Maitland follows her acclaimed first novel, The White Room, which drew on her experiences in Nigeria and Belfast, with Company of Liars, set in England during the Black Plague.
What led to your interest in medieval England?
It was the medieval wall paintings of mythical creatures mixed up with depictions of everyday life, such as angels changing the Christ child’s diapers in front of a brazier. In the Middle Ages, they didn’t divide the world into real and unreal, science and myth. Great engineers practiced alchemy. Warriors planned battles using military tactics and divination. The church believed in werewolves as much as it did in God, and that way of thinking inspired incredible feats of invention, architecture and exploration.
What surprised you the most as you researched the period?
How remarkably similar conditions were then to the times we are living in now. It was a period of rapid climate change with floods, droughts and worldwide crop failure. New diseases were threatening animals and humans. There was widespread social unrest and disregard for authority.
What’s the basis for your belief that people haven’t changed that much since the 14th century?
Records of trials or manorial courts show that humans were motivated by the same things then as now—greed, ambition, love, lust, jealousy. In the Middle Ages, they were even complaining, as they do now, about gangs of youths getting drunk and engaging in vandalism or fights. Neighbors had the same rows over boundaries, noise and smells as we do.
How did Chaucer influence the novel?
There’s a lighthearted reference as homage to Chaucer hidden in chapter two for readers who enjoy the search. Chaucer’s characters reveal their personalities in their stories and show us life at the time. The tales in Company of Liars betray the personality of characters, but they also conceal a different aspect of medieval life—the official lies told by the establishment, medieval spin-doctoring of the type we still engage in today.
You had to overcome dyslexia to become an author. How has it affected your writing?
One of the themes in Company of Liars is that the way society treats someone who’s different from the majority determines whether you see them as having a gift or a disability. As a dyslexic child, I was labeled “stupid.” As an adult, I am fascinated by words; in fact, I even did my doctorate in psycholinguistics. Dyslexia causes people to make unusual connections between words. The brain gathers up unrelated concepts, turning them into visual images and sounds, which is a great gift to the writer and is probably why many dyslexics work in creative arts.