I recently had the opportunity to interview Amber Leah Brock, who just signed with literary agent Clare Wallace of the Darley Anderson Agency. Her book Blessed Among Women is work of historical fiction based on the life of King Henri II, who ruled France from 1547-1559, and his relationship with his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
Q: A lot of historical fiction focuses on Henry VIII and the Tudor era these days. What made you look to France for inspiration?
Amber Leah Brock: France sort of came to me, in a way. I read a lot of non-fiction about European royalty, and I had just finished a book called Notorious Royal Marriages. I guess the story of Henri and Diane stuck with me, because I had a sort of silly dream one night that I was involved with a much younger man (my husband loves that part of the story). The next morning I was struck by the fact that throughout the dream people were obsessed with the difference in our ages, and wondered what a young guy like him saw in a thirtysomething woman. I realized I had wondered the same thing about Henri and Diane, and that was the genesis of the story.
Q: How did you go about crafting this idea in your novel?
ALB: I was fascinated by the question “why her?”, and I built the novel around that. Though the real Diane was by all accounts vibrant and strikingly beautiful, I decided to dull her light a little bit to make the question even more poignant. So my Diane is the very definition of ordinary. She’s pretty but not beautiful, sweet but not memorable–except for Henri. I wanted to build that mystery around her. Why would a young prince, who could have any woman he wanted, be so obsessed with this particular woman?
Q: In what ways does your story differ from the actual history of Henri, Catherine de Medici, and Diane de Poitiers?
ALB: There are several big differences. One is my portrayal of Diane, as mentioned above. Another is the addition of her husband, Richard de Belloy. Her real husband passed away years before her affair started with Henri, so I created Richard pretty much out of whole cloth. In the novel he basically sells Diane to Henri in hopes of gaining favor at court. Another huge change was the scope–Henri and Diane were involved for several decades, but my novel only covers the course of a year (with flashbacks to key moments of the past). Perhaps the most significant change is that in the novel Henri is 20 and Diane is 30 when they begin their affair. In real life he was 15 and she was 35. That was a little too much “ick factor” for my modern mind, so I moved their ages to something I was more comfortable with.
Q: Who was your favorite character to write about? Did you have a least favorite?
ALB: I’m so glad you asked that! I totally had a couple of favorite characters. My absolute favorite is Charles, Henri’s younger brother. I loved how serious he was, trying to boss his wayward older brother around and get him in line. I loved writing Henri’s scenes with him, too–Henri is so careless and immature, which gets on Charles’s nerves, but ultimately there’s this unbreakable brotherly bond between them.
I really didn’t like writing about Henri’s wife Catherine de’ Medici. People always think that sounds weird because, hey, she’s my character, right? But I just don’t like her, I didn’t like writing about her. She kind of bored me, but I must have done justice by her, because several of my beta readers said she’s their favorite. Go figure.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction?
ALB: When writing about historical figures my biggest challenge was with the notion of artistic license. These are real people, and I don’t want to do anything to disrespect the lives they lived and the things they did. If I have the good fortune to get published, I plan to include a historical note outlining what in my novel is not historically accurate. The main reason that’s so important to me is because one time I read an article on a fairly respectable website talking about how much the author had learned about what “really happened” with Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn based on The Other Boleyn Girl. Eeek! As a history nut, I want my readers to understand that they shouldn’t consult a novel to find out what “really happened”.
Q: Congratulations on signing with agent Clare Wallace! What’s the next step for your novel?
ALB: Right now I’m in edits; nothing too drastic, just adding a few scenes and enriching a few key moments. I hope to have the next draft to her by the end of July, then probably one more edit before she starts shopping to UK publishers in September.
Q: Are you working on any new projects right now?
ALB: I’m halfway through a contemporary time-travel about a woman who travels back to her senior year of high school, sort of a play on “if I knew then what I know now”. It’s very light-hearted, a refreshing change of pace after Blessed Among Women. I also have an outline for two other historical projects, one set at a boarding school in the 1950s and another at the court of Felipe IV of Spain. I like to jump around!
Q: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
ALB: Research and work. There is no substitute for either one of those. Read everything you can not only about the craft of writing (and the myriad joys of editing), but also research agents, reach out to other writers to learn from their experience, and read as much already-published fiction as you can.
Another thing that I’ve learned from this process and being in touch with other writers is that rejections make us all cranky. No one likes it. But it can make some writers think of agents as either untouchable gods or sadistic devils. They’re neither of those things. They’re businesspeople who have a job to do. It’s hard not to take it personally when you get a form reject with your name misspelled, but it doesn’t mean the agent is an imbecile who will starve in the streets while you’re raking in big advances. Neither does it mean that you are a talentless hack doomed to eternal failure. Remember both of those things and treat the agent with the same courtesy you’d offer someone interviewing you for a job. Play by the rules. If they turn you down…on to the next. (But feel free to have some Ben and Jerry’s to soothe the pain a little bit–rejection hurts!)
Thank you, Amber, for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you’ll have time to come back for another interview once Blessed Among Women is on the bookshelves!
It was my pleasure! I appreciate the opportunity.
To learn more about Amber, please visit allmyfriendsarepretend.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter at @AmberLBrock.