Tuesday, May 01, 2012

New Voice: J. Anderson Coats on The Wicked and The Just

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

J. Anderson Coats is the first-time author of The Wicked and The Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). From the promotional copy:

1293. North Wales. Ten years into English rule.

Cecily would give anything to leave Caernarvon and go home. Gwenhwyfar would give anything to see all the English leave.

Neither one is going to get her wish.

Behind the city walls, English burgesses govern with impunity. Outside the walls, the Welsh are confined by custom and bear the burden of taxation, and the burgesses plan to keep it that way.

Cecily can’t be bothered with boring things like the steep new tax or the military draft that requires Welshmen to serve in the king’s army overseas. She has her hands full trying to fit in with the town’s privileged elite, and they don’t want company.

Gwenhwyfar can’t avoid these things. She counts herself lucky to get through one more day, and service in Cecily’s house is just salt in the wound.

But the Welsh are not as conquered as they seem, and the suffering in the countryside is rapidly turning to discontent. The murmurs of revolt may be Gwenhwyfar’s only hope for survival – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.

As a writer of historical fiction, what drew you first – character, concept or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

File tub
The past is real. It’s as real as the bagel I ate for breakfast and the pile of bills on the dresser.

Historical fiction, when done well, does not present the past as a stage or a setting.

Historical fiction, when done well, makes the past feel lived.

The Wicked and The Just is set in 1293-1294 in Caernarvon, a walled town in north Wales, about ten years after the fall of native government and the imposition of English rule.

At this time, the English Crown is doing everything it can to keep Wales in line. One step it takes is building the massive, impressive castles that still stand today – the infamous “Ring of Steel” that curves around north Wales like a crescent.

But another thing the Crown is doing is enticing English settlers to move into the walled towns attached to the Ring of Steel castles, and in return for living in what is essentially a demilitarized zone, they receive tons of privileges and tax breaks – at the expense of the Welsh, who are relocated and saddled with the tax burden.

One of my protagonists is an English girl who comes with her father to settle, the other is a Welsh girl whose family lost everything when the Welsh princes were defeated. I wanted to explore the lived experiences of that first generation following the fall of native government – settler English and native Welsh alike – during a dynamic period in Welsh history.

For the English settlers, Caernarvon is a pretty good deal. Show up, pay your rent, defend the province for the king, and in return, you don’t have to fight in the king’s army at home or abroad and you don’t pay taxes. For the middle ages, that’s almost unheard-of.

medieval toilet
For the Welsh, it’s very unpleasant. Until recently, you’ve been governed by your own native princes; for good or ill, at least they were yours. Now you’re nominally governed by the king of England, but he really doesn’t care much about Wales. He cares what the king of France is up to, so he assigns a bunch of governors to run Wales on his behalf.

So yeah, you can probably guess what happened very quickly. This particular moment, 1293-1294, caught my attention, as conditions in the region steadily grew from bad to worse.

So that’s my backdrop. Ethnic strife, rampant corruption, famine and a region in transition. Now I had to bring in some characters that were at once true to that world, yet relate-able to a modern audience.

This was not easy. Medieval people did and believed some weird stuff. A writer of medieval historical fiction has to normalize beliefs that that women are property, animal cruelty is funny, and you can determine how sick people are by tasting their pee.

It’s one thing to understand a belief that it’s okay to beat your servants. It’s another to accept that it happened. But it’s quite another to write it in such a way that other people – and young people in particular – understand and accept it in the context you present.

In other words, readers have to understand that a behavior is not okay where they are, but in this world it’s perfectly normal, and that’s okay.

It’s not fair to judge the past based on our modern standards, but it’s perilously easy to do.

On the other hand, something I try to present in my fiction is how much in common we have with people in the past. That’s not to say that we are like them; as I mentioned, they believed and did some weird things. But then again, so do we.

Medieval people believed God put people on a certain rung of the social ladder and it was going against God’s will to try to change that. We think nothing of getting in a silver tube fifty feet long and letting it take us 30,000 feet in the air, held up by nothing but other air.

Sure, the past is filled with people who believed in the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden and foot-binding and sati, but it was also lived by people who loved their children and made sacrifices for their families and cared for sick pets and made solid lifetime friendships.

We share a lot with historical people, and that means the past can be made relate-able.

You just have to approach it in a certain way. This is where the real work of historical fiction takes place.

It’s dishonest to change the past to suit what we think it should have been like, but since they are like us in so many ways, we can access historical people through their humanity. It’s a window into their world. It lets us begin to understand how they could believe and do the weird stuff they did. And it’s very often a wild, interesting and worthwhile ride.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Oh, I love this quote: "Historical fiction, when done well, makes the past feel lived." Yes! That. This sounds like a fascinating book!

aquafortis said...

As a Wales enthusiast, I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

I resonated with the author's statement "we can access historical people through their humanity"--so true, and not just for historical fiction, but also in fantasy and science fiction.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Fascinating it is, Vicky & aquafortis! And yes, she makes great points about the power of historical fiction. (Agreed on SF&F!).

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

I'm halfway through the book (so far, so great!) and have picked up a lot of the historical context, but hearing more about it and about the craft of writing historical fiction is fascinating. Also, now I really want a bagel.

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