A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading Karen Heenan's new novel, A Wider World, and reviewing it for Discovering Diamonds.
"Memories are all he has… Now they could save his life. Returning to England after almost five years in exile, Robin Lewis is arrested and charged with heresy by the dying Queen Mary. As he is escorted to the Tower of London, Robin spins a tale for his captor, revisiting his life under three Tudor monarchs and wondering how he will be judged—not just by the queen, but by the God he stopped serving long ago. When every moment counts, will his stories last long enough for him to be saved by Mary's heir, the young Queen Elizabeth?"
Today, I'm delighted to welcome Karen to the blog, to talk a little more about this wonderful book.
AW: Congratulations on the release of A Wider World. Having read Songbird (Karen's debut novel), I knew of Robin as a character. Did you know when you were writing Songbird that Robin would have his own book?
KH: I had no idea that Robin would have his own book. Actually, I thought Songbird was a standalone book, and had a completely different project in mind once it was published. I didn’t find Robin particularly likeable in Songbird, even when he improved (somewhat), and so between that and thinking I was done with Tudor England, it really surprised me one day when a little voice in my head said, “They said I would not end well.” I immediately said, “Who said? And did you?” and off we went. That’s still the first sentence of A Wider World, because Robin insisted that it stay.
AW: Robin weaves a Scheherazade-type tale, giving us two timelines throughout the book. How did this idea come about? Were you ever planning on telling the story chronologically?
KH: I always knew I wanted him to tell the tale to stall his captor, but I hadn’t actually planned on using the structure of alternating chapters. I was going to divide the book into sections and have an introductory “present” chapter at the head of each, but that just didn’t work, and I realized that Robin’s present-day journey is as important as the stories he’s telling to Will Hawkins, his captor.
In the beginning, I didn’t want to make it too obvious, but as I researched books available in the period I was writing about (Robin being a collector of books made for some fun research), I learned that while 1001 Nights / Scheherazade wasn’t known in Europe at that point, there is documentation of at least a partial collection in Syrian from the late 1400s. Since Robin spent some of his exile in Venice, I gave him a friend in Piero Grimano, a merchant who’d traveled the region and brought home a copy which he translated into Italian for his own amusement. Robin is intrigued and borrows it to translate into English, and the idea is fresh in his mind when he’s arrested and faces a swift journey toward execution.
It’s not 100% possible, but it’s 110% plausible.
AW: I love this attention to detail! What comes across for me in your books is the realistic feel for time and place. You've mentioned researching 1001 Nights; what are your methods of research and have you been able to travel to any of the locations mentioned in A Wider World?
KH: This period of history has fascinated me since I was little and my mother and I watched the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII on TV. Fifty years later, it still has its hooks in me. I’ve read – a lot – and researched more, but if it comes through as realistic, I think it’s because I’ve absorbed so much that I try to write as if the reader knows the same information. My first drafts generally have far too many facts, especially since I don’t always write in order and so I don’t know when, or even if, I’m going to introduce a particular person or event.
I love to travel, and I’ve been to quite a few places that I’ve mentioned in A Wider World – England, several times, but Hampton Court in particular. I wish Greenwich Palace still existed, since it was an even more important location in Songbird. Robin’s travels were enjoyable for me, because I’ve been to Bruges (and loved it, and sat and ate mussels by a canal just like he did) and Venice is one of my favorite places on earth. My husband and I traveled there a few years ago, and Bianca’s house is actually on the same small canal as our AirBnB was. The hole-in-the-wall tavern that Robin and Seb visit also exists. It’s called Cantina do Mori, and it opened for business in the 1460s.
AW: I had no idea when I was reading that part of the book that they were sitting in a tavern that can still be visited today! What I do know is that there will be a Book Three. Are you able to tell readers anything about it?
KH: Book three is called Lady, in Waiting. The comma is a crucial part of the title. It features a character named Margaery Preston, who was introduced near the end of A Wider World. This is my workaround because I never wanted to write a series, to take a character who interests me in one book and let them have their own story in the next. I’ve already written the blurb for Lady, because it helps me believe that the book exists and I’ll actually finish it.
"She serves the queen. Her husband serves the court.
How can they be so far apart?
Margaery Preston is newly married to a man she barely knows. Proposing to Robin Lewis may have been impulsive, but she wants their marriage to work - she just doesn't know how to be married, and it seems her husband hasn't a clue, either.
Treated like a child by everyone from her husband to the queen, lost in the unfamiliar world of the Elizabethan court, Margaery will have to learn quickly or lose any chance at the life she wants.
Can a marriage for all the wrong reasons make it to happily ever after?"
AW: I'm really looking forward to this one - Margaery has already revealed herself to be an interesting and well-rounded character. Was it always inevitable, as far as you are concerned, that you would become a writer of Tudor fiction?
KH: I always wanted to become a writer, but I got a job straight out of high school and was more concerned, for many years, with paying the bills and keeping my head above water. I still wrote, almost constantly. It was a form of therapy because I hated office work as much as I was good at it. I thought off and on about publication, but the whole getting-an-agent process just seemed like a nightmarish yet impersonal way to be rejected over and over.
I did try, eventually, and I was rejected, over and over. Mostly by agents who thought the book was good, but that the Tudors were overdone, and that no one wanted to read another book about Henry VIII. (I didn’t bother to respond that the book wasn’t about Henry, because it was obvious that their mind was made up).
Songbird’s publication came about because I participated in a pitch contest on Twitter, and got interest from two agents and a small publisher. The first agent still hasn’t gotten back to me. The second wanted me to rewrite the book with a more Philippa Gregory tone, and I said no. Nothing against Philippa Gregory, her books, or her readers, that’s just not the story I was telling and it’s not my voice. The publisher liked the story as it was, with normal edits, and it’s a fairly collaborative process since there’s no agent/intermediary.
I started writing Songbird before self-publishing was a thing, and before I knew any self-published authors. Overall my experience with my publisher has been positive, and I’ve learned a lot, but I’m a bit of a control freak (they’re nice, they just say I’m “hands on”) and I’m looking forward to publishing my next book on my own.
It’s called My Sister’s Child, and it’s the book I started writing when Robin chimed in, and it’s set in Pennsylvania in the 1930s. I’ll get to explore my own city, and there are tons of resources and historical societies close at hand to completely change up my research experience.
But that’s not to say that I’m done with the Tudors, or they’re done with me. There’s always this quiet conversation going on in the back of my head, behind a heavy wooden door. If one of them finds the key, I’m done for.