On Nov. 11, 2005, former high school English teacher Patricia Bracewell wrote the following words in her journal: “I have decided to write the Emma novel. I want to try it. If I fail, I fail—but if I don’t try, I can never succeed.”
On February 8, 2013, Bracewell was giving a phone interview, exhausted and exhilarated by the previous day’s launch of “the Emma novel,” an historical fiction entitled Shadow on the Crown.
“I had to go for a bracing walk around the block,” she said. “There’s that whole adrenalin rush, and it really takes it out of you. I had a launch party last night at Books Passage, which is a wonderful bookstore in the Madera area. And I’ve got to get ready for tonight’s event!”
Bracewell’s commitment to write a novel about the obscure Emma of Normandy (b. 985, d. 1052) has plunged her into the life of an author. But the path from 2005 to today was no more simple, than it was swift.
“I am not a poster girl for overnight success!” Bracewell laughed. “It took me a while to come to that point. I had done some background research on Emma. I first discovered her in the late 1990s. I was intrigued, and I thought she’d make a wonderful character, but I was afraid of the amount of research I’d have to do, because I knew nothing about that era. I knew I’d have to roll up my sleeves and learn everything there was to know about that period. But I really wanted to write this book. I spent two more years doing the research.”
Ultimately, what Bracewell learned about Emma — sister of Richard II, the Duke of Normandy, wife to two kings and mother of two more — was compelling enough to motivate the author through the process of learning to write a novel, to convince an agent of the value of the work, and to eventually attract two publishers.
“For a year she (agent Stephanie Cabot of the Gernert Company) tried to sell it,” Bracewell recounted. “I was rejected by at least a dozen publishers. At the end of 2010, she very kindly sent me a list of everyone who had rejected my book. I said, ‘What do we do now?’”
“She asked, ‘Are you still passionate about the book?’”
“Then you need to keep writing this book. I can sell it. But you need a new opening.”
“And so the prologue, I wrote that, and it was almost like someone else had taken over my keyboard. I sent that to her in September, and she started submitting it mid-September, and in less than two weeks we had an offer from Viking and an offer from Simon and Schuster.”
The prologue is a wonderful, mystical introduction to the superstitious and violent era of 11th-century England. The precarious country was perpetually under threat of attack by Vikings from the north, while the various nobilities of the region were enmeshed in intrigue and efforts to survive long enough to produce progeny to continue their bloodlines.
In 1002, Emma, a young teenager, was married off by her brother, the Duke of Normandy, to the much older King of England, Æthelred the Unready. And his name was apropos, both for his age upon first assuming the throne, 10, and for his failure to rule wisely. Shadow on the Crown tells of the events that led up to the marriage and the subsequent machinations, heartache, and mayhem that propelled Emma and the rest of the country through her quest to secure her position by producing a male heir and on to the year 1005.
"Shadow on the Crown" is the first book of an intended trilogy, and Bracewell began book two before the first one was even sold.
“Am I nuts?!” she recalled having said to her agent, before their initial success.
“I haven’t finished writing [book two] yet,” she continued, “and it has not yet been sold. My agent is salivating, waiting for me to get it to her. I’m hoping to finish it in the next couple of months, once this launch hoo-hah dies down.”
In the meantime, Bracewell can savor the success of her beautiful and brutal first novel, along with the satisfaction of having enlightened readers about the important, but little-known Queen Emma.
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
416 pages, $27.95
Published by Viking, February 2013
Visit patriciabracewell.com for upcoming events.
Trigger alert: There are two vivid rape scenes in the novel.
Author’s photograph by Christine Krieg
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and have been published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, The Ocean Beach Rag, The Progressive Post and San Diego Free Press. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at email@example.com.