Other Writers: Interview with Author Joan Szechtman

Every once in a while, you meet someone who thinks just like you. Joan Szechtman is that person for me. Both of us found out about an historical figure who died too young, and set out to write a book to give him a second chance. We both chose time travel as a way of rescuing our heroes, me by sending people back in time, Joan by bringing her protagonist forward to our time.

As you know, I was drawn to Thomas Andrews, builder of the Titanic. Joan’s hero is Richard III, King of England from 1483 to 1485. History has branded him a murderer, guilty of killing his young nephews to protect his throne.

Joan’s books, This Time and Loyalty Binds Me, reveal the controversy surrounding Richard, whose reputation may have fallen victim to history being written by the victors. It turns out there is deep and credible doubt to the stories about this king and his reign.

I’ve invited Joan to tell us about it, and to talk about her books.

MD: Thank you for joining us, Joan. How did you become interested in Richard III? Give us a brief summary of the controversy surrounding this king.

JS: I read a book—Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, to be exact. Before reading Sunne, I saw Richard III as the Shakespearean arch-villain that I loved to hate. But this book showed me a Richard that was so different from the Shakespearean version, that I had to learn more, and what I learned convinced me that Shakespeare lied.

Undoubtedly the most discussed controversy that has come down through the centuries is the assertion by traditionalists that Richard III murdered his nephews. Upon researching the primary sources, such as the Croyland Chronicles and Mancini’s The Usurpatation of Richard III (early 20th-century translation of the original Latin by C.A.J. Armstrong), I discovered that there is no mention of the boys having died, let alone that they were murdered. In fact, the boys were known to have been alive well after Richard’s coronation and were reported to have been seen playing in the Tower gardens after Richard had left London to go on progress (a “progress” was like a political campaign, where the monarch travels the country to meet the populace).

MD: What were your reasons for using time travel to address the controversy?

JS: Part of my decision to bring him into the 21st-century, was purely emotional. One of the things that really got to me on a gut level was that Richard was only 32 when he was killed in battle. It seemed so unfair that this forward thinking, capable man was cut down in his prime. I wanted to imagine what Richard would become if he were alive today.

There is very strong circumstantial evidence that one impostor who Henry VII called Perkin Warbeck, may well have been the younger prince, Richard, Duke of York. One thing to also keep in mind is that it was customary to display the body of anyone who could threaten one’s reign. Edward IV did this when Henry VI died of “melancholy” in the Tower where he was being held. Henry VI was no doubt murdered, but Edward IV did not hesitate to display the body of the man he usurped. I am sure that Richard would have displayed the princes bodies if he had ordered their murder. Interestingly, Henry VII never directly accused Richard of having disposed of the boys. Henry allowed rumor to do the work for him. But it remains a mystery to this day, and I thought, if I could only have a chat with Richard, I could learn what really happened.

MD: What other things did you learn about Richard III that impressed you?

JS: I was very impressed about his progressive thinking about how the laws should affect the common people, not just the peers. Throughout his life, Richard was known as a fair arbiter. In his capacity as a judge in civil and criminal cases, he often found in favor of the commoner over the nobility when the evidence supported the commoner’s case. His practice of blind justice was in contrast to the norm of the day. One of his first decrees as king was to reform bail and juror qualifications. He wrote, “The law shall cease to be an instrument of oppression and extortion.” Richard made himself accessible to the lower classes, where they could seek justice and protection through his councils. Even before he became king, there are examples of his judging in favor of someone of a lower class (and women) against men who had power and position.

MD: It sounds like Richard has a lot in common with Thomas Andrews!

You belong to a society devoted to Richard. Tell us about these societies. How many are there, and what do they do?

JS: I belong to the American Branch of the Richard III Society, which is “dedicated to the study of the life and a reassessment of the reputation of Richard III and the study of fifteenth-century English history and culture.” This is a global organization with the parent located in the UK and branches in the Australiasian region, Canada, and the US. Two others that I’m aware of are: The Society of Friends of King Richard III (located in York, UK) and The Richard III Foundation, Inc. All are interested in discovering the truth about Richard III, but I am only involved in the activities of the Richard III Society. I am the current editor of the Ricardian Register, American Branch quarterly.

Currently, an archeological team from the University of Leicester is conducting a dig in Leicester at the site of the Greyfriars friary, where he was buried after his body was on display to search for his remains, the site of which had been lost after the reformation. The dig was sponsored in part by the Richard III Society and individual members. On September 12, 2012, the University of Leicester released a report that circumstantial evidence points strongly to the remains being that of Richard III (press release at http://tinyurl.com/9plzya5).

MD: Please elaborate on something you said earlier. You mentioned that Shakespeare lied when he wrote his play, portraying Richard as an evil, misshapen villain. Was this a deliberate untruth from the Bard, or was he simply writing to the political climate of his time? Would he have been allowed to show Richard as a handsome, kind, and fair man, who was betrayed by his generals?

JS: Ah, nothing is simple, is it? The play is a clever mixture of truths, half-truths, lies, and lies of omission. When Shakespeare wrote the play in 1691, Elizabeth I was 58 and had no heir to the throne, which made England vulnerable to her enemies. Richard III was the most recent monarch in English memory that had been similarly vulnerable because his wife and only legitimate son had predeceased him. To this end, Shakespeare used Richard as model to show the dangers of an heirless throne. There is no extant record of what did happen to the princes after they were declared legally bastards [by parliament] and the man that usurped the crown from Richard III, Henry Tudor, was Elizabeth’s grandfather. It certainly would not have been politic to paint Richard favorably.

By the 16th-century, evil was often shown through physical deformity, so Shakespeare gave Richard a humpback, withered arm, and a misshapen foot. Shakespeare connected villainy to physical deformity brilliantly in Richard’s opening soliloquy:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;…

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain…

Extant records show Richard had none of those deformities. The most commonly mentioned trait was that he was short. The archeological dig did find human remains at the location that Richard was supposed to have been buried. One skeleton was that of a female, so that was immediately eliminated. The other was that of an adult male who had suffered severe and fatal battle injuries (back of skull cleaved, barbed arrow in the spine). The spine also shows evidence of scoliosis that would make one shoulder higher than the other (not humpback). Although there was contemporary or near contemporary mention of one or the other shoulder being higher, I did not use it in my fiction because it was too vague.

MD: You and I have exchanged emails to talk about our approaches to the physics of time travel. Neither of us wanted to just wave our hands and say, “presto!” But our books do not fall into the category of “hard” science fiction. Please talk a little about your approach, and how you wove the science into the story without devoting an entire chapter to the laws of thermodynamics and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

JS: Because I used Time Travel more as an enabler than as the main focus of the story, I minimized the details of the device I created to accomplish the time travel. However, I wanted to stay within the boundaries of the laws of physics, such as the conservation of matter and energy where possible. Recognizing that everything in the universe is expanding and accelerating through space, I tried to account for the physical location being billions of miles separated over 500 years ago from where we are today. Knowing that the light we see from stars is light that left that star tens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago, I took a leap of imagination and created a device that I called a Quantum Displacement Engine (QDE) that could physically access points in space that existed over 500 years ago. The difficulty my “team” encountered was being able to find who they were looking for at the moment they wanted access to that person. Then, to bring Richard into the present, they had to replace him with an equal mass in order to preserve the mass/energy balance, and to maintain history as we know it, to replace him with a convincing body that could sustain the injuries contemporary reports indicated the body had.

MD: Let’s talk about you, now. Tell us about the experience you’ve had with the publishing and marketing processes for your books.

JS: After trying to go the traditional publishing route and getting rejections, where some of the rejections stated even though they liked my story, it didn’t fit their list, I decided to self publish. I have gone through indie publishers for the print books, and self published the digital editions through Kindle Direct Publishing for Amazon and Smashwords for everyone else (Barnes and Noble, iTunes, libraries and library consortiums, etc.). Going the self/indie publishing route meant that I had to hire a freelance editor.

Marketing for me has been one of the harder nuts to crack. I’m still stumbling around. Some things I have done are: get my books reviewed by independent reviewers; submit my books to award venues, join Facebook (incredibly important for getting know to wider and more diverse communities), support my fellow authors as best as I can, participate in indie author venues, and Tweet—although I think I’m not so good at that. This marketing function can be a full time job and it’s not my strong suit by a long shot.

MD: Are you a panster or a plotter?

JS: I had to look up “panster” because I reckoned it wasn’t someone who gives virtual wedgies, which was my first thought. After finding a couple of definitions, I think a “panster” is someone who writes to the overarching theme of the book—takes the panoramic view so to speak. I think I’m neither and both at the same time. The reason I say this is because I focus on my main characters and let them dictate the twists and turns based on how they would behave and the resulting consequences. This is because I had developed an overall plan for This Time, the first book about Richard III in the 21st-century, but Richard refused to go where I had planned on taking him. I finally came up with a direction he mostly liked, but it meant that I had to discard about 30,000 words—basically a novella. I’m very glad I obeyed Richard. Not only is the book so much better than my original idea (which I don’t remember at this point), but Richard’s story doesn’t end with one book. Loyalty Binds Me, the sequel, which can be read by itself is also published, and the third is a work in progress. I think if I hadn’t listened to Richard, there would have only been one book and it would not have been as good.

MD: Can you write with distractions or do you like it completely quiet?

I like some background noise, usually Jazz. I don’t find music a real distraction and it helps to blot out other things that could more easily distract.

MD: What’s next? Plug your next novel!

JS: I’m currently working on the third book about Richard III in the 21st-century—working title is Strange Times. Where the first and second books take place almost entirely in the 21st-century, the third will be split between the 15th-century starting at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 (two years after the Battle of Bosworth), and the 21st-century and will feature Francis, Lord Lovel, who was thought to have been one of Richard’s closest friends. Certainly, he was one of Richard’s most loyal and closest confidants. He kept fighting for the Yorkist cause after Bosworth, which is why we find him at Stoke after Henry VII’s army defeats the Yorkists. He’s also the dog in Collingborne’s unflattering 1484 ditty quoted in 1516 R. Fabyan New Chronicles of England & France VIII. 219:

The Catte the Ratte And Louell our dogge Rulyth all Englande under a hogge. The whiche was ment that Catisby Ratclyffe And the Lord Louell Ruled the lande under the kynge.

Here is the start of Strange Times (this is a draft and subject to change):

16 June 1487
Battle of Stoke
River Trent, near Newark

Dead. They’re all dead.

Paralyzing despair clenched Francis Lovel’s gut. He had witnessed Tudor’s army slaughter his comrades, the men who would have brought Richard’s nephew, Edward, newly crowned Edward VI, King of Ireland. Now, he too lay slaughtered with the rest—their blood ran down a gully into the River Trent. It was just an hour ago that the battle started. They thought they could retake the crown, but that Welsh milksop’s army out manned and overpowered them.

Thank you, Joan!

You can find Joan’s books at:
 This Time

 Loyalty Binds Me

 Joan’s website

 

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2 thoughts on “Other Writers: Interview with Author Joan Szechtman”

  1. Very interesting and informative interview. There’s so much one can learn, truths unearthed when we read and find that some things really aren’t – or never were – what they really seemed.

    1. Interesting that you should focus on “truth.” One novel that has caused may people to question Richard III’s reputation immortalized by William Shakespeare is “Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey. The book’s title is from “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”–Sir Francis Bacon. Truth matters.

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