Ms. Coats graciously agreed to answer some of our questions about her work and her writing career.
We can not start this interview without finally asking: how do you pronounce Gwinny’s name? Gwenhwyfar? Welsh words have the craziest spelling.
There is no single way to pronounce things in Welsh. The language has developed along regional lines over hundreds of years, so I make no claim that my pronunciation is “correct” but rather reflects how I learned it.
Depending on where you are, it’s Gwen-hwih-VAR or Gwen-hwee-VAR. Sometimes it’s more like Gwen-HOOey-VAR.
Here’s a native Welsh speaker pronouncing it.
BBC Wales has a great little clickable sound board that overviews each letter of the Welsh alphabet. The nice thing about Welsh is that you generally pronounce every letter, so once you learn the sounds, you’re off to the races.
Much of the conflict in late thirteenth-century Wales was experienced in ordinary ways by ordinary people, and that’s what interested me. Witnessing the mayor of Caernarvon enact a toll policy wouldn’t be as interesting as seeing Cecily and Mistress Tipley cutting through the toll line while all the Welsh had to wait in it. This conflict wasn’t as interesting viewed from the top. I wanted to get inside it.
I chose to write from the point of view of teenage girls primarily because Cecily and Gwenhwyfar were the characters that spoke to me, but also because I’m interested in the lived experiences of girls and women in the past. The influence of women in politics was definitely limited, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their influence was limited everywhere. I was interested in how women and girls did exercise power, and what form that might take.
And speaking of the two heroines, Cecily and Gwinny, we thought their voices were very distinct. Was it difficult for you to “find” these voices, or did they come to you fully realized from the very beginning?
Cecily spoke to me from the beginning clear as new glass. She has always been clever, single-minded and more than a little entitled. In fact, in earlier drafts she was even worse and I had to tone her down!
Gwenhwyfar was a little more elusive. All I had of her initially was her pure undiluted rage. She came into focus more gradually, and in response to her interactions with her brother and would-be sweetheart. They did a lot to soften her rough edges and define her inner life.
The language in The Wicked and the Just was definitely a balancing act. I didn’t want the story to feel artificially archaic, that I was sprinkling in random words from the Oxford English Dictionary just for “flavor.” So I steered away from vocabulary in favor of rhythm; the internal meter of the narrative is meant to echo medieval prose literature and early modern ballad poetry.
Word choice was still fairly front and center, though, and I tried to use context as much as possible to keep the readers in the loop. During copyedits, I had to defend individual words that were considered “too modern.” I wrote little mini-dissertations in the margins and cited the OED. My geek senses were tingling for two whole weeks!
When I was in the sixth grade, my gifted enrichment program did a unit on medieval culture. One of the books available for our perusal was Castle by David Macaulay. (If you’ve never read it, Castle is a slice-of-life tour through a fictional castle in Wales with the most lovely and detailed illustrations.) This book pulled me so firmly into the medieval world that I don’t think I’ve ever really left. Castle made the middle ages feel familiar, approachable and real.
I went straight to my public library and systematically checked out every book on medieval Wales, then the middle ages in general. When I’d read them all, I started harvesting titles from bibliographies and bugging my mother to get books for me on interlibrary loan. This was how I learned how crass Macaulay’s anglicizations were, but by then I was onto other things, most notably When was Wales? by Gwyn Williams.
Williams’ dissection of traditional scholarship introduced me to the idea that history isn’t facts, but a collection of narratives written by human beings for a given purpose. The Wales that Williams presented was a complicated, fascinating place where history wasn’t encapsulated in the past, but had real and immediate bearing on the present.
It very much depended on who you were. Cecily’s Wales was a pretty attractive place. English burgesses who were citizens of the town of Caernarvon didn’t have to pay any taxes, and the rents for the houses and lands were very low. There were all kinds of special privileges attached to being a burgess, too. Gwenhwyfar’s Wales, on the other hand, wasn’t so nice. The Welsh had to make up for the taxes that the burgesses didn’t pay, and they had a lot of restrictions placed on what they could do and say and where they could go. Life in north Wales in 1293 was pretty good. If you were English.
Besides the setting/history of The Wicked and the Just, what are some of your favorite historical periods or events to learn about?
The middle ages will always be my favorite historical era hands down, but I’m also fascinated by the great age of sail - the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There’s also something eerily captivating about the Great War (WWI) and the world that died in the trenches. And early colonial Australia, with the Rum Corps and Norfolk Island. I could go on for paragraphs. Our shared human experience on this rock is way stranger than fiction and all the more engaging for being true.
The Wicked and the Just is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your road to being published? Was it a bumpy road? Or did this novel find its publisher very quickly?
I wrote my first novel at age thirteen. It was about a hundred pages long, typed, single-spaced, and it was really bad. By age eighteen, I’d written five more, each slightly less bad than the last. I started querying at age twenty, and I queried four novels over ten years before I wrote and sold The Wicked and the Just. Ray Bradbury famously said that your first million words don’t count. I think it was more like two million for me. But then within a month in 2010, I went from unagented to having a book contract – it was a whirlwind.
You hold master’s degrees in library science and history. What do you feel you are first - a historian? a librarian? a writer?
I don’t know that I can separate them out. Being a writer is something I live and breathe. It’s how I approach the world. It’s how I work through problems. It’s how I pick apart ideas and identify the constituent elements. It’s something I’ve always been.
The other two I’ve discovered, but that doesn’t mean they’re any a less a part of the way I approach the world. Librarians impose order and historians appreciate context. When I was younger, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas in quite the same way; I needed the training for that. But they were always there.
I love THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly and MAY B. by Caroline Starr Rose - both are for middle-grade readers. In the YA arena, I’d can’t read PAGAN’S CRUSADE by Catherine Jinks, BLOODY JACK by L.A. Meyer, and SAMURAI SHORTSTOP by Alan Gratz enough times. For adults, definitely THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco, and even though it’s not straight historical fiction, DOMESDAY BOOK by Connie Willis is one of the best novels about the Black Death I’ve ever read.
Do you plan to continue writing young adult stories? Historical fiction? What is next for you?
I write things I’d like to read and let the experts decide where they should be shelved.
Right now I’m working on several projects. One is a companion novel to The Wicked and the Just which follows Maredydd ap Madog, whose father is the ringleader of the rebellion of 1294, as he negotiates the future his father wants for him and the future he wants for himself. Then there’s a standalone book that’s set in twelfth-century Wales about a warband, an abduction, a badly-timed war, a charismatic but mercurial king’s son and a girl who would do about anything for a chance at a normal life.
The Wicked and the Just is not going to be released until April 17, 2012, but we are lucky to have one ARC of this novel to give away. US only. Open until midnight EST on 3/20. Good luck!