Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The King's Rose by Alisa Libby

Appointed to the queen’s household at the age of fourteen, Catherine Howard is not long at court before she catches the eye of King Henry VIII. The king is as enchanted with Catherine as he is disappointed with his newest wife — the German princess Anne of Cleves. Less than a year from her arrival at court, Catherine becomes the fifth wife of the overwhelmingly powerful, if aging, King of England.

Caught up in a dazzling whirl of elaborate celebrations, rich gowns and royal jewels, young Catherine is dizzied by the absolute power that the king wields over his subjects. But does becoming the king’s wife make her safe above all others, or put her in more danger? Catherine must navigate the conspiracies, the silent enemies, the king’s unpredictable rages, as well as contend with the ghosts of King Henry’s former wives: the abandoned Catherine of Aragon, the tragic Jane Seymour, and her own cousin, the beheaded Anne Boleyn. The more Catherine learns about court, the more she can see the circles of danger constricting around her, the threats ever more dire.

Melissa W: Tell us about your book, The King's Rose.

Alisa: The King’s Rose tells the story of Catherine Howard, a teenage girl who became the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

Melissa W: What was your inspiration for this story?

Alisa: When I first read about Catherine Howard I was immediately intrigued. Here was a girl—young and fresh and new to the world of the Tudor court—chosen from a crowd of other ladies in waiting by King Henry himself. Henry showered her with lavish gifts, and they were married before Catherine had been at court for a year. It’s like a Tudor-era Cinderella story. But what does she do, after such a dramatic rise to royal favor? She was condemned for having an affair with a groom in the king’s chamber. So, assuming that she really did it, what in the world was she thinking? King Henry had already executed his second wife, Anne Boleyn, on similar charges – and Anne was Catherine’s own cousin. How could she have taken such a risk? Was she cruel to the king, terribly misguided, overwhelmed by passion, or simply incredibly na├»ve? I began writing to come up with a reason for her seemingly illogical actions.

Melissa W: I can see why you were so intrigued! Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

Alisa: I do remember writing the first words: initially the first scene of the book was the scene of Catherine’s execution, and the rest of the story was told in the past tense. By eventually changing the story to the present tense, it gained more immediacy, making the urgency of Catherine’s story more palpable.

Melissa W: What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Alisa: I read a variety of books about Catherine, Henry, and his other wives:
A Tudor Tragedy, the Life and Times of Catherine Howard by Lacey Baldwin SmithKatherine Howard by Joanna DennyThe Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison WeirThe Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
I also read about the history of England in that time period, the way of life, culture, customs, clothing, music, food:
Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England by David CressyAll the King's Cooks: the Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears
I pored over portraits of the time period and descriptions of their clothing, which was fascinating—so much detail and so many layers! Absolutely gorgeous, and so telling of the pomp and ceremony in which they lived their daily lives at court—particularly for royalty. I also listened to music composed by King Henry VIII.

My husband and I took a research trip to England, where we visited the different places where Catherine lived, the halls where she danced, the palace where she was arrested, and the Tower where she awaited her execution. We searched for her ghost at Hampton Court, where she supposedly haunts a particular gallery shrieking Henry’s name. I didn’t have any ghostly encounters (this is probably for the best, for both of us) but I did visit her grave at the Tower of London, which was a powerful experience. Anne Boleyn gets many visitors and many flowers; Catherine Howard does not. But we were there for her, and we like to feel that her spirit appreciated our efforts.

Melissa W: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

Alisa: There are some scenes with Catherine and her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, that immediately come to mind. The character of the Duchess (how I chose to portray her) is cold, manipulative, frightening. Add to that Catherine and her eagerness to please, her desire for familial connection and affection…it’s a dangerous combination.

Melissa W: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Alisa: I had a lot of difficulty figuring out where this story should begin. My first draft started in Catherine’s childhood and told the story of most of her life. That draft was also very long. It was well over 400 pages. My agent advised me—rightly so—to cut the first 190 pages and have the story begin when Catherine arrives at court. Still, I was stuck for a while: should I start the story when she first arrives at court, or when she suddenly is noticed by King Henry? Or should it start later, when she is already the king’s favorite? I ended up starting the story just before Catherine marries the king, as that is when the excitement truly begins. But it took quite a few false starts before I landed on the opening scene.

Melissa W: What's on your nightstand right now?

Alisa: The Apple that Astonished Paris by Billy Collins.

Melissa W: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

Alisa: Reading, certainly! I also enjoy music, listening to NPR, and taking walks at pretty state parks—I especially like the paths that go right into the woods. I used to sew little dolls but I haven’t had much time for that lately; most recently my sewing projects include a stuffed pig, a giraffe and an elephant. I love visiting libraries, wandering around the collection, requesting random and obscure titles through interlibrary loan. I love talking with people who love books—I work at Simmons College Graduate School for Library and Information Science, so luckily I’m surrounded by book people.

Melissa W: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Alisa: I’ve never wanted to quit writing, but there have been times when I worried that writing had quit me. My muse had thumbed a ride and gone backpacking without me; I couldn’t find her anywhere. It was a scary experience. Writing is so much a part of who I am. If I identify myself as a writer, then what am I when I’m not writing? I feel a bit off when I don’t have some project kicking around in my head.

That said, I’ve wondered (especially in moments of frustration) what it could be like to not have the constant compulsion to write. I wonder if I would be better able to live in the moment and not always be wondering about what project I should be working on. But it turns out that I’m simply not that person; even when the muse deserted me (she needed a vacation, apparently) the compulsion to write remained. And in spite of the frustrations involved in writing, it’s very much worth it.

Melissa W: I'm sure your readers feel much the same way!

~~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Alisa, post them now! She'd love to hear from you!