More About the Author
INTERVIEW WITH KAREN CHARBONNEAU for A DEVIL SINGING SMALL & THE WOLF'S SUN
A DEVIL SINGING SMALL
Q. You were reared on a ranch in north Idaho, but spent most of your life away. Why did you come back?
A. Like Torie in my novel, I wanted to experience life elsewhere.
My husband Jay and I moved back to the ranch three years ago, after spending nearly 20 years in Laramie, Wyoming. Before that we lived in the Washington, D.C. area. For seven years I served as a captain in the Army JAG Corps. I also lived in Puebla, Mexico for three years many years ago. They say you can't go home again, but you can, only it won't be the same. We refurbished my childhood home, but I still run into my younger self going around corners. The experience of now living where I grew up is filled with haunted memories.
Q. So, is the setting in the novel the ranch you grew up on?
A. Yes, for the most part. I was living in Wyoming when I wrote A Devil Singing Small and I had a lot of nostalgia for the place. On my Facebook page, I've placed some photos of the ranch and views from it of the valley and mountains - just in case the readers are having trouble imagining it for themselves. It's really a lovely area and the photos don't do it justice. http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001653607637
Q. This is a novel, but is it based on actual events?
A. It's a work of fiction. Every writer is influenced by his or her life experiences. My father's schizophrenia was a part of my growing up. I wanted to make the illness that Mitch and Betty and their two children have to live with as authentic as I could, so I based it on my father's illness, with barely a deviation. Every person suffering from schizophrenia is different - I portrayed how it actually affected my father - and my mother.
Q. Is that a photo of your parents on the cover, and are those medals your dad's?
Q. You wrote the entire novel first person from Betty's perspective, rather than using the all-knowing third person. Why was that?
A. It's a family story and family stories are more often than not told by the womenfolk. And in trying to understand why a mentally ill person did certain things, I didn't have the temerity to attempt to view the world from the mind of my character, Mitch. I could only observe him as his wife and children did. No matter how much compassion I felt toward my father, I could never understand his inner life - I could only observe its manifestations.
Q. Why did you title it A Devil Singing Small?
A. Years ago I read the poem, "Thirty Bob a Week," by the Scottish poet John Davidson -- a sort of poor working man's song. I never forgot the lines, "I step into my heart and there I meet, A god-almighty devil singing small . . ." It seemed to fit the story I wanted to tell about mental illness and family relations, and how our lives can seem redirected by some devilish entity down a road we would not have chosen.
Q. Would you describe it as a generational novel?
A. Yes, I think I would. Each generation is linked to the one before and the one after, issues of inherited qualities and transmission of culture and how the world is viewed. The sadness of Mitch's being reared in an orphanage broke that influence in most aspects, but not in all. One of Betty's concerns is keeping the family unit together, so there will be a continuum.
Q. What about the son, Michael? He was born the same year you were.
A. And the same month. The character Michael was a result of my wondering how my life would have been different if I'd been born a boy. I would have gone to Vietnam as Michael did. I did eventually go into the army, but it was by my own choice, and not as a result of forces beyond my control.
Q. How did you decide on the ending?
A. I think that the ending was a natural progression of the story. It seemed to choose itself. And I hope that anyone writing a review won't give it away. I recall when I was reading Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent. I was sitting in my office with my door open, and two attorneys I worked with, who had just asked me if I'd finished it, began discussing it just outside my door and gave away the ending. It really ruined the intrigue of the rest of the novel for me. I don't think people should ever divulge any book's ending.
Q. How long did it take you to write A Devil Singing Small?
A. I began writing it in the mid-90s. I worked on it for a couple of years. I sent it to a few agents, and they sent it back with suggestions. I sent it to a publishing house of women's fiction and it was sent back with the comment, "Betty should have left Mitch if she thought he was a danger to their children." That sort of threw me. The circumstance of the story was the times and environment Betty lived in - women didn't so easily leave Catholic marriages in the 1950s. She didn't have the self-confidence, educational background or family support to make such a drastic change. And it is a novel about fortitude. So, I put it away until recently. After all of these years I was able to view it with fresh eyes and revise it so that I hope it's acceptable to an audience that might ask the same question - why didn't she just leave him? After all, hardly any spouse remains married to a schizophrenic.
Q: Do you have any siblings?
A: I'm an only child
Q. Your author photo was taken with one of your cats. Amazon requested that no pets be shown in the author photo.
A. Oh, that. My eBay business and my publishing house are both called Ship's Cat Books. A cat is integral to my image of myself as an author. I always had a cat as a muse, lying next to me while I wrote. It seemed natural to share the spotlight with one of them.
THE WOLF'S SUN
Q: Why did you decide to write a historical novel about Brittany and France during the reign of Louis XIV?
A: I began my research about 25 years ago and don't really recall what first sparked my interest in the Breton Peasant Rebellion of 1675. But, when I realized that the Breton peasants had used social and economic demands - as well as organized violence -- in an attempt to alleviate the tax burden imposed on them by the monarchy and aristocracy more than a hundred years before the French Revolution, I was fascinated. What drove these people to such desperation? What was life like for a Breton peasant? Why was western Brittany referred to by the French as "savage" Brittany?
Q: So, why did the French call it "savage" Brittany?
A: The Bretons are Kelts -- the same as the Welsh, Scots and Irish -- with similar pagan beliefs, such as the Cult of the Dead, and wondrous folklore. They moved from Cornwall to Brittany after the Roman retreat from Britain. The Jesuits did intense missionary work among them in the 17th century, though they proved hard to fully Christianize. The Society of Jesus also took an active role in attempting to calm the ferment of the 1675 rebellion.
Q: You started this book before the Internet became available as a research tool. How did you find out so much about Breton culture and the Breton language?
A: I was fortunate to have the use of some very good university libraries. As for the Breton language, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy was kind enough to lend me her copy of a Breton-English dictionary.
Q: Why did you spend nearly a third of your novel dealing with the build-up to and the aftermath of the rebellion, following your main character's life from about age 14 to 16?
A: This really is Anna's story, within the context of her fellow Bretons as well as her tumultuous later life in France. Who she is, and where she comes from, not only direct her life but also the lives of the people who love and despise her. Two characters from her Breton childhood, the Jesuit du Trevou, and Per ar Drez -- the brother of her first love -- reappear in Paris, one stalking her, the other intent on protecting her. Anna's future is inseparable from her Breton past.
Q: Was the character of the demoiselle de Fontanges a real person?
A: She was a very real, beautiful and tragic figure -- probably the last mistress of Louis XIV as he transitioned from the libertine Mme de Montespan to the religious Mme de Maintenon. Very little is known about her teen years while she was being prepared for court life, and that allowed me to use my imagination; but, we know she was the talk of Paris after she caught the King's eye.
Q: Would you call this a historical romance?
A: Although there are sexual encounters between various characters, it is not a fantasy sex novel, such as Outlander, which I enjoyed reading. But it is a romance novel in the larger sense, in that characters take realistic risks for emotional and physical love. They're caught up in a maelstrom they attempt to influence and direct, but events at times limit or remove their freedom of choice.
Q: One of your male protagonists, Luc de St. Connec, is a physician and you give a lot of insight into the practice of 17th century medicine. It raised my eyebrows occasionally.
A: Medicine in the 17th century was fraught with superstition, ignorance, outdated tradition -- and dead patients. Luc might have been born a couple of centuries too early. He believes that medicine is a work in progress and he has an intense curiosity about the relationship of disease to its symptoms. When Anna uses her hands to heal his lacerated face, the whole basis of his rational thought is shaken to its core. He wants to understand how she does it, because he believes everything has a rational explanation -- but he also desires to use her for his own ambitions. Their relationship, often in conflict, drives much of the story. He is a complicated man -- charming, ambitious, courageous, and flawed.
Q. Your other protagonist is the English diplomat and spy, John Keyes.
A: Charles II was always worried that his cousin Louis would turn on him, and so he deployed a legion of spies to France. In fact, it could be said that all Englishmen in France were spies during that time. While I'm fond of all of my characters, I especially like John Keyes. He's true to his convictions, he stands by his friends, and he loves Anna/Anne -- but his first loyalty is to his king. Later, guilt-ridden that his devotion to his mission in France created an act of omission that endangered Anne, he puts his spycraft to personal use on her behalf.
Q: Was the Affair of Poisons as frightening an episode in French history as you describe it?
A: Yes. And we wouldn't know much about it -- except for rumor -- if La Reynie, the head of the Paris police, hadn't kept secret notes about his investigations and interrogations, as well as admissions made during the torture of suspects accused of poisonings, black masses, and witchcraft. His notes were discovered many years later. Louis XIV, in attempting to be a modern king, had banned witchcraft trials in 1672, declaring that witches did not exist. But suspects under interrogation and torture in the Affair of Poisons began pointing their fingers at the King's mistress, accusing her of witchcraft, and that's when the cover-up began. I did research in original French sources, and was astonished at what I found.
Q: What is the key to good historical fiction?
A: The key to good historical fiction is good history. Writers can add characters impacted by actual events and create small events that impact their individual situations, but writers should not change history to suit their plots. I don't use the historical background of this novel gratuitously; it informs the characters and drives the plot.
Q: The Court of Miracles featured prominently in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Did you rely on it for a description of this criminal slum?
A: No, I did my own historical research.
Q: Are the letters of historical persons you quote from authentic?
A: All of the letters from French historical figures are real, as are Henry Savile's letters back to England. I feel they add to the flavor of the times.
Q: The crown's persecution of the French Protestants provides another important historical background for this story. How accurately do you portray it?
A: Very accurately. The persecution of the Huguenots was a watershed event not only for France, but also for Holland, England, other Protestant European states and the English colonies. The French Huguenots populated what is now the American South. Why did it happen? The Huguenot characters and the English Protestants in my story can't understand why Louis XIV would persecute a people who had always been loyal to him -- even when his Catholic nobles had turned on the crown when he was a boy. It's difficult even today to understand why he eventually suppressed and drove out of France a good slice of the middle class. Most likely, it was because Louis was educated by the Jesuits and they were his advisors throughout his kingship. The Jesuits apparently felt threatened by Protestantism, a religion that allowed the practitioner to think for himself about his salvation and, perhaps, about kingship.