Susan Coventry is the author of The Queen's Daughter, a young adult historical novel about the life of Joan, the youngest daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband, Henry II, King of England. The book is set during the Middle Ages, one of my favorite historical time periods, so I am especially excited to feature this interview! And if you would like to learn more about Susan Coventry and The Queen's Daughter you can visit her website.
What inspired you to write a novel about Joan? Her parents are quite famous, but it seems not much has been written about Joan herself.
I wanted to write about Joan because not much has been written about her. I discovered her in a roundabout way- through her husband Raymond, not through her parents, and was kind-of taken aback. I knew the story of Eleanor and Henry and the rebellious sons. How had I never heard of the daughters?!! I started researching Joan and was amazed by the rich life she must have led. She traveled as much as her mother. She was also married to a king. She nearly married a Saracen! At the same time, I thought: imagine having Eleanor of Aquitaine as a mother. It was difficult enough for the sons, but try being a daughter living up to Eleanor’s expectations. And after all that, she suffers the indignity of being all but forgotten by posterity. It didn’t seem fair. I wanted to tell Joan’s side.
Why did you decide to tell her story as a novel for young adults?
I didn’t actually set out to write a story for young adults, but just to tell Joan’s story. The book is influenced by her age and her voice, and my writing is probably influenced by novels I was reading as I wrote. I read a lot with my own kids, and they’re teens now. In fact, I’m not really sure that if I had sat down and said "I’m going to write a YA book" I could have done it that way.
The Queen's Daughter is a novel that is really rich in historical detail. What kind of research did you do?
I wish I could say I traveled to all the places Joan lived, but I only visited Toulouse/southern France. The bulk of my research was more mundane. I read everything I could find. I made a lot of use of the public library and the university library to scour any medieval sources for references to Joan or her husbands. I borrowed and bought a lot of books. There is more information available on-line now than there was when I started writing the book, but I did use the internet too. Not everything on-line is reliable, but then again, some of the books also contradict each other. There was a lot going on in Joan’s world at the time, so there was plenty of information to absorb. The frustrating thing was how little reference was ever made to Joan.
The Middle Ages is an era that is often highly romanticized but in reality was very different, particularly for women. Were you surprised by what you learned about the lives of Medieval women?
I wasn’t so much surprised as I was impressed by the strength and resilience of these women. Their lives were very physically difficult and in a lot of ways dangerous. Their lifespans (excluding the remarkable Eleanor) were short. Women had so little voice and left so little record. One of Raymond’s wives, for example, was the daughter of an emperor, and her name was never even recorded. (In my book, I called her Theodora.) And yet, of course women played crucial roles– it’s just most of the time they weren’t given credit for what they did except for giving birth. They must have wielded influence in subtle ways. Love is not a modern concept and it is a powerful force. I’m not saying they used love to be manipulative, but I imagine they influenced the men in their lives. Medieval women’s lives were very different from ours but I can’t help thinking that at a basic level, we are very much the same.
If you could go back in time for a day (with guaranteed safety!), what place and time would you visit?
I would visit Southern France just before the crusades against the Cathars-- the early thirteenth century. It was supposed to have been a mini-Renaissance, a time when troubadours flourished and Count Raymond VI tried to maintain a semblance of peace and stability in Occitania. (Maybe I have a romanticized view!) The ruins of some the old castles are still there. It’s a great place to go and imagine the Middle Ages.
What are some of your own favorite books and authors?
Historical fiction is my passion. I love everything I’ve read by Cecelia Holland, particularly Great Maria. I’m also a fan of Colleen McCullough and Sharon Kay Penman’s meatier historicals and of the Lymond chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
In the children’s/young adult realm, I really enjoyed What I Saw and How I Lied. I’ve been a fan of Judy Blundell/Jude Watson since reading her various Star War series with my son. I’ve reread The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander with both my kids, and Watership Down will always be one of my favorites. Gerald Morris’s Squire’s Tales books are also at the top of my list.
When you are not writing, how do you enjoy spending your time?
I love to read, but with a largely sedentary day-job and all the sitting required while I’m writing, what makes me happiest is getting outside and away from home with my kids. It has to be away from all the distractions of home so that we can really focus on family time. I love camping and hiking. My daughter likes the challenge of climbing things-- rock-climbing, tree-climbing. And my son likes canoeing. My husband is in charge of making it all work out!