By Chris Hammond
Bestselling author Karen Maitland has won wide acclaim for her shadowy medieval thrillers. Set throughout Europe during centuries of upheaval and uncertainty she manages to bring readers a world where law is subjective, superstition reigns and those without means must struggle to survive.
From sinister cults, to more mundane but equally morbid villains, Maitland’s protagonists must outmanoeuvre and outfox a delicious array of period perils. Speaking with Scotcampus, she reveals why those with a hunger for the mysterious and macabre will find plenty to enjoy in any of her fourstand-alone titles.
You’ve got a new book out called Falcons of Fire & Ice, tell us a little bit about it.
“Falcons is a dark thriller set in 1564, during the Inquisition in Portugal and the bloody Reformation in Iceland. The royal falconer is accused of killing two rare white gyrfalcons. He’s arrested by the Inquisition and is sentenced to be burned alive with his family, unless the falcons are replaced. His daughter, Isabela, realises her only chance is to sail to Iceland and steal two birds from under the noses of the Danish rulers. But unknown to her the Inquisition have sent someone to shadow her to ensure she never returns alive. Isabela’s fate will ultimately lie deep in a volcanic cave in Iceland which holds its own terrible secret. This novel features one of the strangest characters I’ve ever created, who has haunted me for a long time.
I’ve also woven into the plot the ancient Icelandic legend of the draugr, or nightstalker, which was a terrifying creature conjured up from the dead. There are old stories about the draugr in Britain too, though not many people seem to know them now.”
What first inspired you to write about the medieval period?
“It was partly discovering the beguinages, the medieval cities of women where thousands of women who didn’t want to marry or become nuns, set up collectives to live and work outside the social systems of the day. But I fell in love with the period because it’s such an exciting, colourful and dramatic time with the Black Death, rapid climate change, wars, volcanoes and rulers murdering each other and their subjects. In fact it’s very like the times we are living through today. England was very multicultural back then. When some students in Cambridge in the Middle Ages got into a sword fight with the monks in a tavern, the locals joined in and the court records show people were hurling insults at one another in six different languages.
There are endless interesting ways of killing people in the Middle Ages which is a gift for any thriller writer. Justice was brutal. In Wales there’s a medieval inn where trials were held in the upper room and there’s a gallows halfway down the stairs, so a man could be hanged within five minutes of being sentenced. That certainly adds to the drama of any courtroom scene in a novel.”
Your books are often heavy with the superstition of the times. How easy is it to weave these beliefs into your work and what inspired you to add these elements to your stories?
“People of the Middle Ages were by no means primitive, just look at the great buildings they designed. But every aspect of their lives was woven through with a belief in magic and the supernatural. A woman would use charms to protect a new-born baby. A king going into battle would consult the spirits as well as praying to God.
As an author, you have to try to see the world as they did. A medieval family eats some pork. Over a week later a child’s stomach swells up with blood and within hours he’s dead, but the other children are fine. Those parents would never connect their son’s death to the meat he ate a week before. Today we’d discover the piece of pork the boy ate had anthrax spores on it. But back then they’d think he’d been cursed or an evil spirit had entered him. When you start to think about how they would have viewed this incident then weaving superstition into the plot is not only easy, it’s impossible not to do it.”
Are there any particular beliefs you’ve unearthed in your research you’ve not incorporated into a story yet but would love to in future?
“People believed that if you stood in the doorway of a church for an hour before and after midnight at All Hallows Eve or Midsummer’s Eve you’d see a procession of spirits walking up to the church. These were the wraiths of all those people in the village who were doomed to die in the coming year. Some believed you would even see the specific tortures they were doomed to suffer in hell for sins they committed such as lust. Think of what you might do with that knowledge! But only the brave or foolish would dare try it, for if you fell asleep or you saw yourself among these spectres, you’d die within days.”
You’ve spoken before about how areas close to where you now live have given you ideas for your writing. Do you actively look for inspiration in your surroundings or are you more likely to stumble across places of interest?
“In the Falcons of Fire & Ice the idea for the novel came from a visit to Iceland some years ago where I was taken down into a cave in which there was a lake of boiling water. Down through the centuries people had hidden in the cave to escape enemies. You could feel the ghosts from the past moving around you in the darkness. I knew one day I had to write a novel about it. But I also scout for locations too. In The Gallows Curse, I needed to find a place where one of the characters could become trapped with an enemy spy. So I spent time in Great Yarmouth, which in those days was an island, searching for the place where I could imagine this encounter taking place in a great storm.”
We’ve spoken to a couple of authors recently who really struggled to get publishers to look at their work. Is there anything a young writer can do to give themselves a better chance of being commissioned?
“There are now author societies covering most genres, such as Historical Novel Society and Crime Writers Association. Many of these run mentoring schemes or appraisal services to help new writers get published. These bring new writers directly into contact with best-selling authors, agents and publishers. They produce newsletters about new publications, from which you can spot the agents and editors who are interested in that kind of material. All of these societies also run conferences which agents and talents scouts often attend as members of the societies. That’s how I got my agent.
If your novel isn’t even on the fringes of any genre then go to as many book festivals as you can or to the Writers Festival in Winchester. Agents and editors are often far more willing to look at your material if you’ve chatted to them in the coffee queue than if you simply send in your manuscript cold.”
With the explosion of e-readers on the market are you at all worried that book piracy will become as common as music piracy?
“It is already beginning and the other problem is hundreds of e-Bay sites opening up selling illegal copies of books duplicated on disc. These e-Bay dealers are making money out of readers, none of which goes to the author who’s spent years writing that book or the publisher who’s had to put money into it. The bigger issue is if an author’s current novel doesn’t sell well, because people are reading pirated copies, then bookshops won’t stock their next book, so publishers won’t publish
it. That not only puts the author out of work, but makes it a hundred times harder for any new author to get published, because publishers then start saying that début authors or books of that type don’t sell, so we won’t take them on. We’ll invest our money into producing a celebrity cookbook instead. Readers suffer too in the end.”
Finally with Falcons of Fire & Ice out the way, what’s next on your schedule?
“I’m currently redrafting my next full-length novel The Vanishing Witch, which was inspired by a real-life character who was tried for witchcraft and is set against the background of the riots in 1381 when the people got fed up with the politicians imposing taxes, so they marched on London and other cities, destroying buildings and hacking the heads off lawyers and politicians, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I wonder if our present politicians know about that?!
I also write a joint historical crime novel every year with a group of five authors known as the Medieval Murderers, so we are hard at work on book number nine at the moment. Our latest joint novel, The First Murder, has just been published and is about a cursed Medieval Mystery play which brings death and disaster to any who perform it through the centuries.”
The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland is published by Michael Joseph and is out now, for more about the author check out www.karenmaitland.com