Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.
Elizabeth: I was originally inspired to write historical fiction by two sisters, Barbara and Joanna of Austria, daughters of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, and granddaughters of Juana of Castile, called “Juana la Loca.” State marriages were arranged for them both—Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, for Barbara, and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, for Joanna.
How did they feel, setting off on their bridal journeys, never having seen their new cities and knowing they would never go home again? The two dukes had come to Innsbruck to sign the marriage contracts, so at least the sisters weren’t off to marry men they’d never met, but it wasn’t as if they’d had any choice in the matter. What crazy courage it must have taken to be an imperial archduchess in the sixteenth century.
History records so little about them. Barbara was apparently happy in her marriage but sadly childless. (Through no fault of her own, but that’s another story.) Joanna, in Italy called Giovanna, was miserable but bore eight children, despite her truly horrifying scoliosis. Her tomb was opened and her spine examined as part of the anthropological and paleopathological Medici Project, and looking at the photographs, I can’t imagine how she managed to have one baby, let alone eight.
Giving Barbara and Joanna voices in novels—voices and thoughts and emotions and lives, real lives, however fictionalized—was humbling and endlessly fascinating.
Greer: Wonderful. What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
Elizabeth: My next book is historical magical realism centered on Mary Talbot, the daughter of the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary is the quintessential “footnote to history” woman, remembered only because she was the unwilling young wife married off to Henry Percy, to separate him from Anne Boleyn.
The astonishing thing, though, about the historical Mary Talbot, is that in the summer of 1532, in the midst of the political and religious firestorm that was Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” she dared to speak out publicly and ask to have her own marriage annulled. Her grounds? That her husband, now the Earl of Northumberland, had flung at her in the course of a clearly incendiary quarrel that she was not his wife at all, because as a young man he had made a legally-binding contract of marriage with Anne Boleyn.
Mary had been miserably unhappy in her arranged marriage, and her husband’s assertion was clearly the last straw. She put the Earl’s claim down in writing, in a letter to her father, who was not just her father but the Lord Steward of the King’s household. The letter itself is lost—how I would love to see it!—but clearly it existed, from the havoc it created. Northumberland was hauled off to London and, in a panic, swore on the blessed sacrament that no pre-contract with Anne Boleyn had ever existed. I think he was lying, blessed sacrament or no blessed sacrament. But the king wanted Anne Boleyn to be unmarried. Mary’s evidence was disregarded and the whole business was hushed up with brutal Tudor efficiency.
After writing that amazing and courageous letter, Mary Talbot essentially disappears from history, although she lived on for another forty years. So of course she is a wonderful inspiration for historical fiction.
As to when anyone will see the book, well, it’s early days yet, and I’m still writing.
Greer: I know that stage well. But your subject sounds utterly fascinating, and we'll be excited to see it whenever it's ready. Last question: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?
Elizabeth: Surprising only because it’s a little obscure—I love the lushly-produced Russian-language television miniseries Sophia, which is available with (sometimes unintentionally funny) English subtitles on Amazon Prime. It tells the gorgeously-imagined story of Zoe Palaiologos, the last Byzantine princess, who was re-baptized Sophia when she was married to the Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow. Ultimately she was the grandmother of Ivan IV (“The Terrible”), the first Russian Tsar.
Zoe/Sophia was at the center of religious and dynastic conflict throughout her life, and was the first Grand Princess of Moscow who refused to be confined to women's quarters, but greeted foreign representatives from Europe in the same way as queens in Western Europe. One of the most interesting bits of trivia from this show: golden coins used as properties were minted from casts of original ducats.
And my question for Greer: What scene or historical thread or fact have you been forced to delete from a manuscript, and yet can’t forget? What do you intend to do with it?
Greer: When I initially put together the proposal for Girl in Disguise, the story of the first female detective, Kate Warne, it was about one-third longer, extending past the end of the Civil War with another subplot and ending with her death in 1868. My brilliant agent looked at the proposal and said, "That's about one-third too much book." Foolishly, I said, "No, this is really what I want to do! I'm going to write it that way!" And lo and behold, after several months of writing and seeing how things shaped up, I realized it would definitely be too much book. I ended up finding a natural conclusion right about at the mark she'd originally indicated. So I didn't get to write the last three years of Kate's life. Maybe sometime I'll return to it. I've gotten plenty of reader requests for the continuing adventures of Kate...