Mary Beth Keane, author of “The Walking People” and “Fever” answers 10 questions about her favorite time period in history, her favorite figures from history, and the age old question of coffee or tea.
1. If you could go back in time and be any figure from history, who would it be?
This is a tricky one. The most notable women in history are notable because of the difficulties they endured and I wouldn’t want to go to the trouble of traveling back in time only to be burned at the stake (Joan of Arc) or to be swallowed by the sea (Amelia Earhart). No thanks. I have enough worries in my real life. On the other hand I don’t think I would enjoy the sitting-around-and-gossiping lifestyle of someone more noble. I’m tempted to decide to be a Brontë sister – either one – because I love their work, but it seems to me that their fiction was born out of a terrible loneliness. So after careful consideration, I would opt to go back as Gráinne O’Malley, Chieftan of the O’Malley clan of Ireland and part-time pirate. She was fierce and powerful at a time when most women weren’t (16th century Ireland), and it’s rumored that she had a rich and varied love life. Also, it’s possible that I’m a descendant on my father’s side.
2. What year in history would you have liked to live in?
As a woman? I’d like to stay exactly where I am.
3. You’re having a dinner party and you can invite 5 people from history, who would they be?
I read somewhere that the key to a successful dinner party is grouping people whose personalities would compliment one another. So I wouldn’t invite, say, John the Baptist and Christopher Hitchens on the same night. I think the people I’d most like to spend an evening with are my own female ancestors. I’d like to know if I’ve inherited anything from them, and if the decisions they made back when – for survival, for family – are still reverberating now.
4. What castle from the past or present would you like to live in?
I’m not a girl who’s ever felt longing for a castle. I’ve taken the tours and I always spend two minutes imagining myself walking the gothic hallways in long, gorgeous dresses, and then I feel the itch to get outside into the natural light, the fresh air. I’d be the one in the Jane Austen novel always walking the Moors when a thunderstorm rolls in. That said, I would not say no to spending a week or two in Versailles.
5. Two fellow historical fiction authors you’d like to go on a history themed tour of the world with?
Two of my favorite writers of historical fiction are writers who most people do not think of when they think historical fiction: Margaret Atwood and Colum McCann. “Alias Grace” is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I’ve just finished “TransAtlantic” by McCann, which can be described as an historical novel. If not “TransAtlantic” then certainly
“Dancer, Zoli”, “This Side of Brightness”. Both Atwood and McCann have such a unique and trustworthy perspective on the world, and both come at history from a slant-wise direction – something I appreciate. In addition, they strike me as being fun people to hang out with. We’d go visit a few historical sites, and then we’d kick back with a good dinner and a few bottles of wine after a long day of touring.
6. Who was more dashing and interesting, King Henry VIII of England or King Louis XIV of France?
For the purposes of this interview, and if I pretend these are the last two men on earth, I pick Henry as more dashing and more interesting – in an ego-maniacal kind of way. If you ask me to choose between these two as a spouse or partner or else suffer the pain of death, I’ll go with Louis XIV. However, like I stated earlier, I’m not a castle kind of girl, and I think I’d have preferred a long and happy life with the guy in charge of the stables, or one of those far flung Lords who never has to go to Court.
7. Which of the six wives of King Henry VIII is your favorite?
Anne of Cleves. I imagine this woman had the brains and the political savvy to rule the world. She made it out of her marriage to that lunatic with both her head and a generous settlement. Brilliant.
8. English monarchy or French monarchy?
Everything I know about either one comes from either Shakespeare or Showtime so I’m on shaky ground. I suppose there’s a reason so many people are still fascinated by the English monarchy. I don’t know as much about the French monarchs – their saints or their villains – so I have to respectfully decline to take a side.
9. What three novels could you read over and over?
Certainly, there are classic novels that changed me, that haunted me for a long time after – “My Ántonia” by Willa Cather was one, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter was another – but when I get obsessed over a novel it tends to be contemporary. When I open a new novel not knowing what to expect, and then end up reading at 3am with my heart in my throat, I tend to want to hold that book close for a while, though I don’t usually re-read it in its entirety. I look at passages, the openings or closings of chapters and sections. When I choose to read something several times I go to poetry, or short stories. I have “The Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney” on my writing desk and I crack it open whenever I suspect myself of taking the path of least resistance.
10. Tea or coffee when writing?
Coffee when I’m writing in the early morning, tea if it’s the afternoon or evening.
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