BackStory: Five Questions with Tracy Fells
Author of Palindrome
What inspired you to write ‘Palindrome’?
I am fascinated with the history of relics and superstition, particularly around childbirth. The image of a birthing amulet, grasped in the hand of a woman giving birth, has haunted me for years and I first came across one in a BBC series Treasures of Heaven (presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, 2019).
Here is a link to an image of the relic/amulet discussed in one episode:
This has made me consider why I have such a fascination and I believe it comes from my own experience of motherhood and giving birth. My son was born by ventouse delivery (vacuum not forceps) and at the time I realised that less than a century earlier the chances for both of us surviving were low. I was lucky merely because of the timing of my own birth.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers — flash or otherwise — and why?
I confess I’m new to historical flash fiction but have been a long-time fan of Hilary Mantel, and her incredible Cromwell trilogy. The Tudor period is a favourite period of mine, and Mantel’s beautifully rich prose just brings it to life for me.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
All of my research was online concerning birthing rituals and superstitions in Elizabethan England. Following obscure links and references I chanced upon the Sator Square, a Latin palindrome which dates back to Roman times but was also written into butter or cheese/bread (and often eaten) to bring protection to women undergoing difficult births. The palindrome is: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas (one translation is: ‘The sower, with his plough, holds the wheels with care’.) I took this further, combining the palindrome with birthing amulets, having the text inscribed onto a golden amulet which could be held in the palm of a hand. The final amulet of this story was my own invention but I felt a wealthy Catholic family in Elizabethan England would be rich enough to afford such a precious object, and probably one that had been in the family for some years.
Further reading can be found here:
- St Margaret and birthing charms: https://www.tudorsociety.com/childbirth-in-medieval-and-tudor-times-by-sarah-bryson/
- Birth girdles: https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu/feminae/DetailsPage.aspx?Feminae_ID=40847
- Childbirth charms, amulets and rituals: https://www.thebabayagaproject.com/blog/5-medieval-childbirth-charms-amulets-and-rituals
- Rituals for conception and childbirth: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696514/
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
I also have a fascination for Roman history, and I’d love to explore Rome during Vespian’s time as Emperor 69 – 79 AD, to experience the Roman technology and ingenuity at its pinnacle in daily life. However, I imagine that at any time in history before late 20th century the lives of women (whatever your status, though wealth probably helped) were hard and painful…
What do you like most about writing flash?
The magic of creating a world in miniature in so few words. The challenge of creating a story that resonates never dulls and for me the smaller the word count the better. To condense an emotion or moment in time without spending days/weeks/months on the writing appeals to me because (don’t tell anyone) I really am a lazy writer who wants to get the story done as quickly as possible.
Tracy Fells is a flash and micro fiction addict with over 100 short stories published online and in print journals. Her novella-in-flash Hairy On The Inside is now available from Ad Hoc Fiction. She tweets as @theliterarypig.
Photograph of Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn, Asset number 31630001; Museum number 1902,0210.1, © The Trustees of the British Museum, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).