|photo: William Penman, Jr.
Sharon Kay Penman was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., in its pre-gambling days. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Texas at Austin and, in her misspent youth, earned a J.D. degree from Rutgers School of Law. She practiced tax and corporate law for several interminable years, which she considers ample penance for sins past, present and future. These days she is fortunate enough to write full time. She has written nine historical novels and four medieval mysteries, one of which was nominated for an Edgar. She considers writing historical fiction to be the next best thing to time travel and feels blessed to have the Angevins for source material, for they are one of history's most dysfunctional families. She'd expected to close the book on the Angevins after Devil's Brood, the final volume in her trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but they had other ideas, turning the trilogy into a quintet with the publication of Lionheart in 2011 and, now, A King's Ransom (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, March 4, 2014). She lives in New Jersey and spends as much time as she possibly can in France, Wales and England.
On your nightstand now:
Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed. I am taking my time because I fear that he will break my heart as he did in his earlier brilliant novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I also am reading Letters from the East (Crusade Texts in Translation) by Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, as background for my next novel, which will be set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. And I have just started rereading P.F. Chisholm's A Famine of Horses; I'd been lucky enough to get an ARC of her new mystery, An Air of Treason, and it inspired me to go back and reacquaint myself with the earlier books in this delightful series. These books are not actually piled on my nightstand, though, are nestled within the covers of my e-book reader. I love "real" books, but I have been seduced by that marvelous e-book feature, the ability to increase the font size, a blessing for my aging eyes.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Anna Sewell's Black Beauty
Your top five authors:
I can't narrow it down to just five. It might be easier to name favorite books, not authors: John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove; Leon Uris's Mila 18. But then there are also Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series and Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series and... I could keep going forever but for once I'll show some self-restraint.
Book you've faked reading:
I can't think of any that I faked reading, but I will probably go to my grave never having read James Joyce's Ulysses. I truly have tried, but I soon get bogged down and surrender.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I rarely miss an opportunity to praise To Kill a Mockingbird, and I hope that Harper Lee has been writing quietly on her own in the decades since its publication, with the proviso in her will that these treasures will be published after her death.
Book you've bought for the cover:
None. A book's cover might lure me into picking it up, but not into buying it. The words have to do that.
Book that changed your life:
This may sound strange, but it was probably the book I first read as a child, Black Beauty. I have always loved animals and I think my empathy may be traced to Anna Sewell's classic. Her horse became very real to me, and I was horrified by his suffering, by the callousness of people who were indifferent to his pain.
Favorite line from a book:
Two come at once to mind. "All this happened, more or less," from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. And this one gets quoted so often it has become something of a cliché, but it still resonates with me. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." --L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between
And I love James Clavell's last line in Tai-Pan: "Then they said, 'Yes, Tai-Pan,' and obeyed."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I often reread books that I really enjoyed the first time around; it is like visiting with a good friend. But for the first time? A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, for it is a book unlike no other, original, surprising, often very funny, yet with an undercurrent of sadness that makes the story so memorable.