Spotlight on C. P. Lesley
Updated: May 17
C.P. Lesley is much more than a historical fiction writer. In the course of several books spread out over two historical fiction series, she has managed to populate an entire region of the world (Russia and surrounding countries) in a particular time period (the sixteenth century). That means that when you fall in love with one character in one book, you can expect to run into her or him in the next book, or at least the next series. It’s quite a stunning experience for a reader. You really do begin to feel you know these people and you look forward to finding out how they’re getting along since you met them last. And in addition to her historical fiction, C.P. has one standalone and two fantasy novels. It’s a pleasure to interview her here about her extraordinary body of work.
Tell us about your newest novel, Song of the Shaman.
Song of the Shaman tells the story of Grusha, a sixteenth-century Russian woman in her mid-twenties who takes refuge in a nomadic steppe horde after her common-law husband dies three weeks before their son is born. She is a shaman’s apprentice, but when her teacher dies just as a diphtheria epidemic strikes the camp, Grusha has to prove herself a worthy successor. Meanwhile, her son is almost old enough to train as a warrior, and he has no father to look out for him. So she’s searching for a way to balance her work and life responsibilities, a dilemma that faces women even now.
Can you tell us specifically what countries you cover in your two historical fiction series and how much time there is between the two?
Songs is an outgrowth of the first series, Legends of the Five Directions, so all eight books take place either in Russia proper or in the surrounding kingdoms (Poland-Lithuania to the west and the Tatar khanates to the south and east). Songs starts about four years after Legends ends—still during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible, who came to the throne at the age of three—but during the even more troubled period that followed his mother’s death.
What percentage of your characters are historical and what percentage have you created yourself?
I try to avoid involving real historical personages as much as possible, so I would say at least 90 percent of my characters are my own invention. But we know so little about even historical people in sixteenth-century Russia that those characters are largely my creation as well.
Are the historical characters used to give shape to the history of the times, or do they actually have important parts to play in the plot line?
The Legends novels take place during what is known as the Regency of Elena Glinskaya (1534–1538), when she ruled on behalf of her son, the future Ivan the Terrible. A running theme is her conflict with her brothers-in-law, whom she suspected of wanting to usurp the throne. So that conflict in part drives the plot, and various members of the family and the court appear in the novels. But the real action involves my fictional characters and their developing relationships and goals. That’s even more true of the Songs novels, although Queen Bona Sforza of Poland definitely plays a crucial role in Song of the Siren.
Who is your favorite character to date, and is he or she historical, and which of the books does he or she appear in?
Well, the true answer is the two leads of whichever novel I’m working on at the moment. But I do have a special fondness for Nasan, my original heroine—who’s back in Song of the Shaman—and her older brother Alexei. Nasan is the main character of the Legends series and appears in every one of those books; she will no doubt be in other Songs novels besides Shaman. Alexei arrived on the scene in The Winged Horse, at which point he was called Tulpar, and he’s managed to wangle his way into every book since. I see no signs he’s planning to stop. They live only in my imagination—and I hope that of my readers.
You also have one standalone novel and a fantasy series consisting of two novels. What is the difference between writing fiction that is entirely made up and writing historical fiction? Which is easier? More fun? More rewarding?
For me, they’re about the same. Writing entirely made-up fiction is very freeing, but the same principles of internal consistency apply. I use history as a frame—to supply structure, yes, but also to reveal possibilities that I might have forgotten or not known about until I began to research a particular situation. The only thing I feel bound by is the historical progression (what happened when).
My favorite example comes from when I was plotting The Swan Princess: quite by accident, I stumbled over the story of a bandit chief who ran off with a nobleman’s daughter, then killed her in a jealous rage. Beset by remorse, he roamed the Russian North as a hermit for ten years, then founded the world’s northernmost monastery and died a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. I have no idea whether the story is true, but it’s part of his saint’s life, and really, who can resist working that into a novel?