J. G. Lewis grew up in London, England, where she spent her childhood visiting nearby museums and watching the mounted regiment ride down her street. She came to the U.S. for college and stayed for the sunshine.
A USA Today bestselling novelist, she didn’t delve into historical fiction until she discovered genealogy and the impressive cast of potential characters in her family history. Once she realized how many fascinating historical figures are all but forgotten, she decided to breathe life into them again by creating stories for them to inhabit.
The Ela of Salisbury series features the formidable Ela Longespée, wife of King Henry II’s illegitimate son William. The widowed mother of eight children, Ela served as High Sheriff of Wiltshire and castellan of Salisbury and ultimately founder and abbess of Lacock Abbey.
J. G. Lewis currently lives in Florida with her dogs and horses.
1. How and when did you get hooked on history?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t intrigued by history. I grew up in central London within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum. My mother was and is a lover of art and history and books and shared her passions with me and my sisters.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Some of my earliest memories are visiting the costume galleries at the V&A and learning—while looking at tiny panier dresses and delicate embroidered mules—that people were much smaller back then due to nutrition. Now that I know more, I suspect that the galleries are full of tiny clothes and shoes because those are the ones that didn’t really fit anyone and thus didn’t get worn out! Ela’s husband William Longespée was over 6’ tall. Based on how she appears on her seal I imagine Ela being fairly tall as well. I’ve since learned a healthy suspicion of preconceived notions about history and everything else in life.
3. How does history play a part of your professional life/career?
My first real job after college was at a museum, now known as The Paley Center for Media. I worked my way up from administrative assistant to curator over the eight years that I was there. After leaving the museum I wrote contemporary novels which were published all over the world in more than twenty languages. Delving into genealogy made me want to explore history in my fiction, as I became fascinated with the untold stories hiding in the past. Although I grew up in England, and even did an A-Level in History, I had never heard of Ela, or even that there was a female sheriff during the middle ages. Exploring Ela’s life and imagining her exploits took my writing career in an exciting new direction.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
Learning history gives us insight into our own humanity and provides a sort of touchstone for whether we are on the right track. I think through much of the twentieth century there was a feeling that we were moving forward into a brighter and better future of the “better living through chemistry” sort. In the 21st century I think people are looking back to the past and pondering the things we lost along the way, like herbal medicine, knowing how to farm without destroying the land, and taking time to reflect and be present.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I’ve always been primarily interested in social history: What people wore, what they ate, how they talked, what their houses looked like, etc. It was a great disappointment to me to arrive at university ready to pursue a history degree, and discover that all the classes were about battles and treaties and involved memorizing the dates, locations and reasons for various wars. I quickly changed my major to Semiotics, which allowed me to study aspects of culture that were far more intriguing to me. I’m actually interested in all periods of history, from very ancient to “just yesterday.” If Ela had lived during the Roman era, or the Victorian era or anything in between, I suspect I’d have been just as interested in exploring her life and work. Once you delve into a period of history you realize that the people and even the culture are similar to our own in ways that don’t seem obvious at first glance, and that never fails to fascinate me.
6. What inspired you to write the Ela of Salisbury Medieval Mysteries?
I discovered Ela almost by accident. I typed the name of a Victorian ancestor—Anne Theresa Elizabeth Haly—into Google, and was surprised when it led me to a list of descendants of William the Conqueror. In between myself and that particular William, were quite a few interesting people, including Ela. At the time there had been no books published about Ela since the excellent history of her life published by William Lisle Bowles in 1835. Since she was High Sheriff of Wiltshire I thought it would be fun to imagine what type of crimes she might be called upon to solve, and thus the mystery series was born.7. Who is Ela and what kind of mysteries is she involved in?
The series begins when Ela finds herself widowed at age thirty-nine. She decides to pursue the roles of sheriff and castellan that were recently held by her husband. Historical records show that she was initially ousted from the castle and had an uphill battle getting it back. This struggle to regain her ancestral home and command the role of sheriff provides a backdrop to the first three books. The mysteries I embroil her in are generally murders—discovering how a young woman came to be found dead in a clump of reeds, or how a foreign merchant mysteriously fell to his death from a castle parapet. My goal in writing the mysteries was to keep things interesting for myself as well as my readers by exploring a variety of plots and subjects within my early thirteenth century setting. So far I’ve confounded Ela with a variety of troublesome villains including opium traders, child slavers and an outlaw. As I write this I’m nearing the end of the first draft on book eight in the series. Information about the books can be found on www.stoneheartpress.com .