Author Interview: J. Anderson Coats 

By  Turn The Page

J. Ander­son Coats has kindly agreed to answer some ques­tions about her book The Wicked and the Just.

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 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? 

Books Worth Reading:

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?

Books Worth Reading:

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?

Books Worth Reading:

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.

Books Worth Reading:

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?

Books Worth Reading:

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!