Friday, August 16, 2019

Interview with P. K. Adams

As much as I love historical fiction—especially historical fiction set in Russia and Eastern Europe (assuming the authors know what they’re talking about, that is)—I also love mystery stories. Not the hard-boiled, high-body-count variety but the so-called cozy mystery exemplified by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers, on whose books I cut my literary eyeteeth back in the day. So it’s no secret that discovering P. K. Adams, a writer who grew up in Poland and writes historical mysteries set in her home country during its Renaissance Golden Age, has been a source of delight for me.

Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian mysteries appeared just ten days ago, and P. K. was gracious enough to answer my questions despite all the work surrounding the launch. Do read all the way to the end, where you can find out more about her and her books.

Your first two novels were a fictionalized story of the twelfth-century abbess, physician, composer, and theologian Hildegard of Bingen. What made you decide to shift gears and write a series of mystery novels set in sixteenth-century Poland-Lithuania?

As a reader, historical mysteries have long been my guilty pleasure, and I knew that one day I would want to try my hand at writing one. After The Greenest Branch duology, I felt the time had come to try a different subgenre. The choice of Poland as the setting was personal, as that is where I grew up. My first serious study of history was therefore not of the Tudors or the Borgias but of a dynasty that, although powerful in its time, is little known outside Eastern Europe. The Jagiellons (pronounced Yah-ghye-lohns) ruled the union of Poland and Lithuania (as well as, at various times, Hungary, Bohemia, and several minor principalities and territories) for more than two hundred years.

The sixteenth century is a very popular era in historical fiction, but too many novels focus on Western Europe. With Silent Water, I hope to introduce readers to that often-overlooked part of the continent and show that it also had a robust Renaissance culture and cutthroat politics, as well as ethnic and linguistic diversity. As such, it was no different from—and perhaps even more complex than—the lands of the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Valois about whom we love to read so much.

The backdrop to this first novel is the early years of the marriage of King Zygmunt I and Bona Sforza of Milan. What can you tell us, briefly, about them and their court? What makes it a good setting for your mystery?

What is interesting about the first half of the sixteenth century in Poland is that one of its most powerful and consequential monarchs was not actually Polish. Bona Sforza, who married Zygmunt I in 1518, was an Italian noblewoman who arrived in Cracow as a young royal bride, bringing with her a new cuisine, fashions, and customs.

During that time, women’s role in countries like Poland and Lithuania was very limited outside the home. Even if they were nobles or royals, their duties centered on bearing children, playing the hostess at feasts, and supervising the domestic staff. They were not expected to remain at the table after a certain hour or speak to men to whom they were not related. But Bona would have none of it: she talked and laughed at the table, hunted with the best of them, and was deeply interested and active in politics. Some courtiers enjoyed it, but many were scandalized.

The arrival of Bona marked a moment of significant transition at the Polish court and in society. The cultural clashes and misunderstandings that ensued offer opportunities to craft scenes and even entire storylines that would sound implausible or far-fetched in a place that did not have that multinational and multilingual diversity. With the murder victims being of different ages and lifestyles but also nationalities, our sleuth has her work cut out for her to figure out what they have in common!

Your heroine, Contessa Caterina de Sanseverino, is an Italian visiting Kraków for the first time. What makes her the ideal spokesperson for your story? What kind of person is she, and what does she want out of life?

Caterina is a young widow of noble birth but living in diminished circumstances. Nonetheless, she secures a prominent position as the Lady of the Queen’s Chamber, even though without the backing of a powerful family, she feels that her situation is precarious and that she must prove herself to Queen Bona. That is why she becomes involved in the murder investigation in which the queen herself has an interest. But the discovery of the perpetrator marks both a success and a failure for Caterina, and it makes her question her suitability for her role within the queen’s household. She must decide whether to stay where she is and enjoy the security, however unfulfilling, or leave and build a more satisfying life. In that sense, the story has a universal resonance because who among us has not experienced that feeling at least once in our working (or perhaps also personal) lives?

As an Italian newly arrived in Poland—a land of cold winters, conservative customs, and a tricky language—Caterina is the kind of narrator who can offer a fresh and objective perspective, which I think greatly benefits the story.

Early on, Caterina makes the acquaintance of Sebastian Konarski. What makes him stand out for her from the other courtiers? What about her appeals to him?

Sebastian Konarski is a secretary in the king’s household. What first appeals to Caterina is his integrity and lack of vanity—rare traits at a royal court. He is not a drinker or a carouser like many other young courtiers, and he treats women with respect. I think Konarski senses a certain vulnerability in Caterina, well hidden under a layer of confidence that she tries to project. As their acquaintance deepens, he realizes the depth of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and empathy. They are kindred souls in that they are both principled outliers in a place that is full of superficiality, greed, and opportunism. That is what draws them to each other and what makes them trust each other, trustworthiness being another trait that was always in short supply at royal courts.

Trouble starts eighteen months or so after Caterina’s arrival in Poland, at the Christmas feast, when one of the male courtiers is found stabbed to death. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about him?

Kasper Zamborski is a middling courtier who belongs to the bibones et comedones semi-secret society (its existence at King Zygmunt’s court is a historical fact), whose members pursue a lifestyle centered around eating, drinking, and sexual conquests. In the words of another character in the story, he was known to “seduce maids and matrons alike, a great many of them, they say.” That immediately gives rise to speculations that he may have been killed by a jealous fiancé or a cuckolded husband. But things become more complicated when it is revealed that Zamborski was engaged to be married to a daughter of Crown Grand Chancellor Aleksander Stempowski, who disliked the match. Stempowski also happens to be an enemy of Queen Bona, who becomes convinced that the chancellor helped the young man into the afterlife, and she is determined to prove it.

Theories multiply quickly, but then another courtier is found dead close to the queen’s personal apartments . . .

You’re already starting on the sequel, from what I understand. Any hints on what to expect?

The sequel will feature Caterina, some years later, being called to help Queen Bona with a delicate mission in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Bona’s son and heir to the throne serves as grand duke. He has fallen in love with a beautiful woman of poor reputation and is said to be planning to marry her. But the marriage would be a disaster from the dynastic point of view, and it would bring no useful military alliances to help Poland-Lithuania stave off threats that lurk around its borders. It must be stopped at all costs, but before Caterina can even set a plan in motion, members of the court start dying in mysterious circumstances.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

P. K. Adams is the pen name of Patrycja Podrazik. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University. She blogs and reviews historical fiction at Her debut novel, The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician, was a semifinalist for the 2018 Chaucer Book Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England. Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian Dynasty mysteries, was published on August 6, 2019. 

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Listen to an interview about The Greenest Branch on New Books in Historical Fiction.

Drawing of Bona Sforza by Jan Matejko (1861) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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