A conversation with
Patricia Bracewell, author of
THE PRICE OF BLOOD: A Novel Viking; on-sale February 5, 2015; 9780525427278; $28.95
Q. What can you tell us about the title THE PRICE OF BLOOD? How did you decide on it?
A. I plucked ‘the price of blood’ from a chilling reference to King Æthelred written by 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury in his History of the English Kings: He was hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood. The chronicler goes on to describe the relentless Viking attacks on England, and Æthelred’s fruitless efforts to resist, all due to the unpunished murder of Æthelred’s brother. This is a good summary of what happens in my book. So I have William of Malmesbury to thank, not just for the title of my novel, but also for the ghost that continues to haunt the king.
Q. Of all the English queens, what about the lesser-known Emma of Normandy attracted you to her story?
A. There were two things about Emma that intrigued me. First, her marriages to two different kings of England who were mortal enemies. How, I asked myself, did a woman negotiate those relationships? The physical and emotional impact of her marriages must have been huge and, certainly from a novelist’s point of view, well worth exploring. The second thing that intrigued me about Emma was that in mid-life she commissioned a book that recorded key historical events as she remembered
them. That this was done by a woman in the 11th century struck me as pretty remarkable, and it’s an indication of just how politically savvy Emma was.
Q. What challenges did you encounter in researching the life of Emma of Normandy?
A. Researching Emma’s life during the years 1006 to 1012, the years covered by this book, was next to impossible because there is almost no record of her at all. Her name appears on a few charters, indicating that she was at court beside the king on those occasions. One charter in 1012 is a grant of land from the king to Emma, and so historians conjecture that she gave birth to a son at about that time. But where was she the rest of the time and what was she doing? Because there was no other direct reference to Emma, all I could do was bury myself in the history of those years and make some conjectures of my own based on what I was able to learn about a queen’s duties and Emma’s later career.
Q. You offer a vivid account of the time period. What research did you do to make sure the story was authentic?
A. Sometimes there was what I think of as ‘boots on the ground’ research. For example, I made a trip to the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde, Denmark where I saw the ancient bones of Viking ships; modern, full scale recreations; and tiny models of Viking fleets. That visit answered a number of questions for me including, when I saw models with tents rigged up mid-ship, where a queen might shelter during a voyage. There was also painstaking research into chronicles and historical minutiae. For example, an 1134 inventory of the treasures of Ely abbey listed precious textiles donated by Queen Emma including a blood-red altar cloth. So in my novel, when Edward went to Ely for schooling, Emma sent a red altar cloth with him. It’s a minor detail and probably no reader will mark it, but I know that the altar cloth was real. Frequently the vagueness of historical records forced me to invent. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the Danes attacked London several times in 1009, and that the Londoners always repelled them. But there was no description of what, exactly, happened when the Danes attacked. I had to make it up based on my imagination and what I
could learn of the military tactics of the time. More research!
Q. There has been recent resurgence in the popularity of Vikings with the History Channel’s show “Vikings”. Do you watch the show? What do you think of its appeal?
A. I’m a big fan of “Vikings”. I had great fun blogging about the second season and I’m looking forward to the next one. My interest in the show was strong right from the start, but I liked it even more when the Anglo-Saxon King Ecbert came on the scene in Season Two. I’m impressed with the way writer Michael Hirst contrasts the Christian Anglo-Saxon world with the pagan Viking world. I think the show’s appeal lies in its strong characters, both male and female. It doesn’t hurt that along with the bloody action and adventure there’s a fine script, top notch actors, and some incredible sets and costuming.
Q. Emma and Elgiva are two very different women, but there are also clear similarities in the obstacles they must overcome. Was that intentional?
A. The obstacles they face are inherent in the history and in the society in which they find themselves, so yes, the similarities are intentional. One of the central themes in the novel is how women of that time attained and wielded power. Whether you were a queen or a commoner, your access to power was through a man – a husband, a brother, a father, a son, a powerful ally. Both Emma and Elgiva have to forge alliances in order to tap into the lines of power.
Q. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader?
A. I think today’s readers can relate to many of the themes that run through the book: marriage, family bonds, loyalty, honesty. The book also explores the use and abuse of power, and that is something that echoes through every age right down to the present day. In particular, the value of information – who has it? Who controls it? – will, I suspect, strike a familiar chord.
Q. When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
A. When I’m not writing I’m frequently researching the next book or up to my ears in social media. I like to connect with readers. But I also make time for tennis, the gym, the theater, travel, or just taking walks through my neighborhood.
Q. What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
A. Write about what excites you, and never be satisfied with anything but your best work. Be persistent, but be patient. If you’re a writer, you’re in it for the long haul. There are no shortcuts to success.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. The third book in my trilogy about Emma is rattling around in my head. I have several new research books on my desk to read as well as half a dozen books that I want to re-read. I’m trying to get a firm grasp on the history so I can discover the story I want to tell.
Q. Who would be in your ideal book club?
A. I would invite some of my favorite novelists: Kate Atkinson, Sebastian Barry, Bernard Cornwell Sarah Dunant, Diana Gabaldon, Nicola Griffith, Robert Low and Louise Penney. Then, for comic relief and to bring us back to reality, I’d bring in Bill Bryson. And then I would be in too much fan girl awe to say a single word.