Tuesday 26 January 2016

Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Anna Castle

I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Anna Castle to A Bookaholic Swede to talk with me about her story, Death by Disputation. Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She has earned a series of degrees -- BA in the Classics, MS in Computer Science, and a PhD in Linguistics -- and has had a corresponding series of careers -- waitressing, software engineering, grammar-writing, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. She physically resides in Austin, Texas and mentally counts herself a queen of infinite space.”

Hi Anna, it's nice to chatting with you. Can you tell me how you discover indieBRAG

My mentor, role model, and good friend M. Louisa Locke has B.R.A.G. medallions for her wonderful Victorian San Francisco mystery series. I do what she does, to the best of my ability. That’s what role models are for!

Can you please tell me more about your book Death by Disputation?

This is mainly Tom’s book. We see Francis Bacon mostly through his letters advising Tom about college and spycraft.

Tom is up to his eyebrows in assertive and attractive women in this book. The headmaster’s wife, Mrs. Eggerley, notices him the minute he first walks into the hall at Corpus Christi College. (She has a squint through which she can watch the hall and the chapel from the headmaster’s lodging.) She chooses him as her paramour of the year and summons him by hanging a pink scarf in the window overlooking the college yard. Second, the preacher Tom suspects as the main Puritan political agitator – the guy he’s been sent to identify – has a very beautiful daughter. She’s exactly Tom’s type – blonde, buxom, and willowy – and he falls in love with her at first sight. Alas, her name is Abstinence, which pulls up the reins everytime he thinks of her.

Did you do a lot of research before you wrote this book?

I do tons of research for every book. That’s part of my fun. I’m hopelessly addicted to the Elizabethan period and can’t learn enough about it! Also I have a PhD, which means settling in with a big stack of books to study is my idea of a good time. And happily, I have access to a great university library. I try to make every setting as real as possible, both the material culture and the social attitudes and beliefs.

For example, I read a couple of articles about the history of contraception, because Mrs. Eggerley is an experienced woman and because Tom is a conscientious guy. They didn’t have anything actually effective, but they did their best. That detail comes up in a scene between those two. And I read lots of books about Puritans in Elizabethan Cambridge, to understand why they were willing to risk serious penalties for their beliefs and why everybody else hated them so much. (They were serious kill-joys! Disputation has a scene in which the Puritans spoil everybody’s beautiful Easter ceremony by pure rudeness.)

I’m curious to why you have chosen to write a historical mystery set during the 16th-century (1500’s).  Is there any special interest behind that decision?

I’m interested in periods of great social change and this is one of the best. The late 16th  /early 17th century – the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I – is one of the most fascinating periods in the history of English-speaking peoples. Our greatest literature comes from that time – Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Francis Bacon, and more. The war with Spain forced England to become a major power, a great sea-faring nation. Internal religious conflicts eventually sent English men and women across the sea to found the American colonies, and we all know how that ended up!

Most of the novels set in the Tudor century (1500s) focus on court politics and executions, but those are the least interesting aspects of the period to me. The Tudor monarchs were nation builders. They threw out the old feudal system and created governments of professional bureaucrats, who built roads, established a postal system, made every parish start keeping census records, encouraged the wealthy to endow schools, fostered a rising class of professional lawyers, doctors, and clergymen.... They passed laws to support the poor in the worst of times and to make it easier for ordinary people to get justice in the courts. All of this fell far short of our standards, but we have to remember these ideas were new at that time. They were making it up as they went along. These are the people I find interesting, maybe because I would have been in that class.

Why did you choose to write historical mystery books?  

I’m a learning junkie, but I don’t want to argue about interpretations in academic journals. I want to tell stories. Writing historical fiction satisfies both desires. And mysteries are what I read. I enjoy the puzzle aspect, both writing and reading.

Tell me more about Thomas Clarady, he seems like such a fascinating character.

Tom does tend to take over the story. It’s because he’s so game: he’ll jump into whatever’s going and give it his best shot. I invented him as a foil for Francis Bacon. Bacon was a real person, so I have to conform to his reality. I can’t put him in a sword fight or have him romance the lady in the window. In real history, at this time of his life, he was apparently spending most of his time holed up in his chambers at Gray’s Inn reading. That’s great for a budding genius, but it makes for a dull story!

Also Bacon is a shy, introverted, cool-tempered genius. Tom is a regular guy. We can relate to him and his responses to his experiences more than we can to Bacon.

He attracts the attention of two women in this book. Is that something that happens to him often that he’s attracting the attention of women? Is there any special woman in his life?

Tom is a babe magnet; he has been since about age 10. Women want him and he is generous by nature. What can he do? He does come to recognize in this book that there is one special woman. But I can’t you who it is, because that would be a spoiler!

Who is Christopher Marlowe?

Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe was an Elizabethan poet and playwright. He wrote Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and a few other plays. He was the most admired writer in his day and for good reason. His poetry is still breathtakingly beautiful. He’s the one who wrote the famous line, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” He was so important to the development of drama, we can say that without Marlowe, there would have been no Shakespeare.

He died in an altercation in an ordinary (basically a restaurant) at the age of 29. The official verdict was accidental death, but people have been speculating about whether it might have been murder and if so, who did it, for centuries. Marlowe was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Brilliant, handsome, loyal to a few close friends, wild-tempered, untameable... It’s impossible to write in this period and not write about Kit.

I’m interested in the religious conflict in this book between the Protestants and the puritans. Can you tell me more about the puritans?  Like for instance why they seemed to be such a threat to Elizabeth’s rule?

That’s a very good question! It’s to our enormous credit that we find it hard to understand why anyone would try to prevent other people from practicing their religion in their own way (within reasonable limits.) That’s a HUGE modern achievement. In Bacon’s time, everyone believed that everyone should believe the same thing. Not just the mainstream people; everyone. Catholics thought everyone should be Catholic, Puritans thought everyone should worship in a plain and strict style. Conformity was seen as essential to a stable society.

The Puritans were a great threat because they believed in a non-hierachical Church. No bishops or archbishops ruling from on high! They believed that each parish should elect its own leaders – the elders – who would then choose a minister for the flock. This is an extremely dangerous idea for an anointed monarch. If you tear down the bishops, who’s next? The queen?

On the village level, the Puritans were just plain obnoxious. I show that a few times in this book. They disrupted time-honored festivities because they considered them ‘popish’ and pagan. They cut down Maypoles, they protested against Christmas. They poked their noses into other people’s lives and publicly shamed them in church for drinking on Sunday or adultery. They would raid churches and tear out all the beautiful things – the carved screens, altar cloths, and candles. They even broke stained glass windows that had stood for centuries!

And, a very important question for me as this is book two in a series. Can you read this book without having read the first book? 

I hope you can. One of my reviewers said it worked for him. There’s a big surprise toward the end of book 1 that will be spoiled if you read any other book first, but otherwise you should be OK. That said, the relationships among the characters do evolve over the series.

Both Tom and Francis get unexpected and unwanted visits from women who are important to them in the latter half of the book.  

Who designed your book cover?

The talented and lovely Jennifer Quinlan of Historical Editorial. She also edits my books; first a content edit and then a copy-edit.

How did you come up with the title for your book?

Titles are part exquisite crafting and part inspiration. They do a lot of work! The word ‘death’ tells readers it’s a mystery. The alliteration signals lightness of tone. ‘Disputation’ doesn’t mean much to most people, other than a sense of conflict, but it’s actually central to the plot. In the sixteenth century, students had to perform a disputation as part of their degree requirements. They stand in the main classroom building at the university with their three prepared questions and must argue their position with all comers. My character Tom has to do this too, with consequences.

Where can the book be bought?




A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Magdalena has chosen to interview Anna Castle who is the author of, Death by Disputation, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Death by Disputation, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


  1. Thanks for having me, Magdalena! Your questions were fun to answer and made me remember what I enjoyed most about writing this book.

  2. Wonderful questions! Very inspiring to me!