Cath: Almost everything I’ve ever read of yours has some aspect of history coupled with fantasy. What do you find attractive about blending historical and fantastic fiction?
Kate: I remember walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the first time when I was a teenager and experiencing a kind of frisson I’ve noticed many times since: I was feeling deliciously creeped out by the oldness of the things around me. There’s an uncanny quality to the past, or maybe to our awareness of the past. The pavement under my feet both is, and is not, the same street that bore the footsteps of people long dead. That duality feels inherently fantastical to me. So it feels like a natural fit. Real history is so very weird and sometimes the best way to illuminate that is to hold it up against something that’s obviously invented.
Cath: Much of high fantasy is considered to be about medieval Europe. Yet, your works “The Course of True Love” and “Armed in Her Fashion” much more accurately portray what the medieval period is documented to be like historically. Do you have a historical background in this time frame? What helped you to get this tone and accuracy?
Kate: I’m not a historian, but I am a journalist by trade, so I suppose my instinct is always to go to the source. Both of those books were inspired by other works. The Course of True Love was an homage to Shakespeare, so I reread the plays and tried to imagine what Shakespeare would write if he were reincarnated as me. (This made sense in my head, I swear.) Armed in Her Fashion was inspired by a 16th century painting by Pieter Bruegel and by the kinds of stories people were telling in 14th century Europe: stories like the bizarrely legalistic Reynard the Fox cycle, for example, or legends about revenants and sea snakes. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance were full of fascinating notions, technologies and stories, many of which haven’t been fully mined in medieval-inspired fantasy.
Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your game The Road to Canterbury? What are the objectives of the game? How much does it borrow from Chaucer?
Kate: The Road to Canterbury is a text-based game you can play on your computer or phone; it’s interactive fiction, which means you make choices as you read to determine the path of the character. That character is a weaver in London in 1375, who goes on pilgrimage with a civil servant and occasional poet named Geoffrey Chaucer. I had fun with the fact that in 1375, Chaucer’s wife, Philippa de Roet, is arguably a more important person than her husband, and she’s the one who drives much of the story. It’s a game about politics, economics and the role of the individual in history, but there’s a lot of just plain fun medieval stuff: I actually coded a version of the medieval dice game Hazard, for example. And there is a lot of story-telling, naturally. There are many references to Chaucer’s work, but the story in my game is its own thing, and many of the characters bear only a passing similarity to the characters in The Canterbury Tales. My editors at Choice of Games made writing the game a wonderful experience.
Cath: Both Alice Payne Arrives and its sequel are set in many time frames. I want to focus on Alice as a highway robber. Why did you choose to set her part of this story in 1788 and make her a robber? What are good places to learn about how to portray highway”men”?
Kate: The germ for this story had nothing to do with time travel and little to do with any particular period: I was struck by the idea of a highwaywoman leading a double life, who has to solve the mystery of a murder or disappearance to throw the local authorities off her scent. I suppose I liked the idea of the same person being both criminal and investigator. I still have my notes, in which I considered the 1580s, the 1640s, the 1810s, and several different countries. In the end I settled on England in the 1780s because it allowed me to create a very recognizable “highwayman” and because I had read a lot about real English highwaywomen in my initial research. I talked about some of those real-world examples in a recent Twitter thread.
Cath: Alice and Jane are together in these books. Can you discuss how you used history to both bolster and impede their relationship?
Kate: In the draft of the second Alice Payne book, there’s a cameo appearance by two elderly lesbians who are inspired by the real-life “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who lived happily together in the late 18th century. The sculptor Anne Damer was another example I drew on of a probably-queer woman in 18th century England; Emma Donoghue’s novel Life Mask is about her. There are many such examples, and they suggest to me that two women in love could be fairly open about their relationship in certain circles and with certain friends; on the other hand, the dangers were real. This is all background to the relationship in Alice Payne Arrives, though, rather than foreground. Jane and Alice are together, they’re in love, and they’re having perilous time-travel adventures.
Cath: Alice’s backstory is an interesting one. What can you tell us about Jamaica in the 18th century?
Kate: The history of Jamaica in the 18th century is amazing; I think it says something about the history we learn that I was well into middle age before I learned anything about the enslaved people who rose up for their freedom there more than once, and who formed lasting, sovereign communities within colonized Jamaica. Alice’s family life and upbringing was partly inspired by that of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived in late 18th century England and was the child of a white Englishman and an enslaved black woman in the British West Indies. Colonial efforts to define racial categories in service of slavery-based economics had to contend with a steady migration of people of colour from Jamaica to England, usually so they could be educated with their father’s families, and sometimes so they could apply for the privileges of whiteness on their return. Daniel Livesay’s book Children of Uncertain Fortune is a fascinating look at those families and at the social and political creation of race in that era. I didn’t want to write a book about that dynamic per se, as it is very much not my story to tell, as a white Canadian. But at the same time, it would be dishonest to write about 18th century England and have everyone be white; that just wasn’t how it was. So while the books are not really about Alice’s position in English society as a woman of colour, her Jamaican origin is definitely an important aspect of her life, especially when it comes to her complicated relationship with her father.
Cath: Having read your work set in the time frames we’ve discussed above, plus the writing you’ve done regarding Marie Antionette, I have to ask: do you have a favorite historical period? Do you have any other historical periods you would really like to write a story in?
Kate: I don’t have a favourite, really! I bounce around, when it comes to time. As for space, although many of my short stories are set in Canada at various points in history (and the Alice Payne books come to North America for some scenes) all my published novels and novellas so far are set mainly in Europe. That’s partly because that’s my own heritage, both in a literal sense (my dad emigrated from the UK) and in the sense that those are the stories that I have an itch to explore and subvert. But that’s not really by design and could change.
Cath: Tell us all about the release details for the Alice Payne books.
Kate: Alice Payne Arrives will be out in paperback and ebook from Tor.com Publishing on Nov. 6, 2018; it’s available to pre-order now. Alice Payne Rides will follow in March 2019. Each is a novella of about 30,000 words. Each book is written to stand on its own, but there is space for the story to continue, if readers respond to it. We’ll see.
Cath: Are you at liberty to talk about any of your future projects?
Kate: The other book I have written and sold is a full-length novel called The Humours of Grub Street. It’s coming in 2019 or 2020 from ChiZine Publications, which published Armed in Her Fashion. It’s set in London in 1703. I’m currently revising another 18th century novel, and I’m working on a second game for Choice of Games. That one is set in Renaissance Florence and will be out sometime in 2019, if all goes well. After that, well, I have some plans but they’re still in the delicate secret stage.
Kate Heartfield’s first novel, a historical fantasy called Armed in Her Fashion, was published by ChiZine Publications in 2018.
Tor.com will publish two time-travel novellas by Kate, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in November, 2018. Her interactive novel for Choice of Games, The Road to Canterbury, was published in 2018. She’s working on another.Her short fiction has appeared in magazines including Strange Horizons, Lackington’s and Podcastle, and anthologies including Clockwork Canada and Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World. Her stories “The Seven O’Clock Man” and “Not Valid for Spain” were longlisted for the Sunburst Award. Until 2015, Kate was the opinion editor for the Ottawa Citizen. She was shortlisted for Canada’s National Newspaper Award for editorial writing in 2015. She now teaches journalism at Carleton University and creative writing online for the Loft Literary Center. Her agent is Jennie Goloboy at the Donald Maass Literary Agency.