The Write Stuff – Monday, February 26 – Interview With Hilary Benford

In addition writing to sci-fi, Hilary Benford writes historical fiction. Born and raised in England, educated at London and Cambridge Universities she taught French in England and English in France. She eventually moved to California to take up a teaching post in a private school, intending to stay for a year or two and look around at the States. She says her mother told her when left, “‘Whatever you do, don’t marry an American!’ No animus against Americans, but wanted me to come home. Of course, I married an American and am still in California.”

Her first publication was the 1980 winner of the Hugo Award, Timescape, co-written with her brother-in-law, Gregory Benford. “Part of the deal with Simon and Schuster, when I agreed to take my name off Timescape, was that they agreed to buy a historical novel I’d started.  I signed a contract for two books and worked with David Hartwell, the famous editor. He requested some changes in the time sequence, which I made (reluctantly).  I was paid the advance and then Dave was fired from Simon and Schuster and the project was shelved and the rights reverted to me. But I kept the advance!

“A few years back, I came upon the old manuscript, thought I could do something with it, OCR’d it to my computer and finished writing it. This was published by WordFire Press in 2016 as Sister of the Lionheart. I had always been fascinated by Joanna Plantagenet, daughter of Henry II of England and the wonderful Eleanor of Aquitaine, favorite sister of Richard the Lionheart. Mentions of her cropped up everywhere from the murder of Thomas Becket to the 3rd Crusade and other famous moments of the 12th century.

“The first book deals with her earlier life, her family, her years in Poitiers at the Courts of Love, her marriage at age 12 (asked her father for a King, young, French-speaking, preferably handsome!) up to the moment when she talks her brother into letting her accompany him on crusade.

“The second book is about the rest of her life as a strong-willed grown woman, making her own decisions, and was also published by WordFire Press in 2017, as Joanna Crusader.

“I am currently back to science fiction and working with my brother-in-law Greg again, on a time travel novel (or novella) about Jane Austen.”

I asked her to describe Joanna Crusader, and this is her account:

Recently widowed, Joanna, sister of Richard the Lionheart, accompanies her brother to the Third Crusade. The book opens with a storm in the Mediterranean in which Joanna shows her mettle, causing the ship’s master to exclaim that she is “truly the sister of the great Lionheart!” Time and again, Richard rescues Joanna from dangerous situations, first in Cyprus (where Richard stops to marry Berengaria of Navarre) and later in Jaffa where Joanna is trapped by Saracens. The Crusaders retake Acre after a lengthy siege but Richard was never able to liberate Jerusalem. He proposes that peace might be achieved by marrying Joanna to Saphadin, the brother of the great Saracen leader Saladin. Both sides agree to this, but when Joanna hears of it, she explodes in a Plantagenet rage and refuses in no uncertain terms. At the end of the Crusade, Joanna actually visited Jerusalem (Richard never did) and met Saladin himself. True historians will be shocked that I sent someone to the Crusade who never went there in order for Joanna to have an affair with him, that never happened in real life. I explained it all in an afterword. I just could not resist the story it made.

Joanna and Berengaria return to France to find that Richard has been captured and held hostage for ransom. Along with his mother, the two women work to raise the money to free him.

Joanna, highly eligible, marries for love, at a time when that was a rarity. It is far from happily ever after though. Things go badly wrong when she finds that someone is trying to have her killed.

What do you want readers to know about your book?

Well, first, that Joanna Plantagenet had an amazingly eventful life, lived with all the principal characters of her age and participated in so many famous events, and yet no one really knows anything about her as a person. Most people have never heard of her.

Aside from the plot, is there a story behind it?

This is the story of a life, so the plot is a given. But beyond that, I see an arc: there were two basic options open to women in that age, marriage or the convent. Joanna must have been a great admirer of her mother (the first book, Sister of the Lionheart, opens with an incident which may have been Joanna’s earliest memory, of an attempt to kidnap her mother, who shows herself to be indomitable). So I have Joanna’s first ambition as a desire to become a Queen, like her mother. She achieves that and finds that she is more of an ornament to the court than a mover and shaker. Then she tries love, with first a romantic affair, then a marriage, and that turns to disaster. Finally, she turns to what had been advised her from the beginning—the Church. She can find peace only in a love that will never betray her.

Why is your writing different from other authors in this genre?

My writing may be different for several reasons. First, I am English (not sure how much difference that makes). Second, I have a degree in French language and literature, and that included medieval literature. So, especially in the first book, I was able to quote from works that were popular in Joanna’s time. She loved the Chanson de Roland and in Poitiers, she actually meets and talks to the very popular Chrétien de Troyes who wrote Arthurian epic poems, among others. Third, I have been to all the places where Joanna lived, from Fontevrault to Poitiers and Toulouse in France, to Palermo in Sicily and Acre (modern-day Akko) in the Holy Land. Fourth, well, I’m a woman, writing about a woman and I think I can enter into her feelings to some degree (though not the desire to become a nun!).

What was your path to publication?

I have to thank my brother-in-law Greg Benford for this. I have no agent and had tried submitting my manuscript to various publishers with no success. Greg suggested I try Kevin Anderson and I met with him on one of his visits to the Bay Area and he agreed to take it on. We signed a contract for both books on the spot!

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on another book (or it may end up as a novella) with Greg Benford. His concept, mostly my writing. It is a time travel theme and is set in excerpts from Jane Austen’s diary. Greg thought I could more easily capture Austen’s voice and in fact it’s great fun doing it. Basically, an American from the 2300s comes back to Jane Austen’s age to bring her futuristic medical treatments and keep from dying young. He ends up marrying her. She lives a long life and becomes the most prolific and famous of all 19th century writers, even turning to SF novels after she learns of her husband’s life in the 24th century.

Are there any awards or honors you’d like to share?

Timescape won several awards: the 1980 Nebula, 1980 Best Science Fiction Award and the 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. I like to think that I brought a lot to what is generally considered Greg’s best novel.

What is your writing routine?

I don’t really have one. Some days I’ll write a whole lot, others nothing at all.

Do you create an outline before you write?

Absolutely. In detail.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

Not my problem! If anything, I suffer from logorrhea. Give me a subject and I’ll trot out half a dozen pages for you within minutes. But how and when to stop??

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

Many friends have told me that my second book is better than my first, so I hope I’ve evolved creatively.

Do you have another job outside of writing?

No other job at the present time (but lots of travel).

Describe a typical day.

Coffee and the New York Times crossword. Can’t start the day without that. Breakfast and then find anything to put off doing useful things. Eventually settle down and write but also have to practice the piano, go for a daily walk, get some exercise, cook 3 meals a day, do some gardening, plan our next trip—retirement is so busy that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

What makes you laugh?

Almost everything these days. If I didn’t laugh, I would cry.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Peters (secret vice: Georgette Heyer) and of course Jane Austen.

Thank you ever so much for participating in The Write Stuff and for adding your delightful sense of humor. Before I provide our guests with an excerpt from Joanna Crusader, I’d like to conclude this interview with a traditional Lightning Round. Please answer the following in as few words as possible:

 My best friend would tell you I’m a: Hoot

The one thing I cannot do without is: Chocolate

The one thing I would change about my life: I would not develop diabetes 2.

My biggest peeve is: People who talk too loudly in restaurants

The person/thing I’m most satisfied with is: Has to be my husband, Jim Benford.

Finally, would you care to leave us with a parting thought? As a ghost in one of my dreams said to me: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”.


Excerpt from Joanna Crusader:

But Raymond was looking seriously at her. “Would it be presumptuous of me to say that seeing two such beautiful ladies here in this filthy place is like finding roses blooming on a dung heap?”

“Yes, indeed, sir,” she said, lifting a hand to stop him, “it is presumptuous.” Then, smiling, yielding, “But pleasing, too. Like cool water in the desert—there, there’s one for you. God knows it is as hot as the desert here. I think we shall be in need of many compliments to keep our spirits up in this dreadful place!”

“I stand ready, my lady, to express my admiration whenever you should need it, or to hold up your glass, which should serve the same purpose.”

“I fear I should not continue to believe you, day after day, as my skin grows more sunburnt and my temper more irritable.”

“My lady, I could find enough new compliments for many days to come and after that, knowing you better, I would surely know new attributes to praise.”

She laughed then. “I mistrust you already. What do you say, Berthe?”

“Why, I say that he speaks so well I hardly care whether what he says is true or not. Besides, it’s the intention that counts.”

“Ah, but what is the intention? I think I mistrust that more than the words.”

“My lady,” he protested, “no intention other than giving you pleasure and speaking my true thoughts, I swear it.”

Joanna knew she should not be encouraging him like this. The daughter, sister, widow of Kings, she should not stoop to flirt and exchange banter with a King’s vassal. But the pleasure was heady, almost irresistible, whether because she loved to hear him speak in the rich, warm langue d’oc, or because it was the kind of talk that took her back to her childhood in Poitiers, or because Raymond himself was undeniably attractive. She felt she should leave, and she wanted to stay. As a compromise, she shifted their talk to less personal matters, hearing an extra loud cheer from one of the tents.

“There is much rejoicing in the camp tonight.”

“Indeed. The siege is as good as over in the minds of most of them. But little enough rejoicing in the tents of my dear cousin the King of the Franks and his kinsmen. I wager he is biting his knuckles right now.” He laughed sardonically.

Joanna was shocked. “He is your liege lord.”

“I only say what any of us there could plainly see. And he was not the only one to show his pique. Duke Leopold of Austria was none too pleased. Nor Burgundy, I think, nor Flanders. If it comes to that, there is little love between the King your brother and myself. I speak plainly so that you can know I do not dissemble in other matters either.” He smiled teasingly at her, but she was not to be drawn in again.

She knew that Richard had taken vengeance in Toulouse for certain attacks on Poitevin merchants and pilgrims passing through there. He had in fact taken eighteen castles and the town of Cahors by the time Raymond’s father’s appeal had reached the French King.

“But now we are here, we must all put our personal differences behind us, must we not? It doesn’t matter whether we are Franks or English or Poitevins, but only that we are Christians fighting infidels. And surely if my brother’s coming will help that cause, we should all rejoice because of that. It will help. I am sure of that.”

“Yes. No doubt of that. King Richard’s reputation will put heart into the Franks and others. His reputation is deserved. I know that only too well! He is a great warrior, your brother. I have little cause to love him, as I say, but I have the greatest admiration and respect for him.”

“I was so proud when he landed today,” Joanna said, glowing.

“He looks every inch the King, certainly. No wonder my poor cousin is jealous! Yet Philip has his qualities. Less showy than King Richard’s, to be sure. But he has a good mind, he thinks, he plans.”

“Richard has clerks to do that for him. But who can win his battles for Philip?”

“You laugh at it but I have heard that among the Saracens, it is considered impolitic, rash, even foolish, for a ruler to fight in the front ranks of his men. They say that if he is killed or wounded, then all is lost, but if he directs the battle from a safe place, then it little matters how many men in the front ranks die, the battle can still be won.”

“You talk of infidels. Of course they have not our sense of honor or shame. What kind of leader would lead from the rear? That is not sense, but cowardice. But they know no better, being without the True Faith.”

“I think they do have honor. I have heard many tales that prove it. As for faith, theirs is not the True Faith, but they certainly believe it is. They are as willing to die for their God as we are for ours.”

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “What you say sounds dangerously like heresy to me. They have resisted hearing the Word. They have fought consistently against the servants of God in God’s own land. They have defiled the holy places, stolen the Wood of the Cross—would you defend these infidels?”

“Against your eloquence? Never. You have convinced me. But I think, when you stare at me like that, you could convince me of anything.”

He had lapsed back into his flirtatious manner, evidently abandoning his defense of the Saracens. He smiled at her and his eyes went over her head to Berengaria’s tent. Joanna turned to see where he was looking. In the entrance to Berengaria’s tent, the girl Beatrice stood watching them, with a sly, knowing expression on her face.

“Who is the girl?” Raymond asked.

“That is the daughter of Isaac of Cyprus, a traitor and rogue whom Richard defeated.”

“Ah yes, whom he put in silver chains.” Raymond looked amused. “And the girl is here with you?”

“With Berengaria,” Joanna said shortly. “She is a sullen, vicious girl.”

“But pretty enough, in all conscience. Yes, you are right. She looks sullen. And how she stares at us! Perhaps she is jealous of your beauty as King Philip is of your brother’s?”

“You are absurd! She hates me only because I remind her of Richard who imprisoned her father. Come, it is late. I must take my leave of you and prepare for tonight’s feast.”


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