Many late bloomers are driven, not just by passion, but by an obscure obsession that defines their path.With Peter Paul Roget, it was creating elaborate lists. With Mary Somerville, it was the exotic shape of algebraic symbols.
And with Sharon Kay Penman (b. 1945), it was vindicating England’s most reviled monarch—Richard III.
With a name like hers, you’d wonder why Penman considered anything other than writing.
She’d always loved it, but like many of us, had difficulty deciding on a major. After a few false starts at different schools, she transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and graduated at age 24 with a major in history.
In her academic wanderings, she became fascinated with King Richard III, the House of York’s last king, portrayed by Shakespeare as a nasty hunchback who murdered his young nephews and drowned his brother in a butt of malmsey (Madeira).
Penman was astonished to learn that Shakespeare took extreme poetic license with Richard III (sorta like Hollywood):
I stumbled onto a revisionist history of Richard III while in college. This particular book held him responsible for the deaths of his nephews—the Little Princes in the Tower—but acquitted him of other crimes he has been saddled with by Shakespeare and the Tudor historians. Until then, I’d accepted the traditionalist view of Richard as evil incarnate, and this new image of him as a decent man, who’d nevertheless committed a reprehensible crime, aroused my curiosity.
She continued her research and concluded that, not only was Richard innocent of his nephews’ murders, his was a classic case of history being written by the victor.
Richard III had actually been been a skillful commander and a decent ruler, improving working conditions in his native north England. He lost his life at the Battle of Bosworth Field fighting rival claimant Henry Tudor.
Henry Tudor then became Henry VII, father of the fat fellow with too many wives. Henry dated the start of his reign to the day before the battle, so he could declare everyone who fought for Richard a traitor and confiscate their lands. Henry VII needed to portray Richard as a tyrant.
While still an undergraduate, Penman wrote a novel about Richard’s life, The Sunne in Splendour, to set the record straight. She put the completed 500-page typewritten manuscript on the back seat of her car, ready to mail, and ran some errands.
When she returned to the parking lot, she discovered that someone had stolen the manuscript from her car. “I found that the loss was so traumatic that I couldn’t write again…it was as if the well had gone totally dry.”
The shock propelled her into the arms of the law—she earned her J.D. degree from Rutgers University in 1974 and became a tax attorney.
But she couldn’t shake her passion for the Middle Ages and loathed her new career. Over the next several years, she recreated her lost manuscript while slugging it out in a law office.
Then a small insurance settlement allowed her to move to York (Richard III’s home) and work on the novel full-time. She quit practicing law and never looked back:
Yes, I have left the profession of law, thank Heaven. I looked upon that as penance for my sins: past, present, and future. I always wanted to write; I just never expected that I could earn any money at it. So there was no choice to be made. When the opportunity arose, I pounced upon it.
The Sunne in Splendour was finally published in 1982 when Penman was 37.
Since its publication, Penman has become one of the most beloved historical fiction writers of her generation, but life hasn’t always been easy for her. She suffered from recurring mononucleosis for seven years (which doctors finally recognized as chronic fatigue syndrome).
Penman shook that, only to contract an exotic ailment called Ehrlichiosis — a tick-borne infection rarer than Lyme Disease that can be dangerous if untreated. Luckily, she got antibiotics immediately, but it knocked her out for months.
Throughout her illnesses, Penman still managed to produce a book every two or three years, twelve so far. She doesn’t keep set working hours, but tends to write in flow. She says, “not a day passes when I’m not either writing or researching or thinking about plot developments.”
Penman dispatched her latest book, Lionheart (about another King Richard), to her editor in November 2010 (“via e-mail yet; ah, brave new world”). (Update: Lionheart came out in hardback on October 4, 2011.)
Many readers describe The Sunne in Splendour as the most vivid book they have ever read.
I read the novel when it was first published and thought, “This is what I want to do. Tell stories that transport people into another time and place.” And a few months ago, I remembered.
Last week, while working on my Nanowrimo historical novel, I took The Sunne in Spendour from my shelf and opened it for the first time in over 25 years. I got chills when I read the first page and had to put it down, knowing I’d completely derail my Nano word count if I got caught up in the book again. But I’m definitely hunkering in with it this weekend!
Through the theft of her manuscript and the dashing of her dreams, her rebound career as an attorney and several chronic illnesses, Sharon Kay Penman kept alive her passionate obsession with vindicating a tragic king, and bloomed into a writer who makes history come alive for countless fans.
What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Sharon Kay Penman
- Your path may be found, not in the big events, but in the small obsessions that won’t let you go.
- Sharon Kay Penman’s Blog, Website and Facebook page
- Author Interview: Sharon Kay Penman
- Elizabeth Chadwick: Interview With Sharon Kay Penman