Paula de Fougerolles

Paula de Fougerolles discusses historical fiction and her writing.
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Paula de Fougerolles, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

I’ve known since I was a child that I wanted to write novels set in the so-called “Dark Ages”—the early-mediaeval period. It’s just always been my thing. It’s as if I can see it unfolding in my mind’s eye alongside what was happening in front of me in real-time, like a double vision. The years I’ve spent since then have pretty much been all about slowly accruing all the skills I needed to get that done (the languages, the literatures, the sources, the landscapes, the material culture, the writing craft, my voice, etc.). And about finding a worthy subject, one that had not been written about before. I found that when I found St. Columba of Iona and Aedan mac Gabran, a 6th century king of Dalriada in Scotland, the dual protagonists of my series.

What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

First, I assemble and understand all the primary sources around which I’ll be draping the narrative. They act as the skeleton or scaffolding for the plot—who needs to be where, when, in order for the story to be as “true” as possible. You want to get it right, as far as you can. Once the scaffolding is in place, the magic happens as you play with all the ways the events you’ve assembled might have come to pass, and all the different things they actually mean.

In many ways, I did most of my basic research years ago while doing my PhD. The primary sources for the 6th century are scant to begin with and probably won’t ever be significantly added to. What does change in my field is how we interpret them, as well as what archaeology can periodically throw up to flesh out or, in some very thrilling cases, completely revise what we thought we knew. So, I keep my hand in the field and fold into my novels those new understandings as they arise.

Then, as I come to writing the first draft of the next novel in the series, I always spend some time revisiting what I thought I knew about what I planned to write in order to give the muse some space in which to offload new insights. I’ve aged and changed. So why not re-interrogate the sources too? What can I see now that I didn’t see before? “History” is endlessly fascinating that way—it’s inherently relational, subjective, and dynamic. As you change, it changes.

My process has not significantly changed over time, though I would like to think that it has improved as I’ve figured out how to tell these stories. There’s always something new to learn, about the work as well as about you, yourself, and that keeps you pushing forward quite happily. Every day I sit down to write it feels like I’ve come to the wellspring.

Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

Where to start? There are so many! The most ground-breaking new work for my period is coming out of Scotland right now, as it happens. Thanks to some well-funded and brilliantly executed archaeological digs, the Picts as a people are back on the map at last (after being “lost” for nigh on a millennium!). The King in the North by Gordon Noble and Nicholas Evans (2019) synthesizes all the new data wonderfully. For a wider historical overview that takes in all the new research, I’d recommend anything by Tim Clarkson.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

Choose your subject wisely. You’ll be living with it for a long time; best to love it. Write about something you’d be exploring in your daily life anyway. This will give your novel a richness and a lived quality a more purely academic work might not necessarily achieve.

Revise. Revise. Revise. Hone your book until it represents the best of your talents at the time. This requires feedback. It doesn’t matter that you think it’s super if your readers aren’t moved or don’t “get it”. A book is a conversation between writer and reader, so be prepared to share your budding work with people you most trust. A good way to approach this as you’re starting out (so as to soothe the blows), is to ask your readers for 3 things they loved about the book and 1 thing they found challenging. And then listen to what they have to say.

The writing of the book is only the first (small) step. Once it’s done, put yourself out there. Seek out every opportunity to get it out into the world. Make your own opportunities. There’s no one right way to get this done. Then, prepare yourself for a lot of “nos”, and to wait for ages to “be discovered”. (Hence #1—you better love what you do!)

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why? 

It would have to be my two main protagonists, St. Columba of Iona and Aedan mac Gabran of Dalriada.

Columba, or Colmcille, is an extraordinary figure. He was thrown out of Ireland in 563 and exiled to Scotland for some heinous (and unnamed!) act, which should have ended him there and then. Instead, he managed to use that spectacular fall from grace as the call to action in his own life. He was an abbot and a prince, an exile, a diplomat, a polyglot and a linguist, a writer and an historian, a founder of monasteries, an adventurer and an explorer, a saint and a statesman—all in all, one of the most influential figures of his day. His legacy still has meaning for us today. Yet, in the sources, he comes off as a bit of a pain in the ass—a difficult personality, as those who manage to change the status quo so often are. And yet he seems to have been driven most by an overwhelming sense of compassion for his fellow man. He’d be an absolute hoot to have dinner with.

And I’d love to meet Aedan mac Gabran. He rose from obscurity and major family trauma (his father was butchered by the Picts) to become the king of Dalriada (modern day Argyll and the Isles in Scotland plus County Antrim in Northern Ireland) and the greatest warlord of his age. He gave everyone a run for their money (the Irish, the Britons, the Picts, and the Saxons), founding a kingdom that would form the core of what would become Scotland. I’m really drawn to him (or at least my version of him). To have achieved so much from so little! That takes an inordinate amount of drive and vision. It would be so informative to compare my fictional creation with the real thing. I’d seat him across from Columba at my dinner table, ply them both with alcohol, and watch them go!

Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?

You know, my mind keeps coming back to Jesus, or Mohammed, or the Buddha. I’d like to have been present at one of their purported miracles. Because then you’d know. You’d have the proof. I’ve seen, and have done, lots of miraculous things over the course of my life, but for some reason the mind still doubts, still has the desperate need to irrefutably know. What happens after death is one of the major questions we all must answer over the course of our living. If we knew, especially if it happened to be a meaning we could all agree on, it would help us live alongside each other a lot more peaceably. And my heart so longs for peace. But the older I get, the more I understand that, in fact, there are billions of different meanings and billions of different answers, one set each for each of us living, and I’ve grown comfortable with the utter ambiguity of it all. I don’t necessarily need to see the divine that resides within us all, in action as miracle, but if I could, why wouldn’t I?

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

Three writers who continue to teach me and inspire me are Mary Renault, Hilary Mantel, and Simon Young.

When I read The King Must Die by Renault, I am in Bronze Age Greece. I hear the screech of the cicadas and the crunch of the parched ground underfoot, but most importantly (and in a way that I’ve not really seen any other historical writer do), I am with their gods. Greece at that time was a world replete with deities. Everything was soaked through with the divine. Renault was able to enter into that mindset in a way that elucidated not only what Theseus did what we think he did, but why he did it—how the very ethos of the time in which he lived informed absolutely everything he did, felt, and thought, from the primal to the sublime. That’s historical fiction of the very highest quality. I’m working my way through her books very, very slowly, as each is a feast I love to savour.

Narratively, Hilary Mantel astounds me. She does things with her narrative that I did not know it was possible to do—especially how she works time, how she can fly forwards and backwards through time and memory in the course of even a single sentence. It’s astonishing. So I find myself studying the mechanics of that. I find myself laughing out loud with the sheer joy of the discovery of it. And one of the ways she achieves that, what allows her to play God that way, is that she’s inside Thomas Cromwell so firmly it’s as if she’s wearing him as a second skin, looking out at the world through his eyes. And because she is Thomas Cromwell, we get to be him too.  

And finally, Simon Young, who has written a number of superlative books set in my own time-period. He’s another writer who so effortlessly brings the past completely to life. Though it’s clear that he’s got an absolute mastery of the period, he wears his learning so lightly that you don’t realize just how far you’ve travelled across the early mediaeval world until you finish the novel a changed person. The breadth of his knowledge is humbling, the precision of his language is something to behold, and I adore his voice and his wit. There’s a first-class historian there, behind the fiction. He teaches me to look at the period we share in new ways, and to experiment more as a writer.

When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?

In a way, it’s all three. I’m mid-way through a long series, so at this point the questions I ask myself when starting a new book are, firstly, “What did happen?”. And then, “How do I weave a story that makes that interesting and compelling?”. Why should we care about this next bit? What’s the story here, within the history?

So, for me, the drafting part is a very fluid mixing of all three elements—character, plot, event—which has the tendency to mutate as I actually sit down to write. Because then the question becomes, “What’s the best way to tell the story within this history?”. I’m often juggling four or five viewpoint characters and arcs, so which element needs to be brought to the fore at any given time changes constantly. Which, to be fair, is the fun of it. 

Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?

I do try to stick to a routine. Once I’ve had tea with my husband and checked in with my family (my children are older now, just about to leave for university, so after many years my mornings have become my own again), I go to my study. First, I journal. Something purely creative. I’ve kept a journal since childhood, so there’s no point stopping now. Then I write. I pick up where I left off the day before. I try to push through a first draft without going back to review or edit. If it’s a good, flowy kind of day, I’ll go with it and write for as long as I can, or until I’m needed elsewhere. If not, I’ll hack away at it anyway for a good three or four hours in order to get something on the page. Because you can’t edit a blank page. I’ve found over time that it’s easier for me to either write or to tend to all the other stuff around writing (the emails, etc.), but not both in the same day if I can help it. They require different kinds of energy and focus. So whenever possible I lump all the admin together and set aside a day or two to push through it as a block until it’s done. I’m more efficient that way, and far less cranky. Then I can get back to the writing. 

Knowing other writers is hugely important. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and requires a rather special mindset, so finding a tribe for yourself is beneficial in every way. Especially in how we can help one another–bouncing ideas off one another, reading each other’s works in draft, supporting each other’s efforts. You learn best by working alongside other practitioners. It also helps you keep your eye up and out, onto the larger trends, because how we tell stories changes over time.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?

I’m finishing up the fourth book in my series The Chronicles of Iona which is called Cradle of Saints. It takes up Columba and Aedan’s story in 574 as they hunt down their enemies through the wilds of Ireland’s ancient north and west.  

Quite coincidentally, bubonic plague plays a large part in this part of the story, so this novel is proving to be weirdly cathartic to write this year.

This year is also, again coincidentally, the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Columba, who was born in 521. Donegal, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and others have been running a huge number of events and celebrations this whole year in honour of his life and legacy (called Colmcille1500). I’ll be launching the novel on the 7th of December, Columba’s birthday, to mark the end of the year’s events, with special thanks to Donegal for inviting me to take part in it. It’s been a real honour.

Paula de Fougerolles is the author of The Chronicles of Iona series.