Monday, July 16, 2012

Interview with Katherine Ashe

I would like to introduce Author Katherine Ashe the winner of the B.R.A.G Medallion for her novel, Montfort.

Katherine, please tell us about your novel, Montfort the Founder of Parliament the Early Years.

Montfort The Early Years is the first of four novels, all now in print, on the life of Simon de Montfort. The book begins with his arrival in England from France as a near penniless youth in the winter of 1229, and it follows his rise as he becomes the closest friend of King Henry III, the son of the notorious King John.

Few people have experienced the “spin of fate’s wheel” as dramatically as Simon, and this first book follows him from hapless petitioner to favored courtier, to exile, to candidate for Viceroy, to hapless petitioner again, to military hero and ultimately back to high favor with King Henry III. All this in fourteen years.

This is not a fictional character. Simon was very real and these things, beyond question, really happened to him. Why his fate during this period was so tumultuous has been a matter of speculation from his lifetime onward. I offer a theory, which I cannot and do not claim as fact, but which, if it were true, would go far to explaining King Henry’s erratic behavior toward him—behavior that sent him into exile. His own extraordinary abilities and meticulous conscience account for the rest.

Montfort The Early Years is, of necessity, the most speculative of the Montfort books, but I’ve supplied each volume with a thorough bibliography and an Historical Context section that gives my sources, page citations and the reasons for my interpretations – which are at times unconventional but are the products of my 34 years of research.

When did you first become interested in Simon de Montfort?

I discovered Simon in 1976 while doing a little research for my first book, which I was writing as an escape from the demise of my fine art print publishing company. That book, a fantasy titled The Fairy Garden, was inspired by my visit to Salisbury and its cathedral. The date of the cathedral’s consecration was 1258. I thought I ought to know what was happening in England that year. Out came my old Britannica, and there was an article on The Barons War led by Simon de Montfort. I looked up Simon and thought the article on him oddly hostile for the Britannica. Soon afterward, accidentally coming across more about Simon in the 19th century, multi-volume Greene’s History, I was stunned that so little was commonly known of this man who apparently was pivotal in the founding of modern democracy, and I decided the next thing I would do was seek more information on his life. That search hasn’t ceased.

How did you research the historical characters for you story?

I began with 19th and 20th century histories and monographs in the New York Public Library and quickly found that no two historians agreed. Some even confused him with his father, who had the same name. And the tone of hostility permeated many of the entries and the monographs.

Later I did find a fine, in depth study of his life by Charles Bemont and another helpful book, though confusing in its organization, by Margaret Wade Labarge. Perhaps the most helpful find was J.A. Giles’ translation of the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, who was Simon’s contemporary and became well acquainted with him. A letter sent to Simon is bound in Matthew’s book, and he describes events he could only have gotten first-hand from Simon. Brother Matthew’s monastery was one day’s ride north of London, on Simon’s direct way from Court to his home. The New York Society Library lent me the Chronica for nine years – for which I’m eternally grateful. During that time I acquired two early 17th century reprints of the Chronica in Latin to compare with the Giles translation.

By the time I had read what was available from easily accessible historians, the questions regarding Simon’s life had grown knottier. I had to have a look at the original documents. I received funding to study them at the British Library, the British Public Record Office and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. And there was also funding for me to travel to most of the sites relevant to Simon’s history. Historians Dr. Henry Pachter, and Dr. Madeliene Cosman who founded the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the City University of New York, guided and oversaw my work.

What of the 13th century might be significant for the 21st?

In the 13th century the rights of kings were not yet established. Magna Carta (1215) and then the Provisions of Oxford (1258) and the Provisions of Westminster (1258) seriously challenged those rights and the latter two, promulgated when Simon was in control of England, actually established the template for a government elected by the people and with power over the king. It was Simon who made that government a reality from 1258 to 1260 and from 1263 to 1265.

The theology of Thomas Aquinas proposed a divine hierarchy, with the Pope and then kings the unquestionably highest-ranking creatures on earth. In 1263 the papacy embraced Thomas’s views, out of obvious self-interest, and the result was five hundred years of the “divine right of kings.”

Yet the parliament created in Simon’s time, with its prototype of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the king an executive branch guided by the other two, was never entirely forgotten. It was reinstated, in part or in whole, time and again in England. Now most governments all over the world have some variation of this early model which Simon de Montfort brought into being.

You deal with religion more than most authors of historical novels do, why is that?

It was religious ideas: the belief in a coming New Era of justice and egalitarianism, as proposed by the theologian Joachim de Fiore, that enabled the creation of an elected parliament; and it was the theology of Thomas Aquinas, specifically aimed as an answer to Joachim, that suppressed it.

For most of the people I write about in Montfort, their faith was an essential part of their lives and their thinking. To ignore the style of their thinking is to deal with these people superficially as figures in fancy dress moved through a series of events like puppets with modern words and ideas put into their mouths.

Since Freud undertook to study Moses in modern terms it’s been fashionable to try to interpret the past in terms of the present. In my view, if the aim is to understand a person who lived far in the past, that approach is wrong-headed. I try to bring the reader into a sense of the period to see what motivated these real people who died 750 years ago.

Why did you self-publish?

Before turning to publishing fine art prints I had published art books. My agent, Malcolm Reiss at Paul Reynolds Agency, was delighted I was writing an historical novel and took the outline and first chapter to Playboy Press, presenting me with a contract from them within a week – and answering my raised eyebrows with “they pay the most.”

Frankly, I didn’t want to touch Playboy with a barge pole. I had no intention of writing a salacious book and figured I had better finish the draft before offering it again. The first draft wasn’t complete until 1985, and I got an offer first from Random House. But since the manuscript was some 1650 pages long they needed the paperback rights as well. The paperback division came back saying they loved the book but I would have to change the main character to a woman. My advisor Dr. Cosman laughed hysterically, “We’ll rename him Simone de Montfort!”

But it turned out not to be a joke. Montfort was rejected over and over again because it lacked a central female character. From time to time I sampled the mood of the publishing world and carried on with my research while writing plays, screenplays and historical plays for radio. By 2008 my then agent Jacques de Spoelberche could get no one to even look at the book.

I was quite ill in 2009 and considered that if I died my years of work would have gone for nothing. But research was still turning up new material. It was beginning to seem that hoping for completion was naïve.

I contacted a self-publishing firm called Booksurge and was preparing the first volume of Montfort for publication when Amazon bought the company, merging it with their own Createspace. My contract went to Createspace and I was able to continue working with the excellent Booksurge editors and designers.

Only by self-publishing have I been able to publish Montfort as I see fit, free from the categories and marketing requirements of trade publishing.

What do you see as the future of trade publishing? Self publishing?

Since the1960s I’ve had many friends in trade publishing. I saw the sale of most of the houses that had conducted the literate, gentlemanly business that brought us the great American writers of the early and mid 20th century. They were sold to large conglomerate corporations. Editors who had a genuine interest in finding brilliant new writers took second place to the accounting and sales departments. New literature ceased to be of central concern. Having a book just like some other firm’s best seller was the goal. Many editors left, new ones came for whom this new business model was taken as a norm. Book publishing was following the Harvard School of Business dictum that all businesses were really the same and what counted was the “bottom line.” I believe this has been a disastrous error and the results are becoming visible now.

Fiction hardly qualifies as a category any longer at these houses. Publishers churn out non-fiction much of which originates in their own conferences or their editors’ phone contact lists . They seek costly contracts with celebrities for ghost written bios. They publish look-alike books in a handful of accepted modes, among them the historical novel, but they’ve restricted the historical novel to a romance genre with nearly identical covers, an exception being the “war book” for the male market.

And now we see independent and chain book stores closing. Amazon has proven this is not because there are no readers out there. Readers are there in the millions. But the once-great publishers have failed to attract sufficient of them to support their business model, and they’ve failed to adapt their model to the changing modes of purchase.

Self -publishing frees authors from the constraints of editors’ dictating what text must be. And Amazon enables them to find a market with no need of a publisher’s sales staff. Add that Amazon pays authors a royalty of 70% while trade publishers pay 10% to 15% and you have a very persuasive argument in favor of self-publishing.

Authors, publishers and readers tend to be conservative. That familiar colophon of the borzoi or the house – whichever publisher you favor, still has power and appeal. The self-published author has a challenge in doing without it.

What or who inspired you to become an author?

Both my parents were writers. My father was a staff screenwriter for Cecil B. de Mille; my mother wrote poetry. I began writing at the age of seven with a murder mystery called “A Thousand and One Uses.” But my parents were neither of them happy as writers and encouraged me to become a painter, so I concentrated on painting through my early 20’s.

What is your favorite quote?

…the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

With the combination of easy and inexpensive self-publishing and the world-wide marketing facilities of Amazon, this is the most exciting time ever for beginning writers.

Write as well as you can, and then copy edit like a sculptor chipping and smoothing a block of stone to perfection. Professionalism is in the copy editing. Read fine writers to develop your sense of what language can do.

Katherine’s bio, links:

Born in Hollywood, I spent my infancy and teenage years with my grandparents in the east, and age 4 to 12 with my unhappy parents in California. I attended NYU in the 60’s but, dissatisfied with the curriculum, I enrolled at the New School where I could attend classes and accumulate credits from every university in New York. It was an unusual opportunity to treat the city like a medieval university, hearing lectures by the foremost professors of philosophy and history wherever they were teaching in the city.

I became a painter and showed my rather surrealistic paintings at the Dorsky and the Braverman Galleries in New York. But the art world was not for me and I began researching and writing books on Chinese ceramics – to understand the collecting impulse in a field remote from my own prejudices about painting.

I published fine art limited edition prints by Red Grooms, Fairfield Porter and other major artists for a while, after one of the periodic debacles in the publishing world brought some of my book contracts to cancellation.

Interested in China, I became enthusiastic about “peace through trade” and in 1972, after studying what products the US was strong in and China was weak, I founded a company to sell Agway’s quick-frozen bull sperm to the Inner Mongolian Grasslands Institute, but the Texas Cattle Breeders Association saw a good thing and swiftly moved me out of that business. It was fun party conversation while it lasted. “Oh, yes, a canister of glass ampules by Aeroflot via Ulan Bator…”

I turned to writing in 1976. First was The Fairy Garden, a philosophical novel that, yes, is actually about fairies, and which I will finally get around to publishing later this year. Then I began Montfort. While doing my decades of medieval research I also wrote stage plays, screen plays and founded the Jefferson Radio Theater at Public Radio Stations WJFF and WVIA. My play “An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe”, originally commissioned by the New York City Historic House Trust, ran for two and a half years, and “Johnny” on the miners’ strike of 1902 was the prize commission play for American Labor 2000.


Blog: Katherine Ashe’s Longview

Montfort The Early Years:

Montfor The Viceroy:
Montfort The Revolutionary:

Montfort the Angel with the Sword:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Katherine Ashe who is the author of Montfort one of our medallion honorees at To be awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Montfort merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


Thank you Katherine and IndieBRAG for this lovely interview.

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