all time favorite Austen line is Mr. Knightly’s admonition “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty.”
7. Tell us about the last book you read, and what made you choose to read it.
It’s been a while *blushes* since I’ve finished a novel even though I have a teetering TBR pile full of fantastic books. That’s because I generally do not read while I am writing (if I am not careful, I can be a sponge – soaking up the cadence and tone of the writing I am reading). The last book I finished was Kate Quinn’s’ Daughters of Rome. I chose it because I thoroughly enjoyed Kate’s first book Mistress of Rome. Daughters sucked me in from the first page (I particularly enjoy Kate’s mastery of multiple viewpoints and her strong female characters). Another reason for moving Kate to the top of my TBR pile—her next book is due the month after my The Sister Queens and I want to be ready for it.
8. Which character in The Sister Queens do you, personally, relate to the most?
The strength of my identification depended on who I was writing at the moment. I am not being glib. To portray a character convincingly a writer has to slip on that character’s skin and make a serious attempt to understand him/her. Writing in first person present, as I did in The Sister Queens, magnifies that effect. So when I was writing Marguerite I was full immersed in her struggles and found many things with which I could identify. Ditto Eleanor.
I would say that my life is more like Eleanor’s than Marguerite’s, primarily because I have a devoted husband who values me and sees me as a partner in all things. Fortunately for me, my husband is not only a loving spouse and active parent he also possesses tremendous professional competence—something Eleanor’s poor Henry lacked. As for my personality, at least according to my sister, I AM Eleanor—forceful and outspoken with minimal patience for nonsense.
9. What did you enjoy most about writing The Sister Queens?
I enjoyed the opportunity to tell a story of strong, supportive sisters. That’s a story I can personally identify with because I am half of a pair of very close (as in we were college roommates) sisters. While there is certainly a history of such pairs in literature (think Lizzy and Jane Bennet), I’ve noticed more recently there are lots of books that show sisters and back-stabbing rivals. That is not my experience of sisterhood.
10. You blog both on your own website and at the group blog Book Pregnant, which is essentially the “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” for authors. If you could give first-time authors one piece of advice, what would it be?
Learn the business. Yes, you have to hone the craft of writing but, unless you are writing solely for your own amusement, you have to get up to speed on the business end of things as well. That way when the magic day comes, and you ink your name on a publishing contract, the facts of publishing-life (e.g. authors need to be involved in marketing and promotion) and simple industry definitions (do you know what it means to “earn out”) won’t stop you in your tracks.
Oh yeah, and “play nice.” Remember, publishing is a small world. You want to be remembered as a kind, genuine, helpful person not a demanding, competitive, drama queen. Writing can be one of the most collegial, supportive occupations—if you allow it to be.
And now, the speed round:
– Plotter or pantser?
Hybrid. I chart the history (time line) and basic narrative arc, then let my characters loose and see how they choose to get from point A to point B.
– Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
Coffee if it can be a latte (and it can be, because I have an espresso maker in my kitchen). Otherwise I am a diet coke gal.
– Socks or no socks?
No socks. Ever. Not in the dead of winter.
– Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
Cats. I lost my beloved Siamese to lung cancer in 2011 so now I am down to two. I love them and my husband tolerates them. I am getting my son a dog this coming year because he is ten and a ten year old boy needs a dog.
– For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
Italian if it is Northern Italian and fine dining. Thai if it’s budget dining or I am on the run.
Thank you, Sophie, for joining me and for telling us a little more about yourself and The Sister Queens. I hope my readers enjoyed this interview as much as I did, and that they enjoy the novel too.
“Raised at the court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages–but never truly parted.
Patient, perfect, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. But Louis IX is a religious zealot who denies himself the love and companionship his wife craves. Can she borrow enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in a forbidden love?
Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Henry III is a good man, but not a good king. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?”
And a little more about Sophie:
Sophie Perinot, author of The Sister Queens, is a re-invented attorney. With a BA in History and a passion for reading, writing historical fiction seemed a natural second career. Sophie lives in Great Falls, Virginia surrounded by trees and books. Her books are time machines, and currently she is traveling to 16th century France were she is delving into the challenges and rewards of the mother-daughter relationship – a subject as timeless as the sister-to-sister rapport explored in her debut novel.