BLOG TOUR: An interview with Anna Belfrage

A Newfound LandAs part of the blog tour for A Newfound Land (see my review HERE), I asked the author, Anna Belfrage, a few questions which she was kind enough to take time out of her very busy schedule to answer. Thank you, Ms Belfrage!

1. The Graham Saga has been set in 17th century Scotland and has since switched to  Northern America. What attracted you to these two locations and era?
First of all, may I express my thanks, dear Lady Kell, for this opportunity to be on your  blog. As I have a thing about babies, I am hoping I will be allowed to cuddle Button – at least virtually – while we conduct the interview.

In reply to your first question, my historical interests are diverse, but I have always found the Early Modern Age fascinating, this period that bridges the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Suddenly, old truths were questioned, men took to arms to defend their right to worship as they pleased, all of it culminating in Locke’s famous document, the Bill of Rights, in 1689.

As to Scotland, this is very much due to the rather ferocious Scottish Kirk and its political impact during the period, both during the English Civil War, but also after the Restoration of Charles II, when being a member of the Kirk became something of a liability. North America – well, the Americas in total – during colonial times exerts substantial pull on my imagination, awed as I am by all those people who took the drastic decision to leave everything they had and start anew, in a continent they knew nothing about and from where they would never return.

2. Alex is a feisty, modern woman who is very much of her own time, and yet she has managed to carve her own place in a time when women didn’t really have a voice of their own. Given similar circumstances, how well do you think you would fare, and what time and place would you most like to visit?
I think Alex shows a commendable ability to adapt – but then I believe most humans are good at adapting, it’s sort of a prerequisite to survival. Yes, she is feisty, but she has learnt some circumspection over the years. Besides, I’m not sure I believe women were less feisty back then – it took tough women to raise children in the 17th century, even more to help them prosper.

Personally, I would have major problems coping with the lack of hot water and clean clothes, and between the two of us, Alex has a constant fear of picking up lice or fleas from her less than clean contemporaries.

You know, I still keep on hoping that one day I will stumble upon some sort of time travelling device, complete with blinking gadgets. If I do, I’d be like a chocolate addict in a candy shop – spoiled for choice! But places/times I would definitely want to visit are Troy before the Greek attacked them, Rome when Nero set it on fire (but at a safe distance), Neolithic Europe when those bearded druids set about building Stonehenge, England when Henry II was at the peak of his powers, Spain when Ferdinand and Isabel united multiple realms into one, Scotland, June of 1314 when Robert Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn, England again, with Henry Bolingbroke usurping Richard II’s crown, when Elizabeth I almost lost her life to her sister, when Charles I was beheaded, when… Scotland at the tragedy of Flodden, Edinburgh during the upheaval of 1689. Oh dear; so many places and times, right? One thing, though; I would never as much as touch a dial unless I was guaranteed a return ticket – I am far too fond of the creature comforts of my present life. (I mean, who can survive without chocolate?)

3. How did you go about researching for The Graham Saga? How long did it take and did you enjoy that aspect of writing it?
Research is an ongoing pleasure. There I am, reading a book about unfaithful royals through the ages (and there were plenty of those) and suddenly I find a little footnote, referring to how a young woman set off unchaperoned to 17th century Batavia (present day Djakarta, Indonesia) and suddenly I’m reading everything I can about the Dutch East-India Company. So far, this specific reading spree has not found its way into my books, but who knows? The specific research for the Graham Saga has been going on for years – a decade at least – as I find yet another aspect of the 17th century I need to understand better.

Fortunately, I love this aspect of writing, but the challenge lies in being selective as to how much of your knowledge you should include in the finished text. In one of the earlier drafts of A Newfound Land, I have a detailed description of how Alex makes lye, all the way from setting the water to trickle through the collected ash, to the final product. A great description, showcasing just how much I’d researched this aspect of early life, but did it really bring all that much to the story as such? Nope.

4. The use of artwork as a portal to the past is so innovative. What first sparked the idea? And which came first – the story, or the means of traveling to the past?
When I was a child, we lived in South America. My father was a hardworking manager who left the house well before eight in the mornings and rarely made it back before we were asleep in the evenings. But in the weekends, the manager in strict suits was replaced by a man in a colour-splattered shirt, with an old hanky stuck into the pocket of his jeans, and a bright light in his eyes as he stood before his easel, palette in one hand, brush in the other.

I knew better than to disturb him when he was in a painting mode, but he didn’t mind me being in the room while he did his artist thing, and I remember just how immersed he became as he leaned towards his work-in-progress, brush held high to add yet another minute speck of green to whatever it was he was painting.

Obviously, my father didn’t disappear into thin air. (Phew!) Nor did he create paintings that whispered and beckoned, urging you to come closer and look. But for the few hours when he allowed himself to escape into his art, he was definitely somewhere else, far away from the humdrum reality of his day-to-day life. So when I decided to write about time travelling, having magic paintings play a pivotal role was a given. Besides, I find it rather tantalizing, the idea that maybe one could paint a window through time. In actual fact, isn’t that what great artists do, trap a moment of time and make it eternal, sort of?

No matter the above, the story came first. Alex popped into my head, dug her fingers into my brain and just wouldn’t let go until I committed her story to paper. She is one stubborn lady, she is!

5. Can you tell us a little about what other work you have in the pipeline?
How long have you got, Lady Kell? One of the dilemmas for a writer, is that there are always so many ideas bouncing about in your head. Some ideas have developed further, of course, and first and foremost I have some more instalments in The Graham Saga to get through. Other than that, there’s a trilogy about Jason and Helle. They met for the first time three thousand years ago, but things ended badly, with Helle dead and Jason drowning in remorse, which is why Jason since then has been tumbling through time, trying to find Helle and make amends. And then I have started on a novel set in 17th century Sweden, starring a young woman who falls in love with a collection of jewels that belong to someone else. The resulting hullabaloo has her fleeing for her life, ably aided by disgruntled royalist Jon Darrow.

 I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m very excited to hear about those forthcoming works!

My thanks, again, to Ms Belfrage and her PR team for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

Drama and music

I’ve been so busy I’ve hardly had time to write a little update on my first week of helping out with the Primary 1 classes. I’ve already posted about Monday’s activities and getting settled back into school after the October holidays, but I was also there with them on Wednesday and this morning too.

On Wednesday morning, we had my favourite class – drama! I always loved this subject at school, so much that I went on to study it at college and then became a founder member of a theatre company that toured schools with productions (it was great fun!), and it was lovely to see what the first year primary school classes were doing. We all climbed onto our magic carpets and zoomed away on an adventure. First we went to London to visit the Queen. We curtseyed and bowed to Her Majesty before saluting her soldiers and marching on parade. Next we zoomed off to the zoo and became all the different animals we saw – giraffes, tigers, elephants and monkeys! Back on our carpets, we flew off to a land were dinosaurs roamed. They were a bit frightening, so we very quickly flew home again to avoid being eaten, and handed our magic carpets back to the teacher.

Next I worked with two little girls from Poland who are just starting to learn English. It was hard work, but once we got started, it was lovely to feel like I was really helping these kids, and the look on their little faces when they mastered something and finally understood what it was they were saying was just awesome! I only speak a few words of Polish, which I’ve picked up from colleagues, so it was a big learning experience for us all. I hope to pick up a bit more of the language as I work with these girls.

I was a playground monitor that morning, so I got to see all the kids playing and having fun. I got a lot of invitations to play and collect pretty autumn leaves, which was lovely. As I left the classroom at the end of my session, several of the kids ran up to give me a hug, which was just adorable.

This morning we had another of my favourite classes – music. I joined in with the boys and girls as we warmed up by singing If You’re Happy and You Know It and Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. There was a lot of giggling as some of us forgot where we were in the song and said words that were supposed to be silent! Then we sang a song the children had learned before the holidays, one about a combine harvester – it was a lot of fun doing all the actions. Finally, we all learned a new song about a skeleton’s party, full of cats in top hats, ghouls playing the fool, and ghosts eating toast.

Back in the classroom we had a visit from the headmaster who was very impressed with the work the Primary one classes have done in their jotters (bear in mind, these are children who he only been in school for eight or nine weeks – they’ve come so far already!). Then we had a story about a magic key and everyone was asked to think about a made-up story to write after break time.

Today was Fruity Friday, so everyone who had a healthy snack was awarded house points, and they all trooped outside to play.

When they came back in, we were all ready to draw our pictures and write our own stories about a magic key. I joined in and drew a picture of Tadpole and me high in the sky as we flew off to a magic castle for an adventure.

Then it was time for me to go and pick up Tadpole from nursery school and on the way home we had a lovely time telling each other all about what we’d been doing this morning.

I’m very much looking forward to next week.