Debut Author Snapshot: Dana Chamblee Carpenter

Posted by Goodreads on November 11, 2015
Dana Chamblee Carpenter

Rate this book
Clear rating
There aren't many works of historical fiction set in 13th-century Bohemia, which meant that when Nashville-based professor Dana Chamblee Carpenter began writing her debut novel, Bohemian Gospel, her research into the era uncovered a wealth of unfamiliar material. Carpenter wove those discoveries into her page-turner of a book, which follows Mouse, a young woman with unusual abilities, as she is drawn into the life of Ottakar, who ruled Bohemia from 1253 to 1278 and is known now as the Iron and Golden King. When Ottakar is shot by a traitor, Mouse breaks both law and convention to save him, and soon the two are drawn to each other. But Mouse knows nothing of her past or her parentage, and there are those who think that she is a witch.

Carpenter tells us about the image that led her to Mouse and the historical facts that helped inspire her fictional plot twists.

Goodreads: How did you begin writing Bohemian Gospel? Tell us about your early inspiration.

Dana Chamblee Carpenter: I'm always afraid I'll sound like a loon when I start talking about visions and having conversations with my characters, but then I remember August Wilson, the playwright, talking that way about his characters. I figure that means I'm doing OK.

I met Mouse when I was on the way back home for the holidays. My husband was driving, the kids were content with a movie in the backseat, and I had some of those precious, uninterrupted Mom moments where my mind could wander. And, boy, did it! I had this vision of a young woman standing on a small rise, a river at her back, and before her a field full of soldiers fighting, swords clanking and screeching, horses screaming. She was looking out across the field toward one soldier in particular, and her face was full of anguish—she was angry and so sad, but at the same time her eyes were lit with this fierce determination. And I heard her name in my head like it was carried on the wind that swept over the battlefield: Mouse.

I grabbed a napkin off the floorboard of the car and jotted it all down. There was so much I didn't know. I didn't know when or where we were. I didn't know who the soldier was or anything about the armies fighting or why they were fighting. I didn't know anything about Mouse's life—except her name, and I was pretty sure I needed to persuade her to change that. (How would I ever sell an adult book with a protagonist named Mouse?)

But that was the anchor. I think I would've lost her and the story if I hadn't heard her name. That was the key to getting to know her. Why was she named Mouse? That was the first story she gave me.

Months later I caught about ten minutes of a documentary about a mysterious medieval text—scholars weren't sure about how the book had been made or by whom because it didn't follow any of their expectations for typical medieval manuscripts. And I knew, suddenly and surely, that Mouse had written that book (well, you know, in my fictional world—I'm really NOT nuts), which meant I knew where she came from and when: 13th-century Bohemia.

After that, the pieces just fell into place, like a puzzle that didn't need to be put together so much as it needed to be discovered—and understood.

Mor Tan's painting depicting the Battle on the Marchfeld. This is the battle that Mouse was witnessing when I first "met" her in my vision. When I started to learn about the historical battle, I was surprised (and a little freaked out) at how similar the image in my mind was to the real thing.
Goodreads: Mouse is an extraordinary character. What went into her creation? And was there much information out there about young women (who probably didn't have anything near her powers!) in 13th-century Bohemia?

DCC: I love that you love Mouse, too. Honestly, she's what kept driving me—those late, late nights writing because I couldn't stand to leave her in a bad spot, and then, when I had submitted the book and was getting discouraged by rejections, I kept telling myself that I owed it to Mouse to keep trying. I owed it to her to get her story out there.

I worked hard through research to keep Mouse grounded in the historical realm of possibility—I wanted her to be unusual, but I also wanted to keep her circumstances plausible for the time. There are loads of sources out there to describe the generic conditions of medieval life, though most focus on men or royals. We know that, typically, options for young women were limited, their lives difficult and often lived at the whim of men. But this wasn't always the case, and actually, women of a certain class had more independence than those born at a "higher" station. And there were exceptions to the rules—probably more than we realize. Through the Church, women could get access to learning. They were trained as healers, like Mouse.

But beyond the circumstances of her life—where she lived and what life in an abbey would've been like, etc.—I had to learn the important things about Mouse from her. And she kept her secrets close to the chest. I had to ask the right questions and be patient for her to give me the answers.

This mural comes from St. Ludmila's chapel in St. George's Basilica. Ludmila was the grandmother of Good King Wenceslaus,
and she served as regent while he was too young to rule. History suggests that she was murdered by the order of Wenceslaus's mother.
The chapel itself would have been in St. George's during Mouse's time and was a popular place of pilgrimage, especially for women.
Goodreads: Music of the time period plays a big role in this book. Can you tell us a little bit about your research? Was it difficult to find? And how did you figure out how to use it to such effect in the story?

DCC: This was really tough research—especially because I wanted something other than church music. I wanted secular songs that might have been played in the great hall at the castle in Prague. I discovered that Ottakar (and his dad) really enjoyed the music of the German minnesingers.

I'd never heard of minnesingers (they're like troubadours), so I had to educate myself about them and their music and which ones would've been most popular in Mouse's time. Once I had a few names, I was able to start the deep research, the only-in-a-book kind of research, the hunt-for-hours-or-even-days-without-finding-anything kind of research. I got so discouraged that I tried writing without the music or only referring to it in general terms, and then I'd get mad—I wanted actual lyrics!—and so I hit the books again. In an endnote of yet another unhelpful essay, I found a title of a book that sounded perfect. But it was out of print and impossible to find.

Finally, through my university's library accounts, I was able to access a scanned copy of the book that had been archived. I nearly cried with joy! The hunt turned out to be so worth it; the lyrics were rich with context and story that were perfect to help set the mood or to communicate what Mouse was feeling—just like any good music should do. It was easy to weave the songs into the story because, since the research had taken me so long, I'd written around the places where I wanted to use them. It was like sliding them home.

The kicker—on a whim I decided to search for minnesinger on Spotify. I was almost mad when NEIDHART: a Minnesinger and His Vale of Tears popped up and the room filled with sounds of medieval song. (I realized only later, of course: I could've started here and saved myself days.) But I loved getting to have the music play while I wrote those scenes.

Listen to the tune, recorded by the Ensemble Leones, here. Perfect to set the Medieval mood.

Goodreads: Young King Ottakar is an actual historical figure. What drew you to him? How difficult was it to weave Mouse into his life?

A knightly Ottakar II as depicted in
the 15th-century Gelnhausen Codex.
DCC: As with everything in Bohemian Gospel, Mouse led me to Ottakar. When I started researching the period, I found his dad, Vaclav, first. I didn't like Vaclav. But Ottakar? He was like winning the lottery for a writer (and for what it's worth, he didn't like his dad, either). He took on the responsibilities of a monarch at such a young age, and yet he was so thoughtful about the choices he made. He wanted to make life better for the common Bohemian citizen. He wanted to protect the poor from the power of the wealthy. He wanted to bring learning and art and story to everyone. But he was also ambitious. I'm not sure how much of this comes from his own nature or from influence by the people around him. And based on the drawings we have of him and his effigy on his coffin (weird, I know), he was really handsome. I see him as a younger David Tennant.

Ottakar II is the first in a line of noble Bohemian kings (looks a little like David Tennant in my mind's eye).
His descendants and heirs, Vaclav II and Vaclav III, stand behind him.
He was perfect for Mouse—good in heart and soul but flawed, too.

The pieces of Ottakar's story that we know absolutely I held as anchors, but there's so much we don't know that it was easy to weave Mouse into the gaps. It was so seamless to me that I'm genuinely shocked when I read something about Ottakar that doesn't mention Mouse.

Goodreads: Mouse was born into a world with very strict ideas of what a woman could do or be, and she is constantly pushing against those strictures. How much were you thinking about our present-day world when you wrote those aspects of the story?

DCC: I have a daughter. I watch young women come in and out of my classes. I know what it means to grow up as a woman in a culture that tells us what we should be, what we can't be. I live in a country that still refuses women the most basic level of fairness: equal pay for equal work. I push against the boxes my society has shaped for me. I pull against their tethers. I always have, even as a kid, and I've always found people—real ones and fictitious ones, people in books and people in life—to encourage and inspire me in this struggle.

Mouse knows this struggle. I didn't shape her to fit my idea of what she should be, though. I just let her be her. But I was so proud of her for working so hard to find her place in the world; it's not an easy struggle, and she gives up and gives in sometimes, and yet she always comes back to her own sense of self. She inspires me. I hope she inspires others, too.

Goodreads: Magic! Do you have any real-life experiences with it?

DCC: If I'm lucky and I'm looking the right way, I can experience magic nearly every day. But it hinges on my outlook. If I'm going through my day in a very "adultlike" way, everything stays mundane, "normal," explainable. I see and hear and smell and feel exactly what I expect to see and hear and smell and feel.

But when we were kids, we knew there was so much to the world we couldn't understand. We didn't engage the world with expectations but rather with wonder. And we experienced so much more! We could hear things calling to us in the wind just before a storm. We could feel the evilness of certain places pricking at the backs of our necks, making us run to safe ground. We knew that there were things we couldn't name or see properly that lived in the dark or in the wild places. We were open to the world and didn't skip over something because it didn't fit our expectations, our own knowing.

My own kids are wonderful guides to lead me back to this knowing of the world. They show me where the magic lives.

A couple of years ago, on a particularly adultish day (most likely it was Monday), my son insisted that we go outside. He'd been talking about looking for nature sprites and fairies. It was overcast and still soggy from the day's drizzle. Thousands of autumn leaves covered the ground. From the nice, dry inside of the house, those leaves looked slimy and messy. But reluctantly I agreed to follow the tugging hand. The air had this feeling of something about it, and I felt myself instantly awake, more alive than I'd been all day, as we meandered through the leaves in the backyard, a blanket of cool, moist air hanging on us.

And then my little guy saw what he was looking for: one leaf in the midst of thousands.

The yellows and oranges and reds made a mosaic on the ground, but in the middle of them was a leaf with a perfect "J" marked by tiny holes. My son's name starts with a J. It was his leaf. He was as surprised as I was, but on another level, not. He just knew that the sprites and fairies had left it for him.

I knew it, too.

All of the medieval books mentioned in Bohemian Gospel are real except for one very special one,
but even it is based on an actual (and mysterious) text called the Voynich Manuscript.
Goodreads: Have you always been drawn to historical fiction? Which books made you fall in love with the genre?

DCC: I've always loved historical fiction. I read the Little House on the Prairie books until the covers fell off. I still have them. I reread the entire Jane Austen canon every couple of years, and I've recently discovered Susanna Kearsley's work.

But I am also a geek, and I love sci-fi and fantasy and paranormal. My favorite kind of storytelling is when that magical world gets smashed up against the historical, like in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and Deborah Harkness's Discovery of Witches series. That's magic to me, too—the magic of storytelling: to take a reader somewhere and some-when and give them the real and the fantastic so that they can go back to their own time and place and see more, hear more, feel more. Yeah, that's the best kind of magic.

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Danielle (new)

Danielle I had to scream out loud because you love all the books I love. Hardly anyone I know loves Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. I have read The Historian multiple times and I have all of Deborah Harkness's books in hardback. And I bought The Physik Book of Deliverance Dane for my daughter, but read it first. I can't wait to read your book!


message 2: by Morena (new)

Morena This is utterly bizarre :) I was born in Bohemia, I live and breath medieval era of central europe to a point that contemporary views strike me as strange, and here is a writer from US, writing about my favorite era and my home. It is mind-boggling. I will be sure to read this since I know this part of history inside and out and I am curious what someone so removed from this land and era could do with it.


message 3: by Dana (new)

Dana Danielle wrote: "I had to scream out loud because you love all the books I love. Hardly anyone I know loves Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. I have read The Historian multiple times and I have all of Deborah Harkne..."

HI Danielle, Oh my goodness! Don't think I've ever met someone with my same list of beloved books. Sounds like we need to be book friends! Do you have any other book recommendations?


message 4: by Dana (last edited Nov 12, 2015 04:49AM) (new)

Dana Adriana wrote: "This is utterly bizarre :) I was born in Bohemia, I live and breath medieval era of central europe to a point that contemporary views strike me as strange, and here is a writer from US, writing abo..."

Hi Adriana, I'm a little envious. I have fallen totally in love with your home country. Maybe I have long lost ancestors with Bohemia in their blood? Hope you like my take on Bohemian history. :)


message 5: by Mike (new)

Mike I love the 'process' part of writing and other creative forms; thanks very much for your description of how your book and its characters came to be. Modern magic in itself. I look forward to reading the finished product!


message 6: by Dana (new)

Dana Mike wrote: "I love the 'process' part of writing and other creative forms; thanks very much for your description of how your book and its characters came to be. Modern magic in itself. I look forward to readin..."

Thanks, Mike!


message 7: by Susie (new)

Susie Dana, I "found" a poem in your text...

If I'm lucky
If I'm looking the right way
I can experience
magic
engage the world with
wonder
hear what calls
in the wind
feel what prickles
the back of my neck
see beyond to a
magical world


message 8: by Susie (new)

Susie Dana, I just returned from Prague (Praha) and the Czech Republic. I was enthralled by how old everything is in this part of the world. Prague was untouched by WWII and although tourism has had a definite effect the historical aspects are incedible. I am looking forward to your book and to learning more about the history of the lands of my ancestors.
Thank you for the magic of taking us there.


message 9: by Dana (new)

Dana Susie wrote: "Dana, I "found" a poem in your text...

If I'm lucky
If I'm looking the right way
I can experience
magic
engage the world with
wonder
hear what calls
in the wind
feel what prickles
the back of my n..."


Wow! That's really awesome. :)


message 10: by Dana (new)

Dana Susie wrote: "Dana, I just returned from Prague (Praha) and the Czech Republic. I was enthralled by how old everything is in this part of the world. Prague was untouched by WWII and although tourism has had a de..."

It was such an incredible journey getting to discover the richness of story and culture in that part of the world and time. I hope you enjoy my depiction of it.


message 11: by J.M. (new)

J.M. Blaine Love this book & love seeing someone so lovely as Dana Carpenter here on Goodreads.
Love is magic.


message 12: by Morena (last edited Nov 13, 2015 08:54AM) (new)

Morena Susie wrote: " Prague was untouched by WWII and although tourism has had a de..."

Susie, Prague was bombed (by accident) in February 1945. Thankfully not badly like Dresden but nevertheless.
http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/ct24/doma...
Benedictine Convent in Prague


message 13: by Cindie (new)

Cindie Your book sounds amazing. I can't wait to get a copy. I am so excited you included the music of the time. I hate that so much is lost to us, when it used to be passed down in it's true form. I was also touched by your sharing a great adventure with your son. I too have awareness of those "coincidences" in life and taught my children to look for them. It really enriches life to look a little deeper. Thanks for this wonderful interview and I look forward to getting to know Mouse.


message 14: by Brad (new)

Brad Thompson Hi Dana,
I look forward to reading your book. Congratulations!


message 15: by Giny (new)

Giny Chandler I was fortunate to visit Prague and Budapest this summer and it was a wonderful experience on so many levels. Now I can't wait to read your novel where I can add my own visual to your writings. It did seem to be a magic city.


message 16: by Ted (new)

Ted Hanebach For all interested in this area and time in Europe, I strongly recommend The Hussite Trilogy by Sapkowski.


message 17: by Dana (new)

Dana Giny wrote: "I was fortunate to visit Prague and Budapest this summer and it was a wonderful experience on so many levels. Now I can't wait to read your novel where I can add my own visual to your writings. It ..."

Thank you, Giny! I agree--Prague is magical. The rest of the country is pretty amazing too! Hope you enjoy the book!


message 18: by Dana (new)

Dana Ted wrote: "For all interested in this area and time in Europe, I strongly recommend The Hussite Trilogy by Sapkowski."

Thanks for the recommendation, Ted!


message 19: by Dana (new)

Dana Brad wrote: "Hi Dana,
I look forward to reading your book. Congratulations!"


Thank you, Brad. I hope you enjoy it!


message 20: by Dana (new)

Dana Cindie wrote: "Your book sounds amazing. I can't wait to get a copy. I am so excited you included the music of the time. I hate that so much is lost to us, when it used to be passed down in it's true form. I was ..."

What a beautiful comment! It's always nice to find a kindred spirit--there's so much to see isn't there? And if you let them, kids are great at showing you how to see it. I hope you come to love Mouse as I do. :)


message 21: by Susie (new)

Susie Adriana wrote: "Susie wrote: " Prague was untouched by WWII and although tourism has had a de..."

Susie, Prague was bombed (by accident) in February 1945. Thankfully not badly like Dresden but nevertheless.
http..."


Thank you for the information, I was incorrect.


message 22: by Paula (new)

Paula Hazelton I also returned from Prague 3 weeks ago. My Bohemian ancestry is pretty well documented so I made a trip to a small village where my family lived for 200 years until 1927, and the place (Nechanice) where family roots began in Bohemia. I love Czech Republic and this book is my next read and a suggestion for my book club.


message 23: by Dana (new)

Dana Paula wrote: "I also returned from Prague 3 weeks ago. My Bohemian ancestry is pretty well documented so I made a trip to a small village where my family lived for 200 years until 1927, and the place (Nechanice)..."

What a wonderful trip that must have been! I hope you like it, and I'm happy to chat with your reading group if they'd like.


message 24: by Paula (new)

Paula Hazelton Your book was selected as our book club read for June 2015. I will send this link to the book club members and perhaps as they read your book they will comment. I certainly will. It was quite a discovery for me considering my recent trip. This month's selection was "Mistress of the Art of Death", a story about an 11th century physician in Henry II's service. Fascinating are the stories of strong women in the times we don't attribute to strong women. I could go on and on but can't wait to read your book.


message 25: by Dana (new)

Dana I agree! I LOVE books about women that challenge conventional notions of them in historical periods. The more we learn of history, the more we see exceptions to what we thought were the standards of the time. Give me a rebel every time! :) And I would LOVE to talk about the book as your club reads it. We could even schedule a Skype session or something if folks are interested. I have a place for bookclubs to schedule visits on my website at danachambleecarpenter.com.


message 26: by Ann (new)

Ann Brookens I loved Deborah Harkness' Discovery of Witches series but i am unfamiliar with the rest of the books you mentioned. I will have to check them out! I just read bits of 8 chapters of Bohemian Gospel on Amazon's "look inside" feature and am very excited to read your book!


back to top