I got the chance to meet Judith in person at the 2005 Historical Novel Society conference in Salt Lake City, where she was a special guest. Ann Chamberlin, Claire Morris, and I made up the organizing committee, and when Claire suggested we invite Judith as a speaker, Ann and I immediately agreed. She'd written some of our favorite medieval novels, and we knew she'd be a perfect choice to fill some gaps we had on the program. We were thrilled when she accepted. Judith spoke on several panels, but the highlight was a standing-room-only workshop she gave on applying primary source materials to one's research. She used examples from The Book of Margery Kempe, speaking eloquently of how she extracted details about medieval women's daily lives from the writings of this 14th-15th century Englishwoman and mystic, the author of the earliest known autobiography in English. Throughout the event, Judith was extremely gracious and down to earth, finding time to speak with all of the attendees who considered themselves fans of hers - of whom there were many, myself included.
It was also exciting to be present when Judith first met Rachel Kahan, her editor at Crown/Three Rivers Press. Rachel was another guest at the conference and, as it so happened, the editor who would be responsible for bringing three of Judith historical novels back into print and for publishing another, The Water Devil, in English for the first time. (Before 2007, The Water Devil, the final volume of her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy, had been available only in German, a fact lamented by many an English-speaking historical fiction reader!) Just before the conference, my husband and I had picked Judith and Rachel up at the airport in our rented van, sharing an enjoyable literary conversation with them on the long drive over to the conference hotel.
1996 novel The Serpent Garden (link to a review I wrote for this site) is a great example of this. My personal pick among her work is A Vision of Light, in which an illiterate 14th-century woman, Margaret of Ashbury, hires a priest to take down her life story. Her website provides details on all six of her novels, and they should go far in convincing you to read (or reread) her work if you haven't done so already.
In addition to being a critically acclaimed historical novelist, Judith was an accomplished academic. Her colleagues at Claremont McKenna College, where she was an associate professor of government, have posted their own In Memoriam piece on the school's website, with details on where donations in her memory can be sent.
Added later: Her obituary from the Los Angeles Times. Also, a wonderful tribute written by her friend (and mine), Christopher Gortner, at his blog Historical Boys.
|The "medieval fiction" panel from Salt Lake, 2005, Judith Merkle Riley at far right. |
(Photo credit: Richard Scott)