Day two of Pride Nights at Queen’s is proud (ba dum tss) to present our first interview. Author of intriguing historical fiction, Karen Heenan visits the Asylum to talk about her Tudor Court series, law and sexuality in the 16th century and related research, and, of course, the mischievous but utterly adorable companions/spawns of hell we humans like to call cats.
As an only child, Karen Heenan learned early that boredom was the enemy. Shortly after she discovered perpetual motion, and has rarely been seen holding still since. She lives in Lansdowne, PA, just outside Philadelphia, where she grows much of her own food and makes her own clothes. She is accompanied on her quest for self-sufficiency by a very patient husband and an ever-changing number of cats. One constant: she is always writing her next book.
Hi, Karen, and welcome to the Asylum! Please, take a seat, but uh, mind any stray blades lying around, sometimes our guests get sloppy with their belongings. Tell us, how did your writing journey begin?
Thanks for having me – and for warning me before I sat down! I’ve checked the cushions carefully.
I’ve been a reader all my life, and once I realized, somewhere around the age of eight, that someone had to write all those books in the library, I decided it should be me. I wrote for pleasure for years, and as a form of “I hate my job” therapy for years on years after that. Finally, in 2015, I got out of my own way and decided to see if Songbird was actually a publishable book. It took another 3 years before I gave up on the idea of traditional publishing and did a pitch event on Twitter and found the small press I’m currently working with.
Let’s talk more about Songbird. The book is an intriguing piece of historical fiction set in the Tudor era. What were the inspirations behind its creation?
I’ve been obsessed with this period of history since I was a kid and watched an old BBC series about the Six Wives of Henry VIII. I don’t know what struck me, but it struck hard, and it still has its hooks in me, close to 50 years later.
Songbird came about from a throwaway fact I stumbled across in a biography of Henry VIII – that he was such a music lover he (at least once) bought a child to sing in the Chapel Royal choir. Considering that noble families often gave their children into royal service to gain influence, an outright purchase would have had to be of a poor child. Choristers were all male, and I didn’t – at that point – want to write about a male character, so I created Bess, whose father brought her to the court in the hopes of selling her, to give her a better life and so that his impoverished family would have a chance of survival on the proceeds of her sale.
It was a good move for her, in the long run, but what I wanted to explore was how a child could find herself and where she belonged in the world from such unsettled beginnings, and whether she could learn to trust, and to trust the right people.
As incredible as Bess is, book two in the series turns its sights on another character. A Wider World follows Robin Lewis, a former chorister who returns from exile only to find himself charged with heresy. With his life on the line, Robin turns to powerful magic—storytelling. Given that Robin was a secondary character in Songbird, what made you want to pick him up as a central point of this book you call a “non-sequel”? How did his story expand the world of the series?
I hadn’t planned to write a second book set in the Tudor world – when I did, we had to tweak things with Amazon to set it up as a series. I’d started working on something else – more about that later – but instead I heard this voice say, “They said I would not end well,” and I had to listen and ask questions.
Robin wasn’t the most sympathetic character in Songbird. In fact, he was a pain for a lot of it, but I learned that his prickliness came about because he’d never been properly socialized (or well treated) and he just didn’t understand how to people.
I had left myself a few crumbs of a story – he left court for Oxford, traveled, and returned to work in the court. As the world began to change at the end of Songbird, it was assumed that he would survive and go on to work with Thomas Cromwell, which he did. Robin is a survivor, which I can appreciate.
I think one of the most calling aspects of these stories is your complex, survivor characters. But to you, what aspect of this series is most important?
While I’ve always been fascinated with Tudor England, I think the world has read enough books centering Henry and the queens. I wanted to write about more everyday people whose lives were impacted by people in power – and if we don’t realize, after the last few years, that everyone’s lives can be impacted by the people in power, I don’t know what will ever teach us that lesson.
Bess was a poor child thrust into a new world, tasked with performing for the court. She was more than a servant but still less than, in the eyes of her betters.
Robin came from similarly humble beginnings, but he always had an eye out for the next move on his personal chess board. He went to a monastery to be educated and learned to sing; he became a chorister because of the chance of advancement; he went to Oxford and traveled to be exposed to new worlds and different people.
I feel like characters are such a central part of any story, but it’s research that adds the most exciting authenticity in historical fiction that readers love to explore. What was the process of researching the 16th century as a whole, and particularly sexuality and laws?
When I first began researching for Songbird, it was actually in the dark days of pre-internet. Things are so much easier now, and there are so many primary sources which have been scanned and are available online. I’ve just submitted a third Tudor book and was able to search the records organizing Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation and what types of fabrics were allotted to different people to wear in the procession.
For A Wider World, I had to research how sexuality was treated in the 16th century. I didn’t realize when I started writing that Robin was bisexual, but he told me pretty quickly. Or rather I stumbled onto an incident he would have preferred I not watch. I wasn’t sure if homosexuality was actually illegal, but I assumed it was frowned upon – and upon investigation, it seems that despite the ridiculously named Buggery Act of 1533 wasn’t enforced all that often. It was more a matter of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and I’m sure that there were many convenient marriages to make lives run more smoothly. Should someone have been unlucky enough to have been tried and convicted under the act, though, the penalty was generally death.
What I found interesting about the word “buggery” was that it was a broad term that applied to any form of sexual activity not related to procreation. It didn’t gain a specifically homosexual meaning until the mid-1550s; during the earlier period I was writing, buggery could have just as easily meant rape, oral sex, or bestiality (and they did mention beasts in the act).
That is equal parts horrible and interesting. On that topic, did you learn any exciting historical facts while writing your Tudor Court Series?
What most interested me was something I absolutely dreaded writing about – the dissolution of the monasteries. I’m not religious at all, and it was difficult for me to get my head around just how important religion was at the time. Everyone was Catholic, and everyone believed in heaven and hell, and having the king suddenly decide that he’s the head of the church, allow himself – and his country – to be excommunicated, and then to destroy the monasteries, must have been an immense shock to the country.
What I hadn’t realized was just how necessary the monasteries were. They not only provided a house of worship and constant prayer for the community (important in a time when people valued that intercession on their behalf), but also education, employment, housing, medicine, and hospitality to travelers. Almost everyone in England lived within a half day’s walk of a house of worship, and could make use of their services. When they were dissolved, nothing was put in their place, and much of the unrest that followed was anger at the loss of a social safety net as much as the change in state religion.
What other historical figure/era would you love to write about?
I don’t think I’m totally done with the 16th century, but I’m going to take a break for a while. I do have a bit of a yen to write about Francis Walsingham and his network of spies during the reign of Elizabeth I.
You had me at “network of spies”. Let me know if the Asylum can provide counsel on that. Not that we…Have spies or anything…Our Queen doesn’t do that…On a completely unrelated note, onto hobbies! You’re an avid lover of handmade crafting and even have a handmade items shop and a vintage shop (to our readers: seriously, check them out, astounding work!). Any particular projects you’re most proud of?
I’m a big fan of recycling, so most of my projects are from old clothes or home dec fabrics that I’ll cut up and turn into other things, but my favorites are the memory pieces, where someone will give me clothes belonging to a loved one and I can turn them into a stuffed animal or a lap quilt – some physical memento which might be less jarring than seeing clothes in a closet, and is also able to provide cuddles and comfort.
Let’s talk about the fierce quadruped survivor you have in your home. How is Harriet these days?
Harriet is going strong at 18. She just recently lost her littermate, Nicky, and is the last cat standing of a tribe of 13. It turns out she likes being an only child, and she’s turned into an imperious old lady, jumping on our faces early in the morning and demanding her wet food. Which used to be a special occasion thing, but hey, living to 18 is a special occasion, or so she tells me.
Ah, we fully support Harriet’s rule! Always glad to meet a Queen 😀 Before we say goodbye, any projects in the making you want to share with us?
Yes! I’m finally back working on the project that Robin’s voice interrupted 2 years ago. A brief description is “A woman who’s lost everything. Her sister, who has everything. And a baby who means everything – to both of them.” It’s set in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and I’ll be able to do a lot of local research in my own city, which I’m looking forward to.
Also there’s a third volume to the Tudor Court series, titled Lady, in Waiting, which is due out next April. It continues on directly from A Wider World, but is written from the point-of-view of Margaery Preston, a late-arriving character in that story.
There’s something to look forward to! Thank you Karen Heenan for joining the Asylum this June.
If you’d like to get in contact with Karen Heenan, you can find her on social media:
Check out Karen’s start of the Tudor Court series, Songbird.
Follow the Asylum’s 2021 Pride event here!