I am pleased to present my second interview on this blog. This time I am interviewing Jacqueline Kolosov, author of A Sweet Disorder which was released in hardcover today (you can read my review of it here) and The Red Queen's Daughter, which was recently released in paperback. I will be having a contest for these books on my blog in the near future, so be sure to check my blog in the coming days if you are interested in winning them.
Both A Sweet Disorder and your previous novel, The Red Queen's Daughter , are set in Elizabethan England. What drew you to this setting, and to writing for young adults in general?
I have been passionate about Elizabethan England since I read Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale” in college. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language and the magic of the writing—I brought some of that magic (or tried to) to The Red Queen’s Daughter. What’s extraordinary about the Elizabethans is first and foremost their queen. Elizabeth was an amazing, complex woman, and she made an abiding mark on England. The fact that she was Henry VIII’s daughter is just too perfect and perhaps too poignant since Henry VIII believed he needed a son to secure his dynasty—little did he know how powerful Anne Boleyn’s daughter (Elizabeth’s mother) would become. Even today, it’s rare to find a woman with that kind of authority. And perhaps that’s part of the reason I wrote about Mary Seymour and Miranda Molyneux. The tension there. And the contradiction. Despite the fact Elizabeth was on the throne, most women—even extremely well born women—had very little control over their lives. When Miranda’s father dies, her mother loses custody of her daughter, which is why Miranda is sent to live with the distant Puritan relatives. This isn’t just fiction. This sort of thing really happened—and often.
My, this is becoming a long answer. I was also drawn to the period because it’s remote enough in time to allow me a great deal of imaginative freedom. Yes, I know what people wore and how they heated their homes and swaddled their children, etc. I know they didn’t have indoor plumbing. But I’ve never experienced that sort of life first hand—writing about it enabled me to do so. And let’s face it: there’s a lot of romance (in the sense of adventure) and mystery in the period, not to mention very high stakes. After all, a person could lose her head for an action that might just land her in the tabloids today.
Why do I write for young adults? Because the novels I read as a teen—among them everything by Judy Blume as well as J.D. Salinger—made an impression on me that abides today. I needed books then. I need them now, perhaps just as much, but as a teen I needed really good stories to open up the landscape of the present and the future so that I could see just how much was possible. And then, teens are loyal, marvelous readers. I love hearing from readers—I love the way people often write and share a bit of their lives. Making those kinds of connections is enormously satisfying.
The world of Elizabeth England really comes alive - the clothing, food, customs, locations, etc. What kind of research did you do in order to bring this setting to life?
Thank you. I felt I was living in the period as I wrote. I began a lot of research with books. In A Sweet Disorder, I found an amazing resource called The Queen’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, a thick tomb filled with descriptions and images of Elizabeth’s wardrobe, along with information on sewing, haberdashery, the care of gowns, etc. Other marvelous books included cookbooks, healthcare manuals, and other original sources such as diaries, poems, and other texts. So, books. Without books, I don’t know what I would have done. And then the internet is a terrific resource, as the world and history are literally at one’s fingertips. But books and other forms of textual research can seem boggy or unnatural if they aren’t integrated into the narrative. So, the next part of my research involved living with the material. Once I read that the maidens at Elizabeth’s Court only wore dark colors, for example, I tried to imagine what that would be like—to never wear pink or red or chartreuse. As for visiting England, I’d love to say I spent a year living in a Tudor home, but alas, that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been to London, but to access the feel of the period, my guides remain the poets and the playwrights of the day.
Perhaps I’ll just add one specific example. As you know, Miranda has to spend a lot of time with the Countess, a Puritan woman hostile to gorgeous clothes, literature, music, art, good food, the works… Well, it’s all fine and well to include a villain like the Countess, for the time Miranda spends at Turbury truly “tests” her mettle. But I had to make that time—the narrative time, I mean—interesting. And I didn’t want to make it cliché. I didn’t want a story focused on gruel and forms of penance. So I had to do some research into the Puritans of the time, research that would complicate an “easy” picture of the Countess. What I found was the life (relayed second-hand by the author’s husband) of a woman who died in childbirth. This was a gold mine for me, as I immediately admired the writer, a well-educated woman who DID work with small children and WAS married to a much older man whose education (and perhaps his own intellect) did not match her own. I wound up including her story—in diary form with a healthy dose of fiction. It is her story, you remember, that Miranda reads at the Countess’s request. Miranda, who loves tales of knights and ladies, is initially reluctant to read. But she’s bored, too, so she gives in only to discover—as I did—how much power there is in this diary.
The Red Queen's Daughter imagines what life might have been like for Mary Seymour, a real person who disappeared from written history. Were Miranda or any of the other characters in A Sweet Disorder based on real people, or are they completely from your imagination?
Miranda IS based on a real person, though this woman didn’t exactly disappear from history. After writing Mary Seymour’s story, I read Sylvia Freeman’s biography of Penelope Devereux, the real person on whom Miranda is loosely based. What captivated me about Penelope was her spirit. Like Miranda, she finds herself “forced” to marry a detestable suitor, a man who was quite possibly worse than my own Lord Seagrave. Penelope was betrothed to the Rich Lord Rich, and she protested the match all the way to the altar. Unfortunately, she lost the battle there. In Writing Miranda’s story, I was focused on a version in which the bride got away thanks to her wits and her talents. So both Miranda and Lord Seagrave have historical predecessors, as does Henry Raleigh. He was modeled on Sir Philip Sidney, the man Penelope would have married (and later she had a love affair with him). Sidney wrote a famous sonnet sequence called Astrophil and Stella in her honor. As for the others, with the exception of Elizabeth, they are the creatures of my imagination, though there are hints of a few of my friends in characters like the Duchess of Dewberry and Beatrice…
What do you hope readers will learn from your books?
Oh, that’s a tough question. I suppose, in these two novels, I’d like readers to feel empowered by the narratives and the characters. Despite the challenges Miranda and Mary face, they aren’t defeated. They don’t give up. And they don’t lose their sense of humor—something I’d do well to remember. Too, I’d like readers to be carried away by the stories so that their sense of reality—of what it means to be alive—is expanded. To me, that’s what the best writing does.
Do you have any future novels you would like to talk about?
Well, I’m currently working on a contemporary novel set in Paris, a city I have spent a great deal of time wandering around in. The novel does delve into history, to some extent, as it revisits the lives of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover/muse, Jeanne Hébuterne. Modigliani was an artist who came to Paris around 1911. I have loved his work all my life. He painted portraits. Human beings. And he painted them with great compassion. His own life—and Jeanne’s—ended tragically. The main character, Julie, is an American in Paris. She’s an artist, and she’s working as a nanny. She finds herself involved in the Modigliani mystery and her whole sense of what art is—of what it means to be an artist—is sort of exploded. Enough said.
When you aren't writing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have a 2 ½ year old daughter, and I spend as much time with her as I can, which means I’m often at the playground digging in the sand or pushing her on the swings. Or I’m having tea with her bears and dolls… I’m also very restless. Or athletic. It depends on how you put it. This means I run, practice yoga, swim, and walk pretty regularly. I have a corgi, Edward, and he walks with me. I love cooking, especially with spices, and I have a garden. Sometimes, I paint. And I read.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If any of you reading this interview want to be a writer, I encourage you to read, read, read, and write, write, write. You’ll get there. But it’s like piano. Before you can play Schubert, you need to practice scales and even after you can play Schubert, you keep up the scales. And when you write, never feel so wedded to a character or an event that you cannot imagine letting it go. What I’ve learned is revision means radical editing and re-envisioning at times.