Interview with Sharon Kay Penman


Best-selling author Sharon Kay Penman has published her twelfth novel, Lionheart, which focuses on King Richard I and his crusade to the Holy Land in the late-twelfth century.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Kay Penman about this novel and how she writes historical fiction:

This book is a kind of sequel to your Plantagenet trilogy. What made you interested in continuing your story from the reign of Henry II to his son Richard?

I’d actually planned to end the story of the Angevins with Devil’s Brood. But Eleanor and Richard and John were not yet ready to leave the stage, and I think they must have begun whispering to me in my dreams, for all of a sudden, I found I had this desire to write about Richard’s reign. He’d never been a favorite of mine. My knowledge of him was admittedly superficial, though, as I saw him as the ultimate warrior king, drunk on blood, guts, and glory. But my research for Devil’s Brood had given me indications that there was more to the man than I’d thought. For one thing, I’d learned that there was much more to the story of his conflicted relationship with his father. I think Henry II was a great king, and I ached for him, dying betrayed and broken-hearted at Chinon. But Richard and his brother Geoffrey had legitimate grievances against Henry; sadly, he’d brought much of his grief upon himself because he’d either failed to learn from past parental mistakes or learned the wrong lessons. If blame is to be assessed for Henry’s death, it can more fairly be laid at the door of his youngest son, John, than at Richard’s.

So my Devil’s Brood research had given me some intriguing glimpses of another Richard, and I was curious enough to want to find out more. My research for Lionheart was a revelation, for to my surprise, I discovered a dramatic disconnect between Richard the man and Richard the myth. As I said in my Lionheart Author’s Note, the Richard of legend smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous. The Richard who emerged from the crusader and Saracen chronicles was not so one-dimensional. He had a sardonic sense of humor, could be playful, irreverent, and unpredictable, and showed a commendable concern for the welfare of his soldiers. I’d known he could be insanely reckless when it came to his personal safety, and so I was very surprised to learn that he was a cautious battle commander, as careful with the lives of his men as he was careless with his own. Because he’d been the first western prince to take the cross, I’d assumed he was driven by religious zeal. But Richard proved himself to be a pragmatist, intent upon a negotiated settlement with Saladin from the day of his arrival at the siege of Acre. Unlike so many of his fellow crusaders, he did not demonize his Saracen foes, actually formed friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs, and I was astonished to learn that he even knighted several of them—in the midst of a holy war! The real Richard turned out to be more complex than the Richard of legend, and therefore, more interesting.




Your novels are often praised for being so thoroughly researched. Why is it important for you to make sure your books are historically accurate in its details?

That is a very interesting question. I tend to be obsessive-compulsive about striving for historical accuracy, but I haven’t often been asked why. I think it is partly because I see historical fiction as a means of awakening curiosity about the past. Readers who might not buy a biography will pick up a historical novel. So I feel a responsibility not to mislead them. I remember being utterly fascinated by James Clavell’s novel about 17th century Japan, Shogun. But since I knew almost nothing about Japanese history of that era, I had to take the author on faith, assuming that his research was accurate and the portrait he painted of Japanese society was a true one. I want my readers to be able to take me on faith, too, to know that I will not sensationalize history or create medieval characters with modern attitudes, a phenomenon I call The Plantagenets in Pasadena. I also think that historical novelists owe something to the people we are writing about—if they were actual men and women and not mere figments of our imagination. I don’t think it is fair to take people who really lived and depict them in a way that violates all we know of them. My fellow historical novelist Laurel Corona expressed my sentiments perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.” One final thought—of course any novel is a work of the imagination, and that is true of historical novels, too. But I think historical novelists need to construct a strong factual foundation for their books.

A lot of this novel takes place in the Near East and Mediterranean, whereas most of your other books are set in the British Isles. Was it a challenge for you to give your readers a different sense of place (and to make them feel that Richard and your other characters are walking into a foreign land) when writing about these settings?

Actually, I think it was rather easy because the countries my characters were visiting were so exotic and unlike their homelands. I had fun researching the Norman kingdom of Sicily, Cyprus, and the Holy Land, and tried to use what I found to evoke a strong sense of time and place, for I know my readers are interested in the same things that intrigue me—that Sicily had three official languages—Latin, Greek, and Arabic, as well as Norman French and the Italian dialect of Lombardy—that Palermo had numerous synagogues and mosques as well as churches, that the king of Sicily, William II, had a harem of Saracen slave girls. I enjoyed describing the flat roofs in Cyprus and the Holy Land, so different from the houses in England and France, or the palm trees and animals the crusaders had never seen before, camels and crocodiles and scorpions. It was fun to let my readers know that what we call bananas the native-born Christians in the Holy Land called “apples of paradise,” that a popular dish mixed syrup with snow brought down from the mountains in straw-covered carts, and the local people dined on cushions at low tables. And of course I got to describe some horrific storms on their voyage to the Holy Land! To get an idea of what medieval sea travel was like, I’d suggest people go to YouTube and watch some of the videos of ships caught in violent storms. It is terrifying to see these modern ships being tossed around like toothpicks, and then to imagine what it would have been like in a 12th century galley like Richard’s Sea-Cleaver, riding low in the water, without cabins or any of the navigational instruments that are available to sea-goers today.

This will not be your only novel about Richard. Could you also tell us about the development of your forthcoming novel, A King’s Ransom?

I’d originally planned to tell Richard’s story as one book. But in the past, I’d been given three years to research and write one of my historical sagas, and with Lionheart, I only had two. So with the deadline looming, I began to panic, for Richard and I were still bogged down in the Holy Land, with me fretting about that deadline and him worrying that his brother John and the French king were going to lay claim to his kingdom. A dear friend then came up with a brilliant idea—why not tell Richard’s story in two books? It made perfect sense, for the crusade was the natural breaking point, the defining experience of Richard’s life and the one that won him “immortality”, to quote from one military historian. So Lionheart ends after Richard and Saladin have made peace and he prepares to sail for home—or so he thinks. It is just as well he does not know what lies ahead for him: two shipwrecks in savage storms, an encounter with pirates, and then being stranded deep in enemy territory with only twenty men, with the worst still to come. A King’s Ransom will cover that epic journey, his captivity in Germany which actually included a stint in chains, his return to his own domains, the bitter five year war he waged with his nemesis, the French king, his death at Chalus, and the first year of the reign of his brother John.

We thank Sharon Kay Penman for answering our questions. Click here to visit Sharon’s website

Sharan Newman