For some reason I will never understand (Maybe they just like slumming it? Maybe it’s the cupcakes?), I have friends who are doing truly incredible things out in the world. I’ve decided that every so often, I’m going to point to one.
Oh, look! NICOLE GALLAND.
I’ve known Nicole since we went to grad school together. After grad school, she became a very successful writer of historical fiction. Her research is insanely deep, her characters are detailed, and, even better, I can’t predict the narrative from page one, which is saying a lot since narrative is where I live. Her books include the incredible I, Iago, a must-read for anyone working on Othello, The Fool’s Tale, Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade, and Revenge of the Rose.
Her latest book, Godiva, just came out. I asked Nicole a few questions about it, and about writing in general.
It seems most people think women in medieval Europe had far fewer freedoms than they actually did. Is this what attracts you to writing about women in this period? What were some surprising discoveries you’ve made about medieval women throughout your research for your books?
This gets complicated. In Britain, Anglo-Saxon women were better off than the general impression we have of “medieval women.” Things went downhill for them after the Norman Invasion. There is a bit in The Fool’s Tale addressing this from the other border: Welsh women, too, had more rights in that era than did Anglo-Norman women. But since the Normans were the victors and the victors write history, the sense we have of all women’s fates in medieval England comes from a selective reality. Women other than women-known-to-Norman-writers had freedoms we would not expect. Some of their rights are shocking, by modern standards. My favorite example: in Wales, a woman who caught her husband with a mistress could legally kill the mistress as long as she did it herself, not via a third person. Men did not have the same rights – a man who caught his wife in infidelity had to follow a more conventional judicial process.
So the discovery is less about how well women fared, and more about the discrepancy between the official story and the underreported ones. We all know a well-spun “master narrative” can brainwash or mislead. It happens that women’s roles in medieval Britain are a dead-easy example.
Or example, the traditional Godiva legend falls apart when you question the source. The original story is based on a Norman monk’s depiction (more than a century after the fact) of Norman property laws, in which Godiva’s husband, by virtue of being both her husband and her lord, had the power to impose a tax on Coventry. But actually, Godiva was Anglo-Saxon and under the laws of her time, her husband had no such power. So obviously if she really made the ride (and OK, maybe she didn’t) something else was going on– something other than “husband is lord while wife is feisty but compliant chattel.”
And that’s just Britain. It gets even more complicated when you move into various parts of Europe, Constantinople, the Jewish population, the nobility vs the commoners, etc.
I love that you’ve retold the Godiva story in a way that’s so empowering (ugh, I hate that word, but there it is) for women. What drew you to the story, and was that your plan from the beginning, or something that naturally grew out of exploring the narrative?
No plan, really. Godiva surprised me as much as she surprises most people she introduces herself to. I was drawn to her almost accidentally and had no idea where the interest would lead. The original story was about Edgiva, the Abbess of Leominster. When I realized that Lady Godiva has been the patroness of Edgiva’s abbey, I just wanted to add her for some background color.
But that meant having a very clear idea of who Godiva was and why she would have made her ride, and once I was (excuse the term) on that horse, I went full-tilt. As I said above, the original legend doesn’t hold up historically, and I needed something that did, so suddenly I was deeply invested. In terms of simple research, the deciding factor was my realizing, “Hey, these Anglo-Saxon women kicked butt. I better step up to the plate and honor that about them.”
I see so many writers create very bland, generic relationships that exist as a thoroughly uninteresting backdrops for their narratives. The relationship between Godiva and Leofric felt very real to me, and was rich with specificity and detail. Likewise, the relationship between Emilia and Iago in I, Iago felt absolutely real, although completely different in almost every way from the Godiva/Leofric relationship. How do you approach creating these romantic relationships that are so richly realistic and detailed?
A truthful but sappy answer is that the Emilia/Iago relationship was finessed, and the Godiva/Leofric relationship was created, while I was falling in love with Billy [Galland’s husband, actor Billy Meleady], with whom I have the best relationship of my life. I don’t mean to imply you need to experience something personally to write about it of course, I’m just saying sometimes it’s easier to sketch an image when you have a model to draw from.
Shakespeare gets some credit for Iago and Emilia, although the relationship is tricky to interpret; I’ve seen it played vastly different ways. In fact on the book tour for I, Iago, I’d have friends perform the handkerchief scene between the couple, twice– first with Emilia as a playful, almost cheeky wife, and then a terrified, deeply abused one. Same text, same actors, completely different story. It’s all in the details. Choose quirky specifics and invest in them; the payoff is very satisfying.
I know a lot of aspiring writers read this blog. Do you have any words of advice for them?
It’s so cliched but: don’t give up. Just keep on keeping on, even when you believe you suck and have no chance of success. Especially then. My first novel came out the year I turned 40; I’d started it in college. Along the way I was a (not untalented, and yet not successful-enough) actor, director, screenwriter. As a screenwriter, when I got the largest single paycheck of my life, I had $52 left in my bank account. 36 years old, Harvard grad, 52 bucks. Don’t give up.
Another cliché, but just as true: don’t compare yourself to anyone else, regarding talent, success, or circumstances. Ever. Period. It’s a waste of time and energy. End of discussion.
And finally: disregard the hot new mantra to “Find your voice,” because I’ve been hearing that a lot lately and it doesn’t help; in fact, it makes me horribly self-conscious; I feel like I am being told to brand myself (another big concept these days). Just do what makes your heart feel good, even if that means you use many different voices.
I’ve provided links above to purchase Nicole’s books online, but both of us urge you to check out your local independent booksellers! Hell, we urge you to check out your local independent EVERYTHING.