Last month, I had the immense privilege of sitting down with best-selling author Adrienne Dillard. Adrienne’s three books (‘Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey‘, ‘The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn‘, and ‘Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels: A Novel of Jane Seymour‘) take place in Tudor England. Filled with rich and immersive imagery of the court and its inhabitants, compassionate reassessments of much-maligned or forgotten women, and spellbinding re-imaginings of the triumphs, tragedies, and bloodshed that made Tudor England so notorious, these books are a must read for any 16th century fanatic.
Adrienne, thank you so much for answering our questions, and, as always, for spilling the Tudor tea! We so look forward to having you again sometime!
And to all of our Tudor enthusiasts, as you’ll read more about below, we cannot recommend Adrienne Dillard’s books highly enough. If you’re a fan of compelling female characters and meticulous research, you will be completely captivated by the remarkable world Adrienne’s writing allows us to step into. We hope you enjoy this chat as much as we did.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Hi Adrienne! For those who don’t already know, you’re an assistant financial advisor, best selling author, a mom, and looking to start a PhD. To start things off, can you tell us a bit about how you decided to delve into the world of historical fiction?
I was working [as an assistant financial advisor] and, at the time, the company we worked for, my financial advisor had to go out and knock on doors to bring in business. So, I was alone in the office a lot and he just trusted me, ‘as long as you’re doing your work, I really don’t care what else you do with your time’. I started researching history – I’ve always been interested in it – and, after so long, I just thought I have all this knowledge, but I’m already done with school, so what am I going to do with it?
My husband at the time said, why don’t you write a book? And I told him he was crazy! But I ended up doing it, and my first book came out and it sold really well – which was a surprise, because I didn’t even intend to publish it. It just so happened that I was connected with Claire Ridgway (Anne Boleyn Files) while I was researching and she said ‘my husband’s just started this publishing company, why don’t you join us?’
Eventually, I’d gotten to the point where I decided I wanted to try my own hand at publishing. Another author, Sandra Vasoli, and I joined together and formed Grey London Press, which is how that came about. I’ve always really loved school, and always wanted to get a graduate degree, but I was a mom, and doing my writing thing, and working full-time, so I never thought I’d have time for it. But a couple of years ago I got divorced, and we now split our son 50/50, so every other week, I am a bachelorette with a lot of time on my hands! And since I already do the research, I thought, now’s the best time to start my Masters Program!
Q. With all these different hats you wear, what is a day in the life like for you?
Typically, I get up in the morning and have to be at work at 7 o’clock in the morning! I spend a lot of my day talking to clients and opening accounts and watching the stock market and all that fun stuff! I drink a LOT of coffee. I get off at 3:30, which is amazing because I get to come home right about when my son is getting off of school. If he’s with his dad, I research. I read a lot, I get on British History Online – which is amazing, I’m always trolling for different ideas – or, lately, I’ve been researching Masters Programs and trying to navigate applying for school. Sometimes, I get some writing done! I’m always trying to think about scenes and different threads of the story, so I’ll jot it all down.
Last night, I got the greatest opening for my next book, so I had to write it on my phone!
Q. Your books focus mainly on maligned or forgotten women. What sparked your interest in figures like Jane Boleyn and Catherine Carey?
Interestingly – and I used to have a stock answer for this, because people get weird about spiritual things – Catherine Carey came about because I went and had a hypnosis session and apparently, I had a past life! I started talking about this story about a woman who was coming home from across the ocean who was going to see her sister who wasn’t her sister. I spun this whole story! To this day, I don’t know how I feel about past lives, but for whatever reason, when I was in that moment and letting things in, this story just wanted to be told.
I started putting details into Google to figure out who this woman was. Then I realized, a lot of the things lined up with Catherine and I was like, ‘wow, I want to know more about her!’
I found out a year into writing Cor Rotto that Wendy Dunn was writing ‘Light in the Labyrinth,’ which was so funny because we’d both gotten the idea around the same time, but she was writing about Catherine’s early life and I was writing later life! It was serendipity.
[After writing Cor Rotto] I picked up Julia Fox’s book about Jane. I’d written Jane sympathetically in Cor Rotto, but not as sympathetically as I wished I had, so after reading that book I thought, ‘I want to write about her,’ and give her the story I felt she deserved.
That was the start. Now I look for women who have been maligned, or haven’t featured in many books, or have controversial reputations – like Jane Seymour. People either think she was boring or worthless, or they see her as this terrible, horrible woman who pushed Anne [Boleyn] out of the way. What if we consider that she was somewhere in the middle? Also at the time, while I was writing about her, I was going through my own divorce and seeing a lot of similarities in relationships with our spouses.
I feel like our stories come to us at times whenever we need to write them.
Q. Have you noticed any shifts in the way women have been portrayed in Tudor fiction in the last several years?
Definitely, there’s been a lot more interest in Catherine Carey! There haven’t been any fiction works, but I’ve seen biographies come out. Jane seems to be coming into this shift where people are starting to look at her differently, and reconsidering her legacy – which I think is amazing. At the end of the day, through my research into Jane, I do feel that she had a lot of issues with her mental health. I think that as we’re becoming more aware in our culture about mental health, and talking about it more, and trying to erase that stigma, I think that’s having an influence on how Jane is perceived – because now we’re starting to see that, oh wow, these historical people went through the same things we did.
But, of course, as we know: people like to be controversial. [Laughs]
I feel like my work stands on its own. I may write fiction, but I’ve spent over a decade researching Jane, her life, the primary sources, going to places that were connected to her. I held George’s books in the British library! So I don’t feel the need to defend my work. But at the same time, I truly feel that there’s been some harmful language in [recent biographical assessments] about Jane and women and mental illness.
Q. For Cor Rotto, you got to spend time at Catherine Carey’s ancestral home, and for The Raven’s Widow, you visited Jane’s monument at the Tower. How important is it for you to forge a connection with your muse in visiting the places they might’ve been?
Oh, it’s so important, going to those places and being immersed in them. I went to the Tower by myself, and spent probably an hour just sitting right where the Coldharbour gate use to be. I sat there knowing Jane would have *literally* walked right through where I was sitting, hearing the sounds of the town, hearing the birds, figuring out what it smells like at that time of year. You’re in that place, right where they were, and the only thing separating you is time.
I felt that particularly with George [Boleyn]’s Book. To sit there and see the brush strokes of how he signed his name; the flourishes he put. Locating Mark Seaton’s signature, and Thomas Wyatt – Wyatt wrote all over that book, including jokes, little funny quips, questions that must’ve just come to him as he was holding the book! Seeing the way it was laid out, the little wormholes in the paper. Those historical artifacts hold the energy of all the people they’ve been passed through.
Q. You wrote your novel, Cor Rotto, over the span of a decade! What was the timeline like on your other novels?
Yes! It was my first novel, and I had no idea what I was doing. I would sit down at my computer and have an idea of where I wanted the scene to go, and it’d end up being something completely different. [Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels] took me four years to write – the reason why is because for a year I had to study for my financial services licenses, so I was only writing for about three. You hear that some people are plotters and some people are plantsers – people who either plot and get really deep into planning out the scene and the storyline, or people who write by the seat of their pants – and that’s me!
I do all my research first, because I want to know EVERYTHING, and then I take a high overview before getting down into the details. I especially want to know what people’s motivations were. Why did Jane help Katheryn Howard? What was her motivation? So, with Jane, I sat with the evidence I had of her life and thought, ‘maybe it’s just something we can’t explain. Maybe it came about because she had gone through this hugely traumatizing event, and we know that trauma re-wires our brain.’ Jane had a history of mental illness in her family – her grandfather was very ill – and we know that can be genetic. So once I knew the arc of her life, I started looking at all these different pieces. Maybe Jane just didn’t know she would die from helping Katheryn.
But with Keeper, I had two POVs! I had to really try and keep those separate, and think about which POV would tell the scene better, and had to be a lot more precise about the way I told it.
Q. Out of all the characters that come alive in your novels, is there one in particular that you feel that you’re most like? Can you tell us a bit more about that muse?
Oh, Margery [Horsman, from Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels], 100%! We know basically nothing about her! We know around four facts about her life, and that’s it – we don’t even know where she came from. So, I wrote from my own perspective! I gave her a lot of my personality and my own characteristics, how she’s very unsure of herself, and doesn’t have any family. I am estranged from a lot of my family, and a lot of that comes from the trauma I had as a child. Writing Margery and crafting her story, I knew she had to be on her own, because if she had a family, we would know about it – there would be some mention of it. We do know she had a cousin because she writes to Cromwell and mentions a cousin, Martin Hastings, but if she’s the one having to write to Cromwell about him, I really do feel that she must’ve been on her own. Friends or relative came to her. I saw a lot of similarities between us in that.
She’s the one I had to make the most up about. I was very specific about that in the author’s note, the fact that we don’t know anything about her. I also love that Margery was named Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels, because I looove jewelry – that would be my job in the Tudor court! I’ve gotten to look at Jane Seymour’s jewel inventory, and it was amazing – just incredible the pieces she had in there. At the British Library, it was so neat to see the little notes next to it, where the jewels went, or who they came from, or who was given one. It was so cool to see which pieces Jane had picked out for Margery or Jane Rochford!
Another interesting thing is that as I looked at Jane’s inventory, of her gowns and her jewels, a lot of it was hand-me-downs [from Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon]. One of the things I found most surprising was that Jane would wear a gown that had pieces of a gown Anne wore in her portrait. If you compare the ‘Most Happy’ medal with Jane’s portrait, the outfit is the same. She’s also wearing the same necklace and jewels that Catherine of Aragon wore. I found this to be a really fascinating piece of Jane’s character that, rather than commissioning new jewels and new gowns, or wearing those that were being commissioned for her coronation, she wears the hand-me-downs of her predecessors. I think this makes for a very interesting psychological study of her.
So, in Keeper, I wrote this scene where Margery goes in to see Jane and she’s wearing these sleeves that have acorns on them, and Jane asks Margery if she has anything to say to her. Margery basically says ‘you know those sleeves were made for Anne.’ These particular sleeves are mentioned in the records as being made for Anne, and later on Jane is wearing them! It’s just so fascinating – why is she wearing a symbol (the acorn) so connected to Anne, particularly if the idea is that she “pushed” Anne away and basically convinced the King to set her aside? Why is she wearing this reminder of her?
Q. I love that you contradict the idea that Jane was “victorious” on the day of her wedding to Henry, with Anne having been executed only days prior. I would have been terrified!
Yes, me too. Henry just murdered his wife. It would be like going out and marrying Laci Peterson’s husband, or Alex Murdaugh – he’s a redhead too!
Q. Ha! One last question for you, Adrienne. What can we look forward from you in the future? Any saucy deets about upcoming projects?
I’m going to be spending the next year working on getting my Master’s, so for anybody who follows me on social media, you’ll be coming along the journey with me. I’m also going to be working on my next novel, which is going to be another dual POV! I’m going back to my Catherine Carey roots and will be writing about her daughters.
Q. Will we be getting any glimpses of Lettice Knollys’ famous feud with her cousin Elizabeth I?
Yes! It will have that. The dual POV is going to be Lettice and her sister Elizabeth Knollys. We’ll be finding out why Lettice decided to pursue Robert Dudley and what her motivations for that might have been. When Lettice gets exiled from court we’ll be bringing in her sister, Elizabeth Knollys, so that we have a view of what is going on with Elizabeth (the Queen) at court. We’ll also see where their ongoing feud puts her sisters given the fact that she’s serving the Queen, she’s named for the Queen, and yet Elizabeth just despises her sister. I’m also excited to put Francis Knollys, their father, into the book a lot more, showing him as the grieving widower and including his hysterical humor.
Hopefully in the next couple of years that will come out.
Q. One more follow up! The Lettice of your upcoming book, what is one word you would use to describe her?
Ooo…. I think she is ‘regretful.’ I also like ‘resilient’, though. I think that’s a great word for her.
So excited to see how this will play out! Thank you again so, so much Adrienne!