Friday, June 22, 2012

I Ask Ted Mendelssohn Hard Stuff

First of all, let me say how much I LOVED Ted Mendelssohn's new book The Wrong Sword. I loved it so much I started writing interview questions for Ted in hopes he'd answer them for my blog because I really wanted to know the answers!! So this isn't the usual author interview.

I am asking HARD stuff!

Thanks so much, Ted, for giving in to my curiosity! First off, the history in The Wrong Sword fascinated me! I loved your attention to detail and depiction of medieval France and England. Are you a historian along with your other many careers?

Thank you! When it comes to history, I'm an amateur, but I was lucky enough to attend a college with a demanding Western Civ requirement. (We read Beowulf in the original.) That got me started.

I like to think of Beowulf as the first action hero in English myself. In particular your depiction of such famous characters as Prince John and Eleanor of Aquitaine was so sharp it was hard to separate the fact from the fiction. Who did you make up? Was Geoffrey Plantagenet a real guy? If so, what in history earned such antipathy towards him that you turned him into such a scary and credible villain?

Well, gosh. You can't see it, but I'm blushing. Here's the deal:

Geoffrey, John and Eleanor were all real people - although by the time of this story, the real Geoffrey had actually been dead for several years. (There are two accounts of his death, the most likely of which is that he died in a joust, trampled by a horse...which I refer to in the novel. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, eh?)

Since Geoffrey died in a joust and was involved in several wars - including revolts against his own father - I figured that he was a typically aggressive member of the Anglo-Norman nobility; so I made him a damned good fighter. As to his cunning, the early Plantagenets were indeed a famously brainy bunch; and Geoffrey's contemporary, Gerald of Wales, described him like this: "He has more aloes than honey in him; his tongue is smoother than oil; his sweet and persuasive eloquence has enabled him to dissolve the firmest alliances and his powers of language to throw two kingdoms into confusion." He was also known not to give two farthings for the sanctity of the Church, raiding and despoiling monasteries and churches whenever he needed money. Add up the persuasiveness, the military experience, and the cynicism toward the sacred, and you have our Geoffrey.

Eleanor was the real deal. The heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine, she had direct control of more (and richer) land than the King of France himself. She married Louis of France, divorced him, and then married Henry Plantagenet, nine years her junior; Henry became King Henry II of England within two years. She bore ten children in an age when even one pregnancy was dangerous; she went on Crusade with Louis and scandalized the Crusader States; she spoke Poitevin French, Latin, and Norman; she rode, hawked, and hunted; she was a patron of poets, troubadours and writers; and she was so famously beautiful that there was even a drinking song about her - one that survives to this day. She also turned her sons against their father, Henry, and encouraged them to rebel against him. So - remarkable, charismatic, and also a little horrifying. But so was Henry II; they were well-matched.

Of them all, I'm afraid I've done the least justice to John. By many accounts, John was actually an able administrator and a good general; he even reformed English common law for the good. So the idea of him as someone childish and stupid is unfair. However, he did have serious personality flaws, including pettiness, spite, and cruelty. He could apparently vacillate between being amiable and generous and being jealous and prone to fits of anger. He seems also to have had a knack for making snide remarks at the worst possible time, like mocking Irish beards while he was actually trying to govern Ireland. John was also shortish, barrel-chested, and red-haired (like his dad), not the lanky exquisite that I put in the book. Ah, well.

The tone of TWS is a very refreshing mix of current vernacular language with medieval concepts and history. Why did you choose to interject such (I hesitate to say it) anachronistic elements into what is otherwise such an incredibly grounded novel historically speaking?

To the characters who are actually living the story, their speech doesn't sound archaic; it sounds contemporary. What Tristan says to Isolde in Chretien de Troyes sounds archaic to us; but to him, it would have sounded modern. If the language in TWS were *really* contemporary, we wouldn't even be able to understand it; English as we know it today didn't exist. That's my way of saying that every "historical" novel is fake to some degree (even one as beautifully researched as Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth). I just decided that TWS didn't have to pretend otherwise.

Ted, I absolutely love that answer and completely agree. You handle that little dichotomy with such hilarity as well---one of my favorite elements of the book. So, what was the most fun thing about writing TWS? What was the hardest thing?

Most fun: Chase scenes, food fights, and anything with Brother Wiglaf. Brother Wiglaf is my chance to make all sorts of steampunk in-jokes. Sir Percy is also fun.

The hardest thing? Believe it or not, the fights between Henry and Excalibur. They have to ultimately function as one unit, but still be fighting for control all the time. It's a tricky balance in terms of plot.

And last, because I am desperate for a writer's retreat so I can actually get some work done, if you could hold a writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I live in New York, which is widely acknowledged - at least by its inhabitants - to be the center of the universe. So maybe the Cuban-Chinese restaurant on 78th Street.

Now I am laughing out loud and wondering if they make a Cuban Egg Foo Yong because I would totally eat that!

Okay, seriously...I'm afraid if you say "anywhere in the world," it's going to generate a lot of places most authors won't get to easily: Venice, Rome, Istanbul, Bangkok, Copenhagen...

They all sound great to me. Let's start getting ticket prices! 

Thanks so much, Ted, for indulging my curiosity. Now, everybody, here are all the links to Ted's web presence and book purchasing. Like I said, I LOVED The Wrong Sword and do not hesitate to recommend!  

The Wrong Sword
by Ted Mendelssohn

For a thousand years, Excalibur has been the sword of heroes.
Unfortunately, its new owner isn’t one.

Henry of Sanbruc, medieval smartass, makes a pretty good living selling "magic" swords to gullible knights. When he's forced to steal the real thing from the Chapel Perilous, his troubles are only beginning: For Excalibur is not just the sword of’s also the sword that won’t SHUT UP. It communicates with its owner, it knows what kind of owner it deserves, and Henry doesn’t even come close.

To keep Excalibur and the world safe from the appalling Geoffrey Plantagenet, Henry will have to masquerade as a knight, crash a royal wedding, rescue a princess, break a siege, penetrate the secrets of the Perilous Brotherhood, and find Excalibur’s rightful bearer, all while trying to reach an accommodation with a snotty, aristocratic hunk of steel that mocks him, takes over his body, and keeps trying to turn him into the one thing he hates most...a hero.

Buy links:

Barnes & Noble

Musa Publishing

Ted's blog is at

Thanks again, Ted, for dropping by!


  1. Loved the interview. From the little I do know of English history, I've always loved the sound of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

  2. Thanks so much for reading, Eleni!! I was fascinated by Ted's take on history plus the element of alternate/fantasy history he created in The Wrong Sword. It was a really excellent book!!