We’re delighted to bring you part two of our women’s fiction interview today in which Belinda Jones chats with Kim Wright about her novel, THE CANTERBURY SISTERS. I have a weakness for novels told through multiple points of view. Add the fact that it takes place in England and I’m completely sold! I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting Belinda Jones but I can say from personal experience that Kim Wright is an absolute gem. I’m grateful to call her a friend and I’m certain you’ll find this post both enlightening and entertaining.
BELINDA: Both our stories revolve around a group of women taking a transformative trip. You have 9 deftly-differentiated leading ladies in THE CANTERBURY SISTERS – what made you choose that number and did any of their characters evolve in a way that took you by surprise as you were writing them?
KIM: The number nine arose completely by chance. During the time her mother Diana was sick, my main character Che promised she’d take her to Canterbury Cathedral for healing. They never make it, so after Diana dies, Che knows she at least needs to take her ashes on the pilgrimage they planned. She quickly learns she can’t walk the trail alone, so she falls in with this group of women – the Broads Abroad. She’s reluctant at the beginning, because Che’s normally a loner and doesn’t believe she has anything to learn from anybody. I wanted the group to have variety so that the stories would, and nine felt like a complete number.
All of the women surprised me in one way or another. In my first draft I had them arrive at a stream while walking and this thought struck me: “The way each woman crosses this stream will be a clue as to how she approaches everything in her life.” And that’s when they started to emerge for me as individuals. Some of them plunged right in, others were careful and analytical, some waited to see what would happen to everyone else before they chose their route, etc. It was like I was watching each individual personality emerge as I wrote the stream scene.
BELINDA: I had the rather easier task of taking a cake-themed road trip around New England while researching THE TRAVELING TEA SHOP whereas you walked for six days from London to Canterbury! Did you really make your pilgrimage in November? If so I am doubly in awe! How did your own journey mirror or differ from those of your Canterbury Sisters?
KIM: The trip was a blast – and I got incredibly lucky with the weather. It only rained four out of the five days!
When I started doing research, I realized that large parts of the Canterbury trail were broken by private land and highways, but about 40 miles were walkable. Just like Che, I knew I’d need a guide and just by poking around on the internet, I found the perfect one. A woman about my age, Jane Martin, who heads up a company called Tours of the Realm where she custom designs vacations around people’s interests. If she hadn’t been there pointing out the tiny little trail markers, I’d probably still be wandering around some field somewhere outside of Dover.
Since Jane was from the area, she went home every night and I stayed in a sequence of pubs along the trail. That was really fun because these are small, out of the way towns that don’t get a lot of tourists. The “inns” usually turned out to be a single room or two for rent above the village pub and the locals were gobsmacked that I was walking the trail. One night I got pulled into a game of darts and this one guy, drunk out of his mind and egged on by his friends, leaned over and whispered in my ear “Come with me to the smoking garden.” A smoking garden is just what it sounds like – a little yard outside the pubs where everybody goes to smoke. And make out too, I guess. I didn’t go with him, but an altered version of that night wound up being my favorite scene in THE CANTERBURY SISTERS.
BELINDA: I think of THE CANTERBURY SISTERS as a treasure trove of stories – readers are treated not only to the tales of the women on the walk but also stories of Thomas Becket, Sir Gawain, figures from Greek mythology, Disney’s Cinderella et al. It makes for a very rich, thought-provoking read. What classic or iconic storyline, be it literary or from movieland, do you personally most identify with? (For myself I would chose Thelma & Louise!)
Kim: Thelma and Louise is a good one. I’ve always been crazy about myths and fairy tales and having to come up with nine stories to weave into the main plot let me explore a variety of them. My favorite is Psyche, who was forbidden to see her husband in the light, because I think all women struggle to “see their husbands” in one way or another. That’s one of the recurring themes of my books – we’re all so complex, with so many fears and dreams, that no one completely knows anyone – not even their mother, husband, sister or best friend. There are always more layers to pull back.
BELINDA: I can see from your book that you love the research aspect of writing as much as I do! Early on you explain that the Canterbury pilgrimages began as a group pursuit simply from a safety standpoint – that a traveler would have been too vulnerable to robbers had he walked the path alone. I love nuggets like this – did you have a favorite fact that you unearthed that went on to inform the story?
Kim: I was amused to learn that Canterbury Cathedral was basically the world’s first tourist trap. Even while Thomas Beckett was in the process of being murdered in the church, the monks were already mopping up his blood and planning to sell the pieces of cloth to gullible pilgrims. As it turned out through the years EVERYBODY went to Canterbury in the spring seeking redemption or miracle cures or some sort of peace of mind. It was the Disney World of the middle ages.
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In the vein of Jojo Moyes and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a warm and touching novel about a woman who embarks on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral after losing her mother, sharing life lessons—in the best Chaucer tradition—with eight other women along the way.
Che Milan’s life is falling apart. Not only has her longtime lover abruptly dumped her, but her eccentric, demanding mother has recently died. When an urn of ashes arrives, along with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury, Che finds herself reluctantly undertaking a pilgrimage.
Within days she joins a group of women who are walking the sixty miles from London to the shrine of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, reputed to be the site of miracles. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love. Che, who is a perfectionist and workaholic, loses her cell phone at the first stop and is forced to slow down and really notice the world around her, perhaps for the first time in years.
Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.
Kim Wright is the author of LOVE IN MID AIR and THE UNEXPECTED WALTZ and has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than twenty years for many magazines, including Wine Spectator, Self, Travel & Leisure, and Vogue. She has twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. THE CANTERBURY SISTERS is her third novel, and she also ballroom dances competitively. Kim lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.