Interview: Karen Maitland

Those of you who read my other blog know that I’m a HUGE Karen Maitland fan and of course I jumped at the chance to interview her. After all, how often do we get to ask a favourite writer anything we want?

Karen Maitland

What inspired you to begin writing historical fiction set in the Dark Ages?

Some years ago, I went to Bruges in Belgium for a short break and stumbled by accident across the beguinage, the medieval city of women. I discovered that this had been part of a vast movement of women right across Europe, involving hundreds of thousands of women over many centuries. But they had always faced extreme hostility. Some beguines were even burned at the stake. Why were they so hated? I felt cheated. Why hadn’t I been taught about this in history at school? I began to research a dark thriller which was to become The Owl Killers.

But the more research did on the medieval period, the more stories I stumbled across, like the sin-eaters and the young boys who were castrated by the church, which both appear in my novel, The Gallows Curse. But I also became fascinated by the superstitions of the period. For example, if someone was going on a long journey he’d carry the badge of St Christopher to protect himself, but he’d also plait fern seed into the mane of the horse, to make it invisible to evil spirits.

Yet, it wasn’t a primitive age. People regularly bathed in the bath house or stews. They had anaesthetics and know how to relieve pain with things like poppy juice and they could drill and fill teeth. It is such an exciting period, full of untold stories just waiting to be discovered.

Which of your novels was your favourite to write?

The Raven’s Head just seemed to fly off the page. It felt as if the raven was writing it and I was just the idiot human he was using do the typing! Also I thoroughly enjoyed watching the naive apprentice, Vincent, make his great plans. Then I could cause them to go horribly wrong. Authors are sadists at heart!

But each novel has parts I really loved writing. In The Vanishing Witch it was great fun to write from the point of view of one of the narrators who is a ghost. The upside of being a ghost is they can say whatever they like about people and they can watch the living walking straight into danger and think, shall I warn them? No, I won’t bother. It’ll be much more amusing to see them fall down that hole. I suppose you could say authors are a bit like ghosts, we happily watch our characters blunder into all kinds of trouble and idly wonder how they are ever going to get themselves out of it.

If you had to invite five of your characters to a dinner party, which would you pick and why?

I could invite all the kind, gentle characters who would have really pleasant evening together. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it? Much more interesting to bring some of the nastier ones together and who knows, there might be murder or two before dinner is over. After all, it is the author’s job to torture the characters.

So, I’d invited Zophiel the acid-tongued conjurer from The Company of Liars and sit him opposite Lord Sylvain, the obsessive and ruthless alchemist from The Raven’s Head and listen to their battle of wits. They both despise women, so let’s bring in Servant Martha, leader of the beguines, from The Owl Killers. She is more than a match for any man.

I’d invite the bewitching Catlin, from The Vanishing Witch. A flirt like her would really annoy Servant Martha, but will Catlin succeed in charming her way round Zophiel or Sylvain? Lord Sylvain is so wealthy she’d want to seduce him, but she could end up with a nasty surprise on her wedding night.

But if the handsome Ricardo arrives from Falcons of Fire and Ice, Catlin might find herself being seduced, unless Ricardo is too busy trying the lure the men into one of his financial scams, though Zophiel has been known to commit a fraud or two of his own. There is more than one thief and killer round this table.

 Which novelists have inspired your writing?

I think inspiration begins young, and I loved Susan Cooper’s series ‘The Dark is Rising’ where the children go back in time to search from symbols from the past. I also devoured the historical novels by Henry Treece. The first adult books I read were by Graham Greene and I always admired the great sense of place – you feel the heat and dust – but also his anti-heroes and the sense of genuine danger. You really didn’t know if the main characters would live or die. That had a huge influence on my writing.

I am a big fan of magic realism and the way the authors draw you step by step into a world, where you don’t know what is real and what isn’t, but it is all believable. Authors such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood and most recently I’ve fallen under the enchantment of the chilling The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

I try not read historical novels set in the period in which I write, because, like most authors, I’m afraid of subconsciously absorbing their plots or ideas. But I do love Sarah Dunant, Manda Scott and C.J.Sansom. And I read a lot of modern thrillers and crime to study plot and pace, especially dark writers like Minette Walters.

 How do you decide on the place or time your novels are set? How long does it take for you to do the required research for each novel?

The ideas for the plots usually come from some current event I see on the news. Then I search for a medieval period where this has happened before. So for The Vanishing Witch, it was watching the London riots on the news on TV that reminded me of the Peasant’s revolt in which ordinary people went on the rampage looting and burning. So I set the story against the background of that medieval revolt.

For The Raven’s Head it was a news item in which scientists said that if they could modify the right sections of DNA in human cells it might be possible to prevent aging and make people live for years longer than their natural life-span. It struck me that was exactly what the medieval alchemists were trying to do in their experiments.

I don’t go looking for a place in which to set the story. I often have a story idea in my head for years without any thought of where I’m going to set it, then I’ll stumble across a location by accident and I know that is the place. For The Raven’s Head. It was seeing the Langley Abbey. I’ve visited lots of other abbeys, but there was something about the atmosphere of that one, that just clicked.

Company of Liars which I wrote at the same time as The Owl Killers, took ten or twelve years of research before I was ready to start, because there was so much I had to discover about the Middle Ages from food to furniture, and punishments to the plague. After that the research for novels got quicker because I already had the background knowledge, so now I tend to focus on the specific things I need for that novel. For The Raven’s Head, I had do several months of research into medieval alchemy, the symbols and what they used in their experiments

But even when I’m writing, I am constantly researching, because you don’t always know before hand, what you are going to need to know for that scene. You suddenly find yourself asking – How long does it take to heat a human skull so that it’s brittle enough to be ground into powder? And the next question is – just where do I find the answer to that one?

Jacket high res

Karen’s new book, The Raven’s Head, is available to buy now- and I’ll be reviewing the book soon.




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