By Nancy Bilyeau
This week saw the publication of Four Sisters, All Queens, a historical novel that chronicles the lives of four sisters, all daughters of Beatrice of Provence—and all of whom became queens in medieval Europe.
Sherry Jones is perhaps best known for her controversial novels, The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, international bestsellers about the life of A'isha, who married the Muslim prophet Muhammad at age nine and went on to become the most famous and influential woman in Islam. In addition to Four Sisters, All Queens, Sherry is publishing a novella, White Heart, about the famous French "White Queen" Blanche de Castille, as an e-book, from Simon & Schuster.
Nancy Bilyeau: Sherry, I relate to your journey, because I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old and I worked as a journalist before plunging into fiction, similar to you. And I also went through a Laura Ingalls Wilder stage! How do you think those “Little House” books influenced us way back then and how much do we as adult writers carry those childhood loves with us?
Sherry Jones: How can they NOT have influenced us? The books we read as children inspired us to become writers, didn't they? Laura in the Little House books was a smart, resourceful girl with lots of inner strength, the same as the heroines we write about. And those stories take us to a different time and place, as does historical fiction. I remember well all the books I loved in childhood; they are as much a part of me as my family, my school friends, my teachers. Indeed, books were my escape from an miserable, abusive childhood: Black Beauty, the Trixie Belden mysteries, Huckleberry Finn. Little Women had a profound effect on me, as I realized while writing Four Sisters, All Queens -- the sisters in my book correspond almost perfectly to the four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's wonderful book.
NB: OK. Now, in one sentence, describe your novel Four Sisters, All Queens.
SJ: Four famous sisters in the 13th century all become powerful queens, advancing their family's interests and directing the course of world events, but are torn apart in a bitter struggle over their father's will.
NB: What drew you to that family and that time period?
SJ: I encountered them in Nancy Goldstone's excellent biography Four Queens, and wanted to know more about them when I'd finished. So little has been written about them that the best way to go deeper, it seemed, was to write my own book. Now I'm hooked on the era. The troubadour culture -- of famous, aristocratic poets; minstrels, musicians and jongleurs; and the courts where the performed -- fascinates me.
NB: How long did it take you to complete the research and how did you go about it?
SJ: I'm not very methodical. I read Goldstone's bibliography and read those books, then read their bibliographies and found books listed in them. I read scholarly articles, listened to Teaching Company courses on the High Middle Ages, Medieval philosophy, and the history of the Catholic Church. I had spent time in England, viewing castles and cathedrals, and I returned to France to visit the Cluny Museum and Rheims. I toured the Cloisters Museum in New York. I had not written about this era before, so I had to learn everything: what people wore; what they ate, and how; how they fought, and played, and prayed. I never stopped researching and made changes in my book until just a few weeks before publication!
NB: What were the structure and character-creation challenges of writing about such a large family?
SJ: Point of view was the most difficult. I initially wrote Four Sisters, All Queens in first person, from the point of view of Marguerite, the eldest sister, who outlived the others. About one-third of the way through the book, I became frustrated. I realized that I couldn't really do justice to the other sisters by portraying them all through Marguerite's eyes. I wanted to flesh each of them out as a complex human, as they all certainly were. One Sunday morning I awoke with the idea of telling the story in third-person present tense, lending a sense of immediacy to the tale, and switching points of view among the sisters. I got up and rewrote the first two chapters and loved them. Now the whole book is written that way, and it really works.
Taking place in four courts, Four Sisters, All Queens necessarily has a large cast of characters. To help the reader navigate, I've included lists of the characters from each court, with explanations of whom each character is. According to the feedback I'm hearing, these lists are very helpful.
NB: How do you think the sisters’ struggles resonate with women readers today?
SJ: Anyone who has a sibling knows about the competitive struggle that goes on, and the categorizing that can stifle a person's reaching his or her highest potential. Why, for instance, is there always a "pretty" sister and a "smart" sister, as if a woman couldn't both be smart and pretty? Also, their attempts to claim, and wield, power in a man's world will ring true with even the most successful women. Even today we are, as Marilyn French wrote so astutely in her wonderful novel The Women's Room, like salmon swimming upstream.
NB: A recent Guardian article referred to historical novels disparagingly as “bodice rippers.” Why do you think historical fiction still has this sort of stigma?
SJ: It's misogyny, pure and simple. Historical novels tend to portray strong, powerful women, which threatens the patriarchal status quo. A man on a panel with me once referred to The Jewel of Medina as "chick lit." I'm sure he prefers male-oriented crime fiction -- "dick lit," I might have sneered -- in which women are either sexual objects or bitch-hags. Literature that appeals to men is embraced by the literary establishment, which includes the mainstream media, while women's literature remains marginalized, as do women. That's changing, but at a glacial pace.
NB: You’ve said that writing The Jewel of Medina made you a passionate believer in the power of the written word. Could you explain more?
SJ: If a book could arouse such anger among people who hadn't even read it, the written word must be powerful, indeed. With so many distractions pulling us away from reading time -- TV, movies, the internet, games -- I find it heartening, indeed, that people still care so much about books.
NB: Tell me about your next book, the story of Heloise and Abelard. Sounds intriguing!
SJ: It will be an erotic, intelligent, tragic tale of two of history's most storied lovers: he, the most famous philosopher in the world, and she, the most admired scholar, and a woman, to boot. And, like all my books, it will be a feminist tale, told from the point of view of Heloise, who dared live life on her own terms and, as a result, lost everything that mattered to her.
Thanks for the interview, Sherry Jones!
Learn more about her and her books at http:www.authorsherryjones.com