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Interview with the Author: Jess Wells on A Slender Tether and Christine de Pizan

Q: Tell us about Christine and what you’re trying to convey here
JW: I was drawn to write about Christine de Pizan because of her courage and determination. She wrote more than 20 volumes of work across a wide range of disciplines and was the first to argue for the political and social equality of women during the time. Today, there are thousands of professors and students who study her as a seminal voice of the Middle Ages. I was particularly compelled, though, by the desire to dramatize the struggle of a pioneer. It’s particularly important to me as we write stories of women of the past that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking them to be one-dimensional super-heroes. I teach writing historical fiction and I tell my students that despite our bumper stickers that say ‘Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History’ we seem to create female characters that are unblemished. In fact, many of our pioneers are really dreadfully broken people. Anyone who faces down the status quo is fueled by desire, but plagued by self-doubt as well. It’s impossible to not internalize some of the teaching of the status quo that things can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. It’s also true that ambition is a desire that can become an obsession, a hunger that, like any drug, can never really be satisfied. I also wanted to look at the flip side of ambition -- disillusionment – and look at the pain that arrives when one realizes that all ambition is a chimera. I think everyone hits a point, especially in mid-life, and I think it holds true in the Middle Ages as well as now, where one wakes up to the brass in the gold ring, so to speak. It’s a difficult time in life and I hope I’ve added something to the conversation on this with my rendering of Gilles.

Q: How accurate do you have to be in historical fiction?
JW: I’m a stickler for historical accuracy in my writing and I keep a footnoted version of the novel handy because it’s important to not stray too far from the truth. I wanted to include some of the better-known lines from Christine’s poetry and a couple of the scant bits of conversation we’ve been able to take from her writing. In my imaginings of her world, I wanted to show how some of these insights of hers might arise. The trick is to tie it subtly into the book so it sounds like the speaking of a character, not the writings of a research source. Of course no one, even the gracious and helpful historians with the Christine de Pizan Society, knows what Christine was like emotionally. It is historical fact that she fell into a deep depression after the death of her youngest child. On the other hand, her fury and her feeling that she is a raptor among the blue-birds is entirely my own pent-up rage and darkness, of which I seem to have a bit. Ha! (There’s actually a funny story about this metaphor, which is the metaphor that kept me motivated through the whole book: she is a raptor among parakeets. Her feeling of being outside the social norm both plagues and enrages her. Surrounded by delicate and well-mannered parakeet-like women, she is the goshawk, the killer raptor. That’s how I used to feel in life: a steely-eyed, sharp-clawed woman who was ferocious and had to keep a tight rein on her anger. Anyway, I wrote the book around my desire to describe this feeling, worked on the book for years. In the 9th draft when I was doing another round of fact-checking, I double-checked the date of the introduction of parakeets to France and I was off my several hundred years! Drat. Metaphor into re-write; everything my friends and I came up with sounded like dinner. Hopefully it still works: a raptor among the blue-birds, which is historically accurate, if inferior in language.)
But, back to the story of Christine de Pizan. One aspect of the time that surprised me was to discover that the king had gone mad in some way . It’s a backdrop that isn’t often explored when discussing Christine de Pizan but it had to have had a profound effect on court life. All the specifics of his madness and maladies are factually correct in the book, as is the Dance of the Burning Men (though I have added a character who is ancillary to the event itself but key to the story) . For me the trick with this section was to let truth tells its own story and get out of its way, hopefully hands-off but not flat. Hot material with a cool hand, as Tom Jenks, the brilliant editor and teacher has said.
“The Gong Farmer’s Tale” is the most controversial piece in the book, I’m told, but I’m fond of it because it’s the most fabulist story I think I’ve ever written, perhaps the most fantastical.
“A Slender Tether” continues to explore our tenuous connections to our identities and our fortunes. I traveled through France trying to find a paper mill from the Middle Ages and found the marvelous Moulin Pen-Muroutside of Muzillac, France and was just enchanted by the process, the water, the smell of the place. There’s no research technique better than actually being there. I’m also really interested in the process of hunting with hawks, and we see the reappearance of a character from The Mandrake Broom, Jean, the child of the feral women, as a trader turned falconer.

Q: Why do you write about the Middle Ages instead of another period?
JW: I’m drawn to the late Middle Ages or early modern period, 1300-1550, because it was a time of tremendous change in Europe. I’m particularly interested in how inventions changed the social landscape. For instance, in The Mandrake Broom, the main character sees herself in one of the first full-length mirrors. In our day we worry about footage of ourselves showing up on YouTube, but here’s a woman who, like most of the day, had never seen an accurate reflection of their entire body. It must be a startling moment. Or the way that the invention of the printing press changed the power dynamics of communication. As a period to focus on, I like the Middle Ages because it’s not as well-worn as the Elizabethan period but not quite as dirty and rugged as the Dark Ages.

Q: I’m surprised to see “Christine in the Little Ice Age” set in the court of the king. You’ve said in the past that you don’t like to write about kings and queens.
JW: That’s true, I don’t write about kings and queens. I’m more interested in ordinary people and the way they lived their lives. I think I’m enchanted with trades in the Middle Ages and how they were plied. In the modern age, we tend to be divorced from the trades—they happen in the background -- but in the Middle Ages every street was crowded with people building things. You can’t really draw an accurate picture of the age without a significant number of workers right in the action. And while “Christine” is set in the court and the madness of the king is an important aspect of the action, none of the royals are significant characters.

Q: What about the Little Ice Age? I’d never heard of such a thing.
JW: Yes, I was fascinated by this idea that Europe went into a Little Ice Age between1300-1600. There’s a great book on it called The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, by Brian Fagan. I’m fascinated by how that parallels to our own time. Erratic weather, unseasonable weather, tsunamis. A tsunami created the Zider Zee in the Netherlands, for instance. It’s a setting that works to tie the sections together, and to illustrate the unpredictable nature of life at court, of fortune and identity.

Q: Why do you write historical fiction?
JW: It’s a challenging art form, no doubt about it. You can’t throw a tapestry over a flat-screen television and call it a historical. Life was very different then, self-perception was different. I love the research involved, the intriguing things that are revealed when you see the beginning of something, or the reason for the development of a social construct we take for granted now. To me, historical fiction has more tooth than fiction, more to say really, and more texture than essay.

Q: What do you read?
JW: I read an incredible amount of non-fiction. Much more non-fiction and research than fiction, but I have to give a shout-out to the writer who is my new favorite: Hillary Mantel. Her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is an astounding piece of art.

#ChristinedePizan, #Jess Wells, #Medieval Europe, #Middle Ages, #historical fiction
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