BackStory: Five Questions with Sophie van Llewyn

Heinkel He 111 bomber over London

BackStory: Five Questions with Sophie van Llewyn
Author of Phoenixes

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers (flash or otherwise) and why?
That would be Maurice Druon. His saga The Accursed Kings is still one of my favourites. I read it twice, already, and honestly, I’m afraid of diving into it one more time, because I’d be unresponsive (in book-induced coma) for days, and that’s not a scenario I can afford with a toddler at home. But, honestly, the books are so well researched, and well written, and so utterly fascinating, that they’re just unmatched.

The books follow the fates of the last of the Capet kings of France, Philip the Fair and his four children. By far, the most interesting story for me was that of Isabella, latter dubbed the She-Wolf of France. She’s was an amazing woman. For years slighted and humiliated by her husband, King Edward the Second, and his lovers, she watched and waited for the perfect opportunity. This came after she started an affair with Roger Mortimer during a visit in France. The two ‘invaded’ England assisted by a force of mercenaries. The English turned on their own king, sick with their abuses, and the Queen emerged victorious, alongside her lover. But her story doesn’t end here — this is more than befitting an interview, though, so I’ll let you discover this fascinating personality for yourselves.

Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
‘Mother pouts audibly behind me.’

Interestingly, I didn’t cut very much from this piece, rather tried to expand it — the first version, without the poetry lines, seemed to fall a bit flat. The flash was too thick with defeatism, at the time. I wanted to insert somehow the storyline with the brothers, who had fallen in France, and also hint at the fact that the British were just waiting for that moment when they would rise from their ashes and strike back.

I tried to compress this storyline into the body of the story, but it seemed forced. That’s when I had the idea to insert it as poetry. I love how in a haibun, the final poetry lines round off the piece, by often referring to a slightly different matter. That’s what I wanted to achieve: and the poetry lines, rather hinting at than talking open about a war theatre like the prose part, allowed the ideas to breathe.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
I wouldn’t want to go back too far in time, to be honest, especially as a woman. Think of all the hardships a woman was confronted with in the past: even doing the washing was torture. There were very few privileged, while most of the population ‘enjoyed’ poor healthcare, often no education at all, having to deal with hunger and cold, and having to do hard work at home, or in the fields. Often, women didn’t have the liberty to choose their own husbands. Put a high infant mortality rate on top of that, and let’s be honest, who would want to actually live in the past? What irks me most is, I think, the way women were often kept away from education, because it might have ‘put dangerous ideas into their heads,’ made them less compliant about accepting a husband forced on them and his whims, grounding a family, looking after the house. They were simply refused the choice.

That being said, I think the ’70s were quite awesome in the Western civilisation. It was a time of cultural awakening, while there was an inclination towards the people’s well being. I feel that now there’s a tendency to squeeze profit out of everything, including healthcare and education: that’s a steep price to pay. I mean, look at what’s happening across the Atlantic. I keep wondering if I will live to witness another awakening.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
Fearless optimism.

What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
Managing to conjure a picture of the past so vivid, that the reader is transported, while all the while, illuminating a perennial aspect of the human condition.

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Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. She worships, and writes historical fiction. One of her historical flashes won 2nd place in the Reflex Fiction Competition in Autumn 2017. She also wrote a historical novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods. You can find out more at

Image of Heinkel 111 aircraft over London from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number C219738.