J. Anderson Coats has kindly agreed to answer some questions about her upcoming book The Wicked and the Just, which goes on sale today. (Look out for my review later in the week!)
This novel is seeped in history and inspired by real-life events, so I asked her if she could tell us a little bit more about it.
The Welsh Uprising of 1294 in Caernarvon is a period that perhaps isn’t as well-known to some readers. Could you tell us a little bit about it? What made you want to write a story based on these events?
After the fall of native government in Wales in 1282–3, the English filled the power vacuum and made north Wales into a principality directly administered by the Crown. They sought to ensure that the Welsh never caused trouble again, so they implemented an extensive — and expensive — castle-building, urban development and settlement program to maintain control of the area through extra-military means.
What interested me was this question: Even when granted a lot of special privileges — including significant tax breaks — how did English settlers live in a place where they were outnumbered twenty to one by a hostile, recently subjugated population, and how did the Welsh live so close to people who’d done the subjugating, especially given the burdens placed on them by their new masters?
How much of the The Wicked and the Just is based on history, and how much is pure fiction?
The Principality of North Wales was real. It was set up by King Edward I after the collapse of native rule in Wales in 1282–3. Caernarvon was real. It was governed by a select group of English people for the benefit of the burgesses that lived there and the Crown as a whole. The rebellion of 1294–5 was real. It was a bread riot that turned into a tax riot that turned into a draft riot.
The events and situations in The Wicked and the Just are based on real-life conditions in the walled towns in north Wales in the late thirteenth century. The burgesses really did go to great lengths to insure that their privileges remained solely the domain of English settlers, and the burden of taxation really did fall on the Welsh who lived in the countryside. It really was illegal to grind your grain somewhere other than the Crown-sanctioned mills and trade anywhere other than the Crown-sanctioned market.
And while Cecily and Gwenhwyfar and Gruffydd are not real, historical people, they very much could have been.
How did you go about collecting research for your book?
The old-fashioned way — long dusty afternoons in research libraries, parked in the stacks with books and articles and highlighters and sticky-notes all around. I’m the sort of unbalanced person who does research for fun, and I have a whole spiral notebook dedicated to recording call numbers and citations for projects I’m still only thinking about.
Cecily is quite a… difficult character to grow to like. It’s quite a bold/unusual move to write a main character who is unlikable for a lot of the story. It makes a refreshing change from a lot of historical heroines with 21st century attitudes. What made you decide to tell the story in this way?
Writing Cecily was challenging, but her personal hubris fed into the general sense of English hubris that the planted towns tended to exhibit during this era. Plus, it was rather fun to write a character so full of herself!
However, for all her faults, Cecily is true to her context. It’s important to me to capture the past as it probably was (to the best of my admittedly limited abilities) rather than how we in the modern era sometimes think the past should have been. These were real people, and it seems disrespectful if I purposefully alter their real lived experiences to suit modern sensibilities.
Why did you decide write The Wicked and the Just for a teenage audience?
Young people are smart. They’re exacting and merciless, and they know what sucks and what doesn’t. I admire that. It’s a raw honestly a lot of adults don’t have the stomach for.
But teenagers also get fed a lot of bullcrap. Some of it they know is bullcrap, and some of it they have to learn is bullcrap. One of the ways they unlearn bullcrap is through books. I had the good fortune of reading a cubic ton of pages as a young person, and I learned a lot about life that way.
But I will admit to a tiny, personal reason: I was a massive teenage history geek and I never understood why school had to make it so boring. 99.99% of what I know about the middle ages is self-taught, and a significant part of it I picked up as a teenager.
School history is pretty vanilla, but real history is a lot more raw and a lot more familiar. I’m not trying to win converts to the history geek cause (although all are welcome in our tiny cabal) but I do hope my work makes teenagers consider history just the smallest bit more awesome.
Is there potential for Cecily’s or Gwen’s stories to continue in some way? As a series or a crossover novel perhaps?
As much as I love these characters, I see them continuing their lives without me. However, one of my projects in the works is a companion to The Wicked and the Just that 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. Emmaline de Coucy has a cameo in it!
Was there a particular character you enjoyed writing/who you connected with the most?
Cecily was the most fun to write, but I felt a stronger connection to Gwenhwyfar who spends too much of her time wishing things were different. Gwenhwyfar is constantly having to make sacrifices, and she tends to worry overly much about people who can take care of themselves. Some of my earliest feedback on the first draft was how palpable her anger was — quite a backhanded compliment!
The Wicked and the Just is your debut novel. What was it like finding out it was to be published? Can you give us a bit of insight into the publishing process?
I queried four different books over ten years. This means I sent letters to literary agents asking if they’d like to represent me and my work to editors. I kept hearing iterations of “thanks, but it’s not for me.” I kept writing new books and querying and hearing “thanks, but it’s not for me.” For ten years.
Then, in November 2010, I went from being unagented to having a contract for The Wicked and the Just in less than a month. It was a whirlwind! After my wonderful editor and I touched base, I did a round of revisions where I fixed outstanding issues with the story, then a round of copy-edits where I responded to everything from word choice to grammar to inconsistencies in the plot. Then I saw my cover and jacket copy; then the advanced reviewer copies went out into the world.
Now I’m waiting for April 17 when people can get their hands on it!
How long did it take to write the book?
I wrote the first draft in just over a year. It then took four years of periodic revisions to get it in the condition that got me my agent and my editor. All told, it probably about two and a half years. I was in grad school at the time, so I had ready access to research materials and lots of time on the bus for writing!
If you could go back in time and live during any period, which era would you choose and why?
Hmm, knowing what I know about history, I’m pretty fond of the twenty-first century. I like flush toilets and antibiotics and representative democracy. But I have to say I’d be tempted to visit the great age of sail — the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There’s something very appealing about a world of frontiers, a world driven by discovery and novelty and the sense of potential for an ordinary (admittedly male) person with a little bit of luck and a lot of moxie.
The historian in me is scolding me for this choice, as it was also the advent of modern chattel slavery and the disastrous introduction of disease to the New World. But this era had the kind of restless energy and optimism that faded away once there was nothing left for people to discover. We traded wonder for knowledge, and although this was in no way a bad trade, something is definitely absent from a world without any more frontiers for ordinary people to explore.
A big thank you to J. Anderson Coats for taking the time out of a hectic schedule to answer some questions about her debut book and the fascinating history surrounding it!