“I inhale hope with every breath I take.”
― Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept
An Inspirational Authoress
As women, we all have role-models – women we look up to; women we admire for both their successes and their positions in society as strong women of character. For some of us, those women may be models, actresses, lawyers, politicians, media hosts, or hold various other professional positions in society. For me, she is an author, and her name is Sharon Kay Penman. In case you have not heard of this incredible historical fiction author, here is her biography, given to us by Sharon, herself:
“Sharon Kay Penman was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City, NJ in its pre-gambling days. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Texas and, in her misspent youth, she also earned a JD degree from Rutgers School of Law. She practiced tax and corporate law for several interminable years, which she considers ample penance for sins past, present, and future. These days she is fortunate enough to be able to write full time. She has written ten historical novels and four medieval mysteries, one of which was nominated for an Edgar. She considers writing historical fiction to be the next best thing to time travel. Her first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, is a revisionist history of the Yorkist king, Richard III. She has written what readers call her Welsh trilogy, set in 13th century England and Wales. She has also written five novels about the wonderfully dysfunctional Angevins, Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their Devil’s Brood. She has just finished The Land Beyond the Sea, set in the 12th century Kingdom of Jerusalem. She currently lives in New Jersey and spends as much time as she can in France, Wales, and England” (Penman).
Sharon is a role model for me because she writes for a living and does an incredible job of it. From my viewpoint, it seems as though she has the freedom to enjoy amazing things in her life, such as travel, having homes in other countries, and enjoying a commitment to researching history. We get a glimpse of who a person is, to an extent, in their writing. Between her books and my social media connection with her, what I have seen is that she is kind, gentle, and compassionate. Strong, and with a deep sense of justice and morality, she is highly intelligent. It’s not surprising to learn that Sharon was a lawyer at one time in her life. There is much to admire in Sharon. Some of my fascination with history has been sparked by Sharon’s books – long before I ever attended college, I was reading her work avidly and with strong admiration.
I highly respect Sharon’s writing skills: she performs magic with her pen, breathing life into people long-dead, and even making battles interesting. Sharon has related to me that statistics in the publication world show that women enjoy historical fiction at a higher rate than men, but men enjoy battle scenes at a higher rate than women. Sharon manages to appeal to both genders of readers in nearly equal measure, and I see this as another indication of the unusual appeal of Sharon’s writing. Her novels are deep and involved, and highly addicting. The people she writes about actually lived, and she writes their stories in such humanizing ways, showing us their passions, their emotions, their complexities – their conflicting loyalties, and moments when they wrestle with their demons and their consciences – and she makes her readers laugh and cry. She moves us and makes us love people who died hundreds of years ago. In other words, she spins her stories in ways that fascinate, and she does it without deviating from Truth, and there really is a magic in that. I greatly admire what Sharon does with her skills and her craft, and it’s made me an enormous fan of her and her work.
For Graceful Grit, I asked Sharon about some of her experiences as a writer, as well as asking her whether she ever faced any mistreatment as a female writer. I know that some women really do, and I wanted to know if that had ever happened to her. Even if it hadn’t, her perspectives on these points matter. My interview with Sharon is as follows. For this interview, I am LH and Sharon is SKP.
LH: What was your age when you began writing, and how did that dream and development grow?
SKP: I wrote my first story at age six, about a horse named Queenie. My mom, bless her heart, saved it for years. I was always drawn to writing, even wrote a novel when I was in my teens, which mercifully did not survive. My dad was a writer, too; he had several short stories published. So perhaps it just seemed the natural road to take. My parents were also avid readers, so I developed a love of words at an early age.
LH: Did you encounter obstacles to your writing, in life events, or emotional upheaval?
SKP: They were not obstacles per se. I was attempting to be realistic, I suppose, for I did not think I could make a living as a writer, so I ended up going to law school and I did practice law for several years. But life became complicated for me once I stumbled onto the story of Richard III. I think I was born with the urge to write. Now I had a story I wanted —needed— to tell, and so I no longer had a choice. I felt that I had to write this book, even if only for myself.
LH: Who were some authors who inspired you in your writing development years?
SKP: There are many writers I admire greatly. But I do not think I was influenced by any one author in particular. I was always fascinated by history and so I naturally gravitated toward historical fiction. I read the books of Anya Seton and Pearl S. Buck and the Brontë sisters, just to name a few. Fast-forward to today and I enjoy the historical novels of Margaret George and Elizabeth Chadwick and Larry McMurtry, among others. I am a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell; I even wrote a blog once called “Why I love Bernard Cornwell.” (No one writes better battle scenes.) I also enjoy historical mysteries, especially those by Priscilla Royal, P.F. Chisholm, Steven Saylor, and the late Margaret Frazer, who was a wonderful writer and a good friend.
LH: What are your aims in writing, and is there a balance between commitment to truth and wanting to inspire an interest in history within your readers?
SKP: I would say I have dual aims—to entertain and to inform. I am always delighted when a reader tells me that he or she has become interested in history after reading one of my books. I don’t think that human nature has changed much over the centuries, so I want my readers to be able to identify with the emotions of my characters, and to realize that history is very important, that our yesterdays matter. Too many politicians today are alarmingly ignorant of our past and the consequences can be disastrous. And I feel very strongly that writers of historical fiction need to play fair with the historical figures they are writing about. Naturally, we have to fill in a lot of blanks, but I don’t think we should use history as a mere backdrop for our stories. I write of men and women who once lived, and I feel I owe it to them to adhere to known facts, not to turn their lives into pure fantasy. A fellow writer, Laurel Corona, put it perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.”
LH: Did you doubt what you were doing, early in your writing career?
SKP: I suppose I did, for I did not intend to have a writing career. As much as I loved to write, I did not see it as a viable profession. When people talk of artists starving in their garrets, they usually have writers as roommates!
LH: Did anyone make you feel like you couldn’t achieve your dreams as a writer, or make light of your skill and your craft, or did you always enjoy the support of your peers in following your writing goals?
SKP: I was very fortunate in getting total support from my family. My brother bought me my first electric typewriter. My parents were always in my corner. After I got a small insurance settlement, I decided to quit my job—I was practicing law at the time in Los Angeles—and move to England to research my novel on Richard III. I’d been trying to write it on the side, which proved to be very challenging, so when the opportunity arose, I chose to gamble on King Richard. Many parents would have been disquieted, even distraught, to be told that their child was going to risk a career in the law, all in order to chase a dream. Mine told me to go for it. My friends at the time did not offer encouragement, but they did not try to discourage me, either, and the same was true for the men I was seriously involved with during these years. I would have gone ahead even if I’d encountered opposition, for by that time, I was obsessed with telling Richard III’s story. But it made it much easier to be cheered on from the sidelines and I remain very grateful for that.
Sharon at Middleham Castle, when she led a Richard III Tour to England a few years ago.
LH: Did anyone ever discourage you specifically because you are a woman, or try to redirect you or your writing due to societal gender roles?
SKP: I encountered it fairly often during my years practicing law. But I do not think my writing career was held back because I am a woman. It may have helped that my primary editor in the US and both of my agents are women. However, I attended a writers’ convention some years ago and remember a panel discussion in which several other writers discussed the gender bias they’d run into in the course of their careers. I don’t want to name them here, but one very successful writer told us that she’d initially been discouraged from writing a novel about an English king; apparently, doubts still existed that a woman could write about a man and make it credible. Several other women writers on the panel had similar experiences. But a male writer discovered that editors were skeptical that he could write about female characters, even projecting their skepticism onto the readers, and he ended up using his initials rather than his given name.
LH: What are the achievements of your career and your writing that you feel best about?
SKP: I was very honored when my first medieval mystery, The Queen’s Man, was nominated for an Edgar and was also chosen as one of the best young adult books of that year. The most unusual recognition that one of my books has received came some years ago in an e-mail exchange with another writer. She informed me that she taught a class in “erotic porn” and asked my permission to use a scene in my second mystery, Cruel as the Grave, as an excellent example of what she called “angry sex.” Once I stopped laughing, I pointed out that there was nothing explicit in that scene; when writing sex scenes, I believe in leaving something to the reader’s imagination. But she insisted that it would be perfect for her class and so I agreed.
On a more serious note, I am delighted whenever I hear that one of my books is being used by teachers, both at the high school and college level. That has to be the ultimate compliment.
LH: How much has writing infiltrated your life and helped to define who you are as a person?
SKP: I cannot imagine how my life would have turned out if I had not chosen to gamble all on the novel that would become The Sunne in Splendour. I feel truly blessed that I’ve been able to make a living doing something I love, which also allows me to indulge two other passions—reading and researching history and traveling to distant places.
LH: Has there been a challenge in getting into the writing field and making a niche for yourself there? Has any of that challenge been gender-related that you could discern?
SKP: I tell aspiring writers that they need perseverance and determination and imagination. Talent helps, too, of course. 😊 But so does luck. I was very lucky to find an editor who was willing to take a chance on an unknown author with no track record and a Moby-Dick sized book about a long-dead English king. If not for Marian Wood, I am not sure my career would have gone as well as it has. As I indicated in an earlier answer, I honestly don’t think I’ve encountered roadblocks because I am a woman, even a woman writing of so-called male topics—warfare, battles, crusades, etc. In fact, my editors told me that my readership is unusual, for it seems to be balanced between male and female readers and the conventional wisdom was that mainly women read historical fiction. I was always very happy that my books have been able to attract men and women, too.
LH: What are some things you enjoy in life that are directly because of your career as a writer – in which ways has being a writer enriched your life, overall?
SKP: I am able to travel extensively, primarily to Europe, although I was able to make a research trip to Israel for my new novel, The Land Beyond the Sea. And these trips are tax-deductible! I do have to battle with Deadline Dragons, but I need not punch a time clock; since I am a night owl by nature, I can follow my instincts, staying up late and sleeping in. I have been able to form some very special friendships as a result of my writing, both with readers and my fellow writers. The only aspect of practicing law that I enjoyed was the research, searching for the perfect case to prove a point of law. Now I get to research history to my heart’s content.
LH: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, especially young women who want to enter the writing field?
SKP: I am asked this so often and I so wish I had some helpful answers. It has never been easy to become a published author. I personally think it helps greatly to have an agent, but it is as challenging to find an agent as it is to find a publisher. In some ways, it has gotten more difficult since I began writing. There are not as many publishing houses now as there once were. And we are living in the midst of a revolution, where all the rules are changing. That can be a huge benefit for writers, as for the first time in history, we have options. If we cannot find a publisher, we can publish our books ourselves. Vanity presses always existed, but were the last resort for the desperate. That is not the case now. I have several writer friends who chose to go the self-publishing route, for various reasons, and they have no regrets. Amazon makes it fairly easy for writers. So does the Internet, of course. But it is very time-consuming and writers often find it frustrating when they attempt to promote and publish their books on their own. I would tell an aspiring writer to decide if she wants to go the traditional route via a publishing house or to strike out on her own. In either case, she must be willing to do promotional work that was once the bailiwick of publicists; publishers today expect many of their writers to act as publicists for their own books. I would suggest setting up a website, doing a blog, becoming active on Facebook and Goodreads and other social media. I am not on Twitter yet, but writer friends insist it is necessary in this brave new world of ours. My last bit of advice is the most difficult to follow; try not to take rejections personally. A book can be rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with its innate quality. It may help to remember that some of the most talented and celebrated writers had doors slammed in their faces, too.
From Sharon’s British publisher; they republished Sunne on its thirtieth anniversary, in hardcover and then in this paperback edition.
Much of what Sharon has said in this interview resonates with me: Feeling like she was born to write; the need to write, even if only for oneself; and a love for historical mystery, as well (her suggestions here give me new reading material). There is also what she said about starving artists and their writer roommates. I, too, want to keep myself grounded in reality, which is why my career aim is to be an editor and not a famous author. I find her last paragraph with her advice for aspiring young authors to be invaluable. It is good to know that we are stuck with self-promotion even if we go with a traditional publisher. It is good to know that rejection is par for the course and not to take it seriously. It’s very helpful to know that an agent really can be an asset in the writing industry. These are things that aspiring authors often debate about, but Sharon is a tried and true, famous author – she has made it beyond the door and into the actual world of writing for a living. I, myself, will be taking her advice to heart.
Sharon did face an obstacle of a particular kind in her writing – one that did not take the form of discouragement, but rather, of loss. Her first manuscript for The Sunne in Splendour was stolen out of her car while she was a student in law school. She was unable to write after that for five years, and when she finally did begin to rewrite The Sunne in Splendour, it took her twelve years after that to publish it. This is what Sharon had to tell us about it:
“I was in my second year of law school, and my parents drove me from their home to my new apartment. Whenever I’d traveled with the manuscript, I’d treated it like the Holy Grail, carrying it aboard the plane when I flew. This time, I casually put it in the back seat of the car; I actually remember thinking that there was nothing to worry about in an hour’s drive. And I never saw it again. I cannot be sure, but the only logical explanation is that while we were unloading the car, one of the children playing on the lawn nearby wandered over to the unlocked car and his eye was caught by the bright pink binder with a peace sign on it; ironically, I’d just bought it the week before. I think he snatched it on impulse, dumped the contents, and went off to school with a new binder. How else explain it? I cannot really imagine vengeful Tudor ghosts hovering over Lindenwold, NJ…. It was definitely a horrific setback, for it was the only copy and I’d been working on it for more than five years.
“After that, the well just dried up. I continued to research the book, but the words wouldn’t come…..until one rainy weekend in southern California when I sat down at the typewriter and discovered that the log jam had finally broken. Needless to say, when I started to rewrite the book, I had copies everywhere, farmed out to friends, nestled in bank vaults, buried in the backyard! The story has gotten a lot of publicity over the years, and I discovered that a surprising number of writers had lost manuscripts and did not have copies. Pearl Buck had one burned in a fire. Ernest Hemingway’s wife left his manuscript on a Paris train; they were later divorced.”
To me, this story is every writer’s worst nightmare: you spend years of your life working on something special – building it up with care and love; pouring yourself into it – only to have all your work vanish in a puff of smoke. I think it’s heroic that Sharon was able to start over again, even five years down the road. It takes guts to start over. It’s not easy, at all – that kind of loss is extremely discouraging. Certainly, Sharon must have felt like Sisyphus, rolling that boulder all the way up the mountain again. Determination can now also be added to the things I admire about Sharon.
Sharon has also told me, in the course of our discussions, that she is definitely a feminist. Wikipedia also confirms this, saying, “During her research for Here Be Dragons, the first book in the [Welsh Princes Trilogy] series, she became fascinated with the complexity of the role of women in medieval society; for example, Welsh women at the time had a great deal more independence than the English women. Whether in Wales or in England, a noble wife had responsibility for a household, complete with household knights, whom the wife relied upon to keep the household safe” (Wikipedia). I have noticed and rejoiced in her attention to these kinds of details within her books, as well – Sharon is heartily invested in discussing the rights of women, and does make it a part of her focus in her medieval history writing. After all, how can we know how far we have come if we cannot see where we have been?
I have been a fan of Sharon’s for many years. I first discovered her books in the Denver Public Library around 2003, and I fell in love with her work, immediately. I am rather ashamed to admit that I did not return those library books – I paid for them, instead. Back in those days, it was harder to get books than it is, now, and I didn’t want to give them up. I was terrible, but I was also still in my twenties and not necessarily a very responsible person. Her books were my first taste of historical fiction, and those books opened up a whole new world for me – the medieval world of England, Wales, and France – that existed long before I was born. I found the experience of reading about that world, in her style of writing, to be awesome. Her books educated me about many things of that time period, and I would say they even primed me for college, because they were my first hint that I actually could enjoy history; that I had an interest in it, and that I liked the level of research I sensed behind her writing.
In 2009, I got on Facebook for the first time, and I went looking for her, and to my surprise, she was there! I sent her a friend request, and incredibly, she actually accepted! That completely blew my mind – I remember literally dancing around my house with happiness for a few minutes and raving to my guy about how wonderful it was – I mean, really, how many people get to be friends with their favorite author, even if only on Facebook? I think it’s a rarity, even now! Today, she has a Facebook page, in addition to her profile. On both, she shares posts where she talks about historical events that occurred on the day she is posting, helping to refresh the rest of us on memorable days in British, French, and Welsh history.
Getting to know Sharon – having the privilege to read about her computer struggles while she tries to meet deadlines, and about her pets – is an honor I never expected to have. Sharon is a wonderful person – a very personable person – an incredible author, and a powerful story of womanly success; and I applaud her! Sharon is a role-model for me because she is a woman who writes and she has done this with unqualified success: she has book sales, a readership, and is known in literary circles. While she writes in a different genre than I do, writing historical fiction instead of fantasy fiction, I still take inspiration from her story; it helps me to keep plodding ahead and reach for my own dreams, and to keep the goal in sight, knowing that it is possible to get “there.”
Further information about Sharon Kay Penman and her books can be found in these places:
© Lorraine Hall 2018 and © Sharon Kay Penman 2018
Photos, biography, and interview responses provided by Sharon Kay Penman, all rights reserved.
External source: Wikipedia, where quoted.