20th December 2018
Hildegard of Bingen (a real person) is a supreme example of Renaissance Woman. I have often toyed with the idea of reading – and writing – about her but now P K Adams has written The Greenest Branch, everything I could wish for is in print! So when Christmas Day comes, along with a harvest of book tokens, The Greenest Branch will vie for my attention with many other books written by the wonderful authors in the An Author’s Mind series. And I commend them all to you!
So, welcome to my blog, P K Adams, and may I say what a delight it is to have you here.
Thank you, Lizzie, it’s a pleasure for me to be here.
Lizzie: It’s a busy time of year so let’s crack on. Could you tell us the story in brief (with no spoilers) of The Greenest Branch?
Pat: In the year 1115, young Hildegard arrives at the Abbey of St. Disibod in the German Rhineland hoping to become a physician. But she soon finds out that as a girl she will not be allowed to attend the monastic school; instead, she must stay at the women’s convent, isolated from the rest of the community and from the town. But Hildegard refuses to be sidelined. Against fierce opposition from Prior Helenger, she secures an apprenticeship with Brother Wigbert who runs the infirmary and is in dire need of a capable assistant. Under his supervision, she begins to train as the abbey’s first female doctor. When Hildegard’s reputation starts to spread throughout the Rhineland, Helenger’s persecution escalates as he fears losing control over the women’s community. But that is not the only challenge she must grapple with. She has also developed feelings for Volmar, a fellow Benedictine novice, that force Hildegard to re-examine the fundamental assumptions she has made about her life. Is the practice of medicine within the monastic confines her true calling, or is a quiet existence of domestic contentment more desirable? With the pressures mounting and threatening to derail her carefully-laid plans, Hildegard becomes locked in a struggle that will either earn her an unprecedented freedom or relegate her to irrevocable oblivion.
Lizzie: Which three words describe how you felt, having finished writing The Greenest Branch. . . .?
Pat: ‘Accomplished’, ‘exhausted’, ‘antsy to get started on a new project’.
Lizzie: Do your characters change in your story? Is this important?
Pat: The story spans most of Hildegard of Bingen’s life—from the age of 11 to 75. So it that sense she definitely changes! Over the years, her views mature and evolve: she develops a philosophy of nature that underpins her medical practice and her treatment of other people and the world around her. But as she becomes more understanding of human weaknesses and more cynical about the power structure of her times, her determination to fight against those who want to hold her back gets stronger. One thing that is consistent in Hildegard’s life is her belief that she can chart her own path through life rather than trying to fulfill the expectations that others have for her.
Lizzie: What moments in the novel do you like best?
Pat: I like it when Hildegard rebels against the societal strictures that stand in the way of achieving her dreams. She rebels and succeeds in pushing the detractors and naysayers aside as she moves closer toward her goal. The reason these are my favorite moments is because I have a similarly contrarian nature, though I am not nearly as effective as Hildegard!
Lizzie: What moments do you like least?
Pat: When men (of the Church—here exemplified by Prior Helenger) justify keeping women away from public life and education by claiming that they are unable to think abstractly, and that they don’t have sufficiently developed reasoning faculties. These were very common beliefs in the Middle Ages.
Lizzie: When writing, do you like to plan in detail or set up a situation and see where it takes your characters?
Pat: I am a planner – in life and in fiction! Fortunately, I am flexible enough to be able to let go of something I had outlined at the beginning that may no longer work when I get to that point in the story. But I would never sit in front of a blank page and start writing. It would be too intimidating. With a plan/outline in hand as a guide, I feel much more confident when I set out on the writing journey.
Lizzie: Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
Pat: One of the major themes in The Greenest Branch is a woman’s dilemma between focusing on family and having a life that is fulfilling outside the home, in the public arena. For most women in the Middle Ages (i.e. those who were not royals) those paths were mutually exclusive. Typically, if a woman wanted to gain an education and lead a (relatively) independent life, she had to become a nun. In the story, the young Hildegard grapples with that dilemma and has to make difficult choices. While fortunately women have more freedom and more options today, I think there is still an aspect of our lives where we must make harder choices between the public/professional and the private than men do, and for that reason the story is universal. I believe that many women will be able to recognize something of what they have experienced or are experiencing in their lives today.
Lizzie: What is the role of superstition and tradition in this story?
Pat: Both superstition and tradition play a huge role in The Greenest Branch. Superstition regarding herbs and their healing properties is at the root of the Church’s distrust with non-surgical medicine and with women who practice herbal healing. It is an obstacle that Hildegard consistently battles against. As far as tradition is concerned, women in the Middle Ages were perceived as intellectually inferior to men and unable to exercise reason to the same degree. That was why their access to education was so limited. Hildegard—with her intellect and her desire to learn—went against all those beliefs and experienced a lot of pushback as a consequence.
Lizzie: What do you learn about change and social classes in this book?
Pat: We learn that the medieval society was not only divided along the economic and class lines—i.e. poor commoners/laborers vs. wealthy nobility. It was also very strictly separated along gender lines. Women’s role in the family and outside the home was very clearly and narrowly defined, and few women dared to challenge the status quo. That is what makes Hildegard such an unusual woman for her times.
Lizzie: How do you build your world? How do you describe it? Sensory perceptions? A stream of consciousness? Reflection? Anything else?
Pat: The medieval world was fascinating and very different from ours. I had researched it meticulously not just through reading history books, but also watching movies and TV series set in the Middle Ages. I created the world in The Greenest Branch by describing the setting—the buildings, tools of everyday life, landscape, nature—in sufficient detail to establish a sense of place. Whenever I could, I added sensory details such as scents of flowering plants, different types of food, or even the not-so-pleasant smells associated with medical work in the infirmary. In historical fiction, it is important to be authentic, and that means sometimes describing smells, sounds, and views that may be unsavory.
Lizzie: How do you research a novel? How do you include what you learn?
Pat: I read both non-fiction (history books) and fiction set in the period I write about. I take copious notes, and I include a lot of details in the first draft. In subsequent rewrites I remove anything that’s not directly related to the story, no matter how much I may like a certain factoid. That’s one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction.
Lizzie: What would you tweet (in 147 characters) about this book?
Pat: True story of a young woman enclosed in a convent who defies the hierarchy of the medieval Church in her quest to become a physician.
Lizzie: What did you learn about you, writing this book?
Pat: That I can be doggedly persistent if I do something I care about.
Lizzie: Where and when would you like to set another novel? Why?
Pat: My next project is a historical mystery series set in 16th century Poland, at the royal court in Cracow. After the medieval era, the 16th century is my favorite historical period, but I feel that too much fiction set in that era is focused on England and France. I want to show that other parts of Europe also had their Renaissance, and that life there was every bit as exciting, dangerous, complicated, and glamorous as at the Tudor court.
Lizzie: How far along are you with your new project?
Pat: I just finished the first draft!
Lizzie: Thank you so much for sharing all this fascinating detail with us!
P K Adams is a Boston-based historical fiction author with a degree in European Studies from Yale University and former marketing copywriter and editor. As she says, ‘A life-long lover of history, my goal is to bring stories of lesser-known historical figures and places to the attention of wider audiences. I have a blog where I share my writing journey, review historical fiction, host guest blogs from fellow authors in the genre. When not writing, I can be found drinking tea, practicing yoga, watching British murder mysteries on Netflix … although usually not at the same time.’
P K Adams notes: The Greenest Branch is the first book in a two-part series. The second book, The Column of Burning Spices, will be released in January 2019.