Interview de Karen Maitland : Company of Liars (VO)

Karen MaitlandCould you please tell us about your childhood and how do you start writing suspense novels ?
I was a strange, solitary child who loved going to bed so that I could tell myself stories I’d invented. And they were always dark tales. When I was a little older I used to smuggle a radio into bed and listen to plays with delicious titles such as Murder on Black Tor. My parents would have been horrified if they had known.

I hated children’s books in which you knew the impossibly brave hero was always going to be saved. I knew that in real life people weren’t always rescued in time. Then I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in which the antihero is captured and executed. For the first time I discovered that books could be about flawed people, who weren’t brave and beautiful, they were human like me. That was the book that made me want to write.

Company of Liars was the first historical thriller I wrote. It came about because I had been commissioned to go on a tour with a theatre company playing in remote country village halls and churches. I was asked to write a book about the theatre tour. We travelled in the middle of winter on unlit country roads in the dark, arriving cold and hungry in strange villages. I began to wonder what it must have been like if you earned your living on the road in medieval times, walking from village to village, never knowing what dangers lay around the next corner. That became the starting point of Company of Liars.

Could you tell us about your country, the Norfolk that we find in Company of liars ?
Norfolk was very important in the Middle Ages and had some of the largest ports in England. But many villages were deserted after the plague and the major ports silted up. Even today you will find many churches, dating all the way back to the 9th century, standing alone in a field where the village has long since vanished. I used one of these churches with its strange carving of an old woman as the inspiration for one of my medieval thrillers The Owl Killers.

During the Middle Ages there was a lot of marshland or fenland in Norfolk, bordered by the sea and hills. This is where the climax of Company of Liars takes place. The Fenlanders lived on islands in the marshes, surrounded by bogs and waterways. Some of these islands were large enough for a whole village, others just big enough for one cottage or a few sheep.

The fenland was a wild and dangerous place. It was often shrouded in mists. Take one wrong step and you would be sucked into a bog. Many people suffered from marsh fever, which we now know was malaria, from the thousands of mosquitoes which bred in the waters. At night strange lights would appear over the marshes, caused by marsh gas, but local people thought they were the spirits of the dead trying to lead them into the bog. Strangers often followed them, thinking they were the lights of lanterns, and were drowned.

How did you make research about the Middle Ages, specially the 1348 period ?
Church and manor records from the period tell you a lot about the climate, because they recorded the harvests of various crops. From these we learn that in 1348 it rained every day from Midsummer’s Day until Christmas. Church records show deaths from the plague, and one priest even wrote about the deaths on the wall of his church. The tax records after 1348 show which villages could no longer pay tax because so many of the people in the village had died. The plague was so frightening that many eye-witness accounts were written by monks, physicians and others, recording the horrors.

Details of everyday life in the Middle Ages are often found in the illuminated Bibles and Psalters and carved scenes in churches. One of the baptismal fonts in Norfolk has carvings showing what a farmer would be doing in each month of the year – slaughtering a pig, or harvesting the crops.

I visit the places and medieval buildings as part of my research. Some important scenes in Company of Liars take place in a chantry chapel on a bridge. So I spent time in the chantry chapel in Wakefield to see what my characters might have seen. I even lay on the floor listening to the river rushing underneath, to try to imagine what it must have been like to sleep in there. I also spent a day with a travelling glassblower to learn about how they made glass, as there is a dramatic and violent scene in Company of Liars when the characters are spending the night with a glassblower in the forest.

In your novel, the plague, the Devil, the werewolves and the Faith grinds on quite pages, was it important to show this atmosphere ?
To understand the characters in medieval times, you have to realize that people were surrounded by images of angels and demons, mythical beasts and saints. The supernatural was part of their everyday lives. A farmer would go to Mass on Sunday, but the next day when he was ploughing his field he would lay bread and salt in the corners to placate the spirits. A king would draw up battle plans, but he would change them if he saw a sign of ill-omen. Even the Church declared it heresy not to believe in creatures like werewolves, because certain priests were trained to destroy them.

People were terrified of dying in sin without the last rites because they believed they would suffer eternal torment in hell. So it was important for me in the novel to show this, so that readers could imagine how terrifying the plague was back then, when death could strike without warning. People had no idea what caused the plague or how to avoid it. They came up with many theories – it was God who’d sent it to punish them, it was spread by poison in the wells, or by vampires. But the worst part for them was that not only might you die a horribly painful death, but also if there was no priest to absolve you, or give you a Christian burial in consecrated ground, then your soul might be in torment forever. It was a terrifying prospect.

Can you tell us about the main character ?
My main character is an old camelot who has lost one eye and is badly scarred.
Camelots were travelling peddlers who sold anything they could, often goods that were fake or stolen. But they also carried gossip and news from one village to another. Telling people the latest hot gossip from a neighbouring town meant they could quickly attract a crowd and sell their goods. My camelot in Company of Liars sells fake holy relics, charms and amulets. The camelot believes that the relics offer people hope, and as the camelot says, “Hope may be an illusion, but it’s what keeps you from jumping in the river or swallowing hemlock. Hope is a beautiful lie and it requires talent to create it for others.”

I originally created the character to narrate the Prologue and Epilogue of another medieval thriller The Owl Killers, which in fact I began writing before Company of Liars. But when I started to imagine how this person had come to be so badly scarred, I realized this character was demanding their own story. In fact, it was as if the camelot was standing at my shoulder, nagging and demanding a novel of his own. So I had to stop to write Company of Liars, just to make the camelot give me some peace.

Company of LiarsAt the end of Company of liars, we can imagine a continuation of the book… What are your plans ?
There are no plans for a sequel, at this time anyway, though if you read The Owl Killers carefully you will notice right at the end that one of the characters from Company of Liars makes a very brief appearance. I hope the readers of Company of Liars will go on wondering about the characters after they’ve stopped reading.

I once went to book talk by the author Margaret Atwood and someone in the audience asked her if the character in The Handmaid’s Tale does manage to escape to freedom, or if she’s caught and hanged. Margaret replied, “When I am having a good day, I like to think she escaped. When I’m having a bad day, I know that she doesn’t.” I think Margaret’s answer is excellent and probably very true for most writers.

Your characters are memorable and liars, it’s very difficult to find the murderer. How did you make for such a strength of description of the characters ?
Thank you ! The characters gradually come alive for me as I write the first draft of the novel. It’s like getting to know friends. When you first meet someone, you know little about them, but over time you begin to learn about their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I don’t use all of what I know about a character in the novel, but if I imagine for myself what kind of childhood they had and what has happened to them before the start of the story, then I know how they will think, what will make them angry or afraid and what they most desire in life. Authors are cruel – we find out what our characters most want then we find ways of preventing them having it.

I know when my characters have come alive when they start to appear in my dreams. In my dream, I am sitting in a café and I look up and one of my characters is sitting at another table, watching me. Good if it’s one of the kind characters, but not if it’s one of the nastier ones like Zophiel, then my dream turns into a nightmare.

With Cygnus and his Swan’s wing, we feel like going to Fantasy… how did the idea of the wing come ?
As a child I was fascinated by the old folk tale about the six enchanted swans and the youngest swan who after the enchantment is lifted is left with the single wing of a swan. It is an ancient story collected and retold by the brothers Grimm. I spent many hours as a child wondering what happened to the boy with the swan’s wing.

But there are two reasons I use this image in Company of Liars :
1) There were many pre-Christian legends throughout Europe about spirits of the air and water who flew around in the form of swans, but had the power to take the form of a human if they saw a beautiful man or woman they wanted to make love to. Then when they became bored of their lover they changed back into swans and flew away. The Christian Church hated these stories because they suggested that a bird could be a higher form of life than man, and the Church taught that man was higher than animals. They couldn’t suppress the legends, so they changed them. In the Christian version, the swans are not spirits, but are humans who have been turned into swans by an evil witch or sorcerer and are desperate to become human again. The enchantment can only be broken through the Christian virtues of love and faithfulness. Cygnus represents the pagan aspect of medieval life in the story – everyone thinks he should want to be fully human as in the Christian version of the tale, but in fact he wants to be fully a swan.

2) Cygnus as a character is also a metaphor for the way we view disability. Some of the characters in the novel see Cygnus as a cripple, others, such as Adela, see him as having a beautiful gift. Many people who have been deaf from birth refuse operations that might “cure” them, because they don’t regard being deaf as a disability. They have their own very expressive language. Similarly, many hugely talented and creative people have bipolar disorder (manic depression), including the author and actor Stephen Fry. He was once asked, if the scientists could invent a pill that would “cure” bipolar disorder for ever, would he take it? He said no, because it would destroy his creative talent, which is part of his being bipolar. So the question is, when we look at someone who is different from the majority, do we see them as a person with a gift or do we see someone who needs to be made “normal” and “cured”? Have society’s attitudes towards disability really changed since medieval times ?

The owl killersThe Concierge is curious ! What are your habits when you write ? (in the evening ? in the morning ? sitting at your desk ?)
When I wrote my first novel, I had a full-time job, so I had to write in the evenings and weekends, but now, like many published British authors, I am lucky enough to be able to earn a living writing full time. But I learned when I came to the Le Havre festival that not many French authors are able to do this, which is very sad.
I try to write from about 9.30 a.m. to about 4 p.m., then do administration and answer emails until 6 p.m. Then I spend my evenings and weekends doing research for the novels. I do have a tiny office in my house, but it is so crammed with piles of books, files and papers that there is no longer space for me to work so I have to write on the dining room table.

You came to Le Havre for the festival Polar à la plage in 2011, what did you think of French readers and the welcome of people from Le Havre ?
It was a really stormy weekend and poured with rain, but that didn’t deter the readers from coming to the marquee on the beach. I couldn’t believe how many people came and how interested and friendly they all were. French readers seem very serious about reading and are keen to talk about books, which is so wonderful for an author. I loved the idea of authors giving their talks on a town bus.

I had some lovely and very talented people translating for me and I was amazed by the very generous hospitality all the authors received, being taken to restaurants for meals and wine. It started with a drinks reception for the authors in a bookshop called le bouqui’n’oir, which is joy to look round because it is so beautiful decorated in the polar and noir theme. My hosts took me to the wonderful Impressionist art gallery in Le Havre before I left. It was so inspiring. I could have sat there for a week to write.

I wish all my festivals could be like the Le Havre one. I once travelled for several hours by train to give a talk in England, and wasn’t even offered a cup of coffee when I arrived. When I asked for a glass of water to be put on the table for my talk, the organisers looked annoyed and said – “didn’t you bring your own water?”

Could you tell us about a new English author of polar that surprised you ?
A new writer on the scene is Ruth Dugdall who won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for her novel The Woman Before Me and has just brought out The Sacrificial Man. Ruth worked in a prison before she became a writer, and The Woman Before Me is a tense psychological thriller about a probation officer who has to decide if a prisoner is cured and should be released or if she is still a dangerous killer. She finds herself being sucked into friendship with the prisoner, but can she trust her ?

Are you a specialist or a passionate of Middle Ages ?
I have a great passion for everything medieval. Every town or village I travel to in Britain or Europe, I try to visit the medieval buildings in it. I grow medieval herbs in the garden so when one of my characters uses them, I can go out and smell them. I even cook some of the meals I mention to see what the medieval recipes tasted like. One of my characters in the thriller I’ve just finished, Falcons of Fire and Ice, uses a lucet – a medieval tool for making cords. So I asked a friend to make me a lucet out of deer horn so that I could teach myself to make cords, as they did in the Middle Ages.

I think the Middle Ages are so fascinating because of the amazing medical knowledge they had which was later lost. I admire their skill at building great cathedrals and making the most beautiful objects, but I am also captivated by the way they blended science, religion, myth and magic in their writing and research and didn’t divide these things into different subjects, as we do today.

What are your other passions ?
Travel, especially in Europe and places like Iceland and Greenland. And I love collecting old and interesting things, not necessarily valuable, but just pieces of social history, old advertisements or toys. So a good day out for me is to wander round antique shops or second-hand shops. I have three dolls houses – a medieval hall, a Georgian townhouse and a Victorian country cottage with a garden, so I also like to collect miniature objects which I can display in them. I’m passionate about birds of prey, and I spent a lot of time with falcons over the last year, because in the thriller I’ve just finished writing, Falcons of Fire and Ice, which will be published in 2012, one of the main characters is the daughter of a royal falconer.

Do your family read your novels ? What do they think ?
I never let my family read my novels. I think they would be too shocked at the dark and murderous thoughts I have in my head.

Is there any international subject which makes you angry ?
I worked in Africa for nearly two years and saw for myself the way some multinational companies persuade ordinary farmers to stop using animal dung to fertilize their fields, which is free and binds the soil so it doesn’t dry out and blow away. Instead they persuade them to buy expensive chemical fertilizers they don’t need and are often dangerous because local people don’t have the equipment to apply them properly. They tell farmers to abandon traditional manual labour and bribe them to buy farm machinery that quickly breaks down and can’t be repaired. They also sell them genetically modified seeds. The farmers discover they can’t save seed from the next harvest to replant as it is infertile, which means they have to keep buying new seed from the seed companies every year. And these companies and indeed some of their own governments also bribe farmers to plant cash crops for the western market instead of food crops for themselves. The result is that good land is being turned into deserts and the poor are driven further and further into debt they have no hope of paying off.

What are your favourite music and favourite song ?
Favourite music at the moment is the film soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Favourite song is ‘Der Hölle Rache’ – the Queen of the Night’s Aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. When I die I’d like my coffin to be carried into the funeral service to that song. It would be so dramatic and eerie. Maybe I could even have a gravestone that rose up out of the ground and played that song whenever someone accidentally stepped on my grave.

What is your favourite movie ?
Peter’s Friends a very English comedy starring Steven Fry and at the other extreme the very dark, chilling and brilliant film Pan’s Labyrinth.

Do you have an anecdote about your novel to share with us ?
I was on a train travelling from Wales to London. I’d been to Wales to watch the Red Kites, birds of prey, at a feeding station there, because I mention the birds in Company of Liars. A man sitting opposite me on the train was rather strangely dressed in long robes and he told me he was a druid poet who had been performing at a festival in Wales. He also told me he was a master rune-reader. I was very excited because I was researching how runes were read for Company of Liars. He took out his bag of runes and began to explain the different ways of casting and interpreting them.

The Gallows Curse - Karen MaitlandJust then the train slowed and then stopped. The guard rushed out to see what the problem was, but after a few minutes the train started up again. The driver announced that he didn’t know what had caused the train to stop, but since it was now working again, we would keep going. We travelled another few miles, then the same thing happened. Again the train restarted by itself. All this time the rune-master and I were moving the runes around on the table. When the train stopped for the third time, the guard came up to us and said, “Excuse me, but would you put those runes away, some of the other passengers think they are causing the train to stop.”
We didn’t want to be lynched by the other passengers and thrown off the train, so the man put the runes away. It may just be a coincidence but the train didn’t stop again until we reached London! So my warning is, don’t try to read the runes on a moving vehicle and never read them on a plane ! :-)

When will you come back to France ?
Just as soon as I am invited. I love it and I can’t wait to come back. I’d like to explore more of Le Havre next time.
As well as writing my own novels, I also write a novella every year for a joint novel written by five British medieval crime writers, known as the Medieval Murderers. Last time I was in Paris I visited the wonderful Musée National du Moyen Age in the Cluney abbot’s house. One of the exhibits on display was the Limoges reliquary of St Thomas Becket, depicting his murder. Seeing the Limoges work gave me the idea for inventing an object which would be owned by Charles VI of France. This object became the heart of my crime novella in the joint Medieval Murderers’ novel Hill of Bones. So I hope to return to the museum again soon, because I know I will find other pieces to inspire me for my next novel.

The last word ?
I would like to thank the Concierge Masqué so much for interviewing me and thank you to all of you for reading this. It’s been fantastic sharing this with you. Warmest wishes.