BackStory: Five Questions with Vanessa Couchman
Author of An Encounter Between the Poet and the Mantis
What inspired you to write ‘An Encounter Between the Poet and the Mantis’?
Two things. First, I had just finished Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the concluding part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, so I had him on the brain. I was riveted by all three books, even though I think she was too indulgent towards Cromwell. The poet of the title is loosely based on Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was imprisoned in May 1536 on suspicion of being a lover of Anne Boleyn. He was released later that year, possibly because he, or more likely his father, was friendly with Cromwell. At the time, of course, he didn’t know that. He may even have watched the execution of the other accused men from his Tower window. I wanted to show how ruthless and tenacious I believe Cromwell was, even to people who were notionally friends.
The second factor was a flash workshop prompt to write a story featuring an animal as a symbol or metaphor for something or someone else. Hence the mantis, which the poet likens to Cromwell. I live in Southern France, and I have seen a preying mantis eat another one. No fellow feeling there! It seemed to me that the mantis’ behaviour mirrored Cromwell’s in lying in wait and then pouncing unexpectedly.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I did quite a bit of research about both Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Wyatt. I’m not really a Tudor specialist, although I chose a 16th-century option when I took a degree in history about a century ago. I had a lot of brushing up to do.
What surprised me most was that Wyatt managed to keep his head, despite being imprisoned for treason on two occasions, which was rare in those days. When Henry VIII fell out of love with you, you didn’t usually have a chance, although some people, including Cromwell himself, were oblivious to it or tried not to notice. Wyatt died of an illness at the age of 39.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
The point right at the beginning where you have a spark of inspiration, and you can’t get it down on paper fast enough. I usually write flash in a notebook by hand rather than on the computer. The physical connection between pen and paper makes me feel closer to the creative process. When you’re in the zone, the feeling of exhilaration is wonderful. I just wish it happened more often!
The least favourite has to be editing, although I recognise how important it is, so I buckle down and do it. I rarely make radical structural changes to a piece, but a sentence might go through half a dozen iterations.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I like the challenge of compression. Every word has to count while retaining a coherent story in which something changes or happens. Each time I edit a flash piece, I see more superfluous words that I could cut. Writing flash is a very good discipline for writing historical novels and short stories, which I also write. When you have up to 90,000 words ahead of you for a novel, the temptation is to waffle and add scenes that don’t contribute anything to the story. You can’t do that with flash, and it makes me look at my novels more critically.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
Where known facts are concerned, accuracy is very important. Someone will always call you out if you get it wrong. However, the further back in history you travel, the more you have to rely on conjecture, especially where contemporary documents are non-existent or biased. In that case, I prefer to think of historical authenticity: would the character have behaved or spoken like that? Is it conceivable that they would have been in a certain place at a certain time? Does the tone of the piece convey the spirit of the age?
In writing this piece, I did have to go in for a bit of conjecture. Wyatt carried out several diplomatic missions, including visits to Rome and Venice. There’s no actual evidence that he was in Tuscany, where the mantis incident is set, but I like to think that he might have enjoyed an interlude there, and it’s not beyond the bounds of the possible. If he had never set foot on the Italian peninsula, that would have been a different matter.
Vanessa Couchman is a self-confessed history nut and has lived in France since 1997. She is published/forthcoming in 5MinuteFiction, FiveMinuteLit, FlashBack Fiction, FlashFlood Journal, Friday Flash Fiction, Reflex, Sundial Magazine, WestWord Journal, Writing Magazine, among others, and in numerous anthologies. Vanessa’s blog about France focuses on history: https://vanessafrance.wordpress.com
Detail of portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532-1533); The Frick Collection, 1915.1.76 via Wikimedia Commons.