Today marks Independent Booksellers Week Eve – for tomorrow is the start of one of the most xciting events in book selling history. Organised by Books Are My Bag, it’s a fab opportunity to visit an indie bookstore, buy a book, chat to the lovely people there who offer advice and enthusiasm for books and maybe see an author!
To celebrate this, we at the booktrail have been to West End Lane books in London to speak to the lovely Saskia van Emden who calls herself a humble serf at WELbooks and since she is a medieval history aficionado, that sounds quite apt to us. She reads books, she sells books, she sniffs books ANd she is even writing a book. Oh and she’s an honorary booktrailer as she travels A LOT with a book in hand – especially to France to see France through the eyes of the Platagenets.
She’s coming for a cuppa and a cake today – thought I would give her a little time to chat and relax before Independent Bookseller Week starts in earnest.
Hi Saskia. Welcome to the booktrail. I do love a good chat with a fellow book lover. Here take a piece of chocolate cake – oh and a marshmallow. I’ve got loads I want to chat to you about.
Your slogan ‘Writes, travels and researches Plantagenet Europe one Eurostar trip at a time ‘ sounds right up our street! We travel the world one book at a time so it’s great to have you on board if you excuse the bad pun. Where have you been to recently?
Where haven’t I been? Sorry for the clichéd response, as you can tell from my slogan I travel around France rather extensively as research for my novel. In the last year I’ve covered Normandy, the Loire Valley, parts of Aquitaine, Paris and also Limoges. The wonderful thing about France is its size and the sheer difference between the many regions you can travel to. In the space of three hours you can travel from the forested mountains of Chinon to the beautiful seaside ports of La Rochelle which seems more like a Mediterranean village than a French town. In the past year or so I’ve been lucky enough to visit Le Mans, Tours, Limoges, Bordeaux, Paris, Angers, Saumur, Rouen, Bayeux, Poitiers, Caen and the villages of Chinon, Fontevraud and Chenonceaux where you can find stunning examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture.
Tell us about your favourite historical novel and the places you have visited from reading it.
At a push I’d have to say my favourite historical novel is Pillars of the Earth mainly because it covers my favourite period 12th century England! The novel is set during the anarchy period documenting the effects of the brutal civil war between Stephen and Matilda on the fictional towns of Kingsbridge and Shiring. I know that the fictional towns and the cathedral built in the book are loosely based in Salisbury and sadly I’ve yet to go there! Not to spoil too much, I have been to Canterbury which features heavily in the latter stages of the book and also to the various regions in Anjou where Matilda (referred to as Maud) lived when not in England.
What is it that you love so much about historical fiction?
Historical fiction for me is such a tricky thing to get right and for me, more times than not, I don’t enjoy what I read. It is not a case of me being ridiculously picky, but I find the more romantically set ones to be a tad repetitive. That said, when I do find a historical novel I enjoy I often tend to re-read them to death. In my opinion a successful historic novel creates compelling characters, paints a picture vividly and transports the reader to another time. A historical novel is the ultimate escape when it comes to fiction, they represent those stolen moments where a person can briefly disengage from the stresses of 21st century life and decompress.
Your favourite historical fiction novel?
That’s an impossible question for me to answer, because I go through stages of obsessions with historical fiction. As I’m unable to pick one I’ll cheat and list a few. I’ve just finished The Last King of Lydia the debut novel by Tim Leach. It’s about the rise and fall of the powerful Middle Eastern king Croesus and his struggle to understand the transient nature of happiness during and after his reign. Besides Pillars of the Earth I’d highly recommend Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (recently reviewed on my blog), Blood and Beauty a book about Lucrezia Borgia by the wonderful Sarah Dunant, Andrew Miller’s Pure which serialises the construction of the Parisian catacombs and finally that old classic I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
Which character from historical fiction would you be?
In an effort not to complicate things I’ll stick with a female character rather than go through every character I can think of. I’d quite like to be a character from Greek mythology, probably Athena who is the insanely cool goddess of war and wisdom who features in classical, medieval and modern literature.
Favourite historical fiction author?
At the moment it’s Madeline Miller because her prose is perfection, her research is impeccable and her passion palpable. I can only hope she writes a second book!
A dinner party with the Plantagenets..who would you want to sit next to and why?
My friends would expect me to say Henry II so I’m going to throw a curveball and say his son Young Henry or Prince Hal. Hal was a little more extravagant than his frugal father, spending vast amounts of feasts, clothes and tournaments. In modern terms the guy was a total playboy prince which would probably provide memorable conversation than Henry Sr!
Please tell us about the book you are writing – where is it set?
My book The Vanquished Crown is a 12th century epic that brings to life the meteoric rise and crushing downfall of one of England’s most infamous and misunderstood kings, Henry II. The novel introduces readers to one of history’s most dysfunctional families: his wife, the original she-wolf and political power-monger Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his embattled sons, the future Richard The Lionheart and King John. A heady mix of murder, marriage and misfortune, The Vanquished Crown journeys through almost 60 years of medieval history. We see Henry develop from a stubborn boy, troublesome heir, conquering king and political strategist and, finally, an isolated and vanquished monarch, discovering on the way the humanity behind the mythology of the wrathful and brutal king who is now seldom remembered for much more than his supposed dispatching of Thomas a Becket with ‘who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’
Set in England and much of France, writing this book has taken me from the highest peaks in the Loire Valley to crypts of Canterbury Cathedral. I am very visual when it comes to research, I have to see the places I’m writing about and through the book I’ve not only learnt a huge amount of new history but also about myself. I have been wholly privileged to experience the things I have and I encourage anyone with an idea to do the same.
Thanks for stopping by Saskia! Eeh you’ll be parched after all that chatting, I am! I’ll pop the kettle back on and we’ll have a rest. Then you can get back and finish preparing for tomorrow.
WEL books can be found at http://westendlanebooks.co.uk/ or 227 WEst End Lane London – Nearest tube station is West Hampstead. Go..now! and buy a book from Saskia!
Saskia’s historical dabblings can be read at saskiaregina.wordpress.com