14 December 2012

Interview: Margaret Frazer (Circle of Witches)

Today, I have the pleasure of sharing with you an interview with Margaret Frazer, author of numerous award-winning historical fiction novels and now, Circle of Witches.  The interview I'm sharing with you today was a conversation Ms. Frazer had between herself and her publicist.

You can see the other tour stops here.

What’s your favorite fiction book?
A toss-up between A Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe and Persuasion by Jane Austen. Sutcliffe does such an excellent job of recreating a particular time and place and mindset that you get completely absorbed into her world. She was a master of historical writing.
How much is that reflected in your own writing?
I hope quite a bit. She was the author that made me realize it wasn’t just that you had a story to tell, it was how you told the story. The how – the unique angle or approach – matters as much as anything.
What unique angle did you find in Circle of Witches?
Damaris’ story, unlike most heroines when confronted with a problem, a question, or a mystery, realizes that she doesn’t want the solution to the mystery. She’s afraid of what the truth will do to the life she loves. And so she avoids or circles away from the truth instead of finding a way to the heart of it.
So a little bit of a double meaning in the title Circle—
Circle of Witches! Yes! [laughs]
And your other pick was Jane Austen. Why Jane Austen?
She tells a wonderful story with characters that you enjoy spending time with. Even if you know the story, you enjoy spending time with the people in it. So when you go back to it, you go back to your friends.

Part of it, I think, is that – while the characters in any of Jane Austen’s books are very individual and specific to the stories – they’re all universal characters. Rudyard Kipling wrote one story called “The Janeites” where the soldiers embroiled in the midst of the horrors of World War I were naming their guns according to characters from Jane Austen’s novels and if you’ve read the novels you go, “Oh my goodness yes! I know exactly what this gun is like!”
All right, let’s flip the coin a bit. What’s your favorite non-fiction book?
That’s a good one. There are so many non-fiction books that I read as part of my research. I suppose the latest one that I’ve gotten really enthused about would be The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie.
I’m guessing that doesn’t have much to do with Circle of Witches, but why did you enjoy it?
[laughs] It plays to my predilection for other times and other places and other ways of seeing the world. This was a study of the glories and some of the not-so-glorious prehistoric cave art: The way it lets us get some inkling of the way people saw the world. And this ability to see the world from different angles is what makes for a good historical novel.
And we’ve kind of circled around a wide swath of history. Austen and Kipling and the Paleolithic. Let’s see if it holds true through this question. It’s a bit of a cliché, but if you were on a desert island and you could only have one book, what would it be?
How long do I have to choose before you dump me on the desert island?
We’ll give you the Library of Congress, but you’ve gotta pick one quick. Let’s say ten minutes, but they’ll help you find the book.
I think I might just take Persuasion! It’s a good story with enough diversity that you can revisit it again and again.
Do you think Circle of Witches is a book your readers will be able to revisit over and over again?
I hope so. I hope I’ve made the characters interesting enough – that the people in that world will be interesting enough – that readers will want to spend time with them. Even when they know the full course of the story they’ll want to visit the people again.
What’s the book you find most useful to you as an author?
The Oxford English Dictionary. [laughs] In my older series – my history mysteries set in medieval England – I found that trying to limit my vocabulary to words they would have actually used in the time period helped me think like the characters would have thought. I had to structure my description of their world according to what they could describe it with. And there were a lot of possibilities, but I had to tailor what I knew and what they knew to how they would express it.
How big of a limitation did that prove to be?
Not that big, really. Rarely I would get frustrated and say, “I’m sorry, I have to use a post-1500 word. There’s just no way around this.” But for the most part, I simply had a good time doing it. For example, the word “nerves”. They had the word “nerves” in the Middle Ages, but it doesn’t mean anything like what it means today. So when I had a nervous character, I couldn’t say “he was very nervous”. I had to find other ways to make it clear. And I found that this wouldn’t limit the story, it would enrich it. It would add texture that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
It sounds like that limitation makes a big difference in how you perceive characters distinct from yourself.
Well, if that changes the characters, then what’s the book that made the biggest change in your life?
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Because that was the book that made me realize in my teenaged life that it was possible to argue with historians, with people in authority. You were raised or trained in the American school system to assume that you couldn’t argue with what was written in the books. And Daughter of Time tells you to do the opposite.

The Daughter of Time begins with a modern Scotland Yard policeman confined to a hospital bed with a badly broken leg. His friends, to amuse him, provide him with pictures of people who provided historical mysteries. He gets taken with one very particular picture: He figures it shows a man who was a judge or someone who was very involved in public policy; conscientious to the point of giving him ulcers. And then he discovers that it was Richard III, the famous villain and murderous uncle. It upsets him that he was so wrong in his judgment, so he begins with the help of a scholar to investigate the facts of the case and discovers that it falls apart on close inspection.
And while I’ve since gotten past the purely romantic reinterpretation of Richard III, this book taught me that you should double check what the “experts” are telling you. And that lesson has not only been very helpful, it’s also provided me with a great deal of fun over the years.
So it’s sort of the opposite of the heroine in Circle of Witches who works to avoid the truth.
Here is someone who dives right into the middle of it and is quite appalled that all those books he used to trust were wrong. So in some ways they’re not that different: Both are forced to confront the fact that truth is not always what you expected. That sometimes the truth is wrong.

I don’t know if avoiding the truth will set you free. But it will let you choose the path you prefer over the true path; and it can be easy to find those lies safer and more comfortable. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to face the truth and live according to the truth.
Would you say that Circle of Witches is a story about courage?
Oh, yes! Because while Damaris first needs to be forced to have her doubts, eventually she has to find the strength to face it.
It’s interesting because the villainess is the one who forces her to face the truth. Seeing the villainess use the truth as a weapon is something you usually don’t see.
Absolutely. And it was really interesting trying to make that work. It’s again about finding the unique angle or approach, and then finding where it can take you in the story.
If you were talking to someone sixteen years old, what’s the one book you think they should read?
Circle of Witches.
Other than Circle of Witches! 
[laughs] I’m going to come back to Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe. It inspires you with a comprehension of another place, another time, another way of being in a world of conflict and disintegration. Of an effort to save what can be saved in a time of darkness. So there’s a cosmic battle between the invaders and the invaded, trying to hold onto the remnants of an already broken civilization. And then there’s the philosophical question of how you can hold onto your own identity while fighting and sacrificing to keep it.
 At the same time, it has these wonderful characters that you care so deeply about and yet are so fully of their time that they force you to move out of your mental-emotional timeframe and into their mental-emotional timeframe. And anything that stretches your mind and emotions beyond the familiar, culturally-circumscribed ideas that we naturally acquire in our daily lives I find extremely valuable.
Now, you’re talking to someone thirty years old. What’s the one book for them?
Can I get away with saying they should reread Sword at Sunset? [laughs]
What’s the second book you’d recommend?
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. All the plays, out loud, for the richness of the language.
It sounds like you have some experience with that.
Yes. Only I did it when I was sixteen. So maybe I’m doing these backwards.
I was taken to see a production of Richard II by a local theater group. The language was so rich. And the conflicts of the characters were so powerful; and the themes – like those of honor vs. principle – were so engrossing and exciting.
Even though it was a free performance, my mother wouldn’t take me back to see it again because it was an hour away. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t go to see it that I sat down on my bed, hauled out the family’s copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and read all the parts out loud to myself, trying to act out the parts for myself. And that was so much fun that the next night I did with a different play. And by the end of the summer I had read all of Shakespeare’s plays out loud to myself.
I didn’t know that the language was supposed to be too difficult! [laughs] I just assumed you read it and it worked!
And I’ve talked rather strangely ever since, I’ve been told.
And, of course, you can always use the Oxford English Dictionary to figure out the words you’re having problems with.
All right, the last of these: If you were talking to someone sixty years old, what’s the one book for them?
Oh my, you’re a good one with these questions. I don’t know. Go read Jane Austen or Kipling’s short stories for the richness of the characters and the pleasure of the language. To make sure you’re still deeply involved in the inner workings of humanity. 
How you are enjoying your blog tour?
It’s still very young! But I’m so excited to be able to share Circle of Witches with everyone. It’s one of those stories that, no matter what, you just need to tell and to share.
And thank you so much for being part of that. The Authoress is such a beautiful and wonderful site, and I’m so happy to be here in the “virtual flesh”.

About the Author

Margaret Frazer is the award-winning author of more than twenty historical murder mysteries and novels, including the Edgar-nominated Sister Frevisse and Player Joliffe series. She makes her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, surrounded by her books, but she lives her life in the 1400s.

"Over the years I’ve had a rag-tag of various jobs, including librarian, secretary, reseacher for a television station, gift shop manager, and assistant matron at an English girls’ school. Married once upon a time but not anymore, I have two well-grown sons who become uneasy if I read books about poisons at the supper table and refuse to turn their backs on me when I say I want to try something I might use in a story. When I write, I want to delve as far inside the perceptions of my characters as possible, to look at their world more from their point of view than from ours, because the pleasure of going thoroughly into otherwhen as well as otherwhere — the chance to move right away from the familiar into a whole other way of seeing and behaving — has always been one of my own great pleasures in reading. As a writer I deeply want to give that same pleasure to others."