Interview with Author Cecelia Holland of The Secret Eleanor
It is always fun to read where an author takes a snapshot from the life of a famous person and digs into. The more mysterious it is, the more creative an author can have with it. When I read The Secret Eleanor, I was curious as to what attracted the author to this part of Eleanor of Aquitaine's life. What better way to satisfy curiosity than to actually ask the author?
Here is what Cecelia Holland had to say about all that and more.
Did you have any preconceived ideas or notions about Eleanor of Aquitaine before you started researching for the book that were challenged?
I had thought, foolishly, that she was something of a ditz. The more I read and saw the more astonished I was at the sheer power and forceful personality of this woman. In the 12th century women were hardly considered even fully human—there was a serious argument in one of the councils whether they even had souls—but she lived as fully and independently as any man. She got out of a stifling marriage by sheer force of will, and married a much younger man, and when he got uppity, she revolted against him; when he resorted to a man’s one advantage, sheer force, and locked her up, she outlasted him, got out, and raised hell for the next twenty years.
Why did you go with this particular angle of her life?
I wanted a snapshot of her, not a whole life. Her dissolving of her first marriage and securing of the second is the turning point in her career. Then of course I got intrigued with the possibilities, and I discovered Petronilla, who is barely noticed in the literature. I have sisters, and the relationship is fraught. I enjoyed that.
As you were researching and writing about Eleanor, did any doors open to pique your interest in more subjects to write on?
That whole period is fascinating. It’s the beginning of the great renaissance of the 12th century, the blossoming of medieval culture. The House of Aquitaine’s central position in the rise of the troubadours, the lay literature of the time like Chretien de Troyes, the change in the status of women: all this seems to come together in the person of Eleanor but has ramifications throughout the area and the period. The area of Aquitaine also is bubbling with stories and people and beautiful places. The Albigensian Crusade is in the next century, so there’s that always like a dark cloud looming. The pilgrimage to Compostela goes through there—I traveled a fair way along that, when I was in France. Here were little bits of paper on the road, like the bits of shell the pilgrims left. The life of the time still seems to simmer just below the surface there.
As you think of ideas for future books, do you keep a notebook of them?
I keep files on my computer. I have a couple dozen stories in various stages, some extensive, some just a few sentences.
How do you come up with names for your fictional characters?
Sometimes the character comes to me with a name. Other times it’s a struggle to find the right name. In THE KING’S WITCH, a sequel of sorts to SECRET ELEANOR, there’s a character named Rouquin—I started out calling him Red, because I could not figure out his real name; all through the book I kept trying out other names. I wanted something harsh, masculine, idiomatic, a nickname. I never found it. When I sent the book to its editor she rejected Red and I went around and found Rouquin which means red-headed. I don’t like that much. I think his name is something else, but I don’t know what.
Is there a genre that you’ve always wanted to write for but haven’t yet?
I’ve done Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction and straight Fiction, and I do a little Non-Fiction History. Occasionally I try to write poetry which comes out really badly. I’d like to write a mystery.
If you could be any of the characters you write about, which one would it be and why?
I’d love to have been Eleanor. I love how she did exactly as she pleased and snapped her fingers in the faces of all the awestruck men around her. And who would not like to be the most beautiful woman of her day? But it’s the inner woman I love.
Ms. Holland, thank you for taking the time to answer my humble questions and for the delightful answers. I enjoyed reading them.
For all who are interested in reading more, the link to my review is here and below is the link to purchase your own copy of The Secret Eleanor.