Theresa Breslin: Telling stories from history
Published on: 5 Medi 2012 Author: Katherine Woodfine
Award-winning author Theresa Breslin tells Katherine Woodfine about her novel exploring the teenage years of Mary Queen of Scots.
Tell us about your book, Spy for the Queen of Scots. What inspired you to write about Mary Queen of Scots?
I've always wanted to write about Mary, Queen of Scots. As a child I adored stories about her. To me she seemed incredibly brave and romantic, wearing fabulous dresses and jewelry, dashing about France and Scotland, having amazing adventures, with kings and courtiers falling in love with her. I'd been collecting snippets about her for ages and joined the Marie Stuart Society to go on outings and meet their enthusiastic and helpful members. I've written historical books set in England, Italy, France, Spain, and many feature feisty woman – then Mary demanded that her story be told!
Mary Queen of Scots is probably one of the most famous characters of British history, and has appeared in many works of fiction. Did you feel at all daunted about taking on the challenge of recreating her in your book?
Actually there's not much fiction been written about her from a teenage point of view. Lots of adult books and non-fiction – although much of the non-fiction has errors or is very negative about her, unfairly I think. I went back to first sources, her letters and poetry to try to get a sense of who she was. She had all the problems of modern teens but with constant life-threatening situations to deal with. The story is told by Jenny, her close friend who is the same age as Mary. That way we have a teenage perspective on what is happening and their reactions to the historical events.
You're known for writing historical novels, and have taken on subjects ranging from Leonardo da Vinci in The Medici Seal to World War I in Remembrance. What makes you want to write about history - and what kinds of historical events particularly attract you as a writer?
As a writer I am interested in situations where young people face challenge. What I find fascinating about history is the extreme youth of the characters placed in deadly danger. Boys could inherit a title and be leading an army at 13 years old. Girls were mothers at 15. Sadly, due to disease, lack of medical care, and acts of violence, many did not live beyond their youth – the average lifespan of a girl in the middle ages was only 25!
Tell us about how you approach researching your books. How important is it to you to be historically accurate in your writing?
I travel a lot when researching. It's important to me to be where the characters were (if possible). For The Medici Seal I went to the University of Pavia where Leonardo da Vinci learned about dissecting the human body, with Remembrance it was crouching and clambering through the preserved trenches of the WWI Battlefields that gave me insight into the mindset of the soldiers. For Spy for the Queen of Scots I visited the opulent Chateaux and Palaces of France and travelled round the Earl of Bothwell's grim fortress castles on the rough Border country between Scotland and England. Also I think personal letters reveal a great deal.
Many of your books deal with dark and violent events, from World War I to the Spanish Inquisition. How do you approach writing for young people about these difficult subjects?
Because readers are young doesn't mean they should be short-changed on emotional truth. Literal truth is closely linked to that, and I see it as my craft as a writer to deliver both without resorting to gratuitous violence and unnecessary exposition of horror.
You trained as a librarian and have been vocal in your support for the campaign to protect libraries. Tell us a bit about why you feel libraries are so important.
In this digital age and in the present economic climate, libraries and librarians, both public and school, are absolutely crucial. One of the fundamental roles of libraries is to provide access for everyone to any information. The provision of literature, for self-advancement or for pleasure, promotes literacy, cultural awareness, and social and emotional competence. In addition to this, libraries are social spaces hosting a many and varied range of activities. The library is the beating heart of a community.
Which books or authors have particularly inspired you as a writer?
Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens are my prime influences. Narrative drive, characterisation, rhythm of language, and brilliant storytelling – it's all there.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer for young adults?
Read outside your comfort zone - whatever anyone recommends, even if you're not particularly drawn to the book. Read short and long simultaneously. By that I mean have two books (or more!) on the go at the same time: a longer book, a-chapter-before-bed-each-night-book PLUS a faster gobble-it-up-in-chunks kind of a book. And of course a notebook, always, always, carry a notebook and pencil about you – put down your sock, wherever.