The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Tricia Callow, sister of Lesley J Nickell

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Tricia Callow, sister of Lesley J Nickell

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Summary: Ani is an enthusiast about 15th and 16th century history and enjoyed the different approach to the Wars of the Roses which she found in The White Queen of Middleham: Sprigs of Broom 1 by Lesley J Nickell. She'd have loved to chat to Lesley, but unfortunately she died in 2013. Fortunately, Lesley's sister, Tricia Callow had the answers to many of Ani's questions.
Date: 19 March 2015
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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Ani is an enthusiast about 15th and 16th century history and enjoyed the different approach to the Wars of the Roses which she found in The White Queen of Middleham: Sprigs of Broom 1 by Lesley J Nickell. She'd have loved to chat to Lesley, but unfortunately she died in 2013. Fortunately, Lesley's sister, Tricia Callow had the answers to many of Ani's questions.

  • Bookbag: Who did Lesley envisage as being her reading audience?

Trcia Callow: Lesley obviously loved it when people read her books, but I don't think she wrote them for anyone else. The characters, the places and their stories were in her head and they had to get out! After the success of her first novel, her best chance of getting subsequent books published was when she became House Author for a publishing firm - but they went bankrupt leaving her with three unpublished manuscripts. And yet she went on to write two more historical novels.

  • BB: Tell us a little about Lesley's background and why she chose to write historical fiction.

TC: Her childhood included many family outings to historical sites and buildings as well as visits to the theatre and reading, reading, reading. Childish games 'dressing up' rapidly turned into reenactments of scenes from history. Certain characters, especially from the 15th and 17th centuries, captured her imagination and focused her reading and travelling. When she had exhausted the historical facts about them, she wanted to put in the missing jig-saw pieces and make them 'live' again - inventing scenes and words and motives, yes, but always within the framework of those facts. And I think that's the definition of a historical novel, isn't it?

  • BB: Why did you decide to publish Lesley's books posthumously?

TC: Lesley did not like technology. However, shortly before her death, her friend Rosalind Winter - an author herself - persuaded her that modern self-publishing was practicable and economical. Lesley was excited and commissioned the cover designs and started proof-reading the manuscripts of her later historical novels. Butterfly Volume I ‘Painted Lady’ was published 7 months after Lesley died. That year, Richard III ‘the King in a car park’ had become a hot topic, and the idea was mooted: why not republish ‘The White Queen’? And maybe publish the rest of the trilogy for the first time?

  • BB: Was it a difficult journey from the moment you made this decision to publishing date? In particular, ere there difficulties republishing a book about Richard III written in the 1970s, after the discovery in a Leicester car park?

TC: Difficulties - yes! Who owned the copyright? Who held the publishing rights? What about the name – which had been re-used by Philippa Gregory for a different Yorkist queen 30 years later? And what about a cover which would reflect the story but not look like a typical Gregory book? After I’d discovered Mereo Books – just 10 miles up the road – they made the rest of the journey easy.

As for the bones in the car park and the subsequent revelations and discussions, they have been fascinating but don’t seem to invalidate anything that Lesley wrote: not even the contentious issue of the scoliosis. (I won’t repeat the arguments – you can read them in the Editor’s Note). I went to a talk by the Richard III Society, nervous that historical research would have moved on since the 1970s – but the evidence and arguments sounded surprisingly similar to those in Lesley’s sources.

  • BB: This particular novel, The White Queen of Middleham, revolves totally around Anne Neville, eventual wife of King Richard III. What attracted Lesley to Anne as a subject?

TC: Initially, an interest in Edward IV and then, increasingly, in Richard III. Anne was such a key figure in so many ways – daughter of a king-maker, rich heiress, married to a Lancastrian Prince of Wales and a Yorkist King, kept prisoner by her brother-in-law in a row between royal brothers … so historical records often tell us where she was and whom she was with, but very little about the woman or what she did. Not even one portrait. Perfect for a historical novel (see the second question above)!

  • BB: Considering how Anne's and Richard's lives ended, did Lesley find the novel difficult to finish (it being totally written from Anne's viewpoint)?

TC: Yes, very hard. In fact, she ground to a halt for quite a while. She wrote in her journal: I’ve reached the very last section of my book. Not looking forward to it, because it mustn’t be depressing, or mawkish, or sentimental. Tall order. Then 5 months later: At last the book is finished. I think it’s OK – it felt so as I wrote it.

  • BB: One critic has suggested that Lesley has interpreted Anne as a sad pathetic creature without backbone. How would you respond to this?

TC: I think the answers to this and the question about what attracted Lesley to Anne Neville are much the same. If she’d been feisty like Queen Margaret, wouldn’t she have had more impact on the course of history, and left more of a footprint? But I disagree about no backbone: there’s hidden strength in the quiet woman behind the man.

  • BB: The White Queen is the first of a trilogy entitled Sprigs of Broom. It's an intriguing title; where does it come from?

TC: The surname Plantagenet is said to have been the nickname for Count Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II - either because he used to wear a sprig of broom (Latin planta genista) or, more probably, due to his habit of planting brooms to improve his hunting covers. Interestingly, although we use the name for all kings from 1154 to 1485, its first official use wasn’t until 1460 when Richard Duke of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III) claimed the throne as ‘Richard Plantaginet’. And ‘sprigs’ are descendants or younger family members …


  • BB: What can we look forward to in Books 2 and 3 and - please excuse my eagerness - when can we get our hands on them?

TC: The second book Sons of York, to be released later in 2015, tackles the thorny question: what did happen to the Princes in the Tower? The third book, Perkin, considers the equally fascinating question: who was Perkin Warbeck? Although Lesley’s answers are controversial, as with all her books they fit the known facts. But these aren’t dry history text books: the places and events come alive for me and leave me convinced that even the fictional characters must, surely, have existed?

  • BB: You of course have your own legacy of private memories of Lesley as a sister. What do you feel is Lesley's literary legacy and how would you like her to be remembered by those of us who only have the opportunity to meet her via her words?

TC: I would like people to read her books and feel as if they know what it was like to live in an earlier century and be involved in the turbulent events of the time. It would be even better if some of them became fascinated by the many questions and unknowns and wanted to read more of the period.

If, when you wonder what the author herself was like, you find yourself thinking of the very different characters of Anne Neville and Janet Evershed and Mary Villiers, I think Lesley would be quite happy about that.

  • BB: Thank you for chatting to us, Tricia - we feel that we know Lesley much better now.

You can read more about Lesley J Nickell here.

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