Kathleen C. Perrin - Experiencing History Up Close and Personal
Frequently wandering the stone streets of Mont Saint Michel in France as a tour guide has given author Kathleen C. Perrin a unique insight and special bond with the place. It has also allowed her to channel her passion for the place into her young adult historical paranormal series, The Watchmen Saga. In this interview she talks about her muse, how she retraces the footsteps of her characters to better understand them and the hardships of life in 15th-century France.
1. Tell us a bit more about The Sword of the Maiden. It is the second book in the series - do readers have to read the first book to follow the story?
The Sword of the Maiden tells the story of Katelyn Michaels, an average American teenager who is called by the Archangel Michael to be an anything but average Watchman tasked with protecting the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel and its sacred secret in Normandy, France. After being abruptly separated from the young man she has come to love, Nicolas le Breton, at the end of her first mission (The Keys of the Watchman), Katelyn is anxious to be reunited with him, even if it means being whisked back in time once again to the turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War. But before the two can consider the future of their relationship, they must carry out their perilous commission to assist the most iconic figure in French History, while being pursued by their old nemesis, Abdon, who threatens their mission.
The first chapter of The Sword of the Maiden contains a summary of Book 1, so readers do not have to read the first book in the series to follow the story. However, it would help to understand Katelyn’s evolving character and the storyline a bit better to have read The Keys of the Watchmen.
2. What books do you like to read?
My reading tastes in fiction are so varied, and I read so many different types of genres, that it’s an almost impossible question to answer. I have so many favorites! I grew up reading Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. But I have to admit that I really love action, adventure, spy, and mystery novels with largely male audiences by the likes of Steve Berry, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Clive Custler, Ken Follett, John Grisham, John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum, José Rodrigues dos Santos, James Paterson, Brad Thor etc. I love the modern classics: James Clavell’s Shogun, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Leon Uris’ Exodus, Herman Wouk’s Winds of War series, and yes, I love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (which I simply could not put down), and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. However, if I had to choose a book that perhaps most influenced me to write, it may be the 1980 Italian novel, The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.
3. You used to be a tour guide who introduced tourists to France. How much do you draw upon this experience as inspiration for your stories?
My experience as a tour guide at Mont Saint Michel is what inspired me to write this series. I have studied the history of the Mount in depth, and I have visited Mont Saint Michel dozens of times, (it is only an hour and a half from my cottage in France), so I feel like I know every story and every stone. After delving into the origins of Mont Saint Michel, some of the ancient beliefs about it being the site of the great battle between Saint Michael and the dragon, about it having pre-Christian significance as a place of worship, about it being a link between the underworld, the earth and heaven, and even that it was considered by many medieval Christians to be the site of the future New Jerusalem prophesied of by John the Revelator, I was completely engulfed by the mysteries of this site. I was also inspired by the history of the Montois resisting the English attempts to conquer the island during the Hundred Years’ War, and I marveled at their willingness to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to resist their enemies.
Walking Mont Saint Michel’s stone streets and exploring its abbey too many times to count has given me an inexplicable intimacy with this magical, mystical place. Several years ago on certain days in the summer months, it was possible to visit the abbey at midnight accompanied by Gregorian chants and guided by moody, muted lighting. Once you have had that experience, you will never forget it. It is like turning a page of history and going back in time. And thus Katelyn’s story was born. I continue to visit it 2-3 times every year. I never get tired of its mystical attraction, and one day, the storyline just came to me. Had I not known this incredible place so well, I don’t think I would have written this series.
When it came to writing about Joan of Arc, I had taken tourists to most of the places I write about in the book, but my husband and I retraced her steps from Vaucouleurs to Chinon as I began writing the book (see question 9). Being able to actually visit the sites, and visit often, has helped my writing be more accurate.
Porte de France - where Joan left Vaucouleurs
4. Katelyn is a normal, 21st century American teenager. What inspired you to send a modern teenager back in time?
I wanted my readers to know what it would honestly be like to live in medieval France, and that can only come by contrasting it with the comforts and technology we are blessed to have in our time.
In Book One, The Keys of the Watchmen, the reader learns that Katelyn has certain techie knowledge from the 21st Century that allows her to save Mont Saint Michel from the English siege during the Hundred Years’ War, and without her skills from the future, the Mount would have been lost, so she has to be from the future.
Finally, I needed a character who had done exactly what Joan of Arc was called upon to do, so that she could be Joan’s mentor. It had to be someone her age, and someone who was about the most unlikely candidate to have led an army and to have rescued a population. Katelyn, who never wanted the responsibility to save Mont Saint Michel, and doubted her abilities to do so, was the perfect character to inspire and motivate Joan.
5. What are some things you do to give depth to your characters?
Because Katelyn Michaels is the protagonist of The Watchmen Saga, I wanted her voice to be the strongest. Consequently, I chose to write her voice in the first person and in the present tense to set her apart from the other characters. This allows the reader to really get into her mind.
However, I didn’t want the story to be told from her point of view only, and so I wrote chapters from each of the other main characters’ points of view as well. I read everything I could about Joan of Arc so that I could hopefully give an accurate portrayal of the things that troubled her and the challenges she faced as she set out to save France. She, like Katelyn, had to grow into her calling, and hopefully I was able to portray that without insulting any Joan of Arc fans!
6. What do you think is the greatest difference between living in the fifteenth century and now?
There are so many things. You asked for one, I’ll give you three: modern comforts, the rule of law, the ability to change one’s lot in life.
I don’t think we can underestimate how easy we have it. We go to grocery stores to buy our food (we don’t have to hunt it, raise it, or pluck it!), we go to gas stations to fill up our cars so that we can drive anywhere we want to, we surf the web and can contact virtually anyone anywhere in the world or have instant knowledge about any subject at our fingertips. Furthermore, in spite of our social problems, and occasional failings in the judicial system, we still live in a time and era where we enjoy the rule of law. We can expect to have our rights protected when an injustice is committed. And finally, if one wants to succeed in modern times, all he or she has to do is be disciplined, acquire an education (which is available to everyone with the right amount of tenacity), and be willing to work hard. Your lot in life is not cast by the circumstances of your birth.
Life in the fifteenth-century France was darn hard. Disease, famine, and war wiped out millions of people. Life was not safe, nor was it fair. There was little rule of law, particularly during the Hundred Years’ War, where the French monarchy was so weak. It was basically an era of every man for himself. If you were born an illiterate peasant, serf or simple laborer, you basically died a peasant, serf or laborer. You worked long hours just to meet the most basic needs: food and shelter. There was little hope of advancement or moving up the pay ladder. If you had a specialized skill, like the stone mason Nicolas, your lot in life was somewhat easier. However, that was the exception.
That is why Joan’s story is so remarkable. How could an illiterate farm girl accomplish what she did, given her environment? There is simply no way she could have done it without divine assistance.
7. If you could time travel, where would you go to first?
How could I say anything else but 15th Century France? I’d like to see if I nailed it or not! That being said, I wouldn’t want to stay in that environment for too long, particularly on Mont Saint Michel during the siege, or traveling through enemy-controlled countryside like Joan and her little band. I, like Brother Thibault, wouldn’t do well with a penury of food, and like Katelyn, I wouldn’t want to have to take another human life to protect myself! But I would enjoy a peek at the living conditions at Chinon for the Dauphin Charles.
8. You used a dream in your book to give Katelyn a mission. Why did you take this approach and how important do you think are dreams in life?
The Bible is replete with examples of dreams being used by God to communicate His will to mankind (Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Samuel, Daniel, Joseph the Carpenter, Zacharias, the Magi, just to name a few). I didn’t want all of the Watchmen’s interaction with the Archangel to be direct communication, for they still have to act in faith of their own free will. So what better pattern to follow than the Bible?
All of us have plenty of crazy dreams, and I’m not an advocate that all dreams have a deeper meaning, but I have found that much of my inspiration comes in the wee hours of the morning in that state between being awake and being deeply asleep, so I’ve got to say that dreams have played an important role in my own life.
9. Which part of researching The Sword of the Maiden was the most interesting to you?
Although I had the plot for The Sword of the Maiden basically outlined, I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach Joan’s story. I wanted and needed to follow in her footsteps, and I wanted to do it in the winter months, because that is when the beginning of her journey took place. My husband and I traveled to France in January and went immediately to Lorraine. We visited Joan’s birthplace Domrémy and Vaucouleurs, where she met Robert de Baudricourt, the man who would eventually be convinced to support her trip to visit the Dauphin in Chinon. Then, at the end of the second day, we visited Reims, and the cathedral where the Dauphin was finally crowned King of France because of Joan’s intervention.
Joan's Birthplace - Domremy
The weather was miserable those two days, rainy with even a little snow. As we walked in the ruins of the fortress of Vaucouleurs, and walked under the arch of the Porte de France, from which Joan and her little band left on their journey, I was hit with a better understanding of just how wretched that journey must have actually been. I was able to get back in my heated car, and then found shelter at night in a warm and cozy hotel room. Such was not the case for Joan and her traveling companions. It was a sobering and revelatory moment for me. That night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and the thoughts about how the storyline needed to unfold just came. I turned on my computer and wrote notes for two solid hours. We continued moving west, stopping at all of the places I wrote about in the book, ending up on the town square in Rouen where she was burned at the stake. Actually following in Joan’s footsteps was not only the most interesting part of my research, but was in sort, a spiritual experience for me.
You can read more about it on my website at www.kathleencperrin.com. Click on Blog, and then: “In Joan’s Footsteps.”
10. Katelyn is in love with a Frenchman. You, yourself married a Frenchman - what is it about French men that make them so attractive?
Even though I was always attracted to the French language and culture from a very young age, I honestly never set out to marry a Frenchman. In fact, as my mother sent me off for a semester abroad in Paris when I was a junior in college, she warned me: “Don’t go over there and fall in love with some Frenchman.” And I didn’t! I actually met my husband in a college class back in the States after I got home from Paris, and the rest, as they say, is history. He charmed the socks off me on our very first date when he dropped me off at my apartment door, raised my hand to his lips, kissed it and said, “bonne nuit, Kathleen.” I mean, who does that?
However, an intercultural marriage doesn’t come without its challenges. I had to go through the same process as Katelyn, although hers is a lot more complex because she also has a time element involved. But those questions are: Where will we live? How will I say goodbye to my family in America? How do we raise our children? etc. For us, it has been a compromise. When our children were young, we lived for eight years in French Polynesia (Tahiti) where all three of our kids became fluent in French, and then, although we could have stayed there forever, or moved to France, my husband made the sacrifice to return to Utah, where my extended family lived, to allow our children to grow up with grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. However, it was always our priority to get to France at least once a year to visit his family, and after having inherited a cottage from his mother, we now have the best of both worlds: a house in Utah close to the mountains and family, and a cottage in Brittany, close to the sea and family. How can you beat that?
11. How would you say did Katelyn's character evolve from the Keys of the Watchmen to this now?
I have read plenty of time travel adventures, and I’m always amazed at how well the characters in such stories adapt. However, I believe that the average American, especially a teenage girl, would not be quite so amenable to going back in time, particularly if it was not her choice. At the beginning of the saga, in The Keys of the Watchmen, Katelyn is pretty bratty about having been whisked away from her modern comforts. I think she represents the average American teen, self-absorbed and self-centered. And she really wanted her twenty-first century comforts, not to mention the basics like plain old food!
In fact, she is not very likeable at the beginning of Book One. That was intentional, because I wanted her to be a normal teen, without any special heroic qualities. She hates her father’s new wife. Wouldn’t most teens resent the woman who destroyed her parents’ marriage? She has to learn how to adapt to the lack of comforts, she has to grow into her calling as a Watchman, she has to learn that she truly does have the seeds of heroism buried deep inside her, and she has to learn that she is capable of things beyond her wildest imagination. She is truly a character who is evolving and improving. She is a work in progress, growing into an unselfish individual, dedicated to serving others, and fully committed to her calling as a Watchman. In The Sword of the Maiden, you see Katelyn more concerned about others, like Jehanne and Nicolas, than she is for herself. In Book 3, the final book in The Watchman Saga, you will see her grow into a mature woman of compassion and selflessness.
Incidentally, I believe that we all have seeds of greatness within us. It is just a matter of discovering what they are for ourselves, and taking a leap of faith to develop them.
12. If you could meet any person (living or dead), who would it be and why?
That’s easy. It would be Jesus Christ. Because of my deep religious conviction, I believe that Christ atoned for our sins and provided us the opportunity to return to our Heavenly Father after this mortal life if we repent and live God’s commandments. Born of an immortal father and a mortal mother, in my estimation, Christ was the greatest man who ever walked the earth.
13. What drew you to feature the fight between light and darkness as such a prominent theme in The Sword of the Maiden?
Again, because of my religious beliefs, that is an easy question for me to answer. I believe that mortality is a test, a probationary period in which we have been given agency to choose good or evil. God has provided us a plan by which we can return to His presence, if we follow the light. Satan and his minions, who before the foundation of the earth were cast out of heaven for rebellion, want to do everything they can to thwart God’s plan and make us fail the test. That is the entire purpose of our mortal lives: to see whom we will choose to serve. Will we follow the light or will we choose the darkness? The fight between the Watchmen and Abdon is a fictional representation of my beliefs.
Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois - Replica of Joan's sword
14. What are you working on right now? Can we expect a Book 3?
I’m working furiously on Book 3. It has a title, but I’m not ready to reveal it yet. And spoiler alert: yes, Katelyn, Thibault . . . and Nicolas will be back. I’m hoping to get it out by the end of 2016, or early in 2017. I also have two other novels nearly completed, which will come out after The Watchmen Saga is finished. They are both adult historical suspense novels set in France. Yes, my muse, la belle France, has so many intriguing mysteries to write about, and I have endless other ideas that I need to transfer from my mind to paper, so stay tuned!
15. Where can readers find more of your work or interact with you?
Please come visit me at my website: www.kathleencperrin.com. There, you can sign up for my mailing list to receive my newsletters. Also, I think your reading will be greatly enhanced by viewing my photos of both Mont Saint Michel and the Joan of Arc sites. You can also catch up on news that relates to The Watchmen Saga, and learn a little bit more about me and some of my other projects.