Thursday, April 14, 2011
Nan Hawthorne is a historical novelist who lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and doted-upon cats. She has been in love with history and historical fiction since, at four, she discovered the Richard Greene “The Adventures of Robin Hood” television series. She wrote her first short story at seven, then launched into the letters and stories with a teen friend that ultimately became her first novel, AN INVOLUNTARY KING: A TALE OF ANGLE SAXON ENGLAND (2008). The author of one nonfiction work on women and body image, she now concentrates primarily on historical novels set in the Middle Ages. Her latest novel, BELOVED PILGRIM, looks at gender identity and self-realization during the chaotic and doomed Crusade of 1101. She writes several blogs on historical themes, owns the medieval-novels.com catalog and also Internet radio station, Radio Dé Danann.
Peggy: Why did you choose a lesbian protagonist?
Nan: I am afraid I cannot claim some sort of holy mission for my decision to make the protagonist of my new novel, Beloved Pilgrim, a woman who loves women. If it had been that simple, well, I doubt the book would be anything like it is.
I am in a relationship with a man, have been for almost thirty years, but when I tried to imagine a relationship like mine for Elisabeth, I just couldn’t do it. Perhaps it's a lack in me, or perhaps I am absolutely right, but I can't imagine a man she would meet in 1101 who would be interested in a woman as strong as or stronger than he is. I usually find that a short way into writing a novel the characters become concrete enough to me that they ultimately have the last word anyway. You can count on it Elisabeth let me know just who she planned to love.
Then there was the woman on a writing group who said if I wrote a novel about a woman knight in love with a Saracen woman, she would love me forever. The idea of someone loving me forever for something I chose for a novel was the final deciding point! Maliha may not be a Saracen, per se, but rather Byzantine/Turkish, but it appears I made my reader very happy.
Elisabeth is not the only gay person in the novel. She and her beloved, Maliha, are lesbians, but Elisabeth’s brother Elias and his own lover are gay and so is the Byzantine functionary, Andronikos. I suspect every book I ever write will have gay characters because I am drawn to wanting to create places in history for people who have been so horribly oppressed. There is poignancy in such thoroughly star-crossed love that speaks to me like no other theme in historical fiction.
I also reject those critics who say that there were no gay people in the Middle Ages or that the ones who did exist were shortly to climb to their death at a stake. My personal opinion is that more or less the same proportion of humans now who are so inclined has always been the case. How people managed to live is for novelists to imagine. The threat of discovery is part of Beloved Pilgrim’s story, just as it would be, no matter how rosy a particular situation might develop.
Finally, and utterly frankly, I wrote this novel because there is a dearth of lesbian historical fiction. An unfilled niche is an author’s opportunity to succeed.
Now my challenge is to affirm the lesbianism of my characters but not limit interest in the broader story thanks to readers’ biases. Gay people read novels about straight people, so why shouldn’t the opposite be the case? I hope in my book’s appeal, it will be obvious that there are universal themes that will appeal to anyone interested in history.
Excerpt from Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne
The scene: The first night on the ship from Italy to Constantinople.
Once the light had failed she leaned to Albrecht. "I have to piss," she said in a whisper. "What do I do?"
It was apparent that Albrecht had not thought about the problem any more than she had. "It's dark. Can you just go to the rails?"
She watched other men making their way through the standing crowd. "Where are they going?"
Albrecht stood on the tips of his toes to see what Elisabeth saw. "They are going to the beakhead."
"The beakhead? What is that? And how do you know what it's called?"
"Some squire told me to find a spot up near there, that I would be glad I did. Wait, I see him. He's the big burly fellow, the one climbing out on the beakhead." He watched a moment. "Oh."
"What?" she pressed.
"He's leaning way out to take a piss."
Elisabeth paled. "You have to climb out on that thing to piss?"
Albrecht shrugged. "Well, at least it's more private. I guess that is where you should go."
"And do what?" she demanded irritably. "Pull down my britches and sit with my arse to the sea? Everyone else is facing the other way."
Albrecht replied, "Not everyone. Can't you pretend you have to, you know . . . ?"
"I suppose. I might be able to get away with that in the dark." She started the process of pushing between men and made her way to the beakhead. To a man standing in her way she quipped, "Gotta take a shit. You mind?"
The man moved away from the spot at the fore of the cog. Elisabeth managed to relieve herself without anyone being the wiser.
Back in her old spot, she nodded to Albrecht. "It worked."
"I had an idea about daytime," he whispered as she pressed herself next to him.
"I can try to wait," she suggested.
Albrecht glanced about to see if anyone was regarding them. He shoved something hard against her thigh. "Put this in your britches," he rasped.
"What?" she asked, feeling for whatever it was he was poking her with. It felt like a piece of leather or some other hide. It was about the length and width of her hand. She obediently slipped it under her tunic and shirt and then into her britches.
"Roll it up," Albrecht instructed.
Her eyebrows darted up. "Oh, I get it! Then I just piss through it." She reached in to manipulate the improvised penis.
A man next to her looked her up and down, disgusted. "Can't you do that in private?" he complained as he turned his body so his back was to her.
"I wasn't . . . ," she began. She continued to grapple with the leather piece. She sighed deeply when she was done, then grinned at the man. "There, all done and no accident."
Best comment. in my never humble opinion, will receive a free electronic edition of Beloved Pilgram