I’m so pleased to bring you the first part in a two-part interview with today’s guest, Michelle Diener–a woman who was born in England, raised in South Africa, and who currently resides in Australia. Michelle’s debut novel, In a Treacherous Court, released three days ago, published by the Gallery Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. The book, a historical thriller/suspense with romantic elements, has already received great reviews and been picked up by Target as part of their Emerging Author Program.
In a Treacherous Court, the first book in a series, features true historical figures, including artist Susanna Horenbout and King Henry VIII’s Keeper of the Palace, John Parker. I was particularly struck by the sheer number of historical events Michelle referenced in her novel and the way she fictionalized the bridging of these pieces to create a believable possibility. Because of this, I was a little obsessed with her research process, as you’ll probably notice.
I also know Michelle through the RWA women’s fiction chapter, where I am president and she is Vice President of Communications. She is masterful in this position, and has created not only a beautifully organized and vibrant website, but a regular newsletter for members that is truly content-rich.
I know you’ll enjoy getting to know her a little today. And be sure to leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for one of her books; U.S. residents only, please.
TW: You have an interesting background–born in London, raised in Africa, living in Australia. Have these varied international experiences affected your writing or view of the writer’s world? How?
MD: Without a doubt, they have affected me a great deal. I think my experiences have given me the ability to see things from many perspectives, to understand that more than one person with an opposing view can be right, and that there still has to be a way to come to a resolution. It has taught me about being an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger in your own land, and also opened my eyes to different types of beauty and different ways of looking at things. All things I am glad I have experienced and which I try to incorporate into my work.
TW: You are one of the most efficient and productive people I know, with fantastic standards of excellence. Were you born a superwoman–attributing your gifts to your natural Virgo powers–or were these skills learned? How do you do it?
MD: Superwoman? I think not! I am such a Virgo. I don’t really believe horoscopes, but if I look at my personality, I have to admit there must be something to it, because I am born right in the middle of Virgo territory, and I just epitomise one. There is no hope for me! *g* As for how I do it, despite your wonderful compliments, I don’t know if I always do it all that well, but I think there is real truth to the saying “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Also, I have the great role model of my mother, who raised five kids, worked as a teacher and got her PhD in Educational Psychology while still running a home and playing taxi to us all.
TW: What inspired In a Treacherous Court?
MD: Susanna Horenbout herself is the inspiration for the story. I came across her in a book called UPPITY WOMEN OF THE RENAISSANCE by Vicki Leon. There was just a single page on her, but I was intrigued by a woman who was truly exceptional as an artist – Albrecht Dürer praised her work when she was only eighteen and bought one of her pieces – who was sent alone by her father to the court of Henry VIII. IN A TREACHEROUS COURT is my fictional version of why she was sent across to London and what happened to her when she got there.
TW: You wrote the story in alternating points of view – the view of John Parker, the King’s most trusted courtier, and Susanna Horenbout – a painter straight off the boat from Ghent (Belgium). They’re both misfits of a sort who know what it’s like to feel unaccepted. Which of the characters was easiest for you to write? Did either give you trouble? Did their similarities ever cause you difficulty; meaning, did you ever struggle to create tension between them?
MD: At the start of the story, there is a natural tension between them, because Susanna knows something Parker wants her to tell him, and as she has promised to only tell Henry VIII, she refuses to do so. But as soon as that tension is resolved, I saw their relationship as a port in the storm of violence and betrayal around them. They are each other’s much needed place of calm. As for misfits, yes, they are both outsiders, in Susanna’s case, extremely so. She is not only a foreigner, but she is a woman who is working in what at that time was almost completely a man’s field. And she was excelling. You have to imagine this would not have earned her many friends and she would have encountered outright hostility at times, I’m sure. Parker is an outsider in that he’s one of the King’s new men. Henry wanted to curb the power of his noblemen, so he fostered a meritocracy as much as possible in his court, giving some positions of power to men who were useful, efficient and loyal to him, but who were not titled and did not have a large landed power-base. Parker is one of those men. There is a natural hatred of him by a number of noblemen, who feel he is ‘taking’ their positions away from them. But for me, Parker was the harder of the two to write, because he is so ruthless. He has the kind of hard edge I never will have, whereas Susanna is softer. Parker’s childhood experiences, as I’ve written them – I have no idea what the real circumstances of his childhood were – have left him capable of being merciless. That single-mindedness was hard to write.
TW: The original title of the book was Illuminations. Will you tell us a little about the meaning of the term, how it applies to art, and how you used the idea thematically in the book? And are you in love w/ the new title, In a Treacherous Court?
MD: The title ILLUMINATIONS seemed so perfect for the book, because Susanna is an illuminator and artist. True illumination in the technical sense is the use of gold in the design of the pattern or illustration, and I used that again and again through the book. I played with the various meanings of the word, as secrets are brought to light and people are exposed or revealed, depending on the circumstances. I use a lot of light imagery as well. But ultimately, the meaning of the title was only powerful if you knew what was between the covers of the book, it had less impact if you were coming to the book cold. IN A TREACHEROUS COURT works better in letting the reader know what to expect and I’m very happy with the change.
TW: You used true details of court life in the 16th century – juicy pieces of history – as sort of dots, which you then connected in a fictional way to create this novel’s constellation. I thought this brilliantly and comprehensively done – but knowing you as I do (koff: Virgo!), I’m not surprised at your thoroughness. So let’s dig into this, because I see it as the backbone of the entire work. First I should ask, do you agree with that statement? Do you see your research as having provided the structure you needed to flesh out the tale?
MD: Absolutely, and I love the way you’ve put it! The book was about real people, and I was therefore determined that the events in the book should be real, too. Yes, I made up the main plot in the story, but I was careful to make it possible. It might not have happened, but it COULD have happened, given that almost all the other events in the story are real.
TW: How much research do you do? And when do you do it?
MD: I do a lot of research. :) I read History for two years at university, and if I thought I could have made a living with it, I would have majored in it. I love research, and that time reading history was not misspent. I know how to research, what to look for, and I try as much as possible for primary sources, and then really good reference works. My experience is, given the scope of the information, that I just have to keep reading what I have found, over and over, so that I start to see the connections you are talking about. When you understand who X is, and have a real sense of his place in the time you’re researching, it is so much easier to see how Y connects to him, and the implications of that. Because I wanted to base the books on real history as much as possible, I did the research first, but of course, I’m constantly checking facts and researching more specific things as I go.
TW: How long does that step take—how long do you spend brainstorming before you begin? And how long did it take for you to write the book?
MD: IN A TREACHEROUS COURT took a year to write, including research. I did at least six months of research before I started writing. It was less for KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS, the second book in the series, because I had a good sense of the history by then.
[Note: Keeper of the King’s Secrets will be out in February of next year.]
TW: You have an expansive cast of secondary and tertiary characters in this book, woven very tightly together. How much did you need to learn about these other people in order to write them? Did you stumble upon other juicy bits, set them aside for another book?
MD: I try to find out as much as possible about each of the characters I use who are based on real people. And yes, I am constantly surprised at what I learn. This happened with someone I introduced as a minor character in book one, Henry Courtenay, the Earl of Devon. His wife made an appearance in book 2, and an even more important one in book 3. My choices often seem very serendipitous to me!
TW: How much do you use and keep, and how much do you long to use but know you cannot? Anything you might’ve used but decided against including?
MD: I use so little of what I have. It hurts, sometimes! But I think the height of good historical world-building is making the reader feel they are right there without over-loading on facts or long descriptions. The pace of the novel precluded that, anyway. In IN A TREACHEROUS COURT I really wanted to include more about the art of illumination, which I had studied extensively for Susanna’s character. But it didn’t work out that way, so I was so glad I could use more of it in the second book, KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS. This happened with some other information I came across while researching the first book – it ended up forming the main plot of the second book.
TW: I felt that maybe you wanted to dive a little deeper into the feminine repressions of the time—the difficulty a woman had being taken seriously in a professional position. Did you feel that pull?
MD: Oh yes! But the trouble was that Susanna really was alone, or almost alone. She would not have had many other women in a similar position to her (although her father’s friend, artist Simon Bening, had a daughter, Levina Teerlinc, who would have been around eight years younger than Susanna, and she eventually joined Susanna at Henry’s court and became Elizabeth I’s favorite court painter, so there was obviously a strong feeling of allowing their daughters to shine between Gerard Horenbout, Susanna’s father, and Simon Bening). With Susanna in such a unique position, I’ve internalised her feelings a great deal. She would not have had a lot of sympathy if she’d voiced them out loud, I don’t think. The way I’ve written her in the book, she tries to prove herself through her work, letting it speak for itself. And it did! Albrecht Dürer, as I’ve said, bought a painting of the Saviour from her, and wrote in his journal ‘Never would I have thought a woman could paint so well.’ On her death, two Italian master painters eulogized that she was a master of illumination. The only terrible thing is we don’t have the privilege of seeing that work ourselves.
Susanna knows she is talented, and I have insinuated that she is more talented than her older brother, Lucas, who is ultimately going to replace her at Henry’s court, and I’ve worked that resentment into the stories. She’d have to be made of stone not to resent it, but she has to deal with it in the context of her time.
TW: Tell us about the “Chief Conditions & Qualities” introductions. What inspired them?
MD: As I said earlier about research, I love finding primary sources, and THE COURTIER was one such source. It was originally written in Italian by Count Baldessar Castillo, and only translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby a number of years after IN A TREACHEROUS COURT is set. I used the ‘quick guide’ section at the beginning of THE COURTIER, a condensed list of what was and was not acceptable for courtiers and ladies-in-waiting at court, which I LOVED, they had the quick summary or cheat sheet even in the 16th Century! I wanted to give readers a feel for the language of the time, which for obvious reasons I could not do in the book itself, and I wanted to convey the courtly ideals of the time as well, to give readers the context in which the book is set. Putting a single rule for a courtier and a single rule for a lady-in-waiting at the start of each chapter just seemed to work for me, and where possible, I tried to make the quote match what was happening in the chapter.
Readers, please come back next week for part two of my interview with Michelle Diener, when we’ll talk about dark moments, best advice, changes in the publishing industry, and more. Until then, you can learn more about her and In a Treacherous Court by visiting her website and blog, Magical Musings, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!