Backyard Writer

A Medieval Interview with Margaret Frazer

by Interview by Joel Van Valin
There’s a bit of mystery about the countryside near Elk River. It involves local resident Gail Frazer, a former gift shop manager and TV station researcher who is better known to her fans under her non de plume of Margaret Frazer, author of the best selling Dame Frevisse medieval mystery novels. The series began as collaboration between Frazer and mystery writer Mary Monica Pulver, but Frazer now writes the books, which are set in 15th century England, solo. Each of the titles, in a nod to Chaucer, refers to the main character’s occupation or status. The first, The Novice’s Tale, was published in 1992, and the latest and 14th addition is The Widow’s Tale (2004). Along the way The Servant’s Tale and The Prioress’ Tale have picked up Edgar Award nominations, and Frazer has garnered a loyal following of medievalists who enjoy her realistic, thoroughly researched medieval settings. I caught up with her during the Write of Spring celebration at Once Upon a Crime, conducting an interview in a back room filled with books and one very large globe.

Joel Van Valin: There seem to be a lot of medieval ecclesiastic sleuths out there—Brother Cadfael, Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma, William of Baskerville. What was the inspiration for Dame Frevisse?

Margaret Frazer: My friend and I, who I started the series with, had met at the SCA [the Society for Creative Anacronism]. And she had the persona of a Benedictine abbess. So when she thought to start a series of historical novels, she thought she’d go with her position of strength, which was—a Benedictine abbess. And then she realized that she had a lot of information about nunnery life, but she didn’t know enough about everything else. Whereas I had this mass of information and research I’d done, which was a little thin on the religious life. So we combined forces. And we decided that an abbess was too powerful a position—if you were an abbess you answered to nobody but the king. So we thought we’d make her life harder, we’d put her in a priory, which was smaller, and we wouldn’t even put our character in charge of the priory, she’ll just be one of the nuns. Because I was writing the first drafts of all the novels, I had to really research medieval nunnery life. I could see how it could be a very fascinating, fulfilling lifestyle for certain people. Up to that time I’d had next to nothing to do with real life nuns, I’d never even talked to any. But since the series has been going, I’ve met actual modern Benedictine nuns, who say, "You’ve done it! You have got nuns right!" And I’m thinking—that’s rather scary!

JVV: The Widow’s Tale begins with an abduction, but murder isn’t committed until halfway through the book. Are you intentionally pushing the boundaries of the mystery genre?

MF: Well it wasn’t so much intentional as just me being very self-absorbed in what I like in stories. I write the books I’d like to read. I wanted to tell a good story, and for me that meant the characters. And to kill somebody off right at the beginning is usually: "Well, now I’ve killed somebody off right at the beginning!" But the reader doesn’t care, they don’t know this person. This person means nothing to them. So I’m afraid I’m very character-driven. I really like to develop the characters, have the reader involved in the relationships, know the people on several different levels, so that then when somebody gets killed, it matters. In The Prioress’ Tale, which was the first one I did on my own, I was so absorbed in the characters and the relationships that I didn’t get someone killed until about two thirds of the way through the book, which is way too late, and my agent and editor both said, "You can get away with that once, but don’t do it again." And then that book was nominated for an Edgar Award. And they said "Okay, you can kill people whenever you feel like it!"

JVV: So which do you prefer writing—the history or the mystery?

MF: Well lately I’ve been hearing, "Gee Margaret, you’re really more interested in the history than the mystery part, aren’t you?" Because the history is taking over larger and larger parts of the plot. But the thing is, the books are going sequentially through the 1400s. When the series started it was deliberately started in the 1430s, when things were peaceful in England—you don’t have Brother Cadfael’s advantage, civil war tromping up and down the landscape. We had to make the mysteries come out of medieval attitudes, medieval law and medieval life, we didn’t have a handy dandy civil war. But at the same time, I knew that x number of years down the line, the politics would start going to hell—they were going to head into the Wars of the Roses, so they’re going to get a civil war. So what I’ve been doing, as the series progresses, I’m now up to where the events are starting to coalesce, so more and more history is infringing on the mystery. I have to say, I really enjoy the mystery part. But what I want to do is interweave the two elements, I want to get them more blended together so that one feeds the other.

JVV: What are some things we could learn from the inhabitants of 15th century England?

MF: One reason I enjoy writing and reading historical novels, is that it gives you a chance to see the world in an entirely different perspective. I remember telling an anthropology professor once that anthropology saved my sanity when I was a teenager. He said that was strange, people usually said it drove them crazy! It really helped as a teenager who did not fit in with where I lived and the people around me, to discover that was not the only way to see the world, that down-state Illinois was not the only approach to reality that there was. And through various ways I ended up being focused on the 1400s. To really understand a time period you have to look at it from all the different levels, not just the politics, but the psychology, the literature the philosophy. I have a very interesting library. I think that from reading my books, when they are so submerged in the 1400s, you get to step out of 21st century life, and see a different approach to reality. Whether it’s an approach you would want to live in or not ... I know I wouldn’t! ... still, it’s a chance to step aside and see the world from a different perspective, which doesn’t hurt. For me it makes life much easier in many ways, because I’ll think "Yea, but I don’t have to carry my water from the well. I can turn on a light, instead of having to worry about my candle. Central heating is wonderful. Chocolate and printed books, love them!" It makes me much more appreciative of when I live, without being so distorted by how I live, that I can’t function correctly.

JVV: Last question—what do you have planned for your readers next? Are there more crimes out there for Dame Frevisse to solve? And what is your new A Play of Isaac all about?

MF: Lots of crimes out there. I’ve got a fat file folder full pieces of paper just labeled "plot". There’s the new series that starts with the A Play of Isaac—it’s fun because it’s a traveling group of players in the 1400s, so they live a far less restricted life than Frevisse does. Joliff and the players can be out in different kinds of trouble. If the series goes on long enough, I have planned an arc where he becomes a spy for a very powerful person. In the book I just finished in the Frevisse series, The Traitor’s Tale, Joliff’s career as a spy intercuts with Frevisse’s, trying to help her cousin the widowed Duchess of Suffolk. But he’s on one side, and they’re on another.