Friday, April 27, 2012

Philippa Gregory, new star of teen fiction

Philip Womack talks to Philippa Gregory about her first Young Adult novel, The Changeling, in which a young monk and an abbess investigate what people fear

Philippa Gregory in Westminster Abbey, 2010

Apocalypse always seems imminent, whether financial, spiritual or an oil tanker strike. Here, in the country house hotel in North Yorkshire where I meet Philippa Gregory to discuss her new novel, the Four Horsemen couldn’t feel farther away. She sits, a petite figure framed by the blaze of sun, her hands crossed calmly in her lap, as hotel guests clatter around us and a tinny radio plays.
Known as a writer of (as she calls it) “fictionalised biography” – The Lady of the Rivers, set during the Wars of the Roses, is currently riding high in the bestseller lists, while The Other Boleyn Girl has been adapted into a film – Gregory has now produced a book for the burgeoning young adult market.
The Changeling is set in 15th-century Italy, when the Ottoman Empire was flexing its muscles and the Christian Church was convinced that the world was about to end. It features a good-looking young monk who is sent out by the mysterious Order of Darkness to investigate strange phenomena – nuns having visions, rumours of werewolves – to map out what people fear. Even now, “we have a hunger for the miraculous,” says Gregory. Barely a year goes by without “statues moving or bleeding or crying or giving milk”.
The 15th-century suited her purposes – that sense of imminence, coupled with its liminality as the borderlands between medieval semi-savagery and the Renaissance. The idea of Armageddon is particularly appealing: “Europe was absolutely on the brink,” she says. And this is compelling in terms of our contemporary crises too.
“Quite a lot of world religions have an end of days concept in them,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of our vanity as conscious beings that, because we know we’re going to die, we have a fantasy that the whole world might end, so it’s not just us, it’s everything.”

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