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ARIANA FRANKLIN interview with Ayo Onatade

Written by Ayo Onatade

The Ariana Franklin Interview With Ayo Onatade




Ariana Franklin has authored over a dozen historical novels written as Diana Norman.  She became the youngest reporter on Fleet Street and is married to fellow journalist and film critic Barry Norman.  A specialist on all aspects of the early Middle Ages, her first novel to feature Adelia Aguilar Mistress of the Art of Death was released to great acclaim in 2007; winning Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and also awarded the Flint Axe Award in Sweden.


Having been a reporter has helped Ariana enormously. “For one thing,” Ariana explains, “on a newspaper you gain a facility for putting writing, placing things in order and getting the reader’s attention in the first paragraph as well as having explained who, what, where, when and how by the second. It’s the same with writing thrillers – that first line has got to grab interest.”


Authors work in different ways when it comes to writing their work.  For Ariana her take on it is: “I plot. If you’re writing thrillers which, of all the genres, have to be well-constructed and not streams of consciousness, you must.  Anything else is amateur time You’ve got to know where you’re going. Mind you, that’s not to say that characters don’t pop up and do unexpected things; I used to think anyone who said that was being pretentious, but it’s true. Nevertheless, I have the last line of the book in my head before I sit down to write and I stagger towards it like a drunk navigating furniture to get to the far side of a room”. 


Mistress Of The Art Of Death by Ariana FranklinFurthermore keeping some semblance of control over the cast of characters inMistress of the Art of Death was not that difficult. “The lovely thing about the 12thcentury is that you don’t have to go far to find wonderful plots. I don’t make history up. Yes, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s wife, joined his eldest son in a war against him, most of it fought on the Continent but some of the rebellion took place in England. She was an amazing woman in her own right but she wasn’t up to Henry’s weight, nor were their sons. They were all jealous of him and squabbled among themselves as to which of them should own which part of the empire he’d built up – it stretched from the border of Scotland down to thePyrenees”.


With regard to the importance between plot and characterisation, she explains that: “Both are indispensable, one is hopeless without the other. But the characters have to interest you, the author, if they’re going to interest the reader. And they’ve got to grow as the plot progresses. I know an author who once told me he will write a set scene out of context, before the plot gets to it, if you see what I mean. I couldn’t do that because my heroine, say, would have encountered a situation that had altered her in some way and by jumping ahead you would miss that development in her”.


“I admire a rag-bag of authors,” she answers the question on whom she respects. “Anyone from Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, P.G.Wodehouse, Le Carré, Donna Leone – you name ’em, I’ve read ’em; and each one has had an influence, I suppose” As to whom she would invite to dinner given the opportunity, Ariana had a great table in mind. “I’d invite Henry II, of course, the great Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Laurence Olivier and that early proponent of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft. A disparate bunch, maybe, but they were all such geniuses in their own field that they’d get on very well.”


There was a pause down the telephone line from her home before answering about being a writer of historical fiction and the ease and/or difficulty that arises when combining a contemporary perspective and historical setting into something that works.  “That is very, very tricky,” she admits. “I’ve been accused of making my 12th century characters speak modern English but at that time the nobles were using Norman French, the clergy Latin and commoners speaking a form of English even more incomprehensible than Chaucer’s. What are you going to do? They sounded contemporary to each other, why shouldn’t they sound contemporary to us? I hate what I call “Gadzooks” novels. On the other hand, you mustn’t use slang because that can jar the reader into the present day. As I say, tricky”.


City Of Shadows by Ariana FranklinHer novel the City of Shadows covered a rather interesting topic, which was the tragic history of Anastasia Romanov, the Russian princess who may or may not have been executed during the Russian Revolution. Film buffs will know that Ingrid Bergman is best known for portraying her in the 1956 film Anastasia. There were a lot of unresolved issues surrounding whether or not Anastasia was the daughter that managed to evade the Bolsheviks. Wondering what aroused her interest that made her decide to write about this turbulent period and this terrible incident, Ariana explains that “For one thing Germany between the wars fascinates me. After being defeated in World War I, that country was punished so severely by the Allies that it was brought to its knees. Watching the inevitable rise of Hitler who promised to make it stand proud again is terrible. Also, the character of Anna Anderson who pretended to be the missing Grand Duchess Anastasia (she wasn’t) is enthralling. She was not a very nice person so I couldn’t make her the heroine but I felt compelled to construct a thriller around her.”


It’s when the subject of the 12th century is brought up that Ariana really hits her stride. “That period is my passion and always has been. It was the nicest of the Middle Ages, a time of literature, reform, an early Renaissance. Partly this was due to warm summers that helped the crops grow and cold winters eliminated a lot of disease. (Climate has an enormous effect on history.) The Black Death that later killed off nearly a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century was caused by bad weather making the right conditions for that awful plague.


Henry II“It was only after this that the Church put people on the bonfires in England. Until then there was no burning of heretics (nor witches). Also, for the latter half of the 12th century, Henry II was on the English throne, the greatest king the country has ever had. Yes, yes, I know he’s mainly remembered because, in a temper, he called for the death of his Archbishop, Thomas Becket, and that some of his knights, who had their own reason for hating Becket, crossed the Channel in order to stir the man’s brains onto the steps of Canterbury Cathedral. But what the king was trying to do was introduce reasonable laws and being opposed by Becket on every reform. In fact, Henry’s introduction of the jury system and the Common Law was the first, faint beginning of democracy. We all owe Henry a lot”.  


Her reaction to the way in which Mistress of the Art of Death has been received has been one of astonishment. “Totally surprised. Almost without knowing it, I seem to have hit on a combination that thriller readers like. I’m not used to being feted, having been married – and still am -- to a TV presenter, Barry Norman, who is a famous face in the UK, so that I’m more accustomed to being trampled in the rush to get his autograph than being publicised myself. I find it very odd. I’m not complaining, though.”


I wondered whether she agreed with me about her character of Adelia Aguilar might not be true to life, but she swipes this aside. “It may seem as if I’m stretching facts by making my heroine a doctor and anatomist at that time, but the elastic is there to be stretched. She came into being when, while researching, I came across the great School of Medicine that existed in Salerno (then part of the Kingdom of Sicily) during the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a place where Arabs, Greeks, Christians and Jews co-operated in the search for knowledge. It took female students; we know that because one of the treatise written at the school is by a woman. So why not a clever young doctor who has studied medicine and anatomy under that liberal regime?”


On the subject “Blood Libel” and its use she clarifies: “Jews suffered badly in most Christian countries. Ostensibly, they were being punished for having killed Christ. In fact, of course, they and their religion were “different” and therefore a cause for suspicion and hatred. Being denied the right to own land, they had to fall back mainly on usury which didn’t help their popularity any -- though, several of England’s finest cathedrals wouldn’t have been built without the money lent by Jews.

“Whenever a child was found dead around the time of Passover, the ignorant always accused Jews of killing it and using its blood in secret rites. This was what was known as the Blood Libel and it continued through the centuries, leading to dreadful massacres. Another reason for admiring Henry II is that he protected his Jews from all this. He had a practical reason as well as a humanitarian one – Jews paid him a lot of tax. It wasn’t until his son, Richard the Lionheart, (a nasty piece of work who gets undeservedly good publicity in the Robin Hood films) came to the throne that Jews were slaughtered on a mass scale inEngland”.  


The Serpent's Tail and The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin


The Death Maze (US:The Serpent’s Tale) is the second book in the series and Ariana points out it “Looks as if Adelia’s exploits are turning into a series. Penguin US have just bought the third book of her adventures – again based on a real 12th century mystery. At that time the monks of Glastonbury, the oldest and most famous abbey in England, dug up the bones of King Arthur and Guinevere – or said they did. (They were hard-pressed for money at the time and the tomb of Arthur would have brought cash-paying pilgrims flooding in). So I have Henry II sending Adelia to find out if the skeletons really are what the monks allege. Somebody doesn’t want her to get at the truth….”


Raising the subject of Rosamund Clifford, who was Henry II’s favourite mistress, Ariana is quick to point out that we don’t know a lot about her except that she was his favourite mistress and lived in a tower surrounded by a maze. “She seems to have died in suspicious circumstances and it was supposed that Eleanor had her killed out of jealousy, though I doubt that she did. Whatever the truth of the legend, it gave me a wonderful basis for The Death Maze. As I say, history provides the plot-lines”.


On her claim to fame as being one of the last British reporters to interview Raymond Chandler, Ariana explains that at the time he was pretty drunk and played out by then but it was still a privilege to meet a man who turned the thriller into an art form. As to the book that she would most like to have written herself it is as she reveals The Once and Future King by T.H. White, a magical book about the young King Arthur before he knew he was King Arthur. White sets the story in the early Middle Ages, an era he knows like a gardener knows his cabbage patch; it’s funny, touching, gloriously written and so true to the time that you are transported back to it”.


The Death Maze is published by Bantam Press May 2008 £12.99Hbk

The Mistress of the Art of Death pbk £6.99.






As Diana Norman



Fitzempress’ Law (1980)

King of the Last Days (1981)

The Morning Gift (1985)

Daughter of Lir (1988)

Pirate Queen (1991)

The Vizard Mask (1994)

Shores of Darkness (1996)

Blood Royal (1998)

A Catch of Consequence (2002)

Taking Liberties (2003)

The Sparks Fly Upwards (2006)



Terrible Beauty: Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927 (1987)




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