Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Medici's Daughter Author Q&A with Sophie Perinot

Hello, and Happy Hump Day! Welcome back to Drink Read Love. Today, I'm being joined by Sophie Perinot, author of Medici's Daughter, which I reviewed yesterday. You can read it here if you haven't already. When I reached out to Sophie and asked if she'd be willing to do a Q&A, I was delighted when she said yes. Quite frankly, Author Q&As are my favorite part of this blog, and getting to chat with Sophie is no exception.

Anyways. Today is the big day: the online party celebrating the 6-month anniversary of the release of Medici's Daughter! I'm pre-gaming with a glass of ginger ale (gotta save my champagne for tonight, and I do have to drive and care for children today). Grab a drink and join me for a chat with Sophie.

First of all, congratulations on the success of Medici’s Daughter. Thank you so much for doing this Q&A! I’m thrilled to have you on Drink Read Love to talk about your amazing novel, Medici’s Daughter and I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and answer some questions.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 
I am a history nut but in other ways a thoroughly modern woman.
In a prior life (aka years ago) I was a lawyer. Now I have the privilege of pursuing my writing, which is both a profession and a passion. I live in northern Virginia, tucked into the woods, with my husband, three kids (although two are now old enough that they come and go), two dogs (including a recent acquisition who jumped out into the road in front of me to get my attention) and two cats. I love to cook and I am addicted to the Food Network. I am allergic to the sun, so my neighbors always claim they don’t see me between May and October (though this spring the abundance of rain has me outside gardening all the time).

How did you get started writing stories/books?  
Well Esther, the stories came first. I’ve just pretty much always told them. I have a younger sister who is also my best friend, and as kids I took FULL advantage of that audience—making up stories for our long (no really, it was over 2 miles one way) walk to school and recording stories as part of my tradition of making cassette tapes for her to play if she woke up too early on Christmas morning (as in, before the time officially anointed by our parents as “present time.”)  Even when I wasn’t telling stories, I was generally making them up in my head to amuse myself.

What kind of books did you enjoy reading growing up? 
I mostly read what would now be called “classics”—but to me they were just books. I read all of Louisa May Alcott. I read Austen very early.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve always enjoyed stories set in the past from Anne of Green Gables to The Three Musketeers, to this really wonderful biographical novel, Peggy, by Lois Duncan, about the wife of Benedict Arnold that I remember devouring in the 3rd or 4th grade. I also read contemporary (for the time) authors. I particularly loved Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s futuristic series that began with Below the Root as well as her Egypt Game (which had my sister and I building shrines in the backyard and mummifying crickets).  Perhaps the most memorable non-classic read of my childhood was Adrienne Jones’ Another Place, Another Spring—a book about a young Russian serving-girl sent to Siberia with her banished mistress that is a perfect example of a novel set against the past that deals with issues that transcend the past like loyalty, and learning who you are and what you are capable of.

How do you juggle parenthood and writing? I have trouble sometimes just keeping up with blogging and keeping my kids out of trouble, I have mad respect for anyone who manages to write full length books with kids in the picture. 
First let me just say that sometimes I juggle better than others. Often—hopefully when no one is looking too closely—all the balls are on the floor and I am sitting among them thinking “what just happened.”  I think it helps that my kids are older now (youngest is 14). When I went to my first Historical Novel Society Conference (with lots of confidence but no completed manuscript) my son was a toddler and he woke my husband up every hour on the hour that first night to ask if Mommy was home yet. So those early years I kept my head in the game—learning about the business of writing—but I didn’t get that many words on the page. I used to carry a mini-cassette recorder with me and sometimes I dictated portions of my first book (a book that, by the way, has never seen the light of day) in the weirdest places, like the frozen food aisle of the store while pushing my cart.

What is your writing process like? Does it change from book to book? 
I am quite disciplined about using my son-in-school hours. I really think that nothing beats “butt in chair” when it comes to process. That being said, how each book unfolds varies. I think that has more to do with the characters in a particular novel than it does with me. After steeping myself in research to a point where I can accurately dream about events from eras past, I wait for my point-of-view characters (or at least one of them) to start speaking. Sometimes that is a very linear process (for example the opening line of Médicis Daughter, “In my dreams the birds are always black,” were the first words Margot ever said to me), and sometimes it is not.

I read on the Amazon page for Medici’s Daughter that you have cats. We also have cats and they love to “help” me write, usually by curling up on my hands or keyboard or mousepad as I’m trying to type. Are your cats “helpful”? Do you banish them from wherever you’re writing? 
I currently have two kitties. And they used to consider themselves my apprentices—keyboard sitting their specialty. However, in the last couple years—after much lobbying by my son—we’ve added two dogs to the family. One of those dogs (my Boston Terrier) is not exactly cat-friendly. So he and the kitties have worked out a deal. He stays upstairs and they stay down. This means no more kitty help in my office but plenty of kitty help in the kitchen, laundry room etc.

What is the hardest challenge for you in writing historical fiction? 
Confronting prejudices and preconceptions about the past. We have this idea in our heads that progress is linear and things always get better and better—particularly for women. However quite often there are backwards steps. For example there is this long-standing myth that historical women were submissive wives only, handing their property and their freedom over to their husbands and that things were worse the further back you go. However this is an over-generalization. For example, let’s compare the situations of the noblewomen in my first book, The Sister Queens, set in the 1250s with the situation of my heroine in Médicis Daughter, set in the 1560s and 1570s.  In this case my earlier heroines had more control not less. Medieval women not only held territory and titles in their own right but, unlike their sisters several hundred years later, their property did not automatically become their husband’s upon marriage.  I can offer an example from my debut novel The Sister Queens. My main character’s youngest sister, Beatrice, inherits the girls’ father’s territory, becoming Countess of Provence upon their father’s death.  When she marries the brother of the King of France the legal documents associated with that marriage provide that while children of their union can inherit Provence, her husband, should she predecease him, cannot. Contrast this with Marguerite de Valois situation in Médicis Daughter 300 years later—unlike Beatrice, Margot could never inherit the crown of France in her own right because she was female.
I try to keep an open mind as I begin my research for any project and let my conclusions form as I collect facts and impressions. And I think that is one of the most important and challenging things in both writing and reading historical fiction—keeping an open mind. Whether that means not judging figures from 500 years ago by modern standards (which is frankly not fair), rejecting baseless historical stereotypes, or being willing to abandon things we’ve previously learned that have since been challenged by additional discoveries and scholarship.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction? 
Time travel. I love to travel physically, and I do a lot of it. But researching and writing about the past gives me a special sort of travel-super-power. I get to visit different time periods as well as different places.  And beyond that I get to crawl into the skins of different people. I’ve always felt one lifetime is not enough, and when I am Margot, or any other character, it is like being gifted a different life, if only for a brief period of time. When I look at the world through the eyes of another person it changes me—by offering me the opportunity to look at myself and my own behavior in new ways. That is powerful and sometimes scary.

Do you have any advice for dealing with Writer’s Block? 
I am going to STEAL some advice . . . or rather share the best advice I was ever given on this point. Some years ago we were fortunate enough to have Bernard Cornwell as a keynote speaker at a Historical Novel Society conference. He told a room full of us that writing is a job. You must do it. Period. He said when you go to the dentist the nurse doesn’t open that little sliding window and say, “oh we have to reschedule you, the dentist can’t fill teeth today he has Dentist-block.” That speech was a wakeup call for me. If writing is a profession we can’t beg-off. Put words on paper. They don’t have to be the best words or the final words, but if it is a work day for you then work—no excuses.

What inspired you to write Medici’s Daughter? 
I’ve been addicted to French history and French royalty for a long time. My desire to explore the Valois court in particular probably originates with Alexandre Dumas. I am a huge Dumas fan. I’ve read every word the man ever wrote and his Marguerite de Valois (more popularly known as Reine Margot) made a special connection with me. The more times that I re-read it, the more convinced I became that Marguerite deserved a fuller depiction and a more historically based one (Dumas was quite open about playing fast and loose with history). Médicis Daughter is the result of that conviction.

What type of research did you do for Medici’s Daughter?
I do academic style research. I think I have a bit of an advantage because I was a history major who produced a thesis. And over the years, research has gotten easier because so much is available on-line. I remember the old days—microfilm, having to send for obscure volumes (I once borrowed something from a seminary half-way across the country). And now JSTOR is on-line at my desk. It’s phenomenal. So many primary sources are being scanned and put on-line in their entirety. But sometimes I still do have to send for something, or make a trip to the Library of Congress (proximity to the Library of Congress is one of the perks of living in the DC metro area). And I do try to travel to some of the locations from my books (more on that below) because those visits give me a feel for the atmosphere of those places, an atmosphere I can then recreate more vividly readers.

Chateau de Chenonceau.
Photo credit: Sophie Perinot
Did you travel to any of the places in Medici’s Daughter in the process of writing or have you been to any of them in the past? If so, which ones? What was your favorite? Any you recommend particularly? 
I’ve been to many of the locations in the book. Paris of course. And I am a Loire Valley addict. I first visited the châteaux of the Loire as a 20-year old, and have been back numerous times. I adore château de Chenonceau which is on the cover of Médicis Daughter. There are still many traces of Catherine de Médicis there as well as of the Duc d’Anjou’s eventual wife/queen. I also am a huge fan of château d’Amboise, where my novel begins. The views from the gardens there down onto the Loire River are stunning. And the town of Amboise is utterly utterly charming. Finally if you want to see Catherine de Médicis’ gorgeous gold-paneled study (depicted in Médicis Daughter), as well as the room where Catherine died then you have to visit château de Blois.

When you wrote Medici’s Daughter, did it go the way you planned it or did the book end up going in a different direction? 
In every book characters will say and do things you don’t expect because, if they are fully fleshed out, they react in real-time to events surrounding them. But the larger framework of historical events tends to keep them from wandering too far off the main plot-path. I think that is different when/if you have major characters who are fictional rather than historical figures. I’ve recently drafted a manuscript featuring a main character who is fictional, and I can tell you that was liberating and a lot more twist and turns did end up happening.

What would you say is your favorite scene in the book and why 
One of my favorite scenes is the last one and NOT because I got to type “the end” when I was drafting the manuscript. I love that scene because Margot becomes somehow whole in it. The entire book she has been becoming and becoming—and making mistakes along the way because we all make mistakes as we are struggling to find out who we want to be and how we fit into our own lives. And who Margot is has been becoming clearer and clearer, but in that final scene it snaps into place. And as a writer/reader I found myself cheering and thinking “yes! That’s it woman!”

Do you have a least favorite? 
It is hard for me to write scenes that are painful for my characters because I become attached to them. Such emotional-pivot scenes are not hard in the sense of what will I say—because the stronger the emotion or the more dramatic the action the more the characters take over and charge ahead. But they can leave me really exhausted and in tears. In this novel the scenes after the rape attempt on Margot were very hard because she was—as I think too many young women do—taking the blame for what happened on to herself, and that was heartbreaking and depressing.

Have you watched the tv show Reign? If so, what do you think? What do you think of how the cast portrays the characters? When I read, I tend  to get pretty engrossed in the book and “see” it in my imagination, like I can visualize the characters. I have to say, when I read your book, I “see” Catherine being Megan Follows. 
I watch Reign and I enjoy it immensely! I am a couple of episodes behind this season (the Monday night time-slot is a tough one for me) so no spoilers please! And I love Megan Follows. I think she plays a very human Catherine. It would be so easy to make Queen Catherine a cardboard villainess and complete bitch—but she was much more complicated than that. Was she tough and ruthless? Heck yes. But she was widowed with children to preserve and a kingdom to retain for her husband’s Valois bloodline. And there were plenty of tough and ruthless noblemen who would gladly have seen Catherine fail and grasped power for themselves. I think Megan understands both the good and bad in Catherine and her motivations and does justice to both.
When Reign started I was thrilled that someone had finally made a show about the Valois who are, by any measure, just plain sexier than the Tudors (and yes, I realize, having spent a decade in company with the Valois that I am prejudice). I know that there are people who criticize the show for lack of historical accuracy, but I don’t think the creators are asserting it is historically educational. They are making gripping entertainment, and doing so very successfully. There has to be room for that, surely. Once in a while we all need to forget about the fact that there are 16th century gentlemen wearing leather pants (it took me some time to get past the Reign costuming, not going to lie) and women without proper undergarments, and let ourselves enjoy a show that frequently includes more drama in a single episode than can be found in some entire 600 page novels. I hope Reign and shows like it continue to be popular because they remind viewers that history is fascinating (and, hopefully inspire viewers to read about the past), and they remind novelists that history without drama is boring (just as modern times would be—I mean nobody writes a novel about sitting in carpool).
Personally I would be delighted if Reign fans would read Médicis Daughter. The novel offers a next chapter in the Valois story. It goes where Reign might if it stays focused on the Valois in the post-Francis period. Charles, who is on the throne in the current season of Reign, is the reigning King in Médicis Daughter as well. And I’d like to think that my novel has the vicious gossip, endless intrigue, court politics, and yes, sex that keeps Reign fans tuning in every week. On top of this I’ve got a level of historical accuracy that TV does not aspire to. But I promise there is nothing whatsoever dull about this history.

One thing I’ve often wondered in general, that I found myself wondering again here, is about the balance between history and fiction. How do you balance keeping it accurate enough to be historically accurate and fiction enough to be… well…. Fiction? Basically, how do you find the balance between biography and pure fiction? 
One of the big responsibilities of writing historical fiction is trying to accurately convey a sense of what it was like to live in another era. Well-established facts need to be respected. The truth is, however, there is quite a bit of room for interpretation. Many things about the past are still actively disputed by historians. Where there are alternate theories or interpretations I think an author ought to be free to use the one that best fits her/his narrative. Sometimes even basics are uncertain. For example, the birth year of one of the four sisters in my debut novel is debated (more than 700 years after the fact), so I picked the date that made her closest in age to her sisters.
What is best fictionalized in historical novels—and, in fact is always fictionalized—is how characters feel and what they say. The insides of historical figures are open to interpretation (in line, of course, with their observable behavior). And it would be impossible to have dialog in historical novels if real life characters could only utter those words that have come down to us through history.

Is the only requirement to be considered historical fiction that a book take place in the past, or do there need to be elements of accuracy, whether it’s in using an actual person, or specific situations, that type of thing?  Is there kind of an industry standard or is it pretty open to interpretation? 
The definitions of historical fiction are many. This is Historical Novel Society’s definition: “To be deemed historical . . . a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).” But the association admits that their definition is ultimately arbitrary. I think most authors who write serious, high-quality, historical fiction would agree that it is important to at least attempt to keep facts in line with history as we currently know it. Beyond that I would say that historical fiction—as opposed to fiction set against the past, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to write—generally includes either pivotal incidents/events of a historical nature or known historical figures as a central component.

I find that when my husband and I watch shows or movies about topics we’re knowledgeable/experienced in (military, firefighters, etc.), we have a tendency to yell at the screen about the inaccuracies. Do you find that you do that with historical shows/movies, such as Reign, The Tudors, that type of thing? 
That certainly happens. Even my children have been known to yell at the Tudors—they seemed particularly aggrieved by how the show rolled Henry VIII’s sisters together and muddled them. As I said when we talked about Reign, the non-period costuming in that show initially gave me fits, as did the fact that Francis lived past his actual death-age by quite a bit. But I decided early on that if I was going to watch and enjoy the show rather than watch it to tear it apart I had to take off my historian hat and view it for its drama and performances. If a historical drama can suck me in to a point where I care about the characters I think that is impressive and, frankly more important than whether a Spanish or a French farthingale (piece of women’s underwear that holds out a skirt) is the correct one for a particular year.

Do you plan to write any books as sequels, prequels, or companions, whether about Marguerite or any of the other characters in Medici’s Daughter? 
In my dream-world I would absolutely do a sequel, but only time will tell if there is a market for that. I’d probably keep the time span covered in a new book rather short because much of Margot’s future life is a bit of a downer. Fortunately there was a brief period early in her marriage when she found contentment and I’d like to give her that happy ending—even if it is only a temporary one.

Do you have any projects in the works now? Ideas bouncing around for future projects? If so, can you tell us a little about them? Feel free to say no. :D 
I’ve just handed-off a new manuscript to my beloved agent. I can’t provide details, but I will say that I think it is super dramatic and I expect it to leave readers emotionally wrecked. Right now I am the one emotionally wrecked though. I miss the characters from “what’s next” already, and as a result I am playing a lot of funereal baroque music around my house as well as darker pieces from my writing-soundtrack (because yes you can write novels set in the past against a background of alternative music), causing my pets and human companions to give me odd looks.

Is there any particular drink (alcoholic or not) that you would recommend as going well with Medici’s Daughter? 
I recommend a good French wine with pretty much any book ;) But in the case of Médicis Daughter I sometimes like to sip a white—a sweet Jurançon.  This is a wine from South West France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where Henri of Navarre grew up. That makes me smile, because of all the men in Médicis Daughter, the Prince of Navarre is my favorite.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? 
I’d just like to thank you for hosting me, and for reading and reviewing Médicis Daughter! I don’t believe readers realize how important they are to this process. Reader feedback is THE best part of this gig! Seriously! Additionally—because writing is a business, or at least being published by a major publisher is—reader reviews are essential. They encourage others to try books, boosting sales, which gives the authors who write those books a better chance of staying in the game and getting contracts for their future work.

Thanks again for chatting with me, Sophie, it’s been great!
If you have any other questions for Sophie, head on over to the Facebook event page for tonight's party and ask away, and then attend tonight! It's going to be great. I'm so excited to get to hear from some of the authors of a few of my favorite historical fiction novels, some of which are on my To Be Reviewed list to go up on the blog later. And of course, who doesn't want to have a chance at winning free books?