This week I interview author, Jean Gill, about her latest novel, Song at Dawn.
Provence 1150. Love, music and political intrigue surround Estela in the royal court of Narbonne.
On the run from abuse, Estela's musical talent finds a patron in Alienor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the finst troubadour of the age, Alienor's Commander of the Guard. Weary of war, Dragonetz los Pros uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of invntions, a papermill,drawing the wrath of the Church down on his head. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne.
Jean has posted three photos below and would appreciate input on which one to use. As a dog lover I know which one I'd choose.
K- What inspired you to write Song at Dawn?
J- A chance statement in an American book on troubadour
poetry. 'Rumour says there was a woman troubadour touring the south of France with a large white dog'. How could I not want to write her story, given my own passion for large white dogs, poetry and, of course, the south of France.
K- Song at Dawn is set in the 12th century, in the Occitan area of France, not a setting commonly the focus for an historical novel, what made you choose that time period and place?
J- Place was obvious as I now live in what was Occitania,
where the language still colours life, and this was troubadour territory in medieval times. Fixing the period was difficult. 'Medieval' is actually 400 or so years and I was drowning in research when I came across Ermengarde, the amazing woman ruler of Narbonne. Suddenly, many elements from the research gave
me the 'Aha!' moment, including the aftermath of the 2nd Crusade and its impact on my other main character, Dragonetz. From the moment I decided on 1150, research became easier.
K- Music is a key feature of the novel, with the main character a troubadour, are you a musician or an interest in music of that time
J- I played the viola for two years when I was eleven but
gave it up for boys, so I don't think I could call myself a musician. I've always loved early music (along with harpsichord and heavy rock) and I sometimes play troubadour songs while I'm writing. My first published books were poetry and I do understand the technical
aspects of troubadour lyrics, which I read in a mixture of the original Occitan, for flavour, and French, for detail and sense. I do my own translations of verse that is quoted in the novel.
K- One interesting aspect of the novel is Dragonetz’s paper manufacture and the vatican’s determination to prevent it.
Is this based on fact?
J- You've reminded me! Yes! Completely! This was one of the
facts that really fixed the choice of period for me. I am still absolutely incensed at the various ways the Roman Catholic Church destroyed scientific, medical and engineering progress for centuries. There really were paper-mills created by Christian Europeans, who learned the skills from their Arab neighbours in Al-Andalus (modern Spain) but 'the work of the devil' was successfully eradicated from Christian countries. Needless to say, the Church preserved a profitable monopoly on reading and writing this way.
I was a teacher for many years and someone who inspired me was the great Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire. I attended a talk he
gave at York University, where I was a trainee teacher. He was exiled for teaching peasants to read and write, and I never forgot what he taught me - that literacy is power. Making paper was a revolutionary step, which is why the Vatican stopped it as long as possible.
Exploring the twelfth century led me to understand how highly developed some civilisations were, and the ways in which individuals shared this knowledge even when institutions were out to prevent them.
K--Did you have to do much research for the novel, if so what sources did you use?
J- Yes, lots of research. The internet is invaluable, especially to look up technical detail while you're actually writing, but I read several different books on the Crusades, and biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, novels by Sir Walter Scott, anything that had the magic number 1150 in it. Towards the end of my planned 'two years of research' I had an idea of my story and I only read the relevant bits. The best historical work I found was 'Ermengard of Narbonne and the world of the Troubadours' by Frederic L Cheyette. I love the research and even though it might not be relevant to the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' I can't wait to read a new find, translated from
German, 'The Life and Adventures of Troubadora Beatrice' by Irmstraud Morgner.
K- How do you develop your characters? Do you spend a lot of
time creating them?
J- They are real people to me. I see them, hear them speaking, know what they think, feel what they feel. This is wonderful with Dragonetz because he is utterly gorgeous and desirable. Of course I'm in love with him and am happy to spend time with him.
I enjoy being with most of my characters, even if someone is a bit-part for two paragraphs, but it is painful spending time with the characters who are damaged and corrupt. I once asked a friend, who created the TV series 'the Vice' how he could bear to write himself into the evil of some characters. He said 'I'm just visiting'. This is the hardest thing for me to do, to get inside the head of a monster I
hate, but I think it's important if a novel is to resonate with a reader.
K- Is there something you want your readers to take away
J- Excellent question. I want them to be living in the world of my book, even when they've finished reading, and to see the world a little differently.
K-You’ve published several books now, was there anything
different from the others in writing or publishing this novel?
J- I didn't know whether I could do it because I'm not a historian and knew very little about the 12th century. But then 'I didn't know whether I could do it' of so many things I have done. My motto is 'Better to regret what you've done than what you haven't' so I do dive in. Whether I've done something well or not is for other people to judge.
K- Several of these works are self-published, is it an avenue you would advocate to other authors?
J- It depends on the author, and of course the publishing world is changing so fast that it's different now from when you started reading this sentence. If I'd found The Editor of my dreams, who loved and published all my different books, I'd have said 'Till death do us part.' As it is, I've been published everywhichway but bestselling, including a wonderful big publisher (Souvenir Press), but I've always had to start searching again with the next book. I find drawerfuls of rejections, for every one acceptance, deeply depressing and time-consuming. Having decided to self-publish, and having figured out my workflow, I like being in control. My print books look exactly as I want them to, and I know all the sales figures for print and ebooks. I have ever more readers so I must be doing something right.
K- Can you share anything about your next project?
J- I'm half-way through the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' so I'm back with Dragonetz (no surprise there), in Damascus, at the moment. Did you know that the secret of Damascene steel has disappeared forever? Scientists think that one of the ingredients might no
longer be available. I find romance and poetry in facts like that.
K- I’m sure you’ve been asked before but it’s still an interesting question--what brought you to writing?
J- Deep personal feelings and loneliness, expressed in poetry. Then I became objective and worked therapeutic writing into something I hoped was worth reading. As Wendy Cope said, maybe I write less poetry because I'm not miserable any more.
K- Were you influenced by any particular authors in your writing?
J- Thousands, but particularly those I've had a coffee or a beer with. Nowadays, that would be those who exchange emails with me. Among the dead, Stevie Smith, Colette, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Lawrence Durrell sparked off 'Aha!' moments. Dorothy Dunnett is by far my favourite historical writer and I'm sure my
current novels draw on her way of combining historical fact with high romance.
K- What are your writing habits?
J- I write at a very messy desk in the corner of the living-room, with a view of our walled garden and the hills beyond. I play very loud music while working and, for prose, I write in the morning, usually about 1,000 words or so. One of my habits is to stop writing at a point when I know exactly what happens next. That way when I next sit down to write I'm always excited about starting. I think that's why I don't get writer's block.
I write prose only on a computer, and poetry only by hand. Poetry happens when it happens, in the car, on the back of an envelope in
a doctor's waiting room, during a very important meeting when I was supposed to be taking minutes. On the surface, prose is orderly, disciplined, can be contained. In reality it is another world in which I can be lost for a year at a time. Who needs drugs?!
K- What book is on your bedside table now?
J- On my e-reader, I'm reading a historical novel entered for a competition so I won't give the title as I'm judging it. A lot of my
reading at the moment is because authors have asked me for feedback. I often have several books on the go and a print book I've been dipping into again is 'The Moment It Clicks' by Joe McNally. As a photographer, I find his work inspirational and I love reading the behind-the-scenes accounts of the amazing images in the book. He makes me want to rush outside and shoot someone - armed
with my trusty Nikon D700.