Interview with The Queen's Fool author Ally Sherrick

I have spent a lot of time this year immersed in some extraordinary historical fiction for children. It's always a pleasure to step into the past through these expertly researched and beautifully written books that create entire worlds and characters that are realistic and relatable.

Ally Sherrick's The Queen's Fool was published at the beginning of February and shares the adventures of Cat Sparrow whose quest to find her kidnapped sister takes her into the very heart of the court of King Henry VIII.

Ally is no stranger to writing historical fiction for young audiences and she has previously won the Historical Association's Young Quill Award with her book Black Powder. She has very kindly taken the time to talk to me about her work and share the secrets behind the stories she writes.

Ally, this is your third historical fiction book and you have set each book in a different period. What is it about the past that makes you want to explore it through your work?

Yes, it’s true to say that I’ve become something of a time traveller since I first started on my  writing journey. The destination for my first children’s book, Black Powder, was 1605 at the time of a certain infamous plot to blow King James and his parliament sky-high, and which, had it been successful, would have changed the course of British history. Next stop, for The Buried Crown, was 1940 and the story of two brave children caught up in a Nazi plot to steal a priceless piece of Anglo-Saxon treasure from the site of the great Sutton Hoo ship burial, discovered on the eve of the Second World War. And I’m recently returned from 1520 and my travels through Tudor England and across the sea to France, in the company of my heroine, Cat Sparrow, in The Queen’s Fool.

I’ve always loved history, right from when I was very young and our parents took my sister and I exploring castles and ruined abbeys on family holidays up and down the UK. I was lucky enough to have some great history teachers at school too, who really helped bring the past alive. I guess that’s why I ended up studying for a degree in Medieval History and English at university. So it’s no great surprise that when I set out to write for children, I found a natural home and inspiration in writing historical fiction.

Besides, the past is such a great source of ready-made story ‘sparks’. Strange and wonderful happenings, some of which you couldn’t make up if you tried. And set in worlds that may be recognisable to us, but are still, not quite like our own, or else, so very different that they seem almost fantastical. And then of course there’s a cast of ready-made characters if you choose to include them. People like Guy Fawkes, or Adolf Hitler, or King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon. All of these things provide a rich backdrop through which to weave my own stories of brave young people battling against the odds and saving the day.

Why did you decide to write a story set during the Tudor period?

Hampton Court Palace

The ‘spark’ for The Queen’s Fool was a visit with my husband to the great Tudor palace of Hampton Court on the outskirts of London. It was a place I knew well from family outings to the palace gardens with my grandparents when my sister and I were little. But I hadn’t actually been inside it for many years. I was particularly drawn to the Tudor galleries – those inhabited by its original owner, Cardinal Wolsey, and then, later, his royal master, King Henry VIII.

The Family of Henry VIII

One picture in particular caught my eye – a portrait of the king and his family: his beloved third wife, Jane Seymour, his all-important son and heir by her, Prince Edward and his two daughters, the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. But what struck me most were the two figures portrayed through windows looking on to the formal gardens on either side of the royal group. One, with a monkey on his shoulder, is believed to be Will Somers, the king’s favourite jester. The other, a young girl in a close fitting cap and gown, is believed to be ‘Jane the Fool’, who lived in the household of the king’s controversial second wife, Anne Boleyn and after Anne’s execution, in the household of Princess Mary, Henry’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon. When I saw the picture of Jane, it sparked my curiosity. About what her life must have been like. Also how I might use her as inspiration for the creation of my own character – orphan girl, Cat Sparrow – who is catapulted from a quiet life lived with her sister, Meg and the nuns in a convent in the countryside into the dazzling, but intrigue-filled world of the Tudor court where she must use all her courage and wits to survive.

How did you go about researching the Tudor world of The Queen’s Fool?

I love the research part of writing! It panders to the inner historian in me. I could quite happily spend my life attempting to learn all there is to know about the period my stories are set in. But that wouldn’t get the book written. So I have to take a very disciplined approach to it. There’s an initial period where I’m like a magpie, casting around for all the books, articles and other historical goodies I think might be useful for building the foundations of the sort of story I want to tell.

Following a discussion with my publishers, I had decided to pursue writing Cat as a ‘holy innocent’ – someone who, like her inspiration, ‘Jane the Fool’, would in all probability have had a learning disability – rather than as an ‘artificial fool’ or clown. So my initial research was focused around the life and role of the ‘fool’ at court, and about Tudor attitudes to people with learning disabilities. During this time, I was fortunate enough to happen upon the website for All the King’s Fools, a brilliant Wellcome-Trusted funded project led by the historian, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb, which explored the role of the ‘innocent’ at Henry VIII’s court and had culminated in a drama staged by members of The Misfits, a group of learning-disabled actors, at Hampton Court Palace.

The Queen’s Fool is a tale, among other things, of sisters and of the degrees of freedom girls and women experienced in those times. So, to build my understanding of what a woman’s life was like, I delved into the excellent The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton. For information about day-to-day life at all levels of society, I read Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudor and to be sure of capturing the details of life at Henry’s court as truly as possible, I turned to the ‘Queen’ of Tudor history, Alison Weir, and the earlier chapters of her marvellously evocative Henry VIII: King and Court. Glenn Richardson’s detailed account of The Field of Cloth of Gold, which I supplemented with my own reading of documentary accounts of the time, also proved invaluable. And then, of course, there were the pictures in the Royal Collection.

Another picture that obviously inspired you is that of the Field of the Cloth of Gold which is also in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace. The painting captures the 1520 summit between the kings of England and France and you have set a large part of the book at that event. I would love to know about the process of transforming the details of that image into a part of Cat’s story.

The Field of Cloth of Gold

This painting was the other great inspiration for my story, though it was my husband who actually suggested it as a possible setting a little while after our visit to Hampton Court. It gave me the perfect world into which to pitch my two young heroes – a great pageant which was the epitome of the colour, magnificence and dynamism of the Tudor court, but which also concealed beneath its surface rivalries, suspicions and a desire on the part of each king to outdo the other.

The painting is featured on the excellent website of the Royal Collection which allows you to zoom in on all the amazing details it shows – the palace of wood, stone and glass which housed the royal party; the colourful tents and pavilions made of the cloth-of-gold which gave the event its name; the tourney field where the jousting took place, and the great dragon-kite which was let loose – historians think by accident rather than on purpose – on the final day of the celebrations. And then of course, there are the thousands of noblemen and women and servants, and the vast numbers of horses, sheep and other animals which bring to life this wondrous but temporary ‘city’ of illusions.

Whilst it was a great source for my creation of the world of the Field of Cloth of Gold in my story, I was mindful of the fact that along with its companion piece, The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover, which shows the royal party preparing to set sail across the sea to Calais, it was painted quite a few years after the event as a piece of Tudor propaganda. For example, the figure of the king shown in the painting is of the older Henry, not his younger self. So I was careful to refer back to accounts of the time to verify things and check on the finer details.

Although the period in which you have set the book is real, Cat and Jacques’ stories are fictional. What are the advantages and disadvantages of mixing fact with fiction?

An excellent question which touches on the greatest dilemma facing all writers of historical fiction – to what degree can you make things up? For my part, I feel it is important to respect the actual known happenings and the portrayal of real-life characters as much as you can. However, particularly when you are writing for young people, you must never lose sight that you are trying to tell a page-turning story, and not to present a full-blown historical account of things. There’s a place for that, but it’s not in the pages of a work of fiction. And it does mean that sometimes you need to make adjustments for the sake of the plot. For example, the real-life events of the Field of Cloth of Gold took place over a period of nearly three weeks. In The Queen’s Fool, I have shrunk them down into a two or three day period in the interests of keeping the narrative pacey and page-turning.

Of course, the story of Cat and Jacques is an invention, and as part of that, I have taken some small liberties with what may, or may not have happened in the wider, real-life world they inhabit. For example, there is no account that there was an attempt on the lives of King Henry and Queen Katherine at the Field. But there is evidence that people were fearful of the French king, François’ intentions – born from the long history of warfare between England and France. And there is also clear evidence that there was serious discontent in certain quarters of Henry’s own court about the meeting and the new peace it was meant to celebrate. So, if something is plausible, then I feel that it’s fair game to consider including it. But I do make it clear in the notes at the end where my imagination has taken wing, and that this is, at the end of the day, a story.

Having fun exploiting the gaps in between what is known about the real-life events and characters at the time of your story can be one of the great advantages of writing historical fiction, as long as you do it with respect for the original source material.

Your main characters, Cat and Jacques, have such distinct voices and bring their different experiences to the story. What inspired you to create them?

As mentioned earlier, Cat’s origins were in the real-life character of ‘Jane the Fool’ in the portrait hanging in Hampton Court Palace. While ‘listening’ for her, I took inspiration from an interview on the National Geographic website with an American journalist, Jennifer Latson, who suggested that so-called ‘fools’ at medieval courts – valued for their storytelling skills, their wordplay ability and their humour – shared similar traits to people with the rare genetic condition known today as Williams Syndrome (WS). Further research into the attributes which individuals with WS share to a greater or lesser degree – including learning difficulties, an innate desire to connect with others, a heightened sensitivity to noise and a strong affinity to music – were instrumental in shaping Cat’s voice.

As for Jacques, he introduced himself to me as the perfect foil for Cat. A more worldly-wise character with a very different experience from hers, more used to the etiquette and privileged life of those at court. And yet, at the same time, an outsider like Cat, though for reasons to do with his nationality rather than perceptions of his character.

We spend a lot of time in the book with people who serve the royal court of Henry VIII. From the kitchen staff to the clergy to the entertainers these ‘ordinary’ people make the lavish lives of royalty possible. Was it important to you that the reader sees a wider view of the Tudor period than that of kings and queens?

When I first studied history at school, there was a definite tendency to focus on kings and queens and other ‘important’ people, usually at the expense of the ‘ordinary’ folk. But while, like modern-day celebrities, kings and queens and the plots and intrigues surrounding them can be fascinating, for me, how people like you and I went about their lives is equally, if not more interesting. So I loved the chance writing Cat and Jacques’ story gave me to explore how the so-called ‘lesser sort’ went about their lives.

In particular, I was fascinated with how they entertained themselves – the music, the dice-playing, the plays put on by travelling bands of actors like Master Tarleton and his company, though, spoiler-alert, the bear-baiting scene was very hard to write. And it was great to be able to imagine myself in one of the kitchens at the Field of Cloth of Gold, witnessing the scene as my own creation, Mistress Sowerby and her kitchen maids and boys went about the job of feeding the king and queen and their retinue.  But of course, I always follow the golden rule – that minor characters are there to serve the main plot or to illuminate something about a main character. If they don’t serve that purpose, then whatever their rank or standing in society, I’m afraid they have to go!

One of my favourite scenes in the book takes place on the crossing between England and France. It is packed full of historical details as well as being really exciting. What was your favourite setting to write?

Gosh, that’s such a difficult question! The world my story is set in is such a colourful one, and I really was spoilt for choice. I loved describing Cat and Jacques’ first approach to Greenwich Palace – known at the time as the king’s ‘Palace of Pleasaunce’. And of course, I revelled in portraying all the glitter, glamour and strangeness of the royal camp at the Field of Cloth of Gold. But yes, I did really love writing the scenes of the crossing by ship to Calais. There’s plenty of drama and peril for both Cat and Jacques, and a pivotal moment in the plot happens on board ship too. But I was equally smitten by the opportunity to climb on board and portray the world of a Tudor ship. The creaking, dank darkness of the hold, the mysterious, narrow and dimly-lit passageways below deck, and then, in complete contrast, all the noise, wind and spray above deck.  My inspiration for these scenes was the painting of the king’s embarkation from Dover mentioned earlier. Also a visit to Henry VIII’s great Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose in Portsmouth, and the wonderful artefacts in its museum which tell us so much about the lives of ordinary Tudor sailors, including the tools and potion bottles of the ship’s surgeon, a version of whom is featured in my story.

Why do you think it is important for young readers to engage with historical fiction?

Because it can give such a great sense of perspective on our own world. Noticing the differences, as seen through the eyes of a character a young reader can hopefully grow to empathise with as the story progresses. How, in the world of The Queen’s Fool for example, the way people lived was dictated by the Church and the nobility. How girls and women led very restricted lives, even if they were grand ladies or queens. And how if you spoke out of turn you might forfeit your freedom, or worse still your life. Considering these differences helps us to reflect on our own situation. The freedoms we take for granted and what might be easier now, or conversely, perhaps more difficult.

But it’s always good to be able to reflect on the similarities too. The love for family and friends, the  joy to be found in small things and the importance of standing up to those you believe to be wrong – things that make us all human, whether we live in the sixteenth century or the twenty-first.

If a reader wanted to write a fictional story set in the past, what three pieces of advice would you give them about creating a historical character?

Another great question! Well, I think my top three pieces of advice would be as follows:

1)    Make sure you know as much as you can about your character’s world before you start. Do they live in a grand palace or a tumble-down hut? Do they dine on peacocks, or cold pottage made from mushed-up peas and beans? Do they wear fine silk clothes in the latest style, or a humble home-spun woollen tunic which has seen better days? And how does all of this make them feel and behave?

2)    Give them a great name. But be careful to make sure it fits the time period your story is set in. For example, I chose the name Cat Sparrow for my young heroine in The Queen’s Fool. Cat, because it was both suggestive of her energy and directness and also because it was a common shortened form of Catherine, a popular name in Tudor times, which also happens to be the name of the queen. And my research into sixteenth century surnames resulted in the discovery of Sparrow, which was perfect for Cat’s love of birds and birdsong and her general ‘chirpiness’ of character.

3)    Finally, give yourself some time to really listen to your character’s voice. Immersing yourself in texts from the time – letters, poetry, plays – to understand the rhythms and ways of speaking can help with this. This shouldn’t be rushed because it’s where the heart of your character, and your story, lies whatever the age they inhabit.

Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!

Ally, thank you so much for your brilliant answers!

For more about Ally visit her website at www.allysherrick.com You can also follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

Thank you to Chicken House Books for sending a review copy.

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