GW: I’m here today with Marie Powell, writer, journalist, editor and author of educational books for children and novels for young adults, including her latest, the sword and sorcery epic, set in a mythical Wales, The Last of the Gifted. So without further ado, Marie, welcome to the show.
MP: Thank you. Well, I’m glad to be here.
GW: You do sound Canadian, but whereabouts exactly are you?
MP: Well, I’m smack in the middle of Canada, Regina, Saskatchewan, which is Treaty Four Territory.
GW: What does that mean?
MP: So I’m right in the middle of Canada, which is Treaty Four Territory, which means it’s the ancestral lands of the Cree, Saulteaux, Dene, Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda peoples, and the Homeland of the Métis. Regina, Saskatchewan.
GW: All right, so Treaty Four is a treaty made with those people.
MP: Well, yeah, there are 10 treaties in Canada, and this happens to be the one that covers this particular piece of territory. I think there are five treaties that cover the different areas of Saskatchewan for different nations.
GW: Canada is unimaginably vast, right?
MP: Yeah, pretty much.
GW: So if you’re slap bang in the middle of it, you’re a thousand miles from anywhere else.
MP: That’s right. Actually, really high above sea level, but very, very, very, very, very flat in Regina. It’s a former glacial lake. So it’s literally pretty flat around here for there. But I mean, Saskatchewan has three different, I think, three different climatic zones and a bunch of different landscapes. So forests in the north, we have an old growth forest, cypress hills in the east. You know, we have some badlands, you name it, we’ve got it.
GW: Yeah, I was a friend telling me that some relatives of his were visiting Canada from Europe, and they were going to somewhere in the east like Toronto, or Ontario. And he’s over on the West Coast and they were like, “Well, are you going to come and see us when we’re in this place where we’re going?” Yeah, exactly. That’s the Canadian response. To a European, that makes sense. If you go all the way from Canada to say, France and you’re in some parts of France, it’s not so unreasonable for somebody to cross France to come and see you.
MP: It’s hard for me to believe that, really.
GW: He pointed out that when they got to where they were going, they were less than halfway to where he actually lived. So, the trip from somewhere in Europe to Canada was less than half the distance from that bit in Canada to the other bit in Canada.
MP: So the two major cities, well, there’s four major cities, but it’s Toronto and Vancouver definitely are two of them. And yeah, they’re half a world away. There’s five or six time zones in there.
GW: That’s nuts. OK, so when I was researching for this interview, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is you do for a living because there’s lots and lots of different things, and I have the same problem because where people ask me, “What do you do for a living?” I have to decide whether or not I want a conversation and I have short answers for when I don’t want a conversation, and I have the more open ended more accurate answer for when it’s okay to spend the next 10 minutes explaining what I actually do. So what do you say when somebody asks you what you do for a living?
MP: I think that’s a really interesting question because I have learned that I need to say I’m a writer.
GW: That’s one of my shut down the conversation things.
MP: Yeah. For a long time, I worked for a library, so I introduced myself as a library programmer. And then I had somebody introduce me as a librarian at a writers conference, and I was like, oh, wait. I’m a writer, I’m not a librarian. I’m a person who writes who happens to work in a library for money. And like most Canadian writers, I mean, we have day jobs, especially children’s writers, so you don’t make a lot of money. There is only one J.K. Rowling. She’s the only one that gets all that money. The rest of us just skimp along.
GW: So what is a library programmer?
MP: When I did that job now, that was a few years ago. But basically what I did was I got to read books to all kinds of groups of people, children, very small children. We did finger plays with babies. We did children’s picture books with the younger crowd. We did the slightly more ambitious picture books and so on with the older ones. We did young adult novels with the young adult group and we did an adult book club and all kinds of programming in between for all ages. So it was a great job and I love libraries and I highly recommend, I mean, if anybody is out there listening, please recommend my books to your local library because I keep telling people that’s how I became a writer. You know what I mean? Basically, if there weren’t libraries, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today, right? So I really do believe in them in the work that they do for people because everything at our library anyway, in our library system, is free. Pretty much unless there’s some kind of materials cost involved, and all the work that gets done is done in schools, out of schools, in the library and you name it. And so I really believed in that work. But at the same time, what was happening was I was publishing these children’s books and getting invited to writers’ conferences and so on to talk to people. And I’m not a librarian. I’m a writer in that case. You know what I’m saying? I had a young friend at the time who had nothing published, and was basically a journalist like me, and she would introduce herself as a writer. And lo and behold, a year later, she had a book published. You know what I mean? So I learnt, right? I have to introduce myself as a writer in order to be taken seriously in that field. So I introduce myself now as a writer and pretty deliberately. I have been like a professional writer. I’ve written ad copy. I’ve been a journalist and a freelance journalist. I’ve got like thousands of magazine articles out there somewhere in the world, and I have more than 40 children’s books published.
GW: Wow. That’s a lot.
MP: And these two young adult novels. Yeah, it’s a lot. I write a lot, and that is the biggest part of my life. So if I introduce myself by the job that makes me the most money, I’m kind of doing disservice to what I spend most of my life doing.
GW: The part of my job that makes the most money is either in the writing or the online courses. But what I really am is I’m a historical martial arts instructor. But me actually showing up and teaching classes in person these days is a small fraction of my actual income because I mean, particularly with COVID. How often do you get to show up and teach class?
MP: That’s right.
GW: But what I actually am, really, is a historical martial arts instructor. That’s the important bit. The writing and the online courses and that sort of stuff is just sort of other ways of doing the same thing. So, yeah, but if I don’t want the conversation, I say “I’m a writer”, and then the next question is, “What do you write?” And I say it’s kind of specialist non-fiction stuff. It’s not very interesting. And that kind of kills the conversation. Fine, don’t have to go there. Because sometimes you just don’t want a long conversation about what you do for a living. And so now your latest book, Last of the Gifted, it’s set in, not the actual Wales, but Wales perhaps as it should have been.
MP: I think of it as the actual Wales.
GW: It’s got magic in it. And sorcery and stuff. So it’s sort of the magical Wales rather than the historical Wales.
MP: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fantasy set in a historical setting. I’m playing with the how things happened because you know what? There is so much that’s not known in that particular time period. Like for those few years when this invasion was going on, all of the records were destroyed after. So I can say anything happened. I mean, I know certain things happened at certain points in time, but how they happened isn’t really very clear.
GW: Just for the listener who probably hasn’t read the book yet. What time are we talking about?
MP: We’re talking about 1282 – 1283.
GW: That’s really specific.
MP: Yeah, it is really specific and it’s during the invasion of Edward I. So I have two magical characters, two siblings who basically pledge their magic to protect their people from the invasion of this very ruthless English army with a little help from the last true Prince of Wales after his murder. We know the Prince of Wales was killed and his head was sent to Edward, but we don’t quite know who killed him or how that happened. Nobody really owned up to it. So there’s like five different stories of how the prince actually died and what he was doing at that time and so on. As a writer, that’s a gap, right? In any time you have a gap, you can kind of fill it with whatever you want to fill it with. And so for me, I fill it with magic because that’s what I write. I write speculative fiction.
GW: That’s funny, because in historical martial arts, we hate the gaps. We want our sources to be as absolutely comprehensive as possible, so we don’t have to make anything up to make the martial art work. But for a fiction writer. It’s all about the gaps. If all the facts are known and all the motivations are known and everything is known perfectly, then there’s nothing to write.
GW: So what led you to pick that specific time?
MP: Well, what happened was my background is Welsh. My grandfather was a Welsh person born in Wales who was also a Welsh speaker. I know this because he put it on the census in 1916, but he was dead long before I was born and nobody quite knew where he was from. There is another gap there. Anyway, when I was growing up, both him and my grandmother were both dead. And I kept trying to ferret out information about them. I got a little obsessed with them. My dad also died young. So there was a lack of sources. And so when I was in my forties, I decided I would go to Wales and like my father had always said his father told him, don’t go to Wales to visit because it’s all slag heaps and it’s awful. And the industrial revolution ruined the country and blah blah blah.
GW: Can I just say, the English screwed it over. I can hold my hands up and say the English fucked Wales every which way and sideways. Sorry about that.
MP: I’m pretty sure my grandfather thought that. That was the impression definitely got growing up. Some sort of Welsh nationalist, I guess you could say. I just decided that I wanted to know more about my heritage and I wanted to walk the walk. If I couldn’t find the information, maybe I could walk around in the area. One of my uncles had apparently gone to Wales during the Second World War when he was stationed over there and couldn’t find any relatives that he could confirm were really our relatives. So I had this sense that I was going to be wandering around on my own with my kids. But I had a sense of where they might have come from. And I chose certain places. I rented a sheep farm, a cottage on a working sheep farm, which was the coolest thing ever. And it happened to be near the castle of Dolwyddelan in the town of Dolwyddelan, which still has a kind of a ruin behind it. And we planned to go to all these castles because you hear about them and like, Conwy and Beaumaris and Caernarvon and all these places. So we went to all of them and it’s pretty expensive for a Canadian, your money is way more than ours, but I bought tickets and we went to these big, huge imposing castles and then we discovered that those were not Welsh castles. Those were English castles constructed to subjugate the Welsh. So but Dolwyddelan was the castle of the original Welsh princess I had heard. So we wandered over there one day and it was completely different. For one thing, we drove up and there was like nobody around. There was no ticket takers. There were no guides waiting to give us 10 bob and we’ll take you for a tour. There was nothing. It was just nobody. There was us and a completely empty parking lot. So we parked the car and we walked up and oh my God, it was gorgeous. There’s a little waterfall and lovely countryside and you walk up and there’s this huge grey thing at the top of the hill. And we looked at it and we went, oh my gosh, because the door that you would go in is way up on like what would be to me, the first floor, not at the ground floor where one would enter. Right? There was a rickety stone steps up to it. And all these signs around with people falling off of steps, people falling off a stone, it was kind of like, you know, enter at your own risk and hope someone finds you if you get hurt up there and whatever. Anyway, so we went up there with that kind of attitude and kind of like what’s going on here, right? And we get in and there’s these placards all around in the main floor where you could read the history of Wales, and it was like there was this invasion in 1282 and they lost everything and they lost their way of life and they lost their prince, the last true Prince of Wales, you know, blah blah blah blah blah. So all of this story was around on the placards. It’s not that I didn’t know it, but it was kind of like I didn’t know it because I was standing in the midst of where they lived, and where at least one of the Princess of Wales might have been born and so on and looking around and we walked up the stairs to the walkway, the area up in the top where you could still walk around and see out. It is a little rickety. It was a little scary, but it was kind of cool at the same time and looking out over the countryside and suddenly and having just read it, just thinking, so this field was full of three to ten thousand soldiers wearing white camouflage uniforms for the first time ever. And you’re standing up there facing them. And it was like, oh, what would that have been like? And so I don’t know. I started to think about it and read about it, and in the end, I couldn’t not write about it. It just caught my imagination. I guess you could say, at that moment, and exploring my Welsh heritage at the same time, and like putting myself in that position and trying to think, what would that have been like? To the moment when you didn’t know what was going to happen, like you didn’t know you were going to lose everything. I think they were they were kind of winning at one point there, it looked pretty good for them before the death of the Prince.
GW: The home team often has an advantage. Shorter supply lines, for a start.
MP: There was like the Menai Strait thing happened just before that, and there was a sense that maybe he was meeting with one of the Marcher lords who was actually going to be an ally. There was a possibility that they sucked him in a little bit there, and he wandered off with only eighteen of his hundred and sixty guys, he had one hundred and sixty fighting men and families with him, because they lived in family units. They didn’t really live in castles. So he was actually living in Llys at that time. At Garth Celyn, apparently. The research that you can kind of piece together suggests that he was there, which is more like a village. A village with a good tower kind of thing is where they were all living. And he took only 18 of his guys and wandered off into Builth, which is way far away from home. Like, it’s still in Wales, but it was kind of from here to Saskatoon. It’s a fair distance, it’s like a day trip, maybe. But nevertheless, he was not in armour. At least there’s no indication that he was actually in armour ready to fight. In one of the five stories he was killed by an English soldier who threw a spear at a guy without realising it was the Prince of Wales. So obviously he wasn’t in regalia, wasn’t in identifiable outfits or whatever. And possibly not even in armour really at that point. And then they cut his head off and sent it to Edward.
GW: That’s what you do. You chuck a spear of somebody, they die, you chop their head off and send it to the king.
MP: Yeah, why not, right? But nobody claimed it. Nobody said for sure that they did it.
GW: That’s really weird.
MP: Well, it’s not because he was a prince. You don’t kill a prince or a lord, you put them up for ransom. It’s a total waste of death to kill a guy like that because he’s rich.
GW: So maybe it was a soldier who just didn’t want to get into trouble for basically costing his unit that kind of ransom.
MP: Well, that was the most reasonable explanation to me, but also because there was the treachery involved. And, you know, Edward I is kind of a spin doctor, he very carefully controlled all of the information that got out about him, and he very carefully controlled Wales when he took it, at the point in 1283, 1284, when he had control of it, he was very careful about what he let out and what didn’t get out. At that point in time into and after the invasion, when he was in Wales and he made his little procession in 1284 through Wales. His son died and he didn’t even go back for the funeral, because he was very carefully controlling the narrative. I mean, to me, that’s what was going on. Maybe that’s not true, but that’s how it feels reading it now and reading between the lines looking for these gaps as you do as a novelist. So the thing about the death of the Prince of Wales not being claimed, there’s a lot of ways that that myth does make sense, if you don’t want to be the aggressor, even though you are. And like the amount he took, he destroyed a lot of records. Edward destroyed a lot of records related to the prince and the entire house of Aberffraw very deliberately, I think, picking and choosing what he was allowing to remain and what he wasn’t. Because the only thing that remains of the Welsh at that time period was how fierce they were. But for about 10 to 12 years, Llywelyn pulled together the entire country, never had been done before. So obviously, he had something going for him to pull all these warring guys together and make them play nice for 10 to 12 years before. Edward deliberately stepped in and stopped that because at the point where Llywelyn was going to marry Eleanor De Montfort, the youngest De Montfort daughter, of Simon De Montfort, who was kind of like Edward’s arch enemy, you could say. Having been a former godfather of his, I guess, and Edward was responsible for Simon’s death and for the banishment of the entire family. Why Llywelyn would decide at fifty six years old to marry an exiled girl from a family that the king that was his archenemy hated is beyond me. There’s no explanation for why he decided to do this, but he decided to marry her, brings her over, and Edward captures her, possibly deliberately sets pirates after her, captures her and holds her in house arrest for three years to take down Llywelyn’s entire kingdom. To desiccate Wales, that was the only purpose. Edward finally said, OK, I’ll let you marry her. Come to England, come on, we’ll throw you a wedding. Gets him in a room, makes him sign away even more territory to the point where Edward wrote to the pope saying that I felt my life was in danger and I had to sign that paper. Anyway, so years go by. Everything’s fine. They finally have their first child. Eleanor dies in childbirth and suddenly they’re at war again. The war was actually probably caused by reaction of the Welsh to really bad treatment by the Marcher lords. There’s some good indication that Edward was kind of egging them on to do whatever they wanted, essentially, to the Welsh. And when Dafydd, Llywelyn ‘s brother, finally reacted and tried to take back some of what he should have had that they were trying to take away from him, they declared war on the entire country and take them down. And the proclamation that comes out after Edward wins says, “We have exterminated the Welsh”. Pretty heavy thinking.
GW: That’s genocidal thinking.
MP: Yeah, he went into that war to end it, and he literally devastated the House of Aberffraw. He made sure that there was nothing left in it, that no one could have children. He didn’t kill the children of Llywelyn or Dafydd, but he did put them in abbeys and forced them to become nuns and paid for them to be watched for the rest of their lives so that they literally wouldn’t ever dally or anything.
GW: So why didn’t he kill them?
MP: Because he was really related to them, for one thing. Again, think about it from a spin doctor’s point of view. Edward wants to be the good guy. He not the hammer of the Scots yet. Right? This is still 1282. We’re thirty years from that and he’s got this lovely wife, Eleanor de Castile, whom apparently he truly loved. I mean, they were together as kids. They had sex when she was only 13. He was very devoted, apparently, to her, kind of a one man guy at that point. And so was Llywelyn.
GW: People fell in love back then the way they do now. Just less opportunity to act on it.
MP: Dafydd, I mean, the brother of Llywelyn, and most of the people at that time had illegitimate kids, had mistresses, it was still arranged. Marriages. We were still in the time of arranged marriages for reasons of state. And there’s no question that that Eleanor de Castile and Edward I were an arranged marriage. There was an arranged marriage there. They didn’t know each other until the night they met on the week that they got married, basically. And yet, a year later, they had their first kid. So obviously, I just think that Edward was again, trying to control the narrative. And being very careful not to appear to be too much of an aggressor, because at the same time, he’s taking the persona of King Arthur. He’s doing this whole thing during that time period. The reason he stays in Wales and does the whole procession through Wales is he’s trying to find Excalibur. He’s on a hunt for it. According to the research, anyway, he was hunting for Excalibur.
MP: Well, because they just found the bodies of what they thought were King Arthur and Guinevere. And Edward and Eleanor went and agreed that, yes, these are the bodies, and they took them and they buried them elsewhere, and they did all kinds of things. And then they did this procession through to the legendary place where that sword was supposed to possibly have been. And they stayed there for a fair bit of time. During that period of time, that’s when his son died and he doesn’t go back to England for the funeral or anything. So he’s on a hunt for something. And there’s a good possibility that Eleanor was maybe pushing him along there like there. Maybe she was quite thrilled with the whole legend of King Arthur thing and that maybe Edward would be the Return of the King. It lends itself to speculative fiction. It lends itself to the fantasy there, doesn’t it?
GW: It really does. You mentioned earlier that the army was in white camouflage.
MP: First time it was ever used.
GW: The first time that camouflage was used?
MP: At Dolwyddelan.
GW: Yeah, OK. That’s the first time in military history that we have camouflage being used by an army.
MP: So I’ve read.
GW: Why would it be white?
MP: Because it’s snowy. A guy in armour probably glints in the snow, but a guy in white would disappear. And apparently, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s possible that Eleanor de Castile and her ladies created these white cloaks for them to hide their armour so that they could disappear in the snow. It’s quite cool, anyway.
GW: Yeah, I wonder how whether it would actually work.
MP: I think pretty well. We got a lot of snow here. I guess what I was thinking too, as I was standing on this walkway, looking out, thinking so this valley filled with snow and like this army in a white cloak. Honestly, snow can be pretty pristine. I’m looking at my backyard right now, and it’s like a mountain of snow out there.
GW: As soon as somebody walks through it you see the tracks. But for a whole army to be camouflaged; camouflage makes sense when you’ve got an individual or a small unit moving through an area, but to expect a whole army to disappear just because they have the wrong colour or the right colour to blend into the background.
MP: I think I could see it. I could see it, at least for a little while. Like, you could definitely sneak up on a guy, you know?
GW: Oh, sure. One on one.
MP: Yeah. Could you control the army? I don’t know. It’s an interesting story, though.
GW: It’s a very interesting story. And knowing the listenership to this podcast, I’ll be very surprised if I don’t get an email from at least a couple of people who already know all sorts of things about this and have done a billion tons of research on it.
MP: Oh, that’d be super. I would love to know. Could we recreate it? We’ll see if it would work. I’d like to.
GW: Well, yeah. So if anybody does know about this stuff, feel free to get in touch and I will definitely pass it on to Marie. This show is called The Sword Guy. As you can see, from the wall behind me, we’re really all about swords and there are swords in your book. So tell us something about the swords.
MP: Well, we don’t really know with Llywelyn and the lack of information we don’t really know what his weapon of choice was. But we do know where there’s a pretty good indication that he was a crusader when he was about 14. So that would have been early in the 1200s, early in the 13th century. In the mid 13th century we know there was a change in the armour and there was a change in the type of sword. And they are kind of moving towards, as the sword expert, I’m intrigued by the idea of a one and a half hand sword or a two handed sword, which is how I’ve read it, and I am intrigued by the one and a half handed sword and what that was.
GW: I can explain it if you want.
MP: Yeah, yeah. Could you?
GW: Swords made to be held in one hand only, you usually intended to have something else in your other hand, until quite late in history, you have like a shield or something in the other hand or a dagger or something like that. But the sword is only intended to be handled with one hand, and they’re often relatively light and they’re relatively short. When plate armour was developed, it became advantageous to not have anything in your other hand because you had the armour so you didn’t need a shield. And so you could put the other hand on your sword if you wanted to. But you were also riding a lot, so the left hand would be on the reins and the right hand will be on the sword. But if you dismounted, you could use the same sword the two hands. I’m just going to get a couple of swords off the wall. OK, so a single handed sword of the period we’re talking about. This is a bit later, but the grip is so only you can only reasonably fit one hand on this sword. But with what we call in historical martial arts, a longsword, the grip, the sword is light enough that you can easily use it in one hand. It is wieldy and you can draw it from the hip with one hand, no problem. So you can carry it like a sidearm. But you can comfortably put a second hand on the handle. And there’s all sorts of variations on this. Some had a slightly longer handle and a somewhat elongated pommel that you could just squeeze a second hand on if you wanted to. Others, like the long swords we tend to use most have enough space on the handle that you could actually put a third hand on that.
MP: Yeah, what you’ve got there is similar to the sword that’s shown in the statues of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.
GW: This is 1300s. Late 1300s. Let me just finish the thing. A true two handed sword is too big to be reasonably used with one hand, and the handle is often about… I’m holding my hands up in front of my face… about 40 centimetres long and the whole thing might be five feet long, even longer. And it’s not a sidearm. You can’t just have it in a scabbard at your hip, it has to be carried and it has to be used with two hands. There’s no reasonable prospect of using it as a single handed sword, so that’s how we define these days. In the late 13th century, you are going to get mostly single handed swords, and some of them would have a slightly longer grip. And so the hand and a half sword is often also called the bastard sword because it’s neither a single handed sword, nor is it a true two handed sword.
MP: Like, I don’t know, the statutes, would be all long after him, long after him, imagining what he might have looked like. And they have him with the big sword, with the very tall sword. Like it comes up to his waist and he’s got his hands on it. It’s kind of facing down from him, you know what I mean? But it’s a good bet that he would have had, I think, what you’re calling the bastard sword, because a) he was a crusader, b) he was the kind of guy who pulled the country together, first by war and second by diplomacy. You can imagine, he was a good fighter. He also had one hundred and sixty really good fighters with him. He had hand chosen the guys that he called his family. Teulu in Welsh means my family, and this was the group of people that he had around him. The largest amount of people in a Teulu of any Welsh leader through any amount of history. So he was obviously well versed in the arts of war, is what I’m thinking. No way to know for sure what it was he liked to use. But in Wales at that time, they were using the lance, like the javelin, and they were using it slightly differently. The English would sort of stick it up against the ground, I guess, and hold it our to the horse, hoping to spear somebody, but the Welsh actually threw them.
GW: There are different kinds of lances. Yeah, there are the throwing javelins and the so the long lance or the fixed lance.
MP: I would assume, from what I can tell, these would be the throwing kind because that’s what they did. They were also incredibly physically fit because the Flemish were actually afraid of the Welsh because once you throw the javelin, you got no weapon, but they would still run.
GW: They would have a sword on the hip as a backup, for sure. Or an axe of something.
MP: Or at least most of them would have. Not maybe the farmers, but the guys who the one hundred and sixty would, for sure. But anyway, the idea would be that the Flemish were afraid of them, apparently because a Welsh warrior would try and pull you off your horse and kill you, bare handedly, and they did a lot of training. Apparently, Edward was known for having his army train every day, and making them train. He got that from watching the Welsh because that’s what the Welsh did. That was just their way of life. It was all about training and all about physical fitness and all that kind of stuff.
GW: Do you have any sources for that?
MP: Yeah. A few.
GW: I would love to know how they trained.
MP: Yeah, that’s what I couldn’t figure out. So I spent a lot of time trying because that’s what we don’t have. But we do know a certain amount. We know that that was their way of life and that was apparently where Edward got the idea from that he would make his army train. I just basically pieced a lot of things together. And of course, the sword. You won’t like this, but the sword that appears in Water Sight and in the chapter there that I was referring to is actually created from the feather of a raven.
GW: It’s a magic sword, right? That’s all fine, and we are friends with magic swords on this show. That’s why we have had Jason Kingsley on the show in like November last year, I think it was, and he’s actually handled the oh, I’m blanking on the name. But the sword from the movie Hawk the Slayer, he actually got to play with that and put a video out and everyone was is all super excited about this sword. So don’t worry, you are allowed magic.
MP: He’s fighting a griffin at that point. So, you know, I don’t want to get no spoiler alerts or whatever here. But anyway, and Llywelyn the ghost is fighting a griffin with a magic sword, so in my head, it’s a two handed, I don’t know. It’s probably a little bit out of time, but since we’re moving in that direction.
GW: If he’s a ghost, yes, fighting with a magic sword against a mythical beast. The normal rules of what you’re allowed to do in a strictly historical fiction don’t apply.
MP: May be suspended, right?
GW: But they just don’t apply because, I know of these writers. I’m blanking on the name. They write westerns. They are some serial producers that write these western books every year, this sort of western series. And when they started doing this, they didn’t want historical buffs to complain about, oh, well, you’ve got this kind of revolver which wasn’t invented until three years later. All that kind of historical pedantry that actually I really like but is annoying for writers. And so they put unicorns in their western. And the only function that those unicorns serve is so the writers can write whatever the hell they want. And if anybody says oh, but that kind of revolver doesn’t exist yet in this period, they’re going to say, “Dude, there’s a unicorn.”
MP: That’s right. There’s a Griffin. Come on.
GW: I can have a two handed sword and I can have it made out of a griffin’s feather if I like. It’s a griffin. Yeah. So you have you the Unicorn Exception.
MP: I’m using the Unicorn Exception. I’m going to write that down somewhere and remember that next time somebody calls me on it.
GW: Speaking of animals, you have presented a workshop on living history which had this kind of tagline or description, “Castle hopping across northern Wales, being escorted by armed guards through the Che Guevara memorial, or finding yourself trapped by an elephant at Buckingham Palace. I have the photos. It’s all research.” So, elephant at Buckingham Palace? And that’s not just a rude way of referring to the queen, I hope?
MP: No, it isn’t. No, she’s not an elephant. No, there really was an elephant. During the first trip that we took overseas. We stayed for I think it was three or four days in London. I got to tell you, I’m sorry, but London is not my town. I really had a lot of trouble with London, mostly because it’s not laid out the way that I’m used to. North America, we’re kind of grid people. You know, there’s a logic. I can go from one side of town to the other if I know the right road. And it’s good and the roads, when I say straight ahead, they’re kind of straight ahead, right? So anyway, we were at this lovely place on Oxford Street in England, and the concierge convinced me to try a guided tour with my two kids. And I thought, OK, well, we weren’t going to do that. We were going to do the hop-on hop-off bus. And I think I probably should have done that because then if I got lost, it wouldn’t know mattered. But anyway, we decided we’d do this guided tour. So I forked over a lot of money for this guided tour for us, and we were supposed to catch a bus at such and such a place in the morning. So he said, you just go straight down here, you turn left and go straight. You can’t miss it. So we start out, we go. The first way we turn, we go to the next part and then the road forks out in five different directions. I’m not used to five. I’m used to four. So I’m going like, where’s straight ahead when you’re faced with five different roads? Which one is the straight ahead one? Anyway, we spent the morning for about half an hour running around trying to figure out where this stupid hotel was, where we were supposed to catch this very expensive bus tour. We finally got on the bus and we’re going around. First stop, I think it was Westminster. It was lovely. It was great. I was OK. I could follow the guide. He had a little hat and an umbrella and you know, like, I could kind of figure out what we were doing and then we were supposed to go to Buckingham Palace. So we’re driving along and the traffic is like murder. Like, you know, I’m thinking, wow, England, holy doodle. But really, it was way more than it should have been because there was going to be a parade. Nobody knew there was apparently going to be a parade. But our guide decides what we’re going to go anyway, and we’re going to see it. There’s a lot of people here, try and stay with me. You know, I’ve got the hat, you know, I’ve got the umbrella, right? Watch for me. What comes towards us, what is the parade is a huge elephant. This huge, amazing elephant from somewhere in India that the Prince of Wales decided to purchase. And since they were bringing it in, I guess from the airport, they decided to do it in this kind of like parade thing. So that was what was happening. And of course, my son and I stopped to take pictures of said elephant. It was the coolest thing. Like really two or three stories high, and there were people inside the top part of it dancing around like huge, like ordinary sized people. Way up in the top part of this elephant, there was like an interior room. They would come out onto the sort of balcony thingy and dance around, and there was a lot of music, it was kind of like, East India. Part of something it was like from India. Because that was where the elephant was from, I guess. Anyway, it was the coolest thing. It was this pageant, right going on in front of us. And then we turned around when it was finished, there was all these people and no guide, no umbrella, no little bowler hat, nothing. Me and my son standing in the middle of all these people, totally trapped for about an hour. I found a phone, a payphone at a restaurant across the street from in this area of the Buckingham Palace and phoned the guide company and said, we’ve lost our guide. My daughter is with the guide. My son is with me. My God, what the hell? What do I do next?
GW: So you are separated from your child?
MP: From my daughter, who was 16. I mean, she was levelheaded, I knew she would be OK, but at the same time, it was horrifying for about an hour, and we completely missed the incredibly expensive lunch we had paid for, but eventually did get back on the tour and went to visit the Tower of London, which was another story, but also great. So, but yeah, that’s my story about the elephant at Buckingham Palace.
GW: That wasn’t actually at Buckingham Palace, surely?
MP: Yeah, it was in front of it on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. We were looking around at all these waterfowl things in the Buckingham Palace, in the park. I don’t know where they parked it in the end because it was a huge wooden elephant.
GW: I think it’s Regent’s Park. Oh, OK.
MP: It must be there somewhere because we saw it. I have pictures.
GW: And all of this counts as research, of course, and historical marital arts are based entirely on research, which you describe as the art of mining for details, which is a great way to put it. Research is a fundamental part of what we do. And obviously, you have some experience of it, so I am curious, how do you go about your research? What is the process?
MP: Well, I consider almost anything to be a good source of research. So I mean, obviously, you’re starting with books, right? When I was looking for the recommended books, I wanted it to be as realistic as I could make it, even though I was using the fantasy like I didn’t want to go too far with the unicorn principle. So I wanted to really get as much fact as I could, and that’s when I began to discover all these gaps in the information. But using books, using websites, using pictures, illustrations, different things that that were from that time period. There’s actually quite a few illustrations available, and you can kind of get a sense of what the life was like. And videos – to do the martial art stuff, actually, I watched a lot of videos because I don’t do it myself, and I’m not a very athletic sort of person, you know what I mean? So but I had covered a lot of horse shows. I used to do horse shows here, both the Class A and the Western, so horses were kind of familiar. And so, looking at people using fighting from horses, fighting from not horses, fighting on foot, what am I saying? And just like how you use the sword, how the sword works, what you do when you actually draw a bow like what the muscles are, all of that stuff like it’s all available. Takes years to kind of ferret it all out. But I also had access to a couple of, well, I’m a journalist, right? So what I did was I basically got on the phone. I’d look on the internet and find somebody who was an expert at something or other, and I’d either email them or I’d actually find the phone number and pick up the phone and phone them and say, “So how do you know? What did they do?” It’s interesting that scholars and experts are often quite happy to talk about their area of expertise because almost nobody asks, I guess.
GW: Right! Almost nobody knows, nobody cares, so when somebody actually asks, it’s like, oh my god, I’ve not been wasting my time all these years.
MP: Exactly. So I mean, I had lots and lots of bibliographies passed along to me and sources suggested and so on. Like this one, the Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, Royal Armouries, MS1.33, which I actually have.
GW: That’s a fantastic book. Yeah, I know.
MP: And the pictures, but you can get a lot of it online. That was one of the things that I didn’t realise when I went to Wales and I was looking at ancestry history, of my own ancestors. I had to get photographed and ID’d and almost fingerprinted to get into the main library of Wales. And I got in there and I was looking for a genealogical research, and I really wanted to see a couple of the books, the red book and all that. And I went up to the reference library and I was asking for help. And she looked at me and she said, you came all this way. You won’t be able to see it. It’s under lock and key here. You can’t actually see the actual book. You could have gotten all that online because we put it all online. You know, you’ve come out this way and you can’t see the thing anyway. So a lot of information is online that you don’t think is there. It might not be on the surface, but if you keep clicking those links and so on.
GW: So how do you kind of collate and organise it?
MP: Right now, I use Scrivener. Back when I started this, so in 2006, basically I was collecting it either in paper form. I have like three bins of paper files that I printed out from different sources and photocopied from books that came from the library, from wherever. Because you can interlibrary loan anything, pretty much if it exists, you can get it. And because I taught at the university, I a sessional with the university too, I had access to the University Library, which is even better for research, for sure. And a lot of people that I contacted, the experts and the scholars and so on would send me articles, photocopy or scan them and send them to me. And so I would print them out. And so I have those. But basically, I kept it all in Microsoft Word folders. I don’t know how much memory worth stored in this kind of research.
GW: I mean, these days, with the internet finding the data points is quite easy. If it exists, you can probably find it. But you dive into a rabbit hole, you start digging through and you find all this stuff, let’s say you’re researching like how clothes were made in 1450 or whatever it is and how that’s going to relate to what you’re doing. And that takes you off onto a tangent about how leather was tanned and that takes you off on another tangent about how tanneries were built and then and then dyeing and all that sort of stuff. And you end up you end up with this gigantic mass of information, which you then have to sort of sift through and collate and organize.
MP: And find later when you’re checking it, when you’re revising the manuscript, you get, why did I put that in there? And then finding the research for it. During the period of time when I was writing this book, I went back and got my MFA in creative writing at UBC. So my thesis project was the first draft of this book, the first book and what I did there was I had the amazing Glenn Huser as my thesis instructor, and he told me to footnote. So I started footnoted everything. And even the speculative stuff, because I’d be reading something and I go, “So I wonder if…?” and then your mind goes off on this speculative maybe reading between the lines, “this is a gap. How can I fill it?” kind of thinking. So I had that. But I mean, 50 revisions in this was a completely different book, right? So I went back and I decided that in order to know whether I was right or not, because I am not a historian, an honest to God, this was not what my life was all about before I started writing this book. So this is very much as you say, I get this mass of stuff, and I have no idea, really, how accurate it is at this point. I was able to get a grant from Creative Saskatchewan here in Saskatchewan and go to a historical reviewer, and she does know her history , it’s is Daniele Cybulskie.
GW: I know Daniele, she’s been on the show.
MP: She’s a Canadian. I found her because I read themedievalist.net. So I’m reading this all these different articles, and I finally emailed the editor of themedievalist.net and I said, so I’m this Canadian author trying to write this book set in Wales in the 13th century. I would like to find an expert who can work with authors who won’t kind of cut me off at the knees with the historical research, but who would have an expertise to be able to check my research for me? And he immediately wrote back, oh, you’ve got a contact, Daniele Cybulskie, and put me in touch with her. And so initially I had contacted her and said, so how much would you charge me to read this book and tell me if it was right or not? And she gave me a figure and I went, OK, thanks.
GW: Yeah. It’s a lot of work.
MP: Yeah, but then I found a grant that would actually pay for that and was able to hire her to do that. She’s great to work with as a novelist because she’ll say something like, well, you know, in this section, you have this happening. It wouldn’t have happened this way, but maybe you could do it this way, you’d be a little more accurate, but have the same sort of the effect that you’re going for here. So it was great working with her, and I told her to make it easier for you, so that it won’t take you forever and you won’t have to look all this stuff up, I’ll give you a footnoted version with all my sources. So you know where I got the information from and you can tell me, can I use it? You know, can I go with this? Is this close enough, right? No, because at some point we’re not going to know unless we get time travel and are able to go back there and actually figure it out, especially in this time period with all these gaps.
GW: It’s very good idea to have a footnoted version.
MP: Yeah, that’s what I did. I footnoted it. It took me a while to go back through the what was essentially at that point, the final version, but I did have my footnotes from my MFA version and all of this massive, huge amount of research. So, yeah, but in the books, right, I actually have the best of those collected and I’ve suggested them. They’ve got non-fiction books, I’ve got the online resources, I’ve got maps. Some of the maps I use because that was a huge part of it. And then some of the historical fiction that I read. I read the recommended stuff right from this time period because I wanted to be within the pantheon of possibility. The things that the readers would expect kind of thing, as well as what I hoped was historically accurate. And it’s got a character list with pronunciation guide in Welsh and it’s got the glossary of terms and all that because it’s a young adult novel and I wanted it to be really useful. And I kind of want to open it up too, to other people who might be interested in this time period, maybe not so much in Wales. I realise it’s a kind of obscure country.
GW: It’s good to be super specific, really specific in time and place, it anchors things.
MP: You know, there’s good resources and then there’s sort of, fun resources and whatnot. And I just wanted to make sure that there was some access to them if anybody read this and got interested that they would be able to do their own, go on and get their own. So I make sure that I could add a further reading list, which is kind of weird.
GW: No, it’s as it should be. Yeah, seriously. So I mean, lots of historical novelists do something similar where they say, OK, I get this idea about how this was done from this book and I got this idea about how that was done from working with this living history person. You’re in good company doing that and it’s the right thing to do. OK. As a journalist, as you mentioned you, you pick up the phone and you talk to people and you get to tell you stuff. So you know a thing or two about interviewing, and I am perfectly able to edit out your answer to this question should it go in in an awkward direction so you can be completely honest. I have never interviewed anybody before I started this podcast. So my sum total of interviewing experience is this show. So I’m always interested in how I can do the things I do better. So how do you think I could be a better interviewer?
MP: I think you’re a pretty good interviewer, honestly. You’re definitely on the right track because you actually find something out about people, you actually do some research, before the person comes on. You’d be surprised how many interviewers don’t do that. I have taught journalistic research, and it’s kind of like my key. If you’re going to go into an interview, you don’t need to know everything, but you need to know something so that you can ask intelligent questions. I love your question list because nobody has ever asked me about that elephant. I put that in one of my bios and I thought, I better not. I don’t know if I want to say that or not. Let me just leave it there, because that is what I did. And there it is. But nobody has ever asked me anything about that. It’s not one of my main bios. So I’m kind of interested in the fact that you actually found it, that bio to ask me that question.
GW: So I was looking around because I wasn’t just looking for things that I would be interested in. I was looking for things that the usual listener of this show is likely to find intriguing.
MP: And that’s the other point that interviewers should do that often they don’t do, is think about who’s listening or who is reading. If you’re a writer, who is reading the book and what are they going to be interested in? It’s all that it’s not so much about me, it’s about you. I really feel like you’re on the right track and you’re doing everything exactly right.
GW: Well, that’s disconcerting.
MP: Well, asking the question and then listening to the answer and asking that question after that that’s maybe not on your question list, which you also do. So I do think you’re got three things at least going for you in terms of interview.
GW: OK. So nothing jumps out as I should definitely work on this particular thing?
GW: Yeah. All right. In which case, I will open that out to the listeners and because actually when I first started the show, the audio quality was appalling. And my interviewing skills were not as good. And I found out that the audio was appalling because some very kind listeners didn’t just write in to tell me that the audio wasn’t that great. They actually included screenshots of what to do to fix it. Which was great. OK, I’ll do this, this or this, and that will fix the problem. Brilliant. And that made me realise how little I know about audio engineering. And so I hired an audio engineer to teach me how to master the audio to get it to the necessary standard. I’m not an audio engineer, but I can tweak the audio so it at least it sounds OK. And then another friend of mine sent me this great long email basically telling me what I was doing wrong as an interviewer. And it was really useful. It is the sort of thing that is not always the most comfortable thing to read, but it’s it made a huge difference to how I actually approached the interviews. And I’ve cut out doing certain things, and I started doing other things and it actually made the whole interviewing process better. So, I find the feedback really, really helpful. I mean, it’s nice to know if you’re doing things right, but it’s especially useful to know when you’re not doing things as well as it could be done.
MP: So I think you’re doing a pretty good job. This is one of the better interviews I’ve had and I think I’ve done sixty seven of them in the past year.
GW: Oh my God, that’s a lot of interviews. All right. Well, I’m glad this is all right for you. OK, now my last question. I have these questions I tend to end interviews with, and my absolute last question is usually, if you had a million dollars spent improving historical arts worldwide, how would you spend it? And I don’t honestly think you’re going to have an answer to that, not being a historical martial arts person, particularly. So I will confine myself to, what’s the best idea you’ve never acted on?
MP: The best idea I’ve never acted on. I think I pretty much act on everything I think of. You know, I always feel like if I have an idea and I really want to do it, I’m going to do it.
GW: Quite a lot of my guests say that.
MP: So the best idea I haven’t acted on yet is during the research for this novel, I am such a totally in-depth researcher which you don’t have to be, but I mean, it’s my thing. So what can I say? I took a medieval cooking class, so I’m taking this class called Eat Medieval, which I’ve taken now four times. Probably will take another one if and when they ever show it again, which comes out of the University of Durham and Blackfriars restaurant, which is at Blackfriars Abbey in Newcastle. It’s a brilliant event. It’s a five day cooking class where you get all these incredible medieval fusion recipes. So they’ve gone back to the manuscripts and pulled out what they did. And then they’ve tried to figure out how could you do that in modern times with what we have and so on.
GW: So you fly to Newcastle for it?
MP: The best idea I’ve had this year is that they’re going to have hopefully an in-person cooking class in September this year, 2022. And if Covid allows, I am planning to come to that. To do that, I’m going to have to get a grant because it’s a little on the pricey side. I really want to come and I actually want to spend a couple of months in England because I’m working on the sequel to these novels. And I would like to do a little more environmental research because that to me is the best idea. Like I say, it’s not necessary. Sharon Kay Penman would say I’m being foolish. You can do it all on the internet, right? You can do it all by reading or whatever. But for me, I like to walk the walk, I like to walk around in the area and get the feeling of it. Even though it isn’t the 13th century anymore.
GW: In some parts of Italy, it still is.
MP: And in some parts of Wales like the front of our sheep farm. There was this sort of stone thing, it was on the ground was kind of like a blueprint or something, it was weird, and we were looking at it, and I asked the farmer, “What is this?” And he said, well, that was the Llys in circa eleven hundred. And I’m like, really? Because like the oldest thing where I live was 1880. The oldest standing buildings here, like there was life before that, but there wasn’t a lot of remains. There’s petroglyphs and things like that. But really, in terms of architecture, in terms of physical buildings, not a lot. There isn’t much left from 1880 for that matter. You know what I mean. So like something from 1100 that’s in my front yard.
GW: Go to Pisa. Because the basilica and the bell tower, which is leaning Tower of Pisa, they were built in the 12th century. You can walk there and walk around them. Yeah, it’s amazing. And Italy is full of places like that.
MP: Like I say, what gave me this entire novel series was standing on that walkway, looking out and thinking, wow, I wonder what that would have been like. Had I not been there, this would not have happened. So the best idea I’ve had this year that I intend to act on is coming back to do some environmental research there and to take this incredible medieval cooking class in person.
GW: Well, OK, I won’t give out the details of the class because I don’t want it to sell out before you can get your grant sorted out. Because that would be unfair. Excellent. So the idea that you’re going to act on that is you’re going to come to the UK and you’re going to take a medieval cookery class. You might find one of my previous podcast episodes interesting. It is with Monica Gaudio, she’s an expert in medieval cookery, and she’s just outside Boston, which, given Canadian distances, it’s not that much closer than Newcastle, but it’s probably a lot cheaper to get to. So you might find who you can do some preparatory cookery classes with her.
MP: Sounds good.
GW: Thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Marie. It’s lovely to meet you.
MP: Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you. And thanks, you know for doing all that research to do the interview in the first place.
GW: It’s all part of the service.