Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was just released from ChiZine Publications last month. But that’s not all she’s had in the works in 2018: in April, Choice of Games released her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury. She’s also working on two time-travel novellas for Tor.com Publications, the first of which will be published in November 2018. She is the author of more than thirty published stories in venues like Daily Science Fiction and Lackington’s, and in multiple anthologies. A former newspaper journalist, she lives in Ottawa.
Kate was kind enough to send me a copy of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy set in medieval Belgium that involves the forces of Hell ravaging the countryside of Flanders, and the determination of one woman, Margriet de Vos, to return the favour. Last week, we chatted about her novel, including the historical research she did, and how medieval Europe was a lot more diverse than we’ve been led to believe.
Let’s take a look!
[Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Me: Ok, I’m going to get a silly question out of the way first, then: how many of the people who you’ve talked to about this book start spouting out quotes from “In Bruges” at you? 😛
Kate Heartfield: Haha! I think…maybe one? Which is surprising. I really liked that movie. It gave me an appreciation for Colin Farrell I hadn’t had. And for Bruges. I haven’t been there myself so I relied on a LOT of primary and secondary research about what Bruges was like in the 14th century.
I had wondered if you had gone! The movie depicts it as this city almost frozen in time, but in your story it’s a much grittier, muddier, blasted place. What sort of research did you to get that sense of it? Also, for those who, like me, don’t know the history: was there actually a siege at Bruge in 1328?
There nearly was — the Battle of Cassel in 1328 has just happened, at the beginning of Armed in Her Fashion, and that was a real event. It was the culmination of something called the “peasant revolt” in Flanders and to modern ears that means “farmers/serfs” but in fact a lot of the participants were city people, merchants, etc.
The book A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 was a big source for me.
What was the reason for the revolt?
A lot of it was because the Count of Flanders had a pro-French policy, and this was the beginning of the Hundred Years War, so to be pro-French was to be anti-English, but the merchants and farmers of Flanders had a trade relationship with England. So basically it was the nobility being out of touch with the people. The mayor of Bruges was one of the leaders of the revolt, and imprisoned the Count, but the King of France intervened.
The backdrop for this is a looong antipathy between Flanders and France. There was a French invasion of Bruges in 1302, during which the townspeople killed the French invaders. I have a short story about that, about Margriet as a child, coming out in an anthology soon. (But I don’t think the anthology TOC has been announced yet so I’d better not say which one.)
Actually, let me back up a bit. Since people know a bit more about the setting now, can you give us a broad overview of what Armed in Her Fashion is about, for readers who are unfamiliar with it?
Sure! The inspiration came mainly from the painting Dulle Griet, by Pieter Bruegel. It shows a woman leading a raid on Hell, and is inspired by a figure in Flemish folklore: a woman so shrewish she could raid Hell. I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to situate it in Flemish history, and the events of the early 14th century seemed like the perfect setting. But there was the question of the Hellmouth in the painting (and the Hellmouths that appear in medieval Christian art in general): if there’s a mouth, is there a beast? I started wondering what the appearance of a literal Hellbeast would do to the politics of France and Flanders, and so the book arose from that. Margriet de Vos (inspired by Dulle Griet) is a wet nurse whose city is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell, who has wrested control of the Hellbeast and wants to gain power on the surface.
The next question I had to answer, of course, is “why is she raiding Hell?” In my research, I had discovered that the laws and customs of Flanders gave widows more rights to property and inheritance than we might think. (We tend to have a very monolithic understanding of women’s rights in medieval Europe.) So Margriet wants her inheritance, her due. She is the kind of woman who, if she lived today, would talk to the manager about a $5 coupon. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
Yes, I thought that there was something really compelling in that. She’s a shrew, but let’s face it, our society isn’t that sympathetic to shrewish women even if they have understandable reasons for behaving that way.
Yes, exactly. She’s not the prototypical “likeable protagonist” but I deliberately wanted to push back against notions about what makes a middle-aged woman “unlikeable.”
I also thought it was very interesting, the interplay between Margriet and her daughter, Beatrix. Beatrix is almost preternaturally kind and compassionate, like she’s a pendulum trying to swing as hard as she can away from Margriet. And in a weird way, Beatrix is the reason for Margriet’s shrewishness — it gives her something to live for.
I agree, yeah. Beatrix was hard to write, because she is a good, decent, ordinary person. But maybe she’s not as ordinary as she appears. And it’s her kindness that gives her the blessing, or the curse, of just a little bit of magical power.
I loved how you had so many women in your book, and how they were all so different from each other, yet interlocking: Margriet’s inner ferocity, Beatrix’s gentleness, Jacquemine’s practicality, Gertrude’s gregariousness and confidence.
Thank you! That was a very deliberate project, for sure.
And, of course, the Chatelaine! I found it REALLY interesting how the more you learn about her, the less villainous she seems. She wants power and autonomy, and no one is willing to give it to her, even though she literally has the keys to Hell.
Yes, I have a lot of secret (or maybe not so secret) sympathy for the Chatelaine.
Will you explore her in any other works?
I hadn’t planned to do any sequels, but I’ve heard from a few people that they’d like to know more about these characters. I would definitely like to follow up with Monoceros and with Claude. Claude goes through a lot at the beginning of the novel and I like to think he’s having a grand time, gallivanting around Europe.
Yes! I imagine you did a lot of research to depict Claude accurately as well. We’d consider Claude a trans man now, but the vocabulary we’re using wasn’t really around then. How common were people like Claude during that time period?
It’s very difficult to say, because as you say, the vocabulary didn’t exist in quite the same way it does now. We know that there were people who were assigned female at birth who donned armour and fought in probably every conflict in human history (Kameron Hurley’s classic essay “We Have Always Fought” is a great read on that), but it can be difficult to say how many of them were women disguised as men, and how many had a different understanding of their own gender. One reason I wanted to portray Claude as a trans man rather than as a Joan of Arc figure was to make sure that those people aren’t erased.
For research, I read a lot of history and essays by trans writers about that evolving vocabulary and about looking back at history: Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg was one. And the main thing I did was to read every essay I could get my hands on about damaging tropes when it comes to trans characters, so that I could try to avoid falling into any of those traps. (I’m a cisgender writer myself.)
I wanted to show how his culture would have misgendered him, and show how painfully wrong that would have been, but at the same time I wanted him to just be a trans character having adventures, without causing undue trauma to him or to trans readers, and I’m not sure I got that balance right. So I’d really like to revisit him in a setting where he isn’t being constantly misgendered. Sorry, long answer! Claude is close to my heart.
No no, I get it, and it’s important. To back up your point, I wasn’t sure how to phrase that question without misgendering him or using phrases like AFAB that aren’t contemporaneous to the period.
Definitely. Point of view was the main technique I used to try to get that across despite the lack of period vocabulary: I could show that in Claude’s mind, he’s definitely a he, while the other point-of-view characters think of him (at least at first) as “she.”
I worried that that would be confusing for readers, but it hasn’t been at all, that I’ve heard.
I think it’s also interesting that, like many trans people have experienced, what they consider important is how the roles they’re playing have changed, but cis people only want to ask about body stuff. Is being able to pee standing up really more fascinating to others than being able to fight and kill?
Right, that’s definitely one of the traps cis writers and readers can fall into, and so do the cis characters in Armed.
There are so many great trans, genderqueer and non-binary writers in SFF and their work is a great place for any readers who are looking for trans characters: the Transcendant anthologies are one great place to start.
Yes, thank you for that recommendation! I’ll make sure to include a few more at the end of the post. [Note: See the list at the end.]
There are a few other elements of the book that caught my attention. I don’t know how much time you have to discuss them all, but three in particular are the stories of Reynard and Ysengrim, Beatrix’s strange visions, and the fact that Jacquemine de Ooste is of Moorish descent.
Reynard is one of those stories that just gets under my skin, and I can’t say why, exactly. He is a trickster fox figure and the stories about him were very popular in Europe at the time. I read a great translation of the Middle Dutch Reynard epic poems.
That translation is by Bouwman and Besamusca, for anyone looking.
I think the Reynard stories shed a lot of light on the medieval understanding of people’s roles in society, which as I said at the beginning was part of the backdrop of this period (with the peasant revolt), so it seemed to fit.
Beatrix’s visions were sort of personal for me. She sees flashes of the future in the landscape they’re walking across, and of course that landscape, between Bruges and Ypres, saw so much war in the 20th century. My grandfather was one of the British Expeditionary Force soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk in WWII, so I had that in the back of my mind as I was writing this other story about a desperate journey across roughly the same part of the world.
I suppose the reason I included those visions is to try to shorten that gap between us and history, in some way.
Yes, it took me a few minutes to realize exactly what Beatrix was seeing in her visions. That act of finding 14th-century words to describe 20th-century artifacts — items that are capable of doing things that the people of the book (and even the Chatelaine) would consider somehow unholy.
Yes, that was a real challenge. There’s a great Doctor Who episode that uses a WWI gas mask (if I recall correctly) to similar effect. They are eerie.
Oh, the “are you my mummy?” one?
I think so! I just googled — it’s “The Empty Child“. Creepy.
As for Jacquemine’s heritage, I wanted to show Europe as it was, and to push back against the idea that medieval Europe was homogeneously white. The Twitter account MedievalPoC is a great resource for learning about that history. [Note: MedievalPoC also has a Patreon.]
Jacquemine is also wealthy, and that was definitely a possibility for people of colour in Europe as well — think about Othello a couple of centuries later, or Alessandro de Medici, whose mother was probably black. And as you said above, Jacquemine is a woman who has a different challenge than the other women in the story: she has living children she has to protect, and different choices to make. She might be another interesting character to revisit at some point.
Yes, I was thinking of the MedievalPoC tumblr when she appeared in the book. Considering how much research you did and how many elements you were trying to balance, how long did it take you to write Armed in Her Fashion?
Hmm! I wrote it in 2013 and 2014. I think it was roughly a year and a half. It took me about a year to write and revise enough that I could show it to my agent, and then another few months to revise it after my agent’s feedback. The eventual edit was very light but there was a lot of rewriting before that point.
That’s roughly around the same time you started submitting short stories to anthos and larger markets, from what I remember. I remember you started showing up in Daily Science Fiction 1-2 years after that.
Yes, it was! Good memory. I signed with my agent about a year before I handed it in to her — I signed with her on the strength of another novel, The Humours of Grub Street, which is coming out in about a year.
Who is publishing that?
ChiZine as well — they bought both!
Nice! What do you have coming out between now and then?
I’ll have two novellas coming out from Tor.com Publishing, both in a series. The first is Alice Payne Arrives in November 2018 and the second is Alice Payne Rides in March 2019. They are about a time-travelling highwaywoman and are lots of fun.
Very cool! I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks so much for chatting tonight!
And that’s that! You can buy Armed in Her Fashion online or in bookstores.
Contemporary Non-Binary, Trans and Genderfluid Spec-Fic Authors
Kate mentioned the Transcendant anthologies above. Here’s a (far from complete) list of contemporary trans, non-binary and genderfluid SF/F authors you may want to read, in no particular order: