As part of the blog tour for Songbird, I am thrilled to be hosting author Karen Heenan for a guest post today. Many thanks to Karen for taking the time to talk to us, and to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to be a part of the tour.
Bess has the voice of an angel, or so Henry VIII declares when he buys her from her father as a member of the music, the Royal company of minstrels, best grows up with in the decadent Tudor Court navigating the ever-changing tide of royals and courtiers. Friends come and go as cracked voices, politics, heartbreak, and death loom over even the lowliest of musicians. Tom, her first and dearest friend is her only constant but as Bess becomes too comfortable at court, she may find that constancy has its limits.
You can purchase your copy of Songbird here.
Now you know all about the book, I will hand over to Karen to tell you all about the inspiration for it.
It’s funny how one small thing—a fact, a character name, a random occurrence—can send you down the rabbit hole of story.
In my case, I was reading a biography of Henry VIII, and something jumped out at me. It shouldn’t have; it was just a fact-in-passing that the King had once purchased a child for the chapel choir. He heard him singing in a street procession, had a purse thrown to the mother, and the boy was put up on the back of a horse. New musician for Henry, money (and possibly survival) for the mother and any other children, a new life for the child.
But at what cost?
It wouldn’t let me go. I finished the biography, started something completely different, and it was still there, asking, What would it feel like to have your life changed in an instant? To know that your parents had sold you—even if it was the best thing that could have happened?
Trying to answer that question led me to my protagonist, Bess, a young girl with a beautiful voice, born into desperate poverty. She’s been punished all her life for wasting time with music, so she’s confused when her father drags her across London to sing for someone she later finds out is the King of England—and then sells her to him.
Bess makes a new life at court, with friends and a substitute family, but the uncertainty of her beginnings never leaves her, and informs many of the choices (good and bad) that she makes. Who can she trust, when her own family was willing to let her go? Is it safe to love people, when they can leave you so easily?
I wanted to explore what effect this would have on a young girl, and just as much, I wanted to wander around the backstairs of the court of Henry VIII. I’ve been interested in the period since a childhood viewing of the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII with my mom, who was also a big reader of historical fiction (though she preferred the bodice-ripper format).
While Henry and two of his queens do appear in Songbird, they are only peripheral figures. They’ve had plenty of airtime in other books, series, movies, etc. It’s always the “real” people who fascinate me, the ones who worked behind the scenes and, in this case, made the pageantry come alive for the nobility.
Bess becomes a member of the King’s Music, the group of musicians who live at court, travel with the King, and perform at his whim. As jobs go in the Tudor court, it’s a good one. She’s servant, but at a higher level—she certainly isn’t going to be doing laundry, which was her mother’s job, and would likely have been hers if she’d stayed with her family.
She interacts with all levels of people at court, but has some difficulty figuring out where she belongs. In a sense, Bess’s story isn’t that far removed from any of us—growing up, uncertain of our place, not knowing who to rely on. She just lives in a time and a place where loss comes from many different directions: people can die of disease or childbirth or execution, they leave for reasons of marriage, work, or just to find their own place.
Like any teenage girl, Bess has trouble seeing what’s right in front of her, and she often doesn’t want to hear the advice of people who know better. This makes her journey more difficult, and more satisfying when she finally reaches a place where she can rest.
I thought that writing Songbird would get my lifetime interest in the Tudors out of my system, but alas, I’m now neck-deep in a not-sequel featuring a secondary character from the story who stepped up and announced that he felt slighted by his treatment. (Of course he did: the day characters are happy with the way we treat them is right after the words “the end,” when we’re finally done putting them through the wringer).
It looks like historical fiction and I are going to stay together. The more I write, the more the ideas keep coming. I started late, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia. She fell in love with books and stories before she learned to read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams – which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband.
For more information on what I think sounds like a fascinating book, make sure you pay a visit to the other blogs taking part on the tour.