Thursday 25 November 2021

Interview with Prue Batten on the release of her new novel, Reliquary

Over the years I have interviewed Tasmanian author, Prue Batten, she has written guest blog posts for me, and I have reviewed some of her novels, such as Tobias. It is safe to say I am a fan, so it should be no surprise that when I heard that her latest medieval novel, Reliquary, had been published, I jumped at the chance to invite her once again to my humble blog.

Welcome back, Prue. First thing's first, please tell us about your latest book, Reliquary.

An elevator pitch perhaps? 

1196 France

A small Benedictine convent

The world’s most desired and sanctified relic

The Knights Templar want it

A nun and a crusader have it

Lives lost

Faith tested

Revenge exacted

Where did you get the inspiration for the Peregrinus Trilogy?

My books are usually inspired in some way by a nugget from research for previous novels. In the Peregrinus Series, there is a pattern – people making pilgrimages, visiting relics, finding hope or redemption, some even finding damnation.

Relics were perceived as a ticket to Heaven for many in the Middle Ages and as I researched, it became inevitable that the merchant house of Gisborne ben Simon would trade in relics, a seriously cut-throat business. The Peregrinus (Latin for traveller or pilgrim) Series was born.

How does the trilogy fit in with your other books? Are they related or linked?

They are all linked by the 12th century trading house of Gisborne ben Simon which is featured in all of my backlist. Those who work for the house are an eclectic bunch of strong personalities with vivid backgrounds. Each story is a standalone, held in its place by the fact that the characters are all comrades-in-arms and this camaraderie is like a web, binding them to each other. There is very little that is light-hearted in the novels, because trade in the Middle Ages (and at any other time) was venal, and murder frequent. The old adage of First Come, First Served, could have been a 12th century mantra for a successful mercantile endeavour.

In the case of Reliquary, Christendom’s greatest relic is the centrepiece of the novel.

In Oak Gall and Gold, an illuminator monk is the ‘peregrinus’ and a lost manuscript the focus.

As for the unknown, untitled Book Three, who knows?

What was the biggest surprise for you while writing Reliquary?

That a Bride of Christ might kill to save herself.

Like all of your books, Reliquary is set on the other side of the world to where you live. I have recently moved some of my novels out of Britain and taken the characters to mainland Europe. Due to COVID, it has been impossible to travel to those places, and I yearn to be able to visit the places I have written about. How do you research the locations so far from where you live?

As I have mentioned to you before, I would have to be a millionaire to travel repeatedly (9 books) from far-removed Tasmania to the settings for my stories. However, I have travelled through Europe and the UK and filled journals with sensory detail. 

That travelling was prompted by my lecturer in medieval studies when I did my degree many years ago. He had a way of talking about the philosophical side of the Middle Ages that was electrifying for me.

In addition, I’ve been very fortunate over the years in England, Istanbul, France and now Germany, to have very qualified friends who are happy to research on my behalf, even a friend who ran a charter yacht service through the Med and Adriatic and so his watery observations of winds, tides and coastlines have been perfect.

But I also think we authors today are extremely lucky to have the web. There is NOTHING one can’t find via Google Maps, YouTube, forums and the many published research papers in various fields. 

I have been fortunate with Reliquary. Whilst my much-respected friend and researcher in France passed away last year (he is responsible for finding the little convent of Esteil in Reliquary as well as massive input into a large proportion of my backlist. I miss our repartee and academic connection), I have videos, notes, stills and experiences filed away. 

I would like to note that the reality of the settings of my novels has never been questioned and it’s humbling to receive many plaudits similar to the ones below: 

‘writes in 3D and surround sound…’

‘…vivid and believable…’

‘…an intricate tale highlighted by the details of that vast city and the life within it.’

‘The mixture of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean of the period was… realistic and handled with superb understatement.’

‘You feel you are in the cities that were described.’ 

Travel for authors may never ever be what it was. Pandemics make sure of that. I live on a healthy island which is part of an island continent and so the nation was able to ‘control’ the ingress of a certain amount of the pandemic. In addition, my own state government will always put the people’s safety ahead of everything, so I can’t guarantee 100% freedom to travel and get home – even into the future. With that in mind, I think Covid has given writers the chance to work in a different way and to build settings with unique effort and creativity rather than just showing and telling. 

But to be honest, I don’t stress about the ‘need’ to travel. I just read and write.

If I had to choose one location that I have never visited and which is written about solely from the research and five senses of my researchers, it is 12th century Constantinople, of which, sadly, there is very little left thanks to the Fourth Crusade and the Ottoman Invasion.

If I was able to choose others? The outer Scottish Isles, Scandinavia and Lindisfarne.

I interviewed you several years ago. What has changed for you as a writer since then? What is better? What is worse?

Firstly, the flooding of the indie marketplace with vast amounts of appalling writing which has damped down the reputation of so many good writers.

Secondly, Time is not on my side. I’m now seventy and have a 3 year old grandson and many things I want to accomplish. That means writing must take its place, whereas before, I did nothing much but…

I’m fortunate that I can write with little to no pressure. My portfolio is increased at my own speed and with the kind support of my readers. I live my writing life without expectation and with the desire to publish for those readers to the best of my abilities.

What has had the biggest influence on your work in the last five years?

I think I write better because life’s experiences, good and bad, continue to make a very deep mark. It’s something age delivers – a kind of soul-deep wisdom which younger folk may not yet have experienced. I think I write even more emotively. If I didn’t, I would be disappointed. And I think by writing at my own pace, I have the opportunity to hone the craft to better and better heights.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Words and language – they are the most perfect things in the world. I saw the word ‘ethereal’ the other day and I took it, held it in my palm for just a moment and thought ‘What a beautiful word.’ Sometimes it can be that simple.

What is the best book you've read in the last twelve months?

Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow. Such beautifully parsed, elegant writing and an engaging saga.

What is next for you? The sequel to Reliquary? What plans after that?

Yes, Book Two, Oak Gall and Gold (working title) is a third of the way and I am guessing that at some point, a nugget will drop in my lap from the current research which will provide Book Three. I don’t stress about it. What will be will be.

After that? There’s a fantasy of nearly 40,000 words waiting to be finished and a colonial history novel waiting to be started and… 

But therein lies a whisper of that word – ‘Time’. ‘Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.’ Carl Sandberg.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

Thank you, Matthew.

Connect with Prue: