Before becoming a published author, Alison Weir was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother. She is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction and the biggest selling female historian in the United Kingdom. She was born in London and now lives in Surrey.
You speak quite openly about how history should be accessible to everyone and ‘not the sole preserve of academics’ – do you feel that authors writing historical works have an added pressure if they’re not considered to be ‘qualified’ in the subject?
I don’t see how a ‘popular’ historian who had studied and evaluated the sources in the same way as an academic one could be considered to be unqualified. It’s in the presentation that the approaches differ. I think there’s a certain jealousy at play – historians can be very competitive. You see that in reviews: it’s more about the reviewer and their agenda than about the book under review. I try to ignore any of that kind of pressure. I never read anything written about my books online, and I heed only constructive criticism from people qualified to have an opinion in printed reviews.
How easy do you find the transition between your fiction and non-fiction? Do you ever find yourself wanting to include too much historical fact in your novels in a way that obstructs the narrative?
I found the transition easy, but I had a lot to learn. Every book is a learning curve, and you have to keep an open mind. I am sometimes asked to cut back on the historical facts in my novels, and there have been disagreements over whether they obstruct the narrative, but I do hold out for the history whenever I can.
Do you ever have trouble creating a story around historical figures for your fiction, when you have already studied and researched their real worlds so intricately?
None at all. My head is bursting with storylines! If I’m writing a biography, or think of a possible subject for a book, I can immediately see how the subject can be fictionalised. And I’ve studied most of the characters I write about for so long, and the worlds they inhabited, they it’s second nature to me to recreate their stories in fiction.
Which literary character do you think is most like you?
Mrs Ellen in my novel Innocent Traitor. She is a mother figure to Lady Jane Grey, whose own mother treats her unkindly. I projected my own maternal feelings onto Mrs Ellen – she is me! I cannot think of anyone else in fiction who is so apt!
Was there anything you were afraid of when you were considering a career in writing? What did you do to overcome to do this?
I had no fears about it. It was something I dreamed of doing for years.
How has the experience of being a writer most benefited you? Do you feel you have sacrificed anything?
It has made me more confident in some ways. It has benefited me financially, of course, and enabled me to enrich the lives of others, but most important of all, it has made me feel fulfilled in a creative sense.
Yes, there have been sacrifices: time I would have spent with other people; the ability to relax, as I work so hard; worst of all, missing my son’s graduation ceremony – we got the invitation after an event that clashed was sold out.
What is the best surprise you have had from the experience? Is there anything you’ve learnt about yourself?
That I actually got published at all! I had given up long since, and I’m still pinching myself. I’ve learnt that there are aspects to my character I never thought existed. I’ve become far more outgoing and confident – and have a far shorter fuse than I used to have.
Have you ever wanted to stop writing?
Very occasionally, when the pressures got too much. But no, it’s in my blood. I want to go on doing it for as long as I can.
What does ‘success’ mean to you?
Being able to facilitate things for other people. Being able to communicate my passion for history to others and share my findings. Finding that doors open to me. Meeting so many wonderful people. Feeling at the centre of a world to which I always wanted to belong. Enjoying a nice lifestyle.
The people we look up to reflect on who we are. Who do you most admire and why?
That’s a hard question to answer, as there are many people I admire. My wonderful husband, because he has the most loving, caring and self-effacing nature, and has put up with me for forty years. My mother, because she is a genuinely good person with heaps of integrity, strength of character, humour and wisdom, and has overcome life’s trials with commendable fortitude. There isn’t space to list all the people I admire for various reasons.
If you were asked, what one piece of life advice would you give others?
Never give up, never give in.
What was your favourite toy as a child?
A doll called Deborah. I got her for my eighth birthday. She was one of the first vinyl dolls and she had fair hair in a pony-tail. We were inseparable for four years – and then I discovered the Beatles!
We all have things that motivate us, that make everything worthwhile. What gets you out of bed each day?
Wanting to get back to work on the latest project.
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
I’m working on a biography of Elizabeth of York, queen of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. Then I will be writing a novel about Elizabeth I, followed by a book on the medieval queens of England. In my spare time, I’m writing a novel about Anne Boleyn.
If you could go back to any ten-year span in history, what would it be and why?
I’d like to go back to the period 1526 to 1536, and be a courtier (not too prominent!), not just to experience early Tudor England, but to feel what it was like to be at the centre of events about which I have written: Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ and Anne Boleyn’s fall.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Elizabeth I – what a survivor! To stay on a threatened throne for 45 years, a woman in a male-dominated society, and preside over the age of the Armada and Shakespeare – she was incredible.
What is the most memorable book event you have done and why?
There have been many. But I think that speaking in the Great Hall at Hampton Court represented for me the pinnacle of success. It was a case of, ‘What can I do now? It doesn’t get much better than this.’
Breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Dinner every time. I love nothing better than getting friends and family together for great conversation over good food in congenial surroundings.
Who would attend your dream dinner party?
Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn (not seated next to each other), Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Should be an explosive mix!
What question would you most like to be asked at dinner?
“What book are you working on now?” It’s always the current passion with me, and as a writer’s life can be a solitary one when it comes to work, it’s great to be able to share one’s findings – but only if the other person is genuinely interested. Given that my friends are mostly historians, they usually are!
Alison Weir appeared at The 14/4 Literary Dinner on Friday 16thMarch 2012, along with thirteen other authors.
The 14/4 Literary Dinner brings 14 authors, book lovers, writers, assorted purveyors of fine culture and a charity together, once a year, for one great 4 course meal.
Alison will be giving a talk on her latest book, Mary Boleyn: “The Great and Infamous Whore”
Mary Boleyn: “The Great and Infamous Whore” is available in paperback now.
Ticket information will be available shortly.
Please join Alison on her website www.AlisonWeir.org