The Altarpiece by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy, professor of English at Mary Baldwin University, decided to start work on her first novel one night after dinner about two years ago. Now finished writing The Altarpiece, Kennedy has been busy with edits, cover designs, blurbs, and web teasers ever since she learned that Knox Robinson will publish the book and release it in 2013. The Altarpiece will be the first installment in a historical fiction series called The Cross and the Crown.

Kennedy is no stranger to writing, having published many books of poetry, including The Gold Thread that will be on shelves in the spring from Elixir Press. Writing fiction, however, was a very different process for her.

“I am a fitful writer with poetry,” said Kennedy. “I will write in between classes or in the morning for 30 minutes. A student might say a word in class, and I’ll think that it’s a perfect word for that thought, and go write a poem about it.”

Kennedy had to set aside long periods of time to focus exclusively on her book, although she admits occasionally recharging with an episode of Criminal Minds. Unlike her quick composition of poems, fiction required regular eight o’clock to midnight sessions with little allowance for flipping channels or checking email.

“It is a nice kind of discipline because you get to disappear in another world,” said Kennedy, recalling her nights spent hunkered down with pages of The Altarpiece.

The world that Kennedy explores in this novel is Tudor England during the dissolution of religious communities by King Henry VIII. The book begins in 1535 at a convent in Yorkshire where the nuns anxiously wait for the king’s soldiers to come and begin disbanding their community. The convent has only one very valuable possession, a beautiful altarpiece that adorns their chapel. Before the soldiers arrive, it mysteriously disappears.

One of the nuns, 20 year-old Catherine Havens, is Kennedy’s main character. Catherine is the adopted daughter of the prioress whose main duty is to act as a physician, but she is also skilled at manuscript copy and illumination.

“It is her story, but it is also a mystery,” said Kennedy of the book’s plot. “She is not the only one searching for the missing altarpiece. I don’t want to give it away.”

Kennedy’s academic field is the Renaissance, so she was able to call upon her scholarly knowledge while writing The Altarpiece. She enjoyed filling in gaps in the historical record with her own ideas of what could have happened.

“No one really knows what happened to the nuns [after the dissolution of the convents], there’s much more information about the monks,” Kennedy explained. “I’ve always used scholarship in creative writing.”