Writing The Well-Researched Bodice-Ripper

Historian Alison Weir has conducted exhaustive academic research into the lives, personalities and eccentricities of the most notable Tudors: Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. Weir uses her historical knowledge to write bawdy, fictionalized — but informed — stories about their lives.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, murder, war, lies, deceit. England's Tudor Dynasty featured some of the most significant and salacious monarchs in history. British historian Alison Weir conducted exhaustive academic research into the lives, personalities and lusts of, among others, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But Weir then used that history as the basis of a series of novels. Historical fiction is one way to describe what she does - bodice-ripper may be more specific.

If you read historical fiction, what have you learned? Or if you have questions for Alison Weir, our number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Alison Weir's latest novel is "Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine," and she joins us here in Studio 3A. It's a pleasure to have you on the program today.

Ms. ALISON WEIR (Author, "Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine"): It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: Is bodice-ripper an accurate description?

Ms. WEIR: Perhaps for parts of the book, yes.

CONAN: Well, the good parts.

Ms. WEIR: Yes, yes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEIR: ...the juicy parts, yes. But, actually, I was telling it as it is because we want to understand why when this marriage gets - goes wrong, what Eleanor has lost.

CONAN: And it is a great deal.

Ms. WEIR: Yes, it is, absolutely. Because this is a marriage of princes, this is a dynastic partnership. It's the founding of an empire. But it's also a marriage founded on lust and then on love.

CONAN: And those are not always synonymous nor do they exist in parallel for the same amount of time.

Ms. WEIR: No, absolutely not. And it was a - one of the most tempestuous of royal marriages ever.

CONAN: And, well, you've got a rich tapestry to choose from.

Ms. WEIR: Yes, I have indeed. And it's always hard to choose subjects, but this is one I've wanted to do for a long, long time.

CONAN: How did you make the decision to go from historian, a respectable profession though low-paid, to being a historical novelist?

Ms. WEIR: When I was researching my biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late '90s, I realized there were many gaps that I couldn't fill, and that's tantalizing. And the only way I could do that would be to write a novel. But, of course, I couldn't write a novel about Eleanor at that time because it would have been in competition with my biography.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEIR: So I wrote about Lady Jane Grey instead. And certain (unintelligible) not been able to write about Eleanor as I wanted to do originally.

CONAN: And do you enjoy the novels more than your histories?

Ms. WEIR: Honestly, I enjoy them equally now. I had to go back to square one and learn my craft all over again. And I, you know, and go through that learning curve of how to write fiction as opposed to history.

CONAN: What's the most difficult part to learn?

Ms. WEIR: It's showing rather than telling.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEIR: It's not just instructing your readers. It's making them live it.

CONAN: So and how closely do you feel you need to adhere to the facts as you tell your fictional stories?

Ms. WEIR: I feel very strongly that where the facts exist, a historical novelist should use them if they're writing about a person who really lived, because a lot of people come to history through historical novels. I did. And a lot of people want their history that way. And I know because readers tell me so regularly and forcefully that they care that what they're reading is close to the truth.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I, too, from "Johnny Tremaine," when I was in grade school, to, oh, I'm a great fan of Bernard Cornwell these days...

Ms. WEIR: Yes.

CONAN: ...and Patrick O'Brian's books were - well, I couldn't wait for those to come out. It was great stuff, and learned a great deal about the Napoleonic Wars in the process.

Ms. WEIR: Well, you do. It's a fun way of learning history.

CONAN: And when you were a kid, you said you came to history through this. What was the lure for you or was that door for you?

Ms. WEIR: My mother marched me into a library when I was 14 and said get a book, because I had graduated from books to comics. And I got this really lurid historical novel about Catherine of Aragon, Henry's golden queen. And I devoured it in two days. And it sent me rushing off to the serious history books in my school library to find out what really happened.

CONAN: Hmm. And you then became a specialist in the Tudor courts.

Ms. WEIR: I did. But it took a long while. History was a hobby for about, oh, 20 years before I got into print.

CONAN: It is - but it is - why the Tudors especially?

Ms. WEIR: I think that they're larger-than-life characters, dynamic, forceful characters. And this is a dramatic period in history. You couldn't make it up, a king with six wives? Two of them lose their heads? Seventeen-year-old girl, queen for nine days, executed? It - you know, it's quite dramatic stuff.

CONAN: Oh, it's great stuff. When you write though about Lady Jane Grey, she's there in the tower awaiting her execution, and you talk about her anxiety, any evidence to support the anxiety or is that where the fiction comes in?

Ms. WEIR: That's where the fiction comes in. You imagine how she must have felt. And she was very strong. We have her letters, so we know that she did gain strength, and actually she argued against a reprieve.

CONAN: Argued against a reprieve?

Ms. WEIR: Against - she was offered her life if she would convert to the Catholic faith, and she argued against that, knowing she would die.

CONAN: A woman of principle.

Ms. WEIR: Yes, a feisty dogmatic teenager who took it too far.

CONAN: Alison Weir is our guest. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's go to Courtney(ph), Courtney with us from Mayfield in Kentucky.

COURTNEY (Caller): Hi. How are you all today?

CONAN: Very good.

Ms. WEIR: Hi, Courtney.

COURTNEY: Good. Ms. Weir, I just want to call in and let you know I didn't start getting interested in historical fiction until I started reading some of Philippa Gregory. But once I really got into it, I have devoured everything you have written, and I really think you reach a broader spectrum than you would ever realize because I just finished "Eleanor of Aquitaine" and I cannot wait to read "Captive Queen." But it has just sparked an interest in medieval England and medieval Europe overall that just fascinates me. I think what you're doing is a wonderful thing.

Ms. WEIR: Thank you so much. I'm deeply touched. It's wonderful to hear something like that, to get that feedback.

CONAN: Courtney, what's your favorite part?

COURTNEY: "Eleanor of Aquitaine." She is so fascinating, and there's so little known about her. And while I was reading your book on her, I was amazed that you had pieced so much together about her life because there is so little known about her. I mean, it's just - it's fascinating, the work you do. And I'm an amateur history buff, but your books have had a great impact on me in what I like to read about now. And I'm very grateful for it. You definitely made -broaden my knowledge.

Ms. WEIR: Well, you've made my day. Thank you very much, Courtney.

COURTNEY: Thank you all. You all have a great day.

Ms. WEIR: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Sarah(ph) in Ankeny, Iowa. I have read many of Alison Weir's nonfiction books. I was thrilled when she began to write historical fiction. Her novel on Lady Jane Grey was excellent. Any chance you'll do a novel on the princes in the tower?

Ms. WEIR: That's the next one.

CONAN: Good Lord.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's your agent writing in from Ankeny in Iowa. Again, the - you're competing, though, with some pretty fancy writers. I mean, you got Shakespeare. You got - in addition, all the other historians here.

Ms. WEIR: I'm not setting myself up against Shakespeare, no. I just do what I do and hope people enjoy it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dave(ph), Dave with us from Nashville.

DAVE (Caller): Nashua, actually.

CONAN: Oh, Nashua in Iowa, not Tennessee. Okay.

DAVE: Yeah. Hey, hello. I'm - I kind of got into historical fiction on accident. I came upon a James Michener book, and this is about two years ago. And since then, I've read about 12, 13 of them. And his are - if you're not familiar with them, they're a little different. What they - instead of looking at one time period, they look at one particular geographical area and kind of follow that.

CONAN: Sprawling is, I think, the...

Ms. WEIR: "Hawaii," wasn't it, James Michener?

DAVE: That is actually the only one I haven't read yet of his historical novels. But - that's - it's on my list. He's written at least 10 or 12 that kind of follow that same formula.

CONAN: He drove me crazy, though, with one that was "Space" that he wrote about and - in which he restages the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and for extra dramatic effect refloats a Japanese battleship that had been sunk the day before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEIR: Naughty.

CONAN: Very bad.

DAVE: I didn't know enough about the actual facts. I didn't read that one, but I'm - I wasn't aware that was an inaccuracy, I guess, you know,

CONAN: Musashi had sunk the day before and that - anyway...

DAVE: Okay. All right.

CONAN: Mr. Michener is beyond my criticism now, however.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call.

DAVE: Yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email from Amanda(ph) in Anchorage. Do you think that truthfulness within history books and accuracy has fallen to the wayside as time has gone on?

Ms. WEIR: I would say, yes. But, I mean, you could go back, you could look at historical novels of the '50s to the '70s and you will find inaccuracies in them. I would say that it's more common with films, filmed versions of history in which truthfulness and accuracy has fallen by the wayside.

CONAN: Well, in which they're trying to make - compress time and (unintelligible) the characters.

Ms. WEIR: They think it's demeaning to follow the facts.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, it takes up a lot of time for that. I was interested what you said, though, about having to interpolate peoples' emotions. The historians are bitterly criticized, the kind of historians who say, as he stared across the English Channel, Napoleon must have felt - because you can't say that.

Ms. WEIR: You can only say it if you've got an original source that you can use to support it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Karen(ph), Karen with us from Cincinnati.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. Yes. I wanted to say that my husband and I - my husband is British. But we devoured the "Tudors" program, but we always kept Alison's book. We could fact check everything that was going on.

Ms. WEIR: I like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAREN: And my husband has read it cover to cover a couple times.

Ms. WEIR: Thank you.

CONAN: Did you discover any discrepancies, Karen?

KAREN: Yes. Supposedly, the - his best friend, so to speak, the one that dies in the end, doesn't really exists or not in that way. And there were other things that didn't quite work out, so...

CONAN: It was - I think it was a revelation to most people that Henry wasn't fat his whole life.

KAREN: No. No. That did come up, too.

Ms. WEIR: There were quite a few revelations such as Cardinal Wolsey cutting his throat. I've never heard of that.

KAREN: Yeah. (Unintelligible). Thank you so much.

CONAN: Okay. And you've studied this for years.

Ms. WEIR: I have, absolutely. And this sister called Margaret, who married the king of Portugal, who on earth was she meant to be?

KAREN: Yes.

CONAN: Well, perhaps...

Ms. WEIR: ...or a radiator in a bedroom.

CONAN: Well, it was - that must have made things considerably more comfortable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAREN: Well, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

KAREN: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Jennifer(ph), Jennifer with us from San Francisco.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. First, I just want to say thank you so much for having this author on the air and this wonderful topic. The thing I wanted to say is I'm a huge proponent of passion-based, child-based learning and reform in the education system. And I truly feel that it would be wonderful to have so much more historical writing in the educational system.

I think, especially for females, it's a wonderful way for them to connect with the people behind the dry facts that are often taught in our school system. So I just wanted to put that out there. And I also wanted to ask the author, as I have not had the benefit of reading her books yet, which book she would recommend I start with. And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Jennifer. Thanks.

Ms. WEIR: If you would like to read non-fiction, I suggest "The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn." It's probably the most exciting story. And possibly the...

CONAN: Don't tell me how it comes out.

Ms. WEIR: I'm not going to. Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEIR: Probably the latest one, any of the three novels.

CONAN: Though she suggests the use of these historical fiction in schools, they would have to be in the English class and not in the history class.

Ms. WEIR: I think the fiction would, but I do think that history is full of great stories. And when I write history books, I write them as a narrative.

CONAN: Right. Thanks. Alison Weir is our guest. We're talking about her latest novel, "The Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Frank(ph), and Frank with us from Menlo Park in California.

FRANK (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I've really enjoyed reading Alison Weir's biography of Queen Elizabeth. And she said that she likes to write about the Tudor period because of the larger-than-life characters, and I agree with that. I wonder if she's considered writing any book about Queen Elizabeth's wars in Ireland and all of the larger-than-life characters there -Hugh O'Neill, Essex, Lord Mountjoy, Shane O'Neill and so forth, as well as the time, money and headaches that the Irish wars caused for Elizabeth.

CONAN: Yeah. In all the movies and a lot of the books, everybody's just arriving back from Ireland (inaudible)...

Ms. WEIR: They are indeed. I have actually written about that in my biography, "Elizabeth the Queen." The problem is I'm always being steered by my publishers in the direction of writing about strong female characters. So I don't think that would get off the ground with them, unfortunately, although it's a fascinating subject.

FRANK: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call. Let's go next to Jean(ph), Jean with us from Holland, Michigan.

JEAN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for your program. I listen to it all the time.

CONAN: Oh, thank you for that.

JEAN: And I appreciate the way you interview and bring out the best and the most interesting points. And I am just avid to get at this book. I have not heard of this author, but I have just read a book of - what's it called -shucks, senior moment here. Anyway, I think the lady author is Robson and it's the story of Sam - well, we call him Houston, but his name was Houston(ph), I believe, really...

CONAN: Oh, the...

JEAN: The famous Sam Houston and his Chippewa lady, who was a special person, very strong characters and fascinating stories. And thank you, historical writers. Just hang in there, find those facts. I think the truth is far more interesting than anything anybody could make up.

Ms. WEIR: I second that 100 percent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEAN: I'm just - I'm waiting - I'll probably call my local bookseller and order your book and I'll (unintelligible)...

Ms. WEIR. Thank you so much.

JEAN: I've heard about the Plantagenets that I want to read more.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JEAN: And Eleanor of Aquitaine was actually the first queen of England, and nobody admits it. So there, too, nyeh(ph).

CONAN: Nyeh. Okay. Thanks very much.

JEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to, this is Jennifer(ph), Jennifer with us from Charlotte.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, how are you? Thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JENNIFER: I just wanted to echo a previous caller who talked about education. I have a 7-year-old daughter who is entering second grade. She has Asperger's syndrome, and she reads on a 10th grade level. So reading is an immensely important way of communicating feeling with her because people who are on the autistic spectrum have - I guess, it has been the way, it's called theory of mind, the way they can empathize or put themselves in other people's places.

She and I have adventured our way through the "American Girls" series, which is just, I think, a fantastic way, especially for a little girl, to learn about American history, specifically. And I wish there were more books targeted for young children or, you know, elementary school age because for her and I'm sure millions of children like her, historical fiction is not only a way to just learn the facts, but it's to, as your author was speaking, to imagine what it would be like to be in that place...

CONAN: And go into that portal in time and begin to understand our past. Jennifer, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JENNIFER: Absolutely. All my best, thanks so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Have you ever considered writing for young people?

Ms. WEIR: Yes, I have. And I've actually written up a book that was in the quick read series in Britain, and it's for emergent adult readers. And it would be the kind of language that would be accessible by 9 to 12-year-olds.

CONAN: So, and the next one is about the boys in the towers.

Ms. WEIR: Yes, but that will be an adult novel. That is one theme in it.

CONAN: That'll be - that is just one of the - there's another strong female character.

Ms. WEIR: It's the next novel. The next biography is about Mary Boleyn. That's the next book to come out.

CONAN: That's - Anne's sister?

Ms. WEIR: Yes, that's correct. Yes.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much for being with us, and good luck with the book. We appreciate it.

Ms. WEIR: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Alison Weir, her latest book is "Captive Queen, A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine." And the author was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

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