Monday, May 06, 2013

An interview with Sandra Byrd, author of Roses Have Thorns

When I first heard about the subject of Roses Have Thorns, I knew I had to read it.  Elin von Snakenborg was a Swedish noblewoman who became a maid of honor to Elizabeth I and one of her closest confidantes.  She married William Parr, brother to Henry VIII's last queen, and became known as Helena, Marchioness of Northampton. (And there's much more; the novel doesn't end there.)  However, despite her prominent status at the Elizabethan court, Elin's story is little known and hasn't been told in fiction before.

Sandra Byrd's engrossing novel about Elin's life injects this familiar Tudor setting with freshness and vitality.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it even rekindled my longtime interest in fiction about royalty.  Not only does Roses Have Thorns offer a perspective on Queen Elizabeth that readers rarely see, but Elin's story is fascinating in itself.  I especially appreciated how the author brought to life the era's religious divisions, beliefs, and observances, which are critically important to the understanding of the historical period and characters.

I hope you'll enjoy the following interview, which shows her enthusiasm for the Elizabethan era as well as her delightful writing style.  Please join me in welcoming Sandra Byrd!

The opening scenes set in Stockholm, just before Elin leaves on her journey, made the unfamiliar setting come alive. What was your favorite part about researching Elin’s Swedish background? Were there any fascinating things you learned about it that didn’t make it into the novel?

Today, we think of the Swedes as mild mannered and socially progressive but in the era Elin lived in, they were more Viking than Ikea. Gustav Vasa, who was in power for nearly 40 years in the 16th century, took his country back from the Danes. He also "unmanned" a wedding guest who had sneaked into his daughter's bedroom, and then brutally beat her with his own fists. That daughter, Princess Cecelia, took Elin to England. King Erik, who had hoped to marry Elizabeth, was ultimately poisoned (apocryphally, in his pea soup) likely by his brothers. Both Gustav Vasa and Henry VIII referred to themselves as the Moses of their people, and I think they were alike in temperament and strength.

Elin's trip to England was much longer and was more arduous than I portrayed in the book. It took 10 months and included overland portions in freezing weather in order to evade the Danes. The women had a bit of Viking in them, too, or they could never had survived that harrowing trip.

One little bit of trivia that is touching, the planet group Karin is named after Karin Mansdottar, the mistress of (and later wife to) King Erik of this era.

I’ve read other historical novels on Elizabeth I that demonstrate her charm, intelligence, and power, and Roses Have Thorns shows these qualities very well, but I haven’t read many others that simultaneously emphasize her status as a woman alone, without any true peers. Did you find your opinions of her changing during the writing process?

I started thinking about this after a divorced friend told me that what she missed most from marriage was regular human touch. No one, literally or figuratively, could touch Elizabeth. It would have been a great breach of protocol and as she had no husband, children, parents or siblings who naturally would have been allowed to touch her, I began to sense what might have felt like a real loss to her.

She was not allowed to speak of her mother, something many women would naturally do, and to bring up her sister or brother would be to raise issues that were best left at rest. No one, really, had her back unless they were in it for something. She had no true friends; I wondered if that was one reason she dithered when dealing with Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was one person who could have been her peer, under different circumstances. All of this helped me sense the tremendous loneliness that must have come with her position. It made personal sacrifice on behalf of her kingdom more poignant.

Author Sandra Byrd
Elin/Helena became very close to the Queen, married a well-known nobleman, and even served as chief mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral, yet her name isn’t very well known. Why do you think this is?

I can't properly express how thrilled I was to have uncovered Elin during my research on Kateryn Parr. I think the focus has been on Lettice Knollys for so long because it was a long-standing love triangle with Dudley, because she and Elizabeth were cousins and looked alike, and because it was complicated from all angles and for a long time. The human drama inherent in that makes for good book material. Perhaps Lettice overshadowed all others. I don't really know, otherwise, but a fresh name was a rewarding discovery for me and when her husband's history tied in so neatly with the end of Mary, Queen of Scots, I knew I'd found my girl.

Why do you especially enjoy writing about ladies in waiting at the Tudor court?

I've always said I want to know the woman behind the gown and the crown. One effective way to do that is through the eyes of a friend. A rival is naturally predisposed against the queen, a servant is too lowly to be everywhere the queen would be or be privy to secrets. A friend loves us just as we are, but doesn't ignore our difficulties or character flaws, either. I have always loved the Tudors. I've credited Jean Plaidy for being my gateway drug to all things British historical. She did such a marvelous job with her books, it's held my interest for a lifetime.

The era’s religious turmoil is a major theme in Roses Have Thorns, and quotations from Scripture are inserted at natural points in the storyline. This made the setting feel that much more vibrant and authentic to me. How do you strike a balance between exploring Christian themes and making the novel appealing to mainstream readers?

Religion is important to a great many people the world over, and it is absolutely a part of the legitimate context for many eras and settings. I'm not Jewish, but I loved The Chosen. Its themes and challenges resonate with me as a person.

Religious turmoil was thickly woven into the fabric of the Tudor era Henry VIII breaking with the church at Rome, a sharp turn toward Protestantism under Edward VI, a sharp turn toward Catholicism under Mary I, and then Elizabeth's via media. It influenced how people acted and the business of the kingdom for centuries. Faith of some kind of still important to many people.

Elizabeth prayed in many languages. She quoted scripture. I quoted her, quoting it. I feel that is different than my having an agenda, it's an understanding of her and of the women of the time, at least the ones I choose to explore. Because I spend hundreds of hours researching and writing on a topic, I choose the ones that interest me, which is often how historical women and Christian faith and power and relationships intersect. Hopefully, if I tell a good story, it will engage a wide group of people, Christian or not.

You mention in the Q&A at the end of the novel that you love reading Tudor fiction. It’s a popular era with readers, and I appreciated the fresh, lively perspective you brought to it. What other qualities do you look for when choosing Tudor-era novels to read? Also, given your experience as a writing coach, do you have any suggestions for writers looking to make their historical novels stand out?

I do look for historical accuracy, because if you've read widely enough in an era you know when something is wrong and it pulls you out of the story. At the same time, I challenge anyone to write 90,000 words on anything without making a mistake of some kind. Can't be done! Not only that, some of the things we think we "know" may themselves have come from questionable sources.

I want to love the heroine and the hero, but I want them to have to grow, too. I want both the facts and players that I know were there to be present (I read Tudor to read about Tudors, of course!) but I like to see something fresh and new, or a point of view I hadn't considered, but legitimately might.

I'm developing a session called Historical Novelist as Curator: What to Put In, What to Leave Out. I think that's one of the biggest tricks for historical novels. Enough of the right details to bring your readers there, but not so many that it sands the book's gears. I try to remember that an historical novel is a novel, noun, historical being the modifier. Although whatever historical details I include need to be right, the story has to come first.

Did you get a chance to visit any more sights relating to Helena’s life while visiting England last autumn for the Historical Novel Society conference?

I did visit Hampshire, and so was able to see Hurst Castle, which was great fun. I was so, so close to visiting Longford, but my English friends told me that it's privately owned and that I wouldn't be able to see it from any vantage point. It was thrilling to know I was very close though, and in the same area that Helena would have ridden. Each time I visit England, it's a kind of pilgrimage for me.

Thank you for having me, Sarah!

Thanks, Sandra, for taking the time to answer my questions!  Best wishes for continued success with your novels.


Roses Have Thorns was published by Simon & Schuster's Howard Books in April at $14.99 (trade pb, 336pp).  Sandra's previous Tudor-set novels are To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, and The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr.  Visit her website at  This interview is a stop on the author's tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.


  1. Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Sarah, and for the insightful questions. I had fun!

    1. Thanks again, Sandra - it was fun!

      As usually happens after I've finished a novel I've enjoyed, I did some googling around for information on the main characters later on. I was at Salisbury Cathedral last September before the HNS conference but had no idea that Helena's tomb was there (I hadn't read your novel yet - obviously! - and didn't recognize the name she was buried under). Now I wish I had been paying more attention!

  2. My grampa was from Sweden, so that aspect of the book draws me. A country of blue nights and yellow candles.

  3. I wish I would have visited Salisbury. Next time! You're right, Shelley, and what a lovely way to describe Sweden!

  4. Looks like a good read! I love books related to Queen Elizabeth I. I love reading about her from all different viewpoints, so I'll add this to my "Must Read" list.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth - hope you enjoy the book as well!