It is hard to believe I have only known Wendy J. Dunn for eighteen months. We met through a Women’s History Month event at Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries. I have since come to see it as one of the more fortuitous meetings of my debut novel year. Academic, writer, and events facilitator, Wendy is a tireless supporter of other women writers. Although I cannot share her love of the the Tudors (due to the small matter of annexing, incorporating and trying to make everyone speak English :-)), I definitely wanted to read some of Wendy’s work.
Now, concerning the Tudors, if you are a fan of the more popular works, focussing on bedroom scandals, you may not find Wendy’s novels meet expectations. Told from the third-person perspective of Catalina’s tutor Beatriz Galindo, Falling Pomegranate Seeds is a poetically, philosophical exploration of women’s roles in society. I’d know Katherine of Aragon was Spanish (the name says it all), but in Falling Pomegranate Seeds, this tragic woman’s childhood is thoughtfully recreated, leaving the reader in no doubt as to her Spanish origins. So thoughtfully, I have asked Wendy some questions about her writing process.
You have a long-term interest in the Tudors. What was the catalyst for this particular novel?
Big smile – long-term interest is putting it mildly, Liz. I’m well and truly obsessed with the Tudors. The catalyst for this novel, the first novel of a planned trilogy telling the story of Katherine of Aragon, was actually my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? That work narrates the story of Anne Boleyn through the imagined voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder.
Sir Tom also had a close connection to Katherine of Aragon. She recognised his talents as a writer and poet and was his patron in his early years. My research for my first novel left me fascinated with the story of Katherine of Aragon.
LOL – now I am hearing in my mind the voice of my PhD supervisor. Whenever I made statements like that she would say, “Now unpack and unpeel what you mean, Wendy.” Completing my PhD illuminated how my own experience as the woman ignited, and continues to ignite, my passion to write through a feminist standpoint. Writing through a female standpoint maps out master narratives of oppression through the telling of female stories.
I have always connected to the stories of Tudor women because they provide explicit and inspirational examples of women navigating a patriarchal world. The life story of Katherine of Aragon provides a powerful example of a woman whose life is controlled by her gender, in a time when men determined the power permitted to women. Oppressed groups have not only knowledge concerning their own group, but also knowledge about the dominant group. Women create powerful lives through use of this dual knowledge – and the story of Katherine of Aragon offers compelling evidence of this. Despite possessing little choice about the direction of her life, she was able to claim a rich interior life of deep faith.
Tell me a little about the historical Beatriz? How did your version of her differ?
Beatriz Galindo was not only a poet (all her poetry appears lost to history), but also a lecturer of Medicine, Rhetoric and the philosophy of Aristotle at the University of Salamanca; a woman so respected for her learning she was employed to teach Queen Isabel of Castile her Latin and ended up tutoring the daughters of the Queen.
Years ago, when I began my research for this trilogy about the life of Katherine of Aragon, I discovered a footnote about Beatriz in an academic essay about Isabel of Castile. It provided me with only with these bones of information and that she was believed to have tutored Katherine of Aragon. The essay cited from her biography – a work written in Spanish. Since I can only read a few Spanish words, this essay offered me a huge gap to fill with the use of my imagination.
I believe this is a good thing because I am first and foremost a writer of fiction. With her portrait and the important facts provided by this essay, I was able to imagine Beatriz into being.
All my fiction is informed by history, and immense historical research, but the beating heart of my work is the story it tells. Research fires up my imagination and opens the door to my imagined historical people and their world. Knowing very little about Beatriz gave me a lot of ‘What if’ questions, which acted as midwives to my imagination. I could not help wondering how it must have been for her – a woman who lived a life denied to most women in the Medieval period. Did it come at a personal cost? Smile – readers who have read my novel know how my imagination answered this question.
The historical Beatriz was clearly an intelligent woman and respected for her learning. She was close to Isabel of Castile and acted as her advisor. All these things I used to construct my imagined Beatriz. Whether I am right or wrong about her, I cannot say. But I know she is a woman who deserves not to be forgotten by history. It is always my hope that my works of fiction will make my readers interested in my people so they will seek to learn more about them and arrive at their own interpretations.
How did you balance Beatriz’s journey against your desire to tell Catalina’s story? Who would you consider the true protagonist?
I have to say Beatriz. The story is told through her point of view, so that makes the first book of Falling Pomegranate Seeds (the overarching title for my trilogy) her story.
But I wanted in this work to understand the forces shaping Catalina of Aragon during her childhood and the years leading up to the leaving of her homeland. Beatriz, as Catalina’s tutor, offered me a powerful and adult perspective. She acts as a close and empathetic witness to Catalina’s early years, during a time when her parents were engaged in what they described as their ‘Holy War’. Since Beatriz was also Catalina’s teacher in her formative years, that offered me the opportunity to imagine how Catalina’s education shaped her and made her a woman who loved books and learning.
What steps did you take to ensure Beatrice’s character spoke to universal themes without being anachronistic to her setting?
By engaging in thorough historical research and reading writings important to this period. This is how I deepen my knowledge of the mindset of my historical people. I do my best to write through that mindset, as provided in this example from my novel of a conversation between Beatriz and her friend, Josefa:
“What is it, Beatriz?” asked Josefa.
Beatriz raised her hand and wiped her face. “I’m not sure if knowing him from childhood would help me here. I remember too well the many harsh words he and my father had over my education. He believed my father was very wrong and misguided in his desire to teach me as he did.”
“The good father would not have been alone in this. Very few women are brought up to be prodigies of Latin.”
Bitter, Beatriz gazed at her friend. “Even you expressed strong disapproval of this.”
Josefa heaved a sigh, shaking her head slowly. “’Tis not that I disapprove… I have told you this before too. I believe women walk a hard enough road without walking a road where there are pits at every step. As my mother often said to me, since we cannot get what we like, let us then like what we can get. Tell me truthfully, Beatriz. Do you think you’d have this awful hole dug for you, as you do now, if your father had not set your feet on this journey to become a scholar and professor of the university?”
Beatriz pondered Josefa. “Si, I am in an awful hole, as you say. But, Josefa, I know there are more terrible and darker holes. I will always be grateful to my father for giving me the key to escape ignorance, even if it only came from his great need to console himself after losing my mother.”
Josefa placed her hand over Beatriz’s. She gave her a wry smile.
“Escape ignorance? You know many ignorant women, si?”
“Josefa, you mistake my meaning.” Beatriz stared at the coverlet of Josefa’s bed. “All of us must walk our own roads, but ’tis wrong to prevent women from walking so many roads just because we’re women. Even Plato said, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half.’ I so agree. Our world cuts off its nose to spite its own face by insisting the only purpose for women is to bear children and perpetuate the human race, as also said Plato. Surely ’tis far too hard a view to forever blame women for Eve’s sin.”
For me, writing is about lighting my way through life – to seek answers to those fundamental questions of the human condition. I agree with Kundera (2003, p. 44) when he tells us, ‘…fidelity to history is a secondary matter as regards the value of the novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence’. LOL – and the more I write, the more I know the truth of Socrates’s words: ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.’
Smile – that’s not quite true. I know how important it is to follow your heart in life – and seek the fulfilment of your authentic life. Following this writing road of mine has proven to be my way to grow as a human being.
You have only been to Spain once. How did that on-the ground research influence your writing of this novel?
Besides falling in love with The Alhambra, my time in Spain deepened my ability to imagine Catalina growing up in the royal palaces of her mother.
For fifteen days, I covered vast distances travelling in a comfortable, air conditioned bus, skilfully driven on well made roads – which gave me plenty time to ponder about travelling in earlier and dangerous times of bad roads, bad weather and ox pulled litters. For me, walking the walk of my characters has always enriched me as a writer, fed my imagination, and opened the door to the lives and voices of my historical people.
How did you fill the gaps with off-the-ground research?
A mountain of books, portraits, maps, period music, and lots of daydreaming.
Tell us about your next project.
It is the second novel of my Katherine of Aragon trilogy: Falling Pomegranate Seeds: All Manner of Things. Katherine of Aragon’s lifelong friend, Maria de Salinas, is the point of view character. Like Beatriz, history provides only the bones of her life story, which means my imagination has a lot to flesh out. My imagination has opened the door to a powerful storyline – and I am determined to do it justice. The challenge is to make it work and believable through the use of historical events – and do justice to Katherine of Aragon’s story too.
Kundera, M 2003, The Art of the Novel, Reprint Edition, Harper, Perennial Modern Classics, New York.
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian author, playwright and poet who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds.
While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.
For more about her novels follow this link