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Virtual Book Club: GD Harper introduces The Maids of Biddenden

The Maids of Biddenden is shortlisted for The Selfies Book Awards 2023

Today I’m delighted to welcome GD Harper to Virtual Book Club, my author interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their book to your book club.

GD Harper became a full-time author in 2016. His three previous novels are Love’s Long Road, A Friend in Deed and Silent Money. He was a Wishing Shelf Book Award finalist and Wishing Shelf Red Ribbon winner, shortlisted for the Lightship Prize, longlisted for the UK Novel Writing Award and longlisted for the Page Turner Writer Award.

His latest novel, The Maids of Biddenden, was a finalist for the 2021 Page Turner Book Award for unpublished manuscripts, longlisted for the 2021 Exeter Novel Prize, the 2021 Cheshire Novel Prize and the 2021 Flash 500 Novel Award, and shortlisted for the 2021 Impress Prize.

These are serious credentials. I should also mention that we both have novels that are shortlisted for the adult fiction category of the 2023 Selfies Book Awards!

Q: George Saunders wrote about not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt.” Does that sound familiar?

That pretty much describes how I felt about writing The Maids of Biddenden! When you arrive in the village of Biddenden in Kent, you are greeted by a village sign of two women side-by-side and the same image is seen throughout the village. The women are Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, 12th-century conjoined twins born to a wealthy family from the village of Biddenden in Kent. The two women lived to be 34 and left their land to charity when they died. An annual dole from the proceeds of their estate is still paid out to the elderly every Easter, and is thought to be the oldest charity dole in England, still taking place almost 900 years later

It is an astonishing story, and one that I always tell when I’m showing visitors around this beautiful part of Kent. But when I was asked specific questions about them, I realised how little factual information is known about Eliza and Mary. For a novelist, this is actually good news as I realised I had a largely blank canvas to describe a possible life for them. However, there were two things that made writing the book a scary prospect. Firstly, I had previously only written psychological thrillers, so switching to historical fiction was a bit intimidating, even more so a book set in the 12th century. And secondly there’s trying to imagine what life as a conjoined twin would be like, what are the medical facts about the condition, the physical and mental challenges of living a life forever joined to another person. I had pretty much convinced myself to not even attempt it, but my writer friends were unanimous in encouraging me to go for it. I wouldn’t have tried to write it otherwise.

Image credit: Property of the Wellcome Museum, London

Q: It sounds fascinating. Can you tell us a little about the major areas you had to research?

To understand pygopagus twins, that is two individuals joined at the hip, I consulted medical text books and non-fiction accounts about modern twins with that condition, as well as reading the few novels where conjoined twins were the main characters. Apart from the obvious physical implications, I was struck by how many other aspects of their lives would be so different from the rest of us. For example, most conjoined twins would have separate brains and digestive systems, but the blood carrying their hormones would mix freely between them. If one were to eat, the other would also feel full, even though their stomach would be empty. Their emotions would also always come into balance.

Another unusual aspect of my book is that I was writing about the life of two Kent villagers, albeit two rather unique ones, rather than kings and queens or knights on quests, which is more typical for the medieval history genre. Luckily there were some great fiction and non-fiction books covering that period which gave me insights into medieval village life. One of the twins, Mary, grew up to be a healer, and so I had to get familiar with what medical practices she would follow. There was an extraordinary woman called Hildegard von Bingen who lived around that time and wrote a book on healing practices that formed the basis for how Mary treated the sick and infirm.

Q: Verbal anachronisms have been spotted recently in Downton Abbey and in Ripper Street. There is always a difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the language of the 12th century right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. How did you go about this?

I used the occasional archaic word or turn of phrase when its meaning would be clear to give a sense of the time period, and then relied on the reader to ‘hear’ the rest of the words as medieval prose. I think to go any further risked descending into pastiche or making the text difficult to read.

Anachronisms can be a real problem, not only because you want to get things right, but readers who care about these things will ding you with negative reviews if they spot too many. I was quite paranoid about checking the etymology of any word I thought might be too modern, but I’m sure a few got through. I was halfway through typesetting the book when I heard someone on the radio talking about how the second as a unit of time was a relatively modern invention and I thought, of course, they didn’t have clocks back then. A small unit of time was called a moment, but unlike today it had a very specific meaning, it was 1/60th of a degree in a 360-degree sundial. You can disappear down a rabbit hole if you’re not careful.

On the other hand, one reader pulled me up for the phrase ‘the upshot of the discussion was…’ as she thought it sounded too modern. It turned out that an upshot was a word used in medieval times, an arrow was fired in the air to let the opposing armies know that their leaders had reach an agreement, hence its meaning as the conclusion of a discussion.

Biddenden’s widows queuing for bread and cheese from the maids’ dole in 1906.

Image credit: Sir Benjamin Stone, 1906  

Q: I’ve asked you for a brief excerpt, and you’ve chosen the two opening paragraphs.

Avicia knelt and prayed. Prayed for wisdom, to know what action would be righteous and true. For strength, to cope with the horror of what she would shortly be forced to witness. Above all, for compassion towards the unfortunates now in her care; compassion sufficient to displace any revulsion her face might betray when she saw them for the first time.

She stood up and looked around the abbey chapter house. Mid-morning prayers were over and the room had been decorated with wildflowers to celebrate her arrival. Celebrations could wait, however. She had felt elation at her appointment ­– for the first time, Malling Abbey would have its own prioress – but later, Bishop Gundulf had told her of the abbey’s dark secret. And, since then, the thought of it had accompanied her every waking moment. Today she would see it in the flesh. It. She. They? What was best? Soon she would know.

Q: It puts me in mind of The Matrix by Lauren Groff, for its religious and 12th century setting. Why did you choose this piece in particular?

I chose that excerpt for two reasons. One to show how the new prioress of Malling Abbey was wrestling with her emotions before she meets the maids for the first time. The second is to show the subtle power of a good copy editor. Look at the last line where it says, “It. She. They? What was best?” I originally had a conventional full stop after “They”, which my editor changed to a question mark. I think that lifted the whole paragraph.

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Q: Although the opening is written in the third person, I know that much of the novel is written in the first person from the maids’ perspective? What do you think the advantages of writing in the first person are?

I love writing in the first person. It feels much more intense and draws the reader in. However, I had a practical consideration to deal with in the early part of the book, as the maids are very young and a lot of the action and discussion takes place when they are not present, so I used third person to describe these events and then first person from the maids’ childish voices to describe how they interpret what’s going on around them.

Q: And how do you feel when you have finished writing a novel? Are there any particular characters that you have found it hard to let go of?

My previous books were a trilogy with three main characters, and each book was told from the point of view of one of three characters. Sometimes the same scene and dialogue was in two books, but had completely a different meaning when seen from a different character’s viewpoint.  In the last chapter of the last book I had all three characters literally on stage together, the first time all three of them had met in the entire trilogy. I thought it was a nice way to say goodbye to them and I felt quite emotional writing the last few pages.

Q: I read a question recently in an interview and I thought, Oh, that’s a good question, and so I’m going to ask it here. Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

“It’s All right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” by Bob Dylan. Not only is it one of Dylan’s most iconic and powerful songs, but also it contains the line “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s a lyric I’ve lived my life by, re-inventing myself every ten years or so with a change of career, lifestyle, country, even appearance. I feel you have to keep changing to stay fresh, which was one of the reasons I switched genre before my writing became stale and lacking in ideas.

In my first novel, Love’s Long Road, the main character also reinvents herself several times during the course of the novel and so I had her hearing Dylan’s song on the radio when she first decides to make a radical change to her life. I really wanted to quote the lyric in the book, but to do that you need to get permission from the song’s publisher. At that time, Dylan’s publisher was Sony, so I called them up and finally spoke to Dylan’s European agent who told me that the clearance would have to be given both by Sony and Dylan’s New York management. I sent over the page of the book where the quote would appear and to my astonishment, both Dylan and Sony agreed, with Sony even drafting the legal agreement for me at their expense. I found it remarkable that a huge corporation like that would take the time to help an unknown author.

Q: What an amazing experience. I know that we are both walkers – although judging by the photo you’ve sent me, perhaps you’re more serious about it than I am! Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking wrote, “There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking.” Do you find that once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively?

Walking is a huge part of my life. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve bagged all the Scottish Munros, peaks over 3000 feet, and yes, many of my best ideas come when I’m out the hills. In 2012, when I was going through one of my reinventions, finishing my business career and deciding what came next, I headed off to Nepal and spent 157 days traversing the whole of the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route, crossing mountain passes up to and over 6000 metres. I slept in a tent every night and only three times in those 157 days did I cross a road, the rest of the time I was trekking on mountain paths from one village to next. As well as the physical challenge, it was a deeply philosophical time in my life and that, in addition to the fact that I did it and the magnitude of the trek seemed akin to the challenge of writing a novel, inspired me to start writing.

Q: How do you follow a book like The Maids of Biddenden? What are you working on at the moment?

The second book in my historical fiction trilogy, this time set in 16th century Kent.

Q: Did you unearth something genuinely surprising when carrying out research and, if so, did it change the course of the novel?

The research created the novel. The centre of Canterbury is laid out pretty much the same as it was in the time when the The Maids of Biddenden was set, and so I visited the city to follow the route the maids took as they entered the city and walked to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, before I finalised the description of it in the book. Along the route was an antiquarian bookshop which I popped into and found a facsimile archive of source documents relating to a notorious incident in medieval Kent. I bought the archive and, reading through the documents later, I started to develop a conspiracy theory giving a completely different version of events and linking the incident to a well-known historical figure. I’ve since found other historical documents backing up my theory.

Most of the original documents are in the British Library or the Bodleian Library and when I finish the book I’m hoping to visit these libraries to view the originals and see if I can incorporate them into the typeset of the book, like Graeme Macrae Burnett did in his book, My Bloody Project, or at least have a centre glossy insert showing the evidence behind the book’s premise. No-one seems to have made the connections I’ve made before, so I expect it to be quite controversial.

I look forward to reading it!

To find out more about the author visit his website or follow him on instagram: @gdharperauthor

Shortlisted for The Selfies Book Awards 2023, The Maids of Biddenden is perfect for your book club!

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