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Books Features

Quest for the Historical Arthur: A Kalamazoo Story

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

An interview with Tiggy McLaughlin about her new book Quest for the Historical Arthur: A Kalamazoo Story.

Just in time for this year’s virtual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo comes a novel set in the days of Valley III. In this new adventure, three medievalists from three different disciplines make simultaneous discoveries that suggest King Arthur was not the noble and valiant king legend reports that he was. They are brought together by a questing graduate student named Annie at Kalamazoo, where they learn their research is entangled in an ancient magical spell, one that they alone can undo…

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Alice Sullivan: Tell us about your new publication.

Tiggy McLaughlin: Quest for the Historical Arthur is a light-hearted, modern-day adventure story with a healthy dose of medieval fantasy. Medievalists who attend the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress should find some experiences they can relate to, both in the realm of panels and papers, and in socializing in between. And then there’s the adventure. Without spoiling too much, I will say that Merlin is involved, and that the main characters engage in both rigorous scholarship and time travel in order to undo a spell that was cast in the sixth century.

AS: What motivated this book project?

TM: I usually attempt to write a first draft of a novel every year during National Novel Writing Month (November), and this started out as a NaNoWriMo novel in 2017. That year, I had finished grad school and moved, and I was also pregnant with Spring Baby #2. Spring Baby #1 had accompanied me to Kalamazoo when he was three weeks old, but I planned on skipping all conferences when #2 was a newborn. So in November, I was preemptively missing seeing my friends at Kalamazoo and other conferences, and decided to write a novel about new friends and old friends meeting up at Kalamazoo.

I decided to publish the novel this year when I heard the announcement that Kalamazoo was going to be virtual for the next two meetings. I really miss in-person conferences and wanted to share this novel, which is fundamentally about the relationships that form during conference down-time, with others who are missing in-person conferences as well.

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AS: Please share with us a fun anecdote from this book and how it developed.

TM: It is really difficult to think of a good one, because so many different experiences and interactions came together to form the scenes and characters in the novel that I would have to write an entire commentary just to explain a single anecdote. Every detail came from somewhere different. For example, in the opening scene Annie chats with her advisor after her oral prelim exam. The scene, which is completely fictional, draws on the experiences of three different peoples’ prelims, and the advisor himself is inspired by at least five different real and mythical advisors (yes, one of them is Ray Van Dam, my own PhD advisor). As to how the characters and scenes developed out of different real-life experiences and real-life people, all I can really say is that they were all in my brain when I sat down to write the story.

There is, however, just one true story I dropped almost verbatim into the novel, because I decided it was too good not to: In the chapter “Dawn at Kalamazoo,” the character Mary Kay meets the other characters for breakfast before the plenary lecture with a raging hangover. This is something that actually happened to me, and I still feel nauseous reading the scene. Like Mary Kay does in the novel, I will swear to this day that the hangover was a result of my not being able to fall asleep the night before, and if I had gotten some sleep I would have been fine. I also forced myself to attend the plenary lecture that morning. It was delivered by Ian Wood, and I was really excited because it was a plenary speaker at Kalamazoo in my actual field! But it was rough. The talk was very good, though, and I’m glad I went.

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AS: What are three things you hope your readers will take away from this book?

TM: First, I’m hopeful that readers will have fun reading it. It’s an adventure! There are heroes! Time travel! Valley III receptions!

I also hope readers will enjoy the friendships depicted in the novel that might remind them of their own conference friendships. Sometimes these can be unexpected, like medieval English literature people and late antique history people of different generations and stages in their careers brought together by common interests or friendship networks. That’s what I think is so fun about conferences and what I tried to convey in this book.

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Finally, this isn’t meant to be a book with a message, but if there is a message in there, it is about how scholars of a similar subject area should collaborate across disciplines. We all talk about how it’s a good idea and we should do interdisciplinary work, but there isn’t as much collaboration in practice as I think a lot of people want there to be.

AS: How does this project relate to your research, or how does it draw on your interests in the Middle Ages more broadly?

TM: It does not relate to my research, and that’s on purpose. Once I tried writing a historical fiction novel set in late antique Gaul, and that didn’t go so well. Now when I write fiction about the Middle Ages, I always choose a time period outside of my research field. This way, I can stay focused on characters and plot without obsessing over research, and it’s easier for me to deviate from historical accuracy when the plot requires it. I definitely took some historical liberties in the fantastical parts of this book. Some aspects of my research do show through in the novel, though. The character Geoff’s interests in Venantius Fortunatus and crumbling cities in late antiquity are a subtle nod to my current research.

About the author:

Tiggy McLaughlin is a historian of Christianity in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. After earning her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2017, she returned to her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, where she teaches at Gannon University in the departments of History and Theology. Her scholarly interests center on the religious lives of ordinary Christians throughout the Mediterranean world, especially Gaul, about which she has one published and one forthcoming article. Her in-progress book project examines the associations and interactions ordinary people had with flesh in late antiquity, and how these flesh associations influenced theologies of Christ as the Word-made-flesh. When she is not teaching or writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, and playing games and spending time with her husband and two little kids.

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Quest for the Historical Arthur: A Kalamazoo Story is available to order in both ebook and hard copy formats from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

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