Book Talk: Candace Robb finds new voice as Emma Campion

SYDNEY Wed Aug 4, 2010 6:00am EDT

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SYDNEY Aug 4 (Reuters Life!) - When American historical writer Candace Robb decided to take a break from her usual medieval mysteries to focus on the life of one woman, she also decided to make another change -- taking on a new pen-name.

As Emma Campion she has released a debut novel, "The King's Mistress," based on Alice Perrers, the mistress of British King Edward III, who was always portrayed as a manipulative woman taking advantage of an aging, increasingly senile king.

Robb became intrigued by Perrers after documents emerged that cast doubt on this cruel reputation.

The author, who has written 13 books since 1993 in two ongoing series featuring medieval sleuths Margaret Kerr and Owen Archer, started to delve further.

Robb, 60, who has a PhD in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature, said she wanted to put Perrers in a new light. She spoke to Reuters about the 14th century and writing:

Q: What started your fascination with medieval times?

A: "When I was in college what really caught me was how Chaucer himself really created such a vivid picture of a particular time and one of such social change with the plague and the Hundred Year's War. It seemed so contemporary and comprehendable that I got very excited about it."

Q: How do you find so much detail about daily lives?

A: "All sorts of ways. I have a lot of friends who are historians who I drive crazy with all my questions. I spend a lot of time in England where there are so many wonderful sites and activities that are hands-on that I need to describe. Also a lot of research and reading between the lines in medical texts."

Q: Why the change to Emma Campion?

A: "It was my publisher. They felt Candace Robb readers expected a crime novel and it would be hard to convince them that it was not going to be that. I didn't really like the idea at first. I'd been lecturing about Alice Perrers for years and I cared about this women and reconstructing her life but then I started to see it as quite fun and liberating."

Q: Why the name?

A: "Emma is a very good Norman name of a beloved queen of England and Campion is a good Yorkshire name. There is something very pretty about it. I also always loved Emma Peel in The Avengers and I always wanted to be her."

Q: What fascinated you about Alice?

A: "I noticed in novels and history that almost the same words were always used about her. She seemed such a wicked woman, like a pantomime mistress. But the more I researched I could not make her character make sense. It really was not likely that this commoner had the power she was claimed to have had behind the scenes. Then we found these petitions about her in which we learned her maiden name and so what we thought we knew about her was wrong."

Q: Why did you decide to write the book in first person?

A: "I started looking at what made sense for a woman in the 14th century and Alice decided to write the book in the first person. Here is this woman who never had a voice so I thought she should finally be able to speak and tell her own story. Writing in the first person is like tying one hand behind your back but it gave me a chance to become her and feel what she felt. Once I got going with it I really enjoyed it."

Q: Why did the king take to her so?

A: "I believe she was a breath of fresh air. She was business savvy, clever and she must have been beautiful as he could have picked anyone in the court. She came to court just about the time when Queen Philippa had a bad accident that made her unable to have any children so it was not a time when she was jealous."

Q: Are you going to stay Emma Campion for a while?

A: "Yes, I am enjoying this very much. My next book will be about Joan of Kent ... but I don't feel finished with Owen Archer or Margaret Kerr yet. I rather miss them."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "One of the important things is to trust your instinct. I know that once my characters start moving about on the page and coming to life that I have to let them show me where they are going to take me. It kills the book otherwise."

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Paul Casciato)

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