While the story of Henry VIII and his descendants continues to fascinate, it's getting more and more difficult for a writer to make it feel fresh. Debut novelist Laura Andersen manages that feat in The Boleyn King, a story that imagines what might have happened if Anne Boleyn had borne a living son. In Andersen's alternate universe, King Henry IX—known familiarly as William—is on the throne at 18. Along with his older sister Elizabeth Tudor, Andersen adds two fictional companions for the young King: a trusted counselor and best friend, Dominic, and his mother's beautiful ward Minuette. We asked Andersen a few questions about her thrilling, romantic debut (there's a love triangle!).
Reimagining history makes for an ambitious first novel! What led you to create a story about an alternate life for Anne Boleyn and the royal family?
While reading a biography of Anne Boleyn in 2004, I was struck by the sadness and irony of her miscarriage in January 1536, on the very day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral. Just four months later, Anne was executed and Henry VIII had moved on to Jane Seymour in his search for a living son. What if, I wondered, Anne had not miscarried? That question lay dormant for a year until my second visit to London, where I was seized upon by several characters who wound their way into my previous idle wonderings and made the story their own.
In what ways do Dominic and Minuette complement William and Elizabeth?
Dominic and Minuette gave me a way to understand the royal characters that I wouldn’t otherwise. Partly because they get their own POVs in the story and thus we have the impressions of those who are not themselves royal, but also because they are the friends. We are all a little different with those we’re closest too (for good and bad) than with others. I think of it a bit like getting to see royalty both on and off stage—Dominic and Minuette give William and Elizabeth a safe space in which to be all of themselves and not just the titles they’ve been bred to carry.
The Boleyn King is full of real and imagined characters. Was it easier to write about the real or imagined characters?
Hands down, no question about it—the imagined characters are easier to write. Of the POV characters, by far the most difficult for me to write was Elizabeth Tudor. I was so highly aware of her as a real woman and of my audacity in walking into her head and rearranging her life, that I could get easily get in my own way in trying to write her and get stuck. In the end I had to tell myself that, for the purposes of my story, even the real people are characters and I had to treat them as such.
This novel is set in a very definite time and place. How much historical research was required?
Although I change the timeline, clearly the period details need to be authentic. As a writer, I tend to write first drafts with what I know and make notes along the way of all the things I don’t know. Then I research the specific questions: How far from Dover to Hever Castle? How many living Dudley children were there in 1555 (sidenote—did they really have to share first names?)? How were messages ciphered in the 16th century? First and foremost, I always want it remembered that I am a storyteller and not an historian. I will get things wrong. I just hope to avoid getting the wrong things wrong, if you will.
"In the end I had to tell myself that, for the purposes of my story, even the real people are characters and I had to treat them as such."
Without giving too much away, the alternate history you create doesn't drastically change the eventual course of events. While rewriting history, how did destiny factor in?
There was one absolute for me, from the very moment this story idea crossed my mind: I cannot envision a world in which Elizabeth Tudor was not queen. Elizabeth must be queen. That was the destiny part of my story. Beyond that, I’ve had fun playing with the real fates of real people and coming at them sideways. George Boleyn, the Duke of Northumberland, Jane Grey, Mary Tudor . . . these were all people whose final ends I kept in mind and tried to stitch into the fabric of how they behave in my altered world.
Why do you think this setting is so appealing to readers?
All stories, naturally, require conflict. And monarchs that held something much closer to absolute power had a wide range of conflict that was literally life and death. My daily conflict tends more to the finishing homework, curfews, don’t-roll-your-eyes-at-me, when is the last time I cooked variety so perhaps I’m looking for the higher cause of saving an entire kingdom. Or perhaps I just really like swords and corsets and spies and the thought that one wrong move could bring down not only yourself but kingdoms.
If you could live during any time in history, would you choose to live among the Tudors? If not, where—and why?
Absolutely not, because they scare me to death. Also, I am highly devoted to showers and electricity. Which doesn’t leave me a large swath of history to work with, does it? Perhaps the 1920s, and somewhere exotically overseas like East Africa. I’ve been to Kenya and love the vision (no doubt elusive) of shady verandas and cool dresses and wide-brimmed hats that is so easy to conjure in that landscape.
Do you read historical fiction? Which novelists have inspired you?
My first historical fiction loves when young were Victoria Holt’s gothic novels of governesses and secret identities and lonely castles. Two historical fiction writers that inspire me today beyond measure are Dorothy Dunnett (The Lymond Chronicles is a stunning series, and I’m now reading about Macbeth in King Hereafter) and Sharon Kay Penman, whose Here Be Dragons is on my top 10 list of favorite books.
The Boleyn King is the first in a trilogy. Any hints on what we can expect in the next novel?
More secrets, naturally. And intrigue as William attempts to keep his interest in Minuette discreet. Minuette is introduced to the French court, which leads to some interesting encounters with people Dominic might wish she didn’t encounter. And there are several new faces from history, chief among them Francis Walsingham and John Dee, who begin to show Elizabeth a part of herself she may not have recognized until now.