Author Interview: Kate Heartfield
Buy The Embroidered Book here
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: “Power is not something you are given. Power is something you take. When you are a woman, it is a little more difficult, that’s all”
1768. Charlotte, daughter of the Habsburg Empress, arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Her sister Antoine is sent to France, and in the mirrored corridors of Versailles they rename her Marie Antoinette.
The sisters are alone, but they are not powerless. When they were only children, they discovered a book of spells – spells that work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.
In a time of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, they use the book to take control of their lives.
But every spell requires a sacrifice. And as love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.
FORMAT/INFO: The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield was published by Harper Collins in May, 2022, and will be released in paperback format in the U.S. on August 1, 2023.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and welcome to the Fantasy Book Critic! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your upcoming book, The Embroidered Book?
Thank you for having me! I’m a novelist, game writer and short story writer in Ottawa, Canada. I used to be a journalist, and I have a lifelong fascination with history. The Embroidered Book is coming out soon in paperback (it’s already available in hardcover). It’s a big historical fantasy about Queen Marie Antoinette of France, and her sister Queen Charlotte of Naples – with a twist: they are both secretly magicians.
What three adjectives would you choose to describe your book to the uninitiated?
Immersive, enchanted, epic.
What can you tell us about the nature of magic in this world, as well as the role it plays in your story?
The book is set in the late 18th century, in a version of our world in which magic has always existed, but most people don’t know that. In Europe, magic has been controlled for centuries by a secret society of men called The Order of 1326. They’ve learned how to enchant objects to imbue them with magical powers, but every spell requires sacrifices of treasure, parts of the body, memory, love or hope. On a practical level, the ritual feels medieval (and is), but this is the age of Enlightenment, so magic-users (called magisters in the book) take a scientific approach and try to discover new spells. In a changing world, rogue magisters – including women – learn about magic and use it for their own ends. The choice of what to sacrifice, and why, affects the lives of both Antoinette and Charlotte, and their countries.
The Embroidered Book is a historical fiction novel. How much of it is steeped in historical detail, which ones, and how familiar do readers have to be with these events in order to enjoy it to the fullest?
It’s a novel very steeped in historical detail – I am a research nerd – but I tried to write it in such a way that readers could understand the story without knowing any of the history. I won’t spoil it, but in the main, the novel doesn’t contradict known historical events; all the magic fits into the gaps in what we know, and offers an alternative explanation for how some of those events unfolded.
How much time did you spend on research to work these historical details into your book, and are there any interesting things you found in the process that you’d like to share?
I started writing this book in 2015, but I was working on other projects over the years as I was working on this book. I did a lot of research; I began by reading a few general histories of the late 18th century and biographies of the main figures I wanted to write about, and then found sources for all the details I needed to know as I went. One interesting thing I found was that one of the children who was listed on Charlotte (aka Maria Carolina)’s Wikipedia page doesn’t seem to have existed; for one thing, she’s never mentioned in Charlotte’s diary, not even on the day she supposedly died. After I tweeted about this, Wikipedia’s editors deleted the page, but last I heard, there was some ongoing debate about it. Happy to leave Wikipedia and historians to sort it out on their own, but the child doesn’t appear in my novel. Like many queens of her age, Charlotte had many children, and child mortality was sadly common, and royal families tended to use the same batch of names over and over, so it’s not hard to see how confusion might have crept in. It does tickle me that as a historical fantasy writer, I may have made some small contribution to our understanding of the facts.
If there is any other time period you’d love to write about, what would you pick, and why?
So many! My novel The Valkyrie is releasing in hardcover this year, and it’s set in the 5th century CE in what is now Germany. I’m working on a novel now set in France and England during the Second World War. My novel The Chatelaine is set in 14th century Flanders. So I bounce around a lot! As a Canadian, I would like to write about Canadian history (I’ve written short fiction set in Canada, and an early unpublished novel, but no published novels yet.) I have an idea for something set in Canada in the early 20 th century. And another idea set in the 14th century, which has always been one of my favourite periods – probably because I’ve read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose so many times. One of my earliest unpublished novels (I have a few!) was set in 12th century Ireland, and I’d love to return to that century too – it was such a fascinating period of philosophical and political change. I guess I’d better get writing…
Let’s twist that a bit. Of all the historical periods you’d want to write about, which one do you think you’ll enjoy writing the most, and which one the least? Why?
I love the Middle Ages because of the weirdness of the stories of the time; an age that produced the Green Knight and the City of Ladies is an age that calls to me as a speculative fiction writer. I find writing stories set in the 20th century difficult, because so much is known so there are fewer gaps for fiction to fill in, and because I’m very aware that the real historical figures who might walk onto my pages could still be alive, or be the parent or grandparent of someone still alive.
To make life easier, what mundane magical powers would you choose, from the ones featured in your book? You can only pick one mundane ability!
Oh, what I would give for a better memory! In The Embroidered Book, some magisters have earrings that help them remember people’s names. That would come in very handy when I’m teaching my university class.
Let’s talk about your influences. Among them, If you could pair three historical fiction authors with three fantasy authors, which ones would you pair, and why do you think they’d complement each other very well to make for a great historical fantasy novel? (Feel free to go with less than three if needed)
Hmm, interesting question! Susannah Clarke needs no combining, because she’s already the quintessential historical fantasy writer if you ask me. I’m going to use “living or dead” rules for the rest, and combine N.K. Jemisin with Umberto Eco, because they’re both amazing world-builders and write flawed characters with style. I’ll pair Fonda Lee with Hilary Mantel, because they both write complex family dynamics and politics so well. And Robin McKinley with Rosemary Sutcliff, because they were both huge influences on me as a kid, and because I think their prose styles would fit together nicely.
Thank you for answering all these questions! If there is one thing you’d like our readers to take away from this interview, what would it be?
I’d love for readers to explore historical fantasy – there’s so much wonderful work being published in the genre these days, and it’s a great way to get a new perspective on the stories we tell and how and why we tell them. Babel by R.F. Kuang and The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty are two of my recent favourites.