After years of writing bestselling novels based on historical figures, Philippa Gregory (Tidelands, Atria, Aug.) turns her attention to a completely fictional one, Alinor, in the first book in the Fairmile series, set in the mid-1600s, about one family’s complex trajectory to success.

“The main character came from my heart and imagination,” says Gregory. Alinor is a working midwife in a very desolate corner of England, and represents ordinary women in extraordinarily difficult times. “When I started telling her imaginary story, I couldn’t help weaving in one of the many unsuccessful escapes by Charles I, who was then captured by the Parliamentary army in England. So there’s a real historical relevance to it.”

Gregory decided to focus on a common woman after a cousin discovered some family history that had previously been unknown. “My mother accounted for the family going back to pre-WWII, but the family history actually goes back so much further, to laboring people who lived in poverty,” Gregory says. “How extraordinary that this family should manage to get themselves into a position of prosperity.”

Tidelands takes place at a time when England was swept up in witchcraft panic. “I was surprised at the numbers of women accused of being witches and the day-to-day cruelty against them and women in general,” says Gregory. “There’s something about women being marginalized and silenced, being blamed for a general unease in society. And that led to women being tested—what they called ‘swimming for a witch’—held underwater to see if they would drown, or scratched to see if they would bleed. And all this was done not to punish crime or protect property, not for theft or anything extreme—it was for women who did not conform to the very strict social order.”

This is Gregory’s first BookExpo in a decade. “What I remember more than anything else was that I should have had a spare pair of shoes, because you don’t want to be running around that in heels,” she says. “And I remember the complete impossibility of getting a decent cup of English tea.” She’s pleased that Americans have finally gotten British tea right. “But nobody ever serves it in anything but one of those bizarre wax cartons with the little hole on top. Half of the pleasure of having tea is smelling it.” Her remedy is to carry her own china cup with her whenever she travels to the U.S.

Today, noon–1:30 p.m. Philippa Gregory will speak at the Adult Librarian Lunch, in Rooms 1E07/1E08/1E09.

Today, 2:30–3:30 p.m. Gregory will appear at the APA Authors Tea, in Rooms 1E07/1E08.

Today, 4:15–6 p.m. Gregory will appear at the Happy Hour signing, in the ABA lounge.

Tomorrow, 11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m. Gregory will sign at the S&S booth (1838,1839).