Can you firstly tell us about your childhood, and when was the first time that you knew that writing was for you?
I grew up in Malta surrounded by all the vivid colour and pageant of the Mediterranean culture which was a great stimulus to a child’s imagination. I was solitary child and for as far back as I can remember, I told myself stories. I used stones and marbles as human characters who had adventures among bedclothes and chair legs, which became mountains and jungles.
I think the first time I ever considered writing down these stories was at junior school when we were told to write about something on the nature table. Everyone else in the class wrote nice poems or pieces about pretty flowers, birds’ nests or sea-shells. I wrote a horror story about the water in a neglected jam-jar on the back of the table that had turned green and slimy. I think that was the first of many occasions I got sent to headmaster!
How would you answer the question ‘Who is Karen Maitland ?’
Perhaps I am the sum of all my fictional characters. I can’t define myself in roles as I’ve had so many different jobs, known so many people in different relationships and lived in so many countries.
The question of who anyone really is was one of the issues I explored in Company of Liars. The medieval characters fleeing the plague meet up on the road and tell different stories about their past which are false, yet contain deep truths about themselves. I think everyone in the world presents themselves as lots of different people to others. We’re not the same person to our children as we are to our boss. None of them are false identities, just different facets of ourselves.
Someone once said, ‘I write to find out what I’m talking about.’ I think I write to find out who I am.
Do you think the things you write about say anything about you as a person?
I hope they say that have a fascination with legend, folklore and superstition. I definitely have a dark side and that I hate the idea of people of living and dying without trace, so I want to give a voice to the voiceless, those ordinary people who lived the most extraordinary lives. I’m fascinated by the lives of people who lived on the margins of society, forced there because of the attitudes of the time.
But I would love to know what readers have learned about me from reading my books.
Out of all the books you have written which one is your favourite and why?
I suppose it will always be the most recent. For today it is Falcons of Fire and Ice which is set in 1561 in Lisbon and Iceland. At the heart of the novel is the mysterious volcanic cave in Iceland with all its ghosts and dark secrets. This place has haunted me for years ever since I descended into it and I’ve always wanted to write about it. I just love the beauty and excitement of Iceland with its volcanoes, and wild dramatic landscape. Even the rocks feel as if they are alive.
And I also thoroughly enjoyed writing one of the male characters, Ricardo. He’s a con-artist, but by the end of the novel I adored him, the way a mother can’t help having a soft-spot for a mischievous rogue of a son.
If you had to write an autobiography about your life what would it have in it and do you have any regrets in your life so far?
I’d probably write about the places round the world I’ve visited and worked in including Africa, Greenland and Albania . I have a knack of turning up in the wrong places at the wrong time. I started worked on the Falls Road in Belfast the day Bobby Sands began his hunger strike which triggered the most violent phrase of ‘The Troubles’. And generally when I go on holiday to another country they either have revolution or a natural disaster, so if I were you, I’d avoid any dates on which I’m travelling.
In my autobiography I’d also write about the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege to care for from a chameleon to twin lion cubs and some of jobs from egg packing to dancing.
If I have any regrets it’s that I didn’t start writing novels earlier, but then, although I write Medieval thrillers, much of my life experiences go into those books, so I couldn’t have written them until I’d lived them.
If you could change your career tomorrow, what would you do and why?
I’d be an actor, which I’ve always wanted to do, and in a way writing fiction is very close to acting, because you have to play out the scenes and become the characters, feel their emotions and their fears. I frequently speak the dialogue as I write, especially the arguments, becoming really worked up in the process.
Alternatively, I like to get one of those jobs where you get paid to live on some remote island to count birds or seals or on a reservation looking after orphaned chimps or any other animals, preferably somewhere warm or with sea around it. I like insects and snakes, but I’m not so keen on spiders, just in case anyone has a position going!
What made you want to start writing books?
The first book I wrote was a futuristic thriller about terrorism based on my experiences in Northern Ireland and Nigeria. I had become fascinated by why people of mixed birth are often drawn into extremism or terrorism. I think it is the need to prove or define their identity. It was a book I had to write to get the traumatic experiences I’d lived through out of my head.
The historical novels came about when I learned about the beguinages, the cities of women, which was vast movement in the Middle Ages involving hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life. I couldn’t understand why I’d never been taught this in school and why it had been written out of history. I wanted to share my discovery with readers, so I wrote The Owl Killers.
My starting point for writing any novel is some aspect of history I am really excited to learn more about and explore, rather than something I already know. So in The Gallows Curse it was the role of the sin-eaters at the time when the priests had all fled into hiding during the reign of King John.
Do you have any books in the pipeline and keep topping every book you have written with the next?
All of my novels are triggered by something that is happening in the news now, and I look for a time when something similar has happened before in history. So the book I’m currently finishing, The Vanishing Witch, is set in Lincoln and London in 1381 and was triggered by watching the London riots a couple of years ago, which were so similar in several ways to the peasants revolt, though the 21st century London riots didn’t end with the mob cutting off the Chancellor of the Exchequer's head.
I think it is a mistake for any writer to actively set out to top the last book, though I always hope I improve as a writer with each book. Topping a book would make an author tempted to be more graphic or outrageous in each book. But I do take notice of readers and if they like a feature in a book, such as folklore snippets or the dark elements I will try to include that in the next. But I hope each book is good in its own right and in different ways.
Do you have special routines or processes you go through to write a book and if so what are they?
I read everything and anything about the period before I start writing to get a flavour of how people lived and what preoccupied them. I visit the locations where scenes will take place and trying to absorb the atmosphere, sounds and smells, for example, where the wind catches you as you climb a hill or what kind of plants grow there. I also research the occupations of my main characters – what did a fuller do in the cloth trade and what long-term damage would his heath suffer if he was treading in vats of stale urine all day. I also read modern psychology papers too – what would be the mental and physiological effects on a man if he was castrated before puberty?
Then I begin to write. When I’m about third to a half through the first draft I stop writing for a few days. By this stage I have made friends with my characters and have learned what they want and what they fear and they have confided some of their past to me. The subplots and themes of the novel have begun to emerge. So I break off and summarise each chapter so far in bullet-points, then I bullet-point plot the rest of the novel, so I have a plan to write against.
What things do you do when you are away from writing and what TV, music etc. are you into at the moment?
I love going round antique fairs and collecting things which aren’t of any real value, just cheap everyday objects which have so much social history like a battered Edwardian privy lamp, a piece of advertising or a child’s homemade toy. I also love visiting old houses and churches and walking by the sea on a blustery winter’s day.
TV? I’m badly missing Merlin, but really looking forward to the new series of Doc Martin and thoroughly enjoying Doctor Who and Endeavour. Music –I’m a Classic FM radio fan and I also love Klezmer. In June, I’m appearing at the Noir Festival on the beach in Le Havre and like all the authors attending, I was asked to write the lyrics for a Noir Rock anthem, which will be set to music and performed by a French rock band during the festival. So I’ve been listening to a lot of rock music for the first time in years.
My great delight is listening to audio books when I’m cooking or doing the chores. I can’t get enough of them. I’ve just finished the hilarious Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud and the wonderfully chilling The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafron.
For anyone reading this who would like to get into writing what advice would you give them?
Write about what excites you, not what you think will sell. If your heart and soul isn’t in what you are writing, you won’t be able to finish it, never mind enthral the reader.
Resist the temptation to keep reworking the beginning. By the time you finish the first draft of the whole book you’ll probably need to change it anyway.
Don’t wait till you have a free day. Carve out a time slot every day, even if it’s only half an hour. Write without reading over what you’ve written for the whole of your time slot. Ignore punctuation, spelling etc. Begin the next day’s session just reading the material you wrote the day before. That will help you get back into the voice and mood. By the time you’ve finished you will have started writing on from there. That way, the only day you have to face a blank page is the first one. Once you have the bare bones of the first draft of the whole novel written, then is the time to go back to the beginning, correct, edit and flesh out. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me.
Join a writing group or find a group of writers on-line, if only to set each other deadlines, which will help to make you keep going.
What things make you happy and what things annoy you?
I find happiness in small acts of kindness such as people opening doors for each other or helping someone lift a tin from a high shelf in a supermarket. Happiness is also readers telling me they enjoyed a book or a talk, walks in countryside and time spent with family and friends. And when an animal chooses to spend time with me or wants to come and sit with me. That’s a huge privilege.
Things that make me annoyed – rudeness and lack of consideration for others; being ripped off and people who spend their lives looking for things to criticise in films, plays, cooking, politics and everything everyone else does. It becomes a dangerously bad habit. We all know nothing is perfect, but you can usually find something good in everything if you look. As our grandmothers used to teach us – ‘If you can’t find something nice to say, say nothing at all.’
Can you tell me one thing about yourself that people might not already know?
I once rented a haunted house, though I didn’t know it before I moved in. I used to watch an old man in a long coat walk down the passageway and out through the closed front door, closely followed by a small terrier-like dog. My cat could see it too. She used to flatten herself against the wall and watch as them as they walked passed her. I didn’t mention this to anyone, until a friend was in the house one day and came rushing into the kitchen to say – ‘I know you won’t believe me but…’ She described in detail exactly what I saw. I think it was an imprint rather than a ghost though, like a stain on the floor from something that had been spilled long ago.
What are you up to at the moment and what’s next for you?
I have several festivals coming up – Le Havre on 15th, 16th June. Lowdham on 29th June and Gelding 12th July, which I’m really looking forward to. I love meeting readers and other authors. So, I hope I might meet you at one of them.
I am currently finishing The Vanishing Witch and at the same time writing another Medieval thriller The Raven’s Head. I also write a joint novel every year with a group of five other authors known as the ‘Medieval Murderers’ – Susannah Gregory, Philip Gooden, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson. Our next Medieval Murderers crime novel is out in July - The False Virgin and we are just about to write novel number ten which will be published next year. Oh, yes and I am hoping to get some new chickens!