Thursday, 24 September 2015

In Conversation with Anne O'Brien

By Gillian Hamer

Hello, Anne, Welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about you and your writing?

Hello. I am very pleased to be here with you.
I was born in West Yorkshire and lived most of my life in Beverley in East Yorkshire before moving to where I am today, in Herefordshire in the beautiful Welsh Marches where I live in an eighteenth century cottage. I gained my history degree and professional qualifications at the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Hull and have enjoyed city life as well as rural isolation. I had no long standing ambition to write, and so was a late-comer, only deciding to try my hand at historical fiction when I had some free time. From that moment, twelve years ago, I have become hooked on writing about the women of medieval England. When not writing I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening and visiting castles, cathedrals and anything with a historical vibe.

Why did you settle on historical fiction?

This was an easy choice for me. In a previous life I taught history and have always enjoyed the splendid stories and strong characters from the past. Here was an opportunity to bring these events and people - particularly the powerful but silent women of the 14th and 15th centuries - back to vivid life and give them a voice again. They may have lived 600 years ago, the social and moral pressures on their lives may have been very different from ours, but much of what they experienced, and how they reacted to it, can still resonate with us today. I particularly enjoy writing about relationships as the Plantagenet Court. For me, history is definitely not dead!

How do you handle the endless research required for histfic?

Because I have written about events in the royal Courts of the Plantagenets and Lancastrians in six novels, I now have a reasonable knowledge of what life was like, so I do not have to return to basics every time I embark on a new book. I do of course have to delve into the lives and characters of those who will people my story. I find this to be no burden at all. This is the exciting part of the work, particularly if I discover something I did not know about, something to give my story an edge or an excitement. It is a great pleasure to unwrap the story of my heroine and those who will interact with her.

What’s the best thing about being a full time author?

Quite definitely the best for me is to be able to plan when I write and how long I write, without too many outside influences and distractions. I am a morning writer, so I arrange my day to start early and work through the morning until lunch. If I need longer - when deadlines for my editor loom - then I am also free to do this.

And the worst?

I cannot think of a 'worst'. I found that when I taught full time, writing even short stories was very difficult. Even if I had the physical opportunity, my mind tended to be full of academic history and the demands of the lessons for the next day. The total freedom to write is amazing, and I am well aware of how fortunate I am.

I suppose what does irritate me most is when real life creeps in - as it does - and I have to push aside my characters and their important and emotional problems, to visit the supermarket or tackle some basic housework. And because I work at home, sometimes I cannot ignore what needs to be done around me.

For writers interested in the whole nuts and bolts process, can you give us a potted-history of your route to publication?

Here goes!
I choose a character who has something to say. Whose life involves tension or difficulties or choices that will make good drama. Without this, there will be no excitement for the reader. There is nothing worse than a totally 'good' character
I construct a detailed timeline of her life, interwoven with the lives of the characters who will play a part in her story. I add where and why and how as ideas come to me.
I select the most dramatic scenes that must be present to hold the story together, and I decide where my heroine's story will start and end.
Then I start writing.
I write a rough draft. Followed by another two or three edits and re-edits to build up the detailed layers of historical detail and the facets of character which become clearer as I write.
A final read-through to get a sense of pace and 'page-turning' quality.
Twelve months later, by which time we have lived cheek by jowl and I know my characters very well, and they have sometimes surprised me ...
I send my completed novel to my agent and editor.
This is followed by some re-editing. It is always vital to have a second opinion at this stage. I am too close to my story to be totally objective so advice is very valuable.
And then (hopefully) it is taken out of my hands for publication. A day of celebration!

What do you know now as a writer that you’ve learned since the publication of your first novel?

I  have learned two essential elements to writing historical fiction about people who actually lived. The first is the importance of historical accuracy. This is the bedrock of my writing. If the facts are known, then they cannot be changed. Outside the facts there is, of course, room for 'historical imagination' to fill in the dots as long as the character remains true to herself and the history around her.

The second is the importance of 'readability'. A novel must have pace and excitement to carry the reader on. They must be driven by a need to know what happens next. For this reason I must be selective in which historical detail I use. It is important that the lives of my characters do not become weighed down with too much historical fact. I might find the description of a particular battle fascinating, but four pages of description of who killed who will not enhance my novel! It is a lesson in self-control and careful selection.

If you could take a time machine back to any period of history, where would you go and why?

Because I have written about this in depth in recent books, I would choose to be a fly on the wall at the court of Richard II. Vigorous, extravagant, full of promise with a young monarch and good councillors, it was to descend into tragedy because of Richard's weak choices, royal favourites, politically inept decisions. Finally there was the downfall and death of the king himself. And such splendidly dramatic characters are there: John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joan of Kent, John Holand: all of whom have appeared in my novels so far. It was a remarkable reign and I would certainly like to see it for myself.

Would you like to write a book in another genre? If so what would it be and why?

I have no plans to write in another genre, but occasionally it crosses my mind to change from medieval history to the highly romantic, tragic and colourful world of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the PreRaphaelites. There are so many exceptional characters, both the artists themselves as well as the 'stunners', the women who influenced them and their art. Can I truly abandon my medieval people for the reign of Queen Victoria? One day perhaps ...

What is next in the pipeline for you?

I have a new historical novel very close on my horizon now. It will be published in January 2016. It is 'The Queen's Choice', telling the little known story of Joanna of Navarre who became the second wife of King Henry IV in the early years of the 15th century. A mature woman with her own family, she discovered some surprising and uncomfortable obstacles for her to overcome on becoming Queen of England. Not least being accused and imprisoned for three years, by her stepson King Henry V, on a dangerous charge of necromancy. I discovered her to be a remarkable heroine, and I think that my readers will also enjoy her experiences.

We have a theme of CLASSICS for this month’s issue. Which is your favourite Classic – and why? And do you think it has influenced your own writing?

I have always enjoyed Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, told from Jane's personal point of view, the approach I use in my own writing. I enjoy the vibrancy it allows when writing from the main protagonist's point of view.
But the Classic that influenced me most was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I remember reading it when I was very young and romantically impressionable. I loved the colour and romance, and the weaving of real and imaginary characters into the backdrop of history. It made history come alive for me, so that I was drawn in to enjoy and suffer with those I admired or hated. It is my ambition to do the same for my readers.

For those who would like to follow Anne and keep up to date with her writing, particularly the release of The Queen's Choice:
Twitter: @anne_obrien


  1. I loved this interview. I too am interested in the hidden lives of medieval women and bringing these lives out in historical fiction. I think Katherine Swynford as told by Anya Seton and latterly by Anne O'Brien a fascinating story. More please.