1) Your most recent novel, The Fool’s Girl, is a daring adventure involving royalty, romance and William Shakespeare. With so much of Shakespeare’s life shrouded in mystery, how did you reach your own vision of his character?
My writing is always driven by ideas. I first had the idea for the book that would become The Fool’s Girl when I was watching an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by the river in Stratford-on-Avon. Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespeare play and the production was delightful, put on by a group of student players, very much in the spirit of the Elizabethan travelling theatre – outdoors, with a restricted cast and a temporary stage. As I was watching the performance, I began to wonder: ‘What happens after the end of the play?’ Then I thought: ‘How did Shakespeare get the idea? What if Illyria was a real place and someone told him the story?’ By the end of the play, I had an idea for a new book and I knew that I wanted Shakespeare to be one of the characters. Normally, I never write about real historical people because too much is already known about them and I find that limiting. With Shakespeare, there are whole libraries devoted to him and his work but precisely because so little is actually known about his life and much of that disputed, I found that liberating. I decided I’d write about him when he was plain Will from Warwickshire, trying to earn a living and make his way in the tough, highly competitive world of the Elizabethan theatre, always on the look out for new ideas. I didn’t relate too well to the portraits I remembered from studying him at school, so I decided that my Will would look like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love – that made it much easier!
2) Sovay follows the exploits of a highwaywoman during the height of the French Revolution. With unrest blooming all over the globe, do you see parallels between then and now?
A good question! When Chairman Mao was asked about the effects of the French Revolution, he replied that it was ‘Too early to tell.’ So in a way we are living through the consequences of that momentous event, even now. Much of the unrest we see is to do with people all over the world striving for freedom of speech, equal rights, universal suffrage, free and fair representation – precisely the principles that inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and led the people of Paris to take to the streets in 1789.
3) The inspiration for Sovay lies in a traditional English ballad, and your novel The Stone Testament plays with mythologies surrounding the end of the world. How much does folklore and mythology influence your work?
4) If you could visit any historical period, which would it be and why?
I’d prefer to be a time traveller, not restricted to one time. I’ve always envied Dr Who his Tardis.
6) When Witch Child was published in 2000, it began a new wave of YA historical fiction, despite feelings amongst publishers that historical fiction was dead. How in sync do you think publishers are with teenagers today?
Well, judging by the number of historical titles at the moment, they were wrong about that, weren’t they? The market changes all the time and it is impossible to second guess the Next Big Thing – or we would all be Stephenie Meyer, or J.K. Rowling. All you can say, is you can see it when it is there. Meanwhile, it is the publishers’ job to try different things and anticipate. I tend to go with the script writer, William Goldman, and what he said about Hollywood: ‘No-one knows anything’.
7) Last year, a report found that Ireland has seen a steep decline in literacy amongst young people. How can books compete with the digital fireside of videogames and the internet, and is there more that can be done to engage young people with reading?
I don’t know, but judging from recent research which showed that readers, whatever their socio-economic background, were more likely to succeed at university and in later life, we have to do something. The internet does not have to be the enemy. It can be a place where young people share and comment on their reading. There are a growing number of young bloggers out there and groups of fans setting up their own web sites to share books and comments, virtual book groups, if you like. Maybe that is the way forward.
8 ) What have you lined up for the future?