A Conversation with Carolly Erickson

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Conversation with Carolly Erickson, author of THE MEMOIRS OF MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS

Q. Why do you think Mary Stuart exerts such a perennial fascination for readers?

A. Her story has so many compelling dimensions: tragedy, political conflict, romantic passion, even suspected crime. She reigned as queen, she took the field in battle against her enemies, she held her own against the legions of those who were staunchly opposed to women wielding power.

Yet she was at the same time a wife and mother, a tender lover (at least, as portrayed in this historical entertainment), a beautiful woman whose cause many thousands found compelling. To us as to her contemporaries, Mary was a woman for all seasons. Hence her enduring appeal.

Q. Given the circumstances of Mary's life, she must often have found herself in extreme emotional distress. She must have felt at times as if she were in the hands of a remorseless fate. Yet she coped. How do you think she managed that?

A. There was an inner core of resilient strength in her that surfaced time and again. A physical and mental hardihood--perhaps the same elemental hardihood that caused her to survive as a tiny infant when those around her thought she would not live. When seeds are planted, and tiny plants break through the earth, some thrive while others wither. Mary seems to have had what it takes to thrive, not to succumb to fear or illness, though she certainly suffered from both.

Q. In Mary's time, the era of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic revitalization and reform that is sometimes called the Counter-Reformation, a person's faith was a vital determinant of his or her path through life. What role do you think Mary's Catholicism played in shaping her life experience?

A. Mary's claim to the English throne, and her rivalry with Queen Elizabeth, rested on her Catholicism. English Catholics, supported by the papacy and the Catholic powers of Europe, hoped to dethrone Elizabeth and make Mary Queen of England. In Mary's personal life, as her behavior on the day she was executed makes clear, she remained a staunch daughter of the Roman church, and her unwavering faith sustained her. Historians and novelists may attempt to look into the heart and read its secrets, but they remain locked away. The depth and sincerity of Mary's Catholicism can never be truly known, only surmised from her actions.

Q. It has been said that the authentic past is no longer accessible to those of us living in the twenty-first century, because we are doomed to view it through the narrow lens of our own life experience and through the mythic distortions of movies, epics--and the whimsical creations of superannuated novelists. What are your views on this?

A. I think the distortions caused when one age looks at another are both inevitable and fascinating. When we look back at the lives of women who lived hundreds of years ago, we are asking questions that were unknown, indeed undreamed-of, at the time. We scrutinize Mary Stuart's life looking for evidence of independence, strength of purpose, her sense of her own identity and rights. But in Mary's time no one would have envisioned these issues at all--these were issues for men to grapple with, not women. Most of Mary's female contemporaries lived short lives, in strict and often harsh subordination to men--subordination enjoined by laws and religious teachings--and inhabited a twilight mental world (one imagines) bereft of literacy or aspirations. Not that they were lacking in intellectual capability, merely that whatever capability they possessed was rarely awakened or encouraged. Discussions of the way our presentmindedness distorts our understanding of the past can make for lively talk!

Q. Would you like to have lived in a previous century?

A. Questions like this turn history into a parlor game, and both sanitize and trivialize the past. While it is understandable that we seek diversion wherever we can find it, and reading about past times can certainly be diverting, the risk is that we will lose our authentic history while seeking to use it as entertainment.

I am well aware that in saying this I ought to admonish myself for writing historical entertainments! However, for most of my writing years I wrote nonfiction, that very demanding task of attempting to recreate the authentic past through scrutiny of existing records and through a sort of sixth sense scholars develop that (we hope) guides us and sensitizes us as we create an approximation of what really happened, and how.

*** Posted here with permission from St.Martins ***

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