Interview with Karen Maitland

Medieval Murderers with Sharon from Northern Ireland Library Service

Medieval Murderers with Sharon from Northern Ireland Library Service

I was lucky enough to meet Karen Maitland some years ago at the Lincoln Festival, and we hit it off immediately. We had a great afternoon with a large audience, and at the end of it, I invited her to join Medieval Murderers. Since then, she’s been a hugely popular member of our group.

However, when you know someone professionally, you don’t actually know very much about them, so when I was asked to review THE RAVEN’S HEAD, it was good to get the chance to ask Karen about her background and how she views her writing.

MJ Karen, I know you have had a pretty peripatetic life. Where were you born, where did you spend childhood?

KM I was born in Malta and my earliest memories were of the vivid colour and spectacle of their religious ceremonies – carrying life-sized statues of the saints out into the sea to bless the boats; torchlight processions of the three kings on horseback. This probably helped spark my later fascination with medieval ritual.

I had curious childhood. I lived in several trouble-spots round the world, but just thought it was normal. I wasn’t frightened, children generally aren’t. Many people who were children in England during the World War II will tell you they found it exciting. But because I grew up with war, it wasn’t until I was about 11 or 12 that I discovered people could die of old age or natural causes. My family were mortified one day when a neighbour told us that her mother had died, and I innocently asked  ‘Who killed her?’

MJ An ideal background for a crime writer, then!

KM Thinking about it now, I realise that children’s books and films reinforced the idea that you only died if you got killed. The wicked witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is killed when the girl’s house is dropped on her. Bambi’s mother is shot. In fairy tales or adventure stories the baddies are killed. Children were packed off to stay with eccentric uncles, because their parents got eaten by cannibals. I can’t recall a single story I read as a child where anyone died of old age or a heart-attack. It probably accounts for why I have a fairly high murder rate in my novels.

MJ If you were spending so much time in war zones, did your family have a happy time (many people reckon authors must have had a miserable childhood to write, and I’m keen to dispel that myth!)

KM I was happy when I was alone. I’d make up elaborate adventure stories using different coloured marbles as characters and the bedclothes or furniture legs as landscapes. Some of these serials would go on for weeks. I hated being made to play with other girls of my age because they just wanted to play house or dress dolls – games which had no story – so I couldn’t see the point.

When I was around ten I was given a miniature ex-army radio which I would smuggle under the bedclothes at night and listen to all the adult plays that the grownups would have been horrified I was hearing, like ‘Murder on Black Tor’ and ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Hearing the sound effects of bloodhounds hunting someone across the moors and imagining the scene, is far more scary than seeing it on a film.

MJ Oh, I agree there. I still think Radio is far better than the equivalent TV material. I know that later you went to live in Africa. Could you talk a bit about that?

KM I went to work in Nigeria in my early twenties, teaching technical English in a College of Agriculture. I was promised technical English text books to teach from, but the British Council supplied only two books – Cold Comfort Farm and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Presumably someone thought having agriculture settings they’d be suitable. Have you ever tried explaining to bewildered Nigerian students that wife-selling is not a regular occurrence in Britain?

MJ Actually, no!

KM The house had no water, sewage or electricity. Water had to be fetched from a river; lamps filled with oil before it got dark. You had to make sure you extinguished the lamps at night when they were still half-full, so that you could relight them if there was an emergency, like thieves trying break in or rats getting back into the bedroom. (Many locals kept a large python loose in the house as a rat-catcher, but I mistakenly got a cat and the rats were bigger than her!) You had constantly think ahead to survive – if I want water to wash in or to drink at breakfast, I’ll have to fetch it before it gets dark today and boil it.

You could never plan what you were going to eat. I’d have to go daily to market, exchanging jokes with the lepers who were begging at the entrance, and bargain for whatever was on sale. One day you might get some eggs, the next a fish or goatweed. I didn’t think about it then, but I was living a medieval life, month after month, not just for a re-enactment weekend with a hot bath waiting at home.

MJ I’ve always thought that those experiences would have really coloured how you write. Your imagination for the medieval life is so vivid.

KM The other thing you learned quickly was how vital it was to be part of community. There were no telephones and if there was a crisis, you relied on your neighbours. One day, there was an explosion in little shop across the market square. Children were trapped inside the burning hut and we all ran to try to tear it apart with our bare hands to reach them. But on other occasions I saw someone who was ostracized attacked and no one would help. That what’s it must have been like in the Middle Ages if you were excommunicated or shunned for some reason, it could become a matter of life or death.

MJ You’ve already mentioned living in trouble spots: last year you told me that you lived in Ireland during the Troubles. How come that happened?

KM When I returned from Nigeria I was desperately in need of a job, because the situation there had broken down into civil war. No one had been paid for months and we weren’t allowed to bring anything out of the country. I saw a job advertised in the Royal Victoria Hospital in the Falls Road in Belfast. I had been cut off from any news for months, so had no real idea of the situation in Belfast, and found myself starting working there the day Bobby Sands went on hunger strike.

MJ Ye Gods, woman! I’d have hoped someone else could have warned you! What was it like?

KM The hospital was on the dividing line between the two communities, which meant the road was often blockaded by burning vehicles, so we were doing back-to-back shifts, because often staff couldn’t get in or out. And it was where many of the causalities of explosions or shootings ended up.

But they had a really good system in Northern Ireland: if you worked on the front-line emergency services for three years, you could get a full grant to go to university in Northern Ireland. Having left school with little in the way of qualifications, I went to the University of Ulster as a mature student, which was brilliant, and stayed to do my doctorate there. I think you value university education far more as a mature student than as if you go straight from school.

Last year, I went back the Northern Ireland with you and Susannah Gregory to give a couple of Medieval Murderer talks there. The first time I’d been back since the peace talks. We all went out to pub after the talk the first night and I found myself physically shaking, because I could see cars parked outside in the street. When I’d lived there you couldn’t park a car in a shopping street, unless someone sat in it, and if you saw a parked car, you’d cross to the other side and try to run past in case it exploded. The three of us and our host sat in front of the window of the pub, something I’d never have done before, for fear that if a bomb went off somewhere the glass would shatter.

Then, the next day, one of the librarians took us on a wonderful walk round Belfast which was buzzing with life and I realised for the first time that I could see into the shop windows – before they’d all been covered with metal shutters – and I could walk into a shop without being searched. Where were soldiers and the armoured trucks, the roadblocks and the helicopters? Belfast had become the most amazing vibrant city. The people of Belfast don’t seem to notice, because the change has happened gradually, but for me the difference  is miraculous.

MJ I remember your response when we were at the airport and you were surprised that there were no police anywhere! Okay, let’s chat about your writing. You started writing with The Company of Liars some years ago. Was it the first book you completed? I cannot recall whether you had other mss lying around or not?

KM I’d had a modern futuristic thriller The White Room, published by a small publisher funded by the Arts Council in 1996. As a result of that being short-listed for a national award, I started to get commissioned to write some non-fiction. When people are offering you money to write a book you know will be published, you can’t afford to turn that down to write a new novel that might not be.

MJ I know that feeling only too well! We have to write the books we’ve been paid for. Keeping the wolf from the door is pretty crucial!

KM Yes. So non-fiction diverted me for a while, but I was desperate to get back to fiction and I had an idea for a historical novel bubbling away inside.

That novel was The Owl Killers, which I actually started writing first. I created the character of the camelot, a minor character, who was only supposed to deliver the prologue and epilogue to The Owl Killers, but as I wrote that character’s backstory – what happened to them before the novel begins – the character took on a life of its own and started to demand their own story in a different novel. I had to stop writing The Owl Killers and write Company of Liars just to shut them up and get them out of my head. So in the end I completed Company of Liars first, then finished The Owl Killers.

MJ It’s a pain when characters start clamouring for attention in your head, I know. It’s hard always to get them to shut up. Anyway, company was a great success, wasn’t it? Did that come as a big shock to you? Having a book suddenly achieve such great sales can terrify some people, but you always seem so calm and ‘grounded’ – or are your swan’s feet paddling like the clappers underneath?

KM I never realised the book had become a success. I think authors are divided into two groups – those who regularly check their rankings, sales, and what is being written about them and those like me who refuse to even google their own name out of abject terror!

But I am always anxious about the book I am currently writing, always paddling desperately. The strange thing about writing, which may be true of all of the arts is that whatever you achieve there is always something more you feel you should be achieving. When you first start out, you think – if only I could get just one small article or a short story published, I’d be happy. But when you get that article, you think, if only I could get one novel published, I’d die happy. After that it’s, but will they ever publish another novel of mine?

Mike, you are so prolific and have so many novels published, it always makes me feel like a complete failure by comparison. OK I know that like all of us, you need to keep writing because you need to keep earning in order to pay the bills, but do you think you’ll ever get to the point of looking back and feeling satisfied by the wonderful body of work you’ve produced?

MJ I’m very happy with the books I have out there. I love the stories, and I love making up new ones, but you’re right. It is hard, and getting harder, because so much of our time is taken up with social media, marketing and publicity. Loads of effort is constantly spent doing things that distract from the writing. That’s the most infuriating thing, I think, for any author. It’s just making time to write. And of course there’s the other aspect, which is research. You have clearly undertaken a great deal of research to write your books. Do you find that makes starting each new novel more of a challenge?

KM It took ten years of research into the Medieval period before I felt confident enough to begin writing historical novels. But now that I have that basic background, for the new novels I tend to focus down on the information I am going to need for that particular story. The Middle Ages was a period of extreme weather conditions – droughts followed by floods. I often write about characters who live in rural villages or in the case of The Vanishing Witch one family earns their living carrying cargoes on the river, so I need to know what the weather was like during the months in which that particular novel takes place. Fortunately, manorial and church accounts often carry detailed records on the weather, because it affected crops and income.

In The Gallows Curse, one character was castrated before puberty, so I needed to find out how that was done in medieval times and I read modern medical research papers to discover what affect early castration would have a man’s long-term physical and psychological development.

MJ Interesting always to see where our researches can take us!

KM In contrast, in Falcons of Fire and Ice, there is long sea voyage. Ships were made of wood and caulked with highly flammable materials included pitch, so how did they cook at sea for crew and passengers without setting the whole thing ablaze?

But there are some details like that I don’t realise I’m going to need to research, until I actually start writing the scene. In the book I’m writing now, one character has to examine a wound in the hairy thigh of a male corpse (don’t ask!!!). So I realised as I was writing, I had to find out how high a man’s hose would be worn in that decade and whether my character would have been able to see the bare flesh of the thigh without cutting the hose away.

MJ Studying a fellow’s underwear, eh? So some research can be fun! You write with a degree of sympathy and empathy for medieval people that is quite extraordinary. Does this come from intensive research, or do you find it comes from some other source?

KM That’s a lovely thing to say. Thank you. It’s probably to do with the type of people I write about, those who were on the fringes of society. When I research their lives, which have often been written out of history, I passionately want to tell their story, so it shouldn’t be forgotten – the boys who were sold into brothels which appear in The Gallows Curse or the lepers who were declared dead to their families and communities in The Owl Killers.

But I often find myself acting out the dialogue of the characters and I certainly take on their moods. I become that character. So if I’ve been writing a scene in which someone in angry, I’m in a foul temper for a couple of hours afterwards. I think it’s a writer’s version of method-acting.

MJ I know that feeling. Sometimes I have to stop writing and read something else, do some more research or anything, before I go to speak with my family! Your writing is very natural and delightful with all your books. As you know, I am a keen fan of your writing, however with Raven’s Head I was surprised to see that you immersed yourself in alchemy. Did you find that easy, or was it difficult to discover new information about this curious religious/philosophical approach to life?

KM The alchemists constructed an elaborate code of symbolic languages and images to conceal the experiments they were constructing, but also to describe the mystical side of their work. They began to read this code into literature and paintings which not alchemistic in origin, looking for hidden signs in everything. They were a kind of early ‘Dan Browns’, finding secret messages wherever they looked, not only in man-made things, but in the natural world too.

The information on alchemy is there to be found. They left a lot of writings and drawings. But the hard part is trying to interpret the alchemist writings and symbols, as they would have done, not through the prism of the twenty-first century. Today the image of son slaying his father, is overlaid by modern psychology and we’d call it an Oedipus complex. But as an author, I have to look at that image and think – what would it mean to them?

It is the same with animals and plants, we’re so used to the modern classification of plants and animals that we almost forget they are only convenient labels. We would not group the fern once known as moonwort together with white poppy as being in the same family of plants. But the medieval alchemist would have put them together, because they were both ‘governed by the moon’ and both had the same function of aiding lucid dreaming. It is a different way of looking at the world.

MJ All your books seem to form from legends, history and genuine events. I am thinking of the women living together in Belgium, of the stories of the sin-eaters, the case of Alice Kyteler – when you find these stories, do your books immediately spring into your mind?

KM For me three things have to come together to make a book, and they can often occur to me several years apart. So, I might have two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, but I can’t tell what the picture will be until I stumble across the third.

One will be the location for the novel or at least part of it. For Falcons of Fire and Ice, the location that inspired it was a volcanic cave in Iceland I visited years ago. For The Raven’s Head it was accidentally coming across the ruins of Langley abbey in Norfolk one evening.

The second strand is a key character, as you say, often inspired by a real historical person or group of people such as the beguines in the The Owl Killers or the bewitching widow in The Vanishing Witch.

The last element is something contemporary in the news, which has a medieval parallel. The London Riots, when ordinary people went on an orgy of looting and destruction, gave me the idea of the setting of The Vanishing Witch at the time of the Peasants Revolt in 1381. For The Raven’s Head it was hearing scientists talk about bringing extinct animals back to life by cloning from dead samples that reminded me of the goals of the medieval alchemists to create life from death.

When those three elements come together I have a novel.

MJ In Medieval Murderers we all tend to work differently. When you sit down to write, do you have a comprehensive plot and story that you have in your mind or does the story develop as you write?

KM I know in a quite a lot of detail what’s going to happen in the first third of the novel before I start writing, and have a very rough idea of what will follow. But by the time I’ve written the first third of the novel, new characters that I wasn’t expecting have walked on stage; subplots have started to burrow their way up through the main plot and the minor details I added while I was writing have suddenly become important. So in The Raven’s Head, Felix pushed his way into the novel without any invitation from me and proved to be a key character.

At this point, I stop writing and bullet-point plot the story that I’ve written so far, chapter by chapter, and then try to bullet-point plot the rest of the novel in the same way. But apart from Company of Liars where I knew before I started writing what the end line of the novel would be, the endings of all the other books have taken me by surprise when I got there.

MJ When you first started, was there something in particular that grabbed you about the concept of The Raven’s Head?

KM The Raven’s Head was the alchemist symbol of death and decay, the symbol of the first of the four alchemical deaths, Nigredo, the black death. It’s a sinister symbol and ravens have long been associated with death, because they are seen pecking at corpses on gibbets and battlefields. Ravens were also the messengers of the old gods such as Odin and carried all the gossip from the world back to them. But King Arthur was said to have turned into as raven when he was killed, so he could watch over his people and warn them of danger.

When ravens are depicted in medieval alchemy it is usually with their beaks wide open and a serpent-like tongue vibrating in the air. Are they crying a warning to protect us, or telling all our dirty little secrets to their true master? Which is the raven’s true nature?

MJ Most people who set out to write a book will inevitably fail because they do not realise the dedication that is required to write 120-140,000 words. I had the easy incentive of no children and no TV when I started. Do you find the process of writing to be a pain, or a pleasure?

KM I wrote my first novel The White Room in the evenings and weekends, round working fulltime. It was a book I was driven to write, because that was based on experiences of terrorism which I need to get out of my head. Writing now is a pleasure, but it still requires discipline, even more so now that I’m doing it full time. It’s very easy to procrastinate. Deadlines are both a blessing and curse. A curse because of the immense pressure, a blessing because they force you to get on with it and write!

If you’ve got a week to return a manuscript to an editor, you have to be prepared to work weekends, and at other times when you’d love to go out. Friends can’t understand why you refuse to come out for lunch when they have a day off from work, or why you won’t chat on the phone, or invite them round for coffee. Sometimes, you have to say I can’t go on holiday or even to that wedding or funeral, because the clock is ticking. If you don’t deliver, there are plenty of other authors out there who will.

MJ When a first novel is written, there is invariably a hideous shock when the manuscript returns with pencil marks all over it. Do you still find that horrible, and are there any other elements of the process of writing that irritate or grate on you?

KM My commissioning editor sends me pages of suggested changes to characters and plot, and once I’ve got over the initial biting the carpet and sobbing into a whiskey moment, I’m happy about that.  She has a huge talent for spotting exactly what isn’t working and it’s usually something I’ve felt deep down, but haven’t been able to pinpoint, because I am too close to it.

MJ Yes, I always feel that too. People rarely appreciate how important a good editor is to a successful book.

KM The annoying bit is often the later copy-editing stage, where different editors are checking the details such as – Has the author mentioned the man was wearing a sword before he uses it? Is the Latin prayer quoted the right one for that period? Is that river tidal? It’s a huge relief when they spot something I’ve got wrong before it goes to print. Mistakes can easily creep in. For example, if you move a scene to earlier in the novel, shifting it from June to January. You remember to change all the major things, like the weather and how long the character has been pregnant, but it’s easy to miss that tiny detail where you mentioned a daisy flower in the grass.

But often, things get queried at this stage that I know are right, because I’ve painstakingly researched it. But if a copy-editor questions it, I immediately start having doubts and have to double check in several different sources, which can take hours, and it’s generally at the time I’m going through the copy-editor’s changes against a tight deadline and I’m also trying to finish the next novel, battling that deadline too. So it can get fraught. But in the end I remind myself that it’s much better I check it before it goes to print and then if a reader queries it later, I’m not thrown, because I know for certain it’s right.

MJ And you spend days and days finding the one relevant quotation to justify the fact in the book, when all the time you know the copyed has forgotten mentioning it, is into the next manuscript, and probably enjoying a large glass of red wine while you search frantically … yes. I know that feeling too.

RIght, when you sit down to write do you have a set routine – a set number of hours per day, a set number of words or something similar? Do you always have a tidy desk, a lucky charm, or some other ‘comfort blanket’?

KM I try to keep office hours roughly 9 to 6 with half an hour for lunch when I watch ‘Doctors’ on TV. (I get really sulky when they take that off for Wimbledon or something.) I don’t set a word count per day, because that would make me feel like constant failure. I accept that at certain stages of the writing process, the words will tumble out by the bucket load, and on other days I could spend an hour or more trying to get one paragraph right.

I have a very untidy desk. I cling to a maxim I once heard that ‘the more untidy the desk, the more creative the mind.’ (Maybe I made that up!) But I can’t work unless I am surrounded by books, even if they are not the reference books I’m using. I need silence, solitude and wall of books, then I’m happy.

MJ I am fond of saying that no one knows what untidy is, until they’ve seen my office! What would you say was, for you, the most rewarding aspect of writing novels?  And what is the main downside?

KM The downside is that at the end of every book contract, you never know if you are going to get another, so it’s a precarious way of earning a living. It’s also like constantly sitting an exam for the whole of your working life, because you submit the mss to the publisher then wait for the results – will they like it? Have you passed? Then when the book comes out, will the readers like it? Have you passed that test?

The rewarding bit is being able to earn a living doing what you love, creating worlds, characters, adventures. It’s the closest thing an adult ever gets to being totally absorbed in playing like a small child.

MJ Are you an instinctive writer or editor? I love putting words down on paper during the creative period of a book, but Susanna Gregory and others much prefer the detailed edits when they tighten their prose and hone the story. Which are you?

KM Definitely with Susanna on this one. I love the edit. I’m constantly tense and agitated when I’m doing the first draft. I ‘bare-bones’ novels for the first draft, sometimes writing whole scenes without punctuation, or ‘he said’, ‘she said,’ and definitely without checking spelling, just to get the action or dialogue out of my head and into the pc. I only relax when the whole of the first draft is there and I have something to play with. Then I set about polishing, finding the right word, adding the descriptions. I probably delete at least half of the original words of that first draft when edit, but add twice as many again.

MJ Authors are always being driven to take on more and more marketing responsibilities with social media and events. What are your feelings about interaction with people on the internet?

KM I enjoy writing The History Girls’ blogs, but blogging does take time away from writing books. I’ll gladly answer readers emails or direct messages, but I don’t facebook or twitter. Not least, because as you’ve seen from the length of my novels, I am not able to write anything short, so flash-fiction and tweets are out. And I am always worried I might respond quickly to something that annoys me and regret it later.

MJ Publishing is so difficult nowadays, and even successful authors are finding life difficult. You have had the double whammy of moving house and of moving publisher. Did you find that very difficult/unsettling?

KM I had to move house very quickly at a time when I had tight deadline on a novel, so I moved without furniture into an empty house, just with a laptop, bed, kettle, desk, one chair and a box of essential books and files. I camped in the bare house and wrote. I got a huge amount done, because there was nothing else to do except write. The phone wasn’t connected and I couldn’t do any housework, because there was nothing to dust!

Fortunately I was changing publishers to follow my brilliant editor, because I trust her judgement so much, I didn’t want to lose that partnership. So, although it was incredibly nerve-wracking during the many months the contracts were being negotiated, I buried myself in my novel and tried not to think about anything else. Fortunately, I had a wonderful agent who sorted it. It’s times like that when a good agent is worth every penny they get and much more.

MJ I do so agree with you there. Agents are essential, if you want to be left alone to write. Thinking of marketing, though: authors tend to be fairly private people. Do you like going out and talking to readers and fans, or do you find it a strain and annoying interruption?

KM Yes, it’s odd isn’t. For months at a time, authors need to be the personality type who is prepared to work in solitary confinement for hours. Then every so often we emerge and have to perform in front of an audience which requires almost the complete opposite personality. Maybe that’s what gave the author Robert Louis Stevenson the idea for his novel about Jekyll and Hyde.

But actually I do love going out and giving talks or leading workshops, maybe because I always wanted to be an actor. Readers often tell me snippets of folklore or history at events and those give me ideas. And the comments they make and questions they ask, shape future books too. It’s also wonderful when you can do events with other authors, who otherwise you rarely meet, because you spark off them and learn from them. That’s why I’ve enjoyed being a part of the Medieval Murderers so much.

MJ I was delighted when you agreed to join Medieval Murderers. Was that a daunting prospect?

KM Ever since the first MM book came out, I’d always bought the new novel every summer to take on holiday, because it was the perfect beach read. So, I was astounded and thrilled when I was actually invited to become an MM, but also scared witless that I’d let the other MM authors down. I felt like a kid who’d watched their favourite professional football team play for years from the stands and suddenly got picked out of a crowd to play with them.

MJ We are an astonishingly daunting bunch! What would you say was the most useful piece of advice about writing that you have been given?

KM It was from the historical novelist and poet William Bedford, who has been a great friend ever since I started writing. He said – Do the research, read all the background material you can until you are steeped in it, then close the reference books, lock them away and concentrate on telling a good story. 

MJ That’s excellent advice. Hmm. Wish I’d had that. What advice would you give to someone about to try to write a novel for the first time?

KM First time novelists often make the mistake of trying to write in a genre just because they think it will sell or because it sounds easier to write than others. I know dozens of would-be writers who start writing children’s, young adults or romance novels, because they mistakenly think they are short and simple. But they can be the hardest.

If you don’t love that genre yourself as a reader, the chances are you won’t understand what elements true fans of that genre are looking for and you can easily produce a plot which you think is original, but which others have read a hundred variations of before. (And you need to read what is being published now in your chosen genre, not what you read ten or twenty years ago.) Almost every novelist hits a sticky patch somewhere in the writing process, so if you not really excited about the novel and that genre to begin with, you will stall when you hit a problem with it and never finish the book.

MJ Well, thanks very much for all that, Karen. It’s been a really interesting time, and good to find out a bit more about you and your way of writing. Best of luck with The Raven’s Head, and with the book you’re writing now!

4 Responses to “Interview with Karen Maitland”
  1. Jules says:

    Fascinating interview – I love Karen’s books so it was great to her ‘talk’ about them and herself. Thankyou Mike – and thankyou Karen as well :-)


  2. Clive Mullis says:

    Informative and entertaining. Thanks Mike and Karen for this. I read a medieval mystery and went on to buy Karen’s books.


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