An Interview with the author of Learwife, our November PREM1ER choice.

An Interview with the author of Learwife, our November PREM1ER choice.

Firstly, how are you? How have you found the past year or two?

Frankly quite challenging. I’m an introvert, but isolation to this degree hasn’t been hugely helpful to my mental health, and there are only so many times you can go on brisk walks in a 2km radius around your neighbourhood, peering in windows like some kind of voyeur. We’re also in an ongoing war with our local DPD delivery man, Paul, who once refused to deliver a package on the grounds that he believed our address was in the middle of a lake. (It isn’t. It’s on a street. I rather wish Paul were in the middle of a lake.) On the good side, I now own over 30 fancy green teas, and adopted two rescue cats who lick each others’ ears companionably and sleep on all my books.

What drew you to the King Lear text, and more importantly, his wife? Was there a specific moment in Shakespeare’s text that sparked the creation of Learwife?

I’ve always been a fan of retellings, re-imaginings, reframings and general upending-the-canon perspectives. I’d seen and read many interpretations of King Lear over the years, and conceive of it fundamentally as a warped family drama. The absolute absence of the wife from that drama, once I’d realised it, slightly startled me. I started to research Learwife thinking that I’d find a source somewhere — that she’d been written out somewhere along the way — but discovered that Shakespeare’s original source text, the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth, had also excised her handily, as completely irrelevant. Which is a generous way to treat the person responsible for birthing three main characters, if you ask me. There are only two references, one very oblique, in King Lear to a mother/wife character at all. While the fact of her absence was likely dramatic expediency (or the sense that if a queen had been present, none of this would have happened), I poked and prodded at it until the idea of a more deliberate absence — a complete erasure of her from the story by all concerned — began to form. Conspiracy can be more fun to write than accident.

Aside from King Lear, were there any other big inspirations or ideas that helped drive Learwife?

The lives of medieval queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine formed a kind of loose framework on which to hang the life of a Learwife. My conception of Learwife as a shrewd political figure, older than Lear, who taught him a great deal and was a key part in the truly terrible dynamic with their daughters, came into focus once I read histories of Eleanor, Margaret of Anjou, and other regal women and political players in the medieval period. Married multiple times, scheming behind the scenes, covered in furs with hordes of horses and dogs, positioning children for their own benefit: it was all delicious fodder for the story.

Did you have to do a lot of research before and during the writing of the novel?

The texture of the novel — the place, the movement of the seasons, how people reacted to the world around them — was very important to me, and I researched that intensely. I’m very lucky to be married to a medievalist (though they unhelpfully specialise in Italian poetry), so I had ready access to primary texts about the medieval period, including life in abbeys, the world of queens and courts, religious timetables, and basic details like what food was eaten when. While the exact location isn’t specified, the sensory elements had to feel true. The research did fail on occasion, though; I still don’t understand how many hands high a horse is meant to be.

What does your writing process look like? As a librettist, do you find the process of novel writing similar or different to any of your other more music focused works?

I wrote Learwife part-time over five years, whenever I could squeeze in time between my full-time journalism job and libretti commissions. It was evenings, days off, weekends, and waking up at 2am to put new scenes in a bedside notebook. I had no agent, no real motivation except for a powerful idea and sheer bloody-mindedness. My process is ‘whenever I get a moment or have an idea, make it count’.

Libretti are very different; for one, in large part you’re working for somebody else to complete a commission around given ideas or themes, often with set structures (an opera, for instance, or a hymn). They’re also highly collaborative. Depending on the commission and composer, you can create words that are then set to music, or you’re given music that needs words. And they also need to be easily sung; too many clashing consonants or difficult syllables and the soloist or choir will come to a halt. However, the concept of rhythm is very important to me across all my writing. The balance of the sentence, the paragraph, and the entire chapter of a novel have to work properly as a rhythmic whole to express meaning.

Your writing and the voice you have given to a previously invisible woman is so beautifully lyrical, extremely evocative, and poetic; do you have any plans for future novels or any other ‘invisible’ voices you would like to explore?

Thank you, that’s very kind! The next novel is now being drafted, thanks to a generous grant from the Arts Council in Ireland, where I live. (It’s very odd sitting down at a desk in the daytime to write a book, rather than scrounging time around other projects.) It’s about various hidden voices around the refugee crisis: not the refugees themselves, but the helpers, the couriers, the smugglers, the translators. And it also works, like Learwife does, on the idea of isolation and space, particularly for women.

Do you have any go-to books or music which help you find inspiration or help you unwind when in the middle of a project?

I am likely the only person on Spotify whose most-played list for 2019 and 2020 was Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack for the movie Macbeth. It has a lot of bloodthirsty bagpipes and astonishing medieval rhythms, great for contemplating Medieval People Acting Terribly; it was my writing and editing playlist for Learwife, alongside several other soundtracks. When I start to feel like my language isn’t behaving, I tend to go back to people who do what I’d like to be doing: Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, and the segments of Patrick White’s Voss devoted to his main female character were all touchpoints for Learwife whenever I felt lost. I also get the Poetry Foundation poem of the day to my inbox, which is always a jolt to the veins.

Thorny sprayed edges and all, what do you think about the Goldsboro Premier special edition of Learwife?

It’s exquisite. It reminds me, appropriately enough, of a medieval reliquary, something reverently decorated to carry a thing that’s very precious and rare.

Back to blog
  • Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro  (Important pre-order information)

    Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro (Important pre-or...

    We are very excited to share more information on our exclusive edition copies of The Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro. This breath taking sequel to Ordinary Monsters that delves even...

    Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro (Important pre-or...

    We are very excited to share more information on our exclusive edition copies of The Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro. This breath taking sequel to Ordinary Monsters that delves even...

  • Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller - Chiara

    Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller -...

    We're back with more bookseller recommendations! Today, London bookseller, Chiara, shares some of her favourite recent reads and some of her highly anticipated upcoming releases. Discover something new to add...

    Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller -...

    We're back with more bookseller recommendations! Today, London bookseller, Chiara, shares some of her favourite recent reads and some of her highly anticipated upcoming releases. Discover something new to add...

  • Glass Bell Award 2024: LONGLIST

    Glass Bell Award 2024: LONGLIST

    DEBUTS & BESTSELLERS ANNOUNCED FOR THE 2024 GOLDSBORO BOOKS GLASS BELL AWARD A winner of the British Book Awards Debut of the Year, a serial killer thriller, an epic and...

    Glass Bell Award 2024: LONGLIST

    DEBUTS & BESTSELLERS ANNOUNCED FOR THE 2024 GOLDSBORO BOOKS GLASS BELL AWARD A winner of the British Book Awards Debut of the Year, a serial killer thriller, an epic and...

  • Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller Harveen

    Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller H...

    Discovering the perfect sci-fi or fantasy book today can be a delightful challenge with so many sub-genres, authors, tropes, and special editions to pick from. But worry not, our series...

    Bookseller Recommendations: London Bookseller H...

    Discovering the perfect sci-fi or fantasy book today can be a delightful challenge with so many sub-genres, authors, tropes, and special editions to pick from. But worry not, our series...

1 of 4