Say hello to the refined and scholarly Sarah Kennedy, the author of historical fiction set in Tudor England.
MJN: You have a PhD in Renaissance literature. I find that there is a lot of misconception as to what historical period that term spans. Renaissance in terms of visual arts does not always correspond with literary Renaissance. Can you shed some light?
SK: That’s a great question—because the answer is complicated. We roughly think of the Renaissance as covering 1350-1660, but different regions had their “high Renaissance” periods at different time. The “rebirth” of interest in and knowledge of classical art, philosophy, and literature began in Italy, but in the fifteenth century England was still in its Medieval period. The “new” knowledge made its way north, but England doesn’t really have a Renaissance until the early-mid-sixteenth century, and it runs until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660—when continental Europe had moved far past its Renaissance, in both the visual and the literary arts. (England was a bit slow, I’m afraid.) I’m not sure I’d say that England had a high Renaissance in visual art, though they did bring in painters (particularly Holbein) from the continent for the portraits that the royals and nobles loved to have made of themselves.
MJN: One of your reviewers commented on your ability to create believable, well-rounded female characters as opposed to the "flat whining court women" found in Tudor fiction. I am not going to mention any names, but I've read enough Tudor-themed fiction to know that many of those characters are indeed walking human hangers for period clothes. With so much Tudor-themed fiction out there, what special efforts do you make to ensure that your characters stand out?
SK: I’ve always had an interest in women’s history, partly because I’ve always been interested in the everyday nuts and bolts of how people in the past—the ones who didn’t have the benefit of great wealth and power—lived. We already know a lot about the court in general, and there’s a vast amount of information and fiction about the Tudor court in particular. I love this period in history, and I’m fascinated by the ways the Tudors managed to centralize government through the force of their personalities and propaganda machines. But what my imagination works on is what effect this increasingly powerful court had on the relatively individualistic (and rather spunky) life of the average Englishman—or woman. Real people interest me more than public characters, which are always manufactured for mass consumption. I want to create women who are intelligent and strong—but who are also part of their cultures. I want them to be good, but not perfect; to have emotions, but not idealized virtuous responses to events. Women have noble impulses and flaws just as men do, and “ordinary” people are as complicated as the famous folks of history. So I love my women characters, even though they have to be less than loveable sometimes to be real.
MJN: How do the professor and the storyteller in you dance in tandem when you create your fiction? I have heard from many professors that they are afraid to write fiction for fear of it being too dry and academic.
SK: I’ve always had just the opposite problem—the academic in me always wants to tell stories! I actually struggled quite a lot with developing that dry, academic style of writing, and it never really suited me. I enjoy research and can spend days looking up arcane bits of information, and I love trudging around ruins and studying the remains of how people lived. When it comes to writing, however, all of that stuff becomes not so much part of an argument but part of an imagined world. It wasn’t really until I started writing historical poetry, and then fiction, that my academic self-found a comfortable home inside of me.
MJN: Your novel TheAltarpiece deals with the aftermath of the creation of the Church of England, putting the existing nuns and priests who had until then looked up to Rome in limbo, pun intended. Most reviews seem to be constructive, but I am sure that in real life you have gotten this reaction from your readers, "See, I told you that religion only causes bloodshed and suffering." It seems that some single-minded individuals make that conclusion whenever they read about religious wars, that it's a blanket criticism of all religion.
SK: I’m sure someone has thought that, though no one has ever said it to my face. I’m not sure I’d entirely disagree, though I would have to qualify that by saying that organized religion that’s controlled by or caught up in political struggles for power often causes bloodshed and suffering—because religion is used as a justification for the bloodletting. That’s certainly part of what happened during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe. When two armies both think that God is on their side, you can count on some pretty horrible outcomes. My characters see this and experience it, but they don’t just turn away from religion. They sometimes turn away from a specific church or leader, but they don’t jettison their belief in God or the need for religious observance. The worst of them just follow whoever is in power at the moment; the best of them try to understand and practice their religious beliefs in new ways.
MJN: As head of the English department at Mary Baldwin College, have you ever had one of your students approach you and say "I have written a historical novel"?
SK: My time as the department head ended last year, but I have certainly had students tell me that. I teach a fiction-writing course online most semesters, so when I hear that I say, “OK, let’s see it.” They don’t want to show it, because it’s not done, usually, so then I say, “Sign up for the course and let’s finish it!” Teaching fiction is one of the best parts of my job, because I get those students who want to push that first novel to a complete manuscript. We have great online workshops and go through the writing process together. That’s a course I never want to stop teaching. I guess teaching, reading, and writing will always go together for me.