Friday, March 23, 2012

Bloody Good Interview: Sophie Perinot on The Sister Queens

By Nancy Bilyeau

It’s always delicious when you find out a friend shares your interests, whether they be lofty or low. For example, my friend Harriet Sharrard, who worked at Good Housekeeping magazine the same years that I did, loves medieval tapestries (she’s actually a serious seamstress herself) and Russell Crowe. We spent one glorious afternoon at a Gladiator matinee—and it was not the first time seeing it for either of us. “Are you not entertained?” Russell roared. Um, quite.

Recently I became friends with a writer, Sophie Perinot, and then discovered a host of similarities. We both had other careers before trying historical fiction. We’ve both got children who could politely be described as active. And we are both fascinated by European history—often with the same people. Much as I hate to give away the treats of an interview, I got chills when I learned that Sophie is interested in the Valois Princess Marguerite. She’s one of my favorite 16th century Frenchwomen too!

Sophie’s debut novel, The Sister Queens, is an absorbing and moving story of two women I did not know much about at all. In Sophie’s talented hands, the queens in question, Marguerite of France and Eleanor of England, come to life magnificently. After finishing it, I had to know more about how Sophie wrote it, and so I lured her onto my group blog, A Bloody Good Read.

First, I’ll share a longer description of The Sister Queens:

Like most sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor were rivals. They were also queens.

Raised at the court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages--but never truly parted.

Patient, perfect, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. But Louis IX is a religious zealot who denies himself the love and companionship his wife craves. Can she borrow enough of her sister's boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in a forbidden love?

Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Henry III is a good man, but not a good king. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?

Now, more background about Sophie:

In Spring 2012 Sophie Perinot’s debut novel, The Sister Queens, was released by NAL. She has both a BA in History and a law degree. Sophie left the law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, it seemed only natural that Sophie should write historical fiction. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. An active member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences.

Active among the literary twitterati as @Lit_gal (a moniker she also uses at Agent Query Connect, Sophie is a regular contributor to the group writers' blog "From the Write Angle" Find her on facebook at

And now, my interview with Sophie Perinot:

Nancy Bilyeau: For your first work of historical fiction, why do you think you were drawn to a century and a family that have not been written about that much?

Sophie Perinot: Fate. Seriously.

I’ve always been a sucker for sister-stories, all the way back to the March sisters in Little Women. I suspect that’s because I am half of a pair of incredibly close sisters (my first childhood memory is of my sister coming home from the hospital and we have been best friends ever since). I’d like to think that I discovered the story that became The Sister Queens because I view the world through a sister’s eyes.

So here is how I found Marguerite and Eleanor. The Sister Queens is not, in fact, my first work of historical fiction. That honor (dubious because the manuscript is not published) belongs to a novel set in the 16th century that helped me to find my marvelous agent. It was while I was researching that piece that Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence called out to me. They were in a note in a book on the history Notre Dame de Paris (Marguerite’s image is carved over that great church’s Portal Rouge), along with their younger sisters. The book revealed that these four women were raised at a court renowned for its culture and chivalry, connected to a “celebrity” family of the High Middle Ages (the Savoyards), and had all made politically important marriages, yet I had never heard of them. The fact that such significant women had largely slipped through the fingers of history made me angry. So, I started a file folder with their names on it and vowed to come back and tell their story. The Sister Queens is the result of that vow.

NB: How did you research the lives of the historical characters in The Sister Queens?

SP: I did a substantial amount of both primary and secondary source research for the book. But, as you know yourself Nancy, that’s not as onerous as it was even five years ago. Technology has greatly improved access to information (and experts) right from our desks—everything from the contents of scholarly journals to digital copies of manuscripts is now on-line. Being able to search WorldCat and Jstor from home rather than going through a reference librarian . . . who doesn’t love that?! Of course I travel to reach sources when I have to (or use that old standby the interlibrary loan) and I have stacks of old-fashioned books which I am constantly tripping over.

NB: What was your biggest research challenge?

SP: Knowing when to stop and accepting that I will never know everything.

As a historical writer I want to infuse my work with correct period details, I want to have a deep understanding of historical events that are the foundation of my story, and I want to remain as true as possible to the lives my characters lived, but I also need to meet deadlines. Doing fifteen years of research on a single project isn’t practical. I don’t believe it is necessary either, because I am not writing academic history (my sister does that by the way). So, I try to remember to respect history but not be smothered by it.

As someone who majored in history with a sister who is a professor of history I understand that historical interpretations change and even the “facts” as we know them aren’t set in stone. New information and artifacts are discovered. Old theories and artifact identifications are discredited. As a writer I get to make choices based on evidence—choices that support the narrative arch I am are trying to build. And I can (and do) explain those areas I chose to make potentially controversial choices in my author’s note.

NB: How do you think Eleanor and Marguerite are most similar to today’s readers?

SP: Sorry to get philosophical on you, but those things which are essential to our humanity haven’t changed in a thousand years. Marguerite and Eleanor wrestled with challenges and questions that face contemporary readers everyday. Issues like: What does it mean to be family? What does it mean to be loyal? What does it mean to love unsuitably? Why is every child desperate for parental approval, no matter how unsuitable the parent? Does being a good parent encompass a willingness to sacrifice personal happiness, or even your life, for your child?

In my opinion these are the kind of BIG questions that books should deal with. When novels confront life’s major issues, they remind readers of their own humanity and help them parse through issues in their own lives. What makes historical fiction unique is its setting, which I would argue is more than decorative. Historical context gives writers the chance to highlight just how universal certain themes are. It also provides a distance of sorts to help readers approach situations and questions that might be too raw or too personal in a contemporary context.

NB: In which ways are they most dissimilar?

SP: Marguerite, Eleanor and the people who surround them were products of their time and had to be portrayed accordingly. I tried to be true to 13th century attitudes in the book (though not to 13th century stereotypes, many of which lack truth or greatly oversimplify issues).

One major example (and I could describe dozens) were the religious attitudes of my characters—both in terms of the ways in which they manifested their faith and in terms of their attitudes towards non-Christian people. Yes Louis was an extreme example of 13th century piety, but the use of hair shirts, hair belts, and the practice of self-flagellation were not uncommon in that era. Such “mortification of the flesh” is certainly not standard practice in the Roman Catholic Church today. As for respect for people of other faiths, I certainly hope that we (or most of us) have moved beyond calling people “infidels” or making the type of off-handed anti-Semitic comments that were absolutely unobjectionable in 13th century Western Europe.

NB: How did you handle the challenge of dialogue? What would the English language of the 13th century sound like to our ears?

SP: It would be largely incomprehensible. So would French which, as it happens, was the language spoken by the vast majority of my characters. In the 13th century French was the language of both Louis IX’s French court and of Henry III’s English court. Royal support for English as the language of England had to wait another 100+ years, for Edward III. Given the impracticality of using 700+ year-old French and Occitan (the language that Marguerite and Eleanor were raised with), I decided early on to use the novel’s setting to establish the time period and let my characters speak clearly and unaffectedly. After all, I think they have some fairly important things to say. I included the occasional Occitan or French word (where the meaning is clear from context) for flavor. I also tried to avoid jarringly modern words.

NB: How much did you try to make their decisions relatable to modern customs and values? For example, Eleanor’s willingness to marry a much older man—a stranger—for the good of her family and to go to bed with him almost immediately after the ceremony. That doesn’t happen much today.

SP: I am not sure I did try. I expect readers to accept the facts and mores of the time in which The Sister Queens is set. Eleanor married at twelve. That was hardly out of the ordinary for her day. She would have considered herself an adult woman at the time (even if later – and I believe Eleanor comments on this – she realizes how far from grown up she truly was). Her society wouldn’t have thought “yuck” about her marriage to the twenty-eight year old King of England so I don’t present it in a “yuck” manner. Instead I hoped to make my audience see the marriage through Eleanor’s 13th century eyes.

NB: Did you have a favorite sister?

SP: I love both sisters. That is one of the things that made writing this book such a joy. Who I loved the best at any given moment depended on who I was writing.

NB: While writing their stories did you ever wish Marguerite or Eleanor would make a different decision than the one they actually did?

SP: Yes, but not too often. This is not to imply that their decisions were always wise, rather that my identification with them was so complete and my empathy for them was so strong that I stopped judging them. I think this is a function of the fact I wrote the book in first-person present tense. To do that I had to become each sister, just as an actress becomes a character to portray her convincingly. So, for example, when I was writing Eleanor if she regretted a decision I regretted it. But if she stubbornly defended it (even in the face of mounting evidence that it was a mistake) I found myself thinking, “Ill be darned if I’ll admit to Henry I am wrong” right along with her.

NB: How do you think they compare to other famous queen siblings who married for reasons of state, like Catherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile, or Marguerite and Elisabeth de Valois?

SP: I am not in a position to have an educated opinion about Catherine and Juana. I do, however, know quite a lot about the Valois. Marguerite de Valois is a major character in my next book. My conclusion—Marguerite and Eleanor were closer sisters and more important queens.

As Sisters: While Marguerite and Elisabeth de Valois spent some of their early years together at Saint-Germain (along with Claude de Valois and the young Mary Stuart), the girls were not close. This was likely the result of a significant age difference and the fact that Elisabeth left France to be married when Marguerite was only six (barely six at that). Elizabeth died in childbirth when Marguerite was still in her teens so there was no opportunity for a more adult relationship (interestingly Marguerite was proposed as her sister’s replacement by their mother, Catherine de Médicis). So, I don’t think it would have been possible to write a “sister story” about these two Valois sisters.

As Queens: I think the sisters from Provence win this contest as well. While Elisabeth de Valois had a warm relationship with her husband, Philip II of Spain, and prestige and influence within the Spanish court, she only lived to twenty-three and produced no male heir. So her reign cannot compair in terms of impact with those of my 13th century queens, both of whom lived more than six decades and produced the next King of their respective countries.

Marguerite de Valois lived into old age, just as Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence did. So she had sufficient years to make a political and a dynastic impact. Unfortunately she was not in a position to realistically do either. Her marriage to Henri of Navarre (eventually Henri IV of France) was never more than political, and she lived a great portion of her life removed from her husband and his court. Marguerite, who bore Henri no children, was eventually divorced. I would say she had more influence on art and literature than she did on French politics or history. She certainly was no competition for the younger of the Provencal sisters, Eleanor, who acted as regent of England.


Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Sophie!

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