A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Wendy J. Dunn
A LITERARY WORLD
Author Interview with Wendy J. Dunn
Today I have the pleasure of welcoming the first of our Tudor authors, fellow Australian writer, Wendy J. Dunn. Her first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You this? was the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award, and runner up for the Eric Hoffer Award for commercial fiction.
Welcome to A Literary World Wendy.
1. Where do you live?
I live in a beautiful suburb of Melbourne – somewhere I hope to live for many years to come.
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about and what inspired you to write them?
Easy – both my novels are about Anne Boleyn – and were inspired by my love of Anne Boleyn.
Dear Heart, How Like You This? narrates the story of Anne Boleyn through the imagined voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder.
The Light in the Labyrinth, my second published novel, revisits Anne Boleyn in the last months of her life through the eyes of Catherine Carey, Anne Boleyn’s niece.
3. How did you come up with the titles?
The title for Dear Heart, How Like You This? came from the poem that opened the door to the imagined voice and heart of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder. In my mind, I always called this beautiful poem by Wyatt ‘Dear Heart, How Like You This?’:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
The title for The Light in the Labyrinth birthed from its story, and my character’s awakening to and stepping into an adult world that is full of danger, deceit and despair.
4. What is it about the Tudors that continues to fascinate us?
I’ve thought about this question a lot, Kathryn – and now believe much of the answer stems from ‘the sympathy of all things’, which is just another way of expressing the collective unconsciousness. I believe our fascination with this period stems from how humans connect to archetypes and the hero’s journey. For the writer and reader, the Tudors provide many archetypes and heroes, giving stories of adultery, murder, lust, love, passion, tragedy and triumph, family secrets, ambition and pride – and all of them multilayered stories that speak to our shared humanity.
5. What inspired you to write about Anne Boleyn?
Anne Boleyn first captured my imagination as a child, thanks to the wonderful Genevieve Bujold in Anne of The Thousand Days. Elizabeth I was already my childhood hero, after a taste of her story hooked me as a ten-year-old. After the film, Anne Boleyn joined her daughter as another of my heroes. The thing about our heroes is that they shine a light of inspiration otherwise they wouldn’t be our heroes. From childhood, I wanted to know more about Anne and Elizabeth, and spent many years seeking out novels and non-fiction books that would help me learn more. Walking this road, I not only learnt about Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth – I learnt about the history of women and how, in Tudor times, women were regarded as the property of men. Anne Boleyn’s story brought home to me how women in this period were often simply regarded as vessels of reproduction and only had power when men allowed it; once a man no longer wanted a woman, he could simply discard her. As for owning their own identities? That was an extremely difficult feat to achieve in a period when women’s identities first belonged to their fathers, and then their husbands.
My research about Anne Boleyn has never swayed my belief in her as a woman of great intelligence, courage, and strength. In the last days of her life, during the time of her trial, even Henry VIII spoke of her as a woman of “stout heart”.
I know she wasn’t perfect; but none of us are perfect. She had a temper, and history recount times when she wasn’t a particularly nice person to be around. But I think many of those occasions stemmed from being under a great deal of stress – before and after her marriage to Henry VIII. Once she became the King’s consort, I believe she had a rude awakening when she realized the man who had wooed her for over six years now tied her worth to her ability to give him a son. Anne had difficult pregnancies, and an unfaithful husband whose unfaithfulness humiliated her during her time as England’s Queen.
I believe Anne Boleyn never deserved the defamation that went on during her lifetime and after her death, when people described her as a goggle-eyed whore, a witch and the scandal of Christendom. My research has never stopped me respecting her; in fact, my research just gives more reason to respect her, and love her. The respect was also apparent in her own times. Cranmer wrote to Henry VIII when he heard of her arrest for adultery: “And I am in such a perplexity, that my mind is clean amazed: for I never had better opinion in woman than I had in her” (http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/cranmerhenrymay1536.htm).
It is because I love Anne Boleyn that I feel compelled to tell her story.
6: In The Light in the Labyrinth, why did you choose to write the last days of Anne’s life through the eyes of Katherine Carey, her teenage niece?
The Light in the Labyrinth originated as a response to the recommendation of my agent. In 2009 I received, from my then agent, the twelfth rejection for my second Tudor work, the first book of a planned trilogy on the life of Katherine of Aragon. My agent’s email made it clear that this was the last time she would be sending out this particular work to publishers. However, my agent also wrote that the themes of this novel had made her wonder if I should be writing for young adults. She encouraged me to target this age group because she had editors crying out for young adult historical fiction and believed she could sell my work to them. The next step in the journey arrived when I wrote Before Dawn Breaks, my ten-minute play about the last night of Anne Boleyn’s life. I decided to make Katherine Carey a character in that play. Smile – and she stayed with me afterwards, whispering in my mind that she wanted a major role in my next novel. When I started my PhD I remembered the advice of my agent, even though she had stopped being my agent by that time, and I challenged myself to target the young adult reader through an imaginative re-telling of Kate’s story. My goal was to write a work that would speak to young adult readers – and remind them about the possibilities for their lives through reading about the lives of Tudor women.
7. Along with Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn continues to hold a special place in the heart of Tudor followers. Why is this and can we draw the line between fact and fiction?
History makes it very clear that both these women were strong, vital and immensely intelligent women. History remembers them, and we remember them, due to these facts. I actually discuss both these queens and how much I love them in this article, written for the English History Fiction Authors.
Can we draw a line between fact and fiction? As a historical fiction writer, I write fiction, but fiction very much inspired by facts. My personal philosophy is aligned to that of Margaret Atwood who says about the writing of Alias Grace: ‘when there was a solid fact, I could not alter it … but in the parts left unexplained – the gaps left unfilled – I was free to invent’ (Atwood 1998, p.1515).
8. You mention that your desire to write The Light in the Labyrinth was to find out why Henry VIII would kill the woman he loved. Did you find out why?
Yes, I feel more certain about why this happened. If you read The Light in the Labyrinth, you will see the answer I came up with.
9. How do you feel Katherine and Anne regarded each other?
Oh – my goodness! Two passionate women who wanted the same man – who believed they had the right to same man? In their lifetimes, Katherine and Anne were rivals. Katherine was a very passionate woman who generally strived to keep her passions and jealousy under great control. I suspect Katherine would have felt very betrayed by Anne, who, at one time, was one of her attendants. Catherine, I think, also saw their battle for Henry as a battle for his soul. I suspect she may have thought of Anne as the devil’s agent.
Anne had great respect for Katherine, but her goal was to take the King. In this instance, she could not afford to give Katherine any slack, any pity. She knew if she lost the King, she would lose all. As it was, she paid a hefty price to gain this particular King.
10. What was it about Henry’s connection with the Boleyn family that is so important and what role did Mary Boleyn, mother of Katherine Carey, play in this relationship?
Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne, Mary and George, was a servant of the crown. He was a faithful servant of the crown, even to the extent of offering to sit on the jury that would sentence Anne and George to their deaths. I think he was pleased when Mary became Henry VIII’s mistress for several years. That relationship likely opened the door to Henry’s first interest in Anne Boleyn. The Boleyns, with their close relationship to the Howards, were an important family. As such, they were part of the power games going on at the court of Henry VIII. Having a daughter who could pillow talk with the King had the consequence of increasing the power of a court family. Mary, though, opted out of this power game when she decided to marry a man for love, and not a man wanted or desired by her family.
11. Henry VIII is often portrayed as a “flawed” cantankerous man. How do you view Henry VIII now?
All of us are flawed – so that doesn’t make him unique. He also had reason to be cantankerous in his later years – he was in a great deal of pain, with ulcerated legs and migraines due to all his head injuries that resulted from his knightly-king enjoyment of competing on horseback.
But how do I view Henry VIII? I think becoming King did him no favours because he was placed in a position where he couldn’t surmount his particular character flaws – flaws that magnified, as he grew older. Henry, I think, was always egocentric – and wanted the world to see him as he saw himself – as a God blessed, powerful, extremely gifted King who could do no wrong. From the beginning, there was something rather unpleasant about Henry. From high to low, his reign saw the deaths of many. He also seemed to have the ability to discard those closest to him whenever necessary – which reminds me of that quote of Sir Thomas More: “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” That quote is extremely telling, and fits perfectly my own view of Henry VIII.
12. As a writer of Tudor novels, how difficult (or not) was it to research this period and have we been able to shed any more light on this period that was previously unknown?
I love the Tudor period – so it is just pure pleasure to research this time period. Research also sheds more light on this period. Of course, research is always open to interpretation and debate. I find it interesting how much in history can suddenly shift to something completely unexpected with a discovery of a primary source that swings one belief to something else entirely. We are learning more about this period all the time.
13. How long did it take you to write each book?
Dear Heart, How Like You This? and The Light in the Labyrinth all took around two years to write.
14. What are you working on now?
A completely new, non-Tudor project and the rewrite of my Katherine of Aragon novel that was put aside after its last rejection in 2009.
15. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
Good stories connect me to their characters and give me a physical response: a well told tale makes me shivery all over! Good stories also leave me with something – and make the reading journey worthwhile.
16. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
Those moments when research ignites my imagination!
17. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
I don’t believe Sandra Gulland remember this, but years ago we exchanged emails after her first novel was published. She told me then “Perseverance Furthers.” I have found this to be very true!
18. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
My home – I like to write at home. Now that my first three children have well and truly left the family nest and we have only one teenage son left at home, I do have a study nowadays. I love my study because in there I write surrounded by my books and Tudor inspired treasures.
19. Do you write longhand?
Writing in longhand is one of my ways to jump-start my imagination. Smile – but my longhand is terrible, so once my imagination is in full gear I grab my laptop and keep going.
20. Do you listen to music when you write?
Very rarely – I prefer to allow the possibility of hearing music in my imagined worlds.
21. What kind of child were you?
Very shy, extremely sensitive and not very happy – so often a difficult child, as well.
22. Were you an avid reader?
Oh yes. I was a sickly child and was often in hospital due to one thing or another. Reading was my great escape and my solace in those times.
23. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
LOL – the other side of the writing coin: reading! I am also trying my best to get back to drawing, embroidery and sewing – all the things I enjoyed doing before life became a challenge to surmount busy-ness. I also love mentoring emerging writers – I regard this a very important part of my teaching work.
Tudor related travel is something else I love to do – although, living in Australia make travel to England very expensive and thus hard to do.
24. Do you have a philosophy on life?
Aim at the sun, and you may not reach it; but your arrow will fly far higher than if aimed at an object on a level with yourself. – Joel Hawes
And a few quick questions:
25. Who are your favourite authors?
Mary Renault, Winston Graham, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Elizabeth Goudge, Neil Gaiman…
26. What are some of your favourite books?
The Lantern bearers, The Last of the Wine, The Dean’s Watch, The Child from the Sea, the Poldark series and American Gods.
27. Favourite type of music to relax to?
28. Favourite film?
Smile – Anne of The Thousand Days!
29. Favourite painting?
“Bacchus and Ariadne” by Titian.
30. Favourite holiday destination?
31. Favourite drink?
Mulled, warm wine…
32. Where can we buy the book?
All the usual online places!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Wendy. We wish you continued success in your literary endeavors.
Wendy J. Dunn photograph: Copyright of David Dunn.
Previous Guests on A Literary World:
“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”