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Author Notes on Prize for the Fire

Author sitting in Castle Square with Lincoln Cathedral in the background. July 2016.
Castle Square, Lincoln, UK. July 2016

Prize for the Fire is the true story of a young woman who defied the religious, political, and social conventions of her time, and risked everything to do so. I worked on the book for more than twenty years.  Set in Tudor England in the late years of Henry VIII's reign, this novel extends themes from my earlier work: the circumscription of women's lives, how women make and are made by history, and the powerful forces which not only helped forge the English Reformation but continue to affect American politics and faith today.


I see a throughline from the Scripture-obsessed evangelical underground in early Reformation England to the Bible-saturated evangelical Christianity I grew up with in Oklahoma. I see, as well, a powerful patriarchal inheritance, manifested in Anne's time by the oppression she suffered at the hands of political and religious leaders, and in our own time by the erosion of women's rights from contemporary political and religious forces.


One legacy of the Reformation that has shaped much of American literature is the devotion to Scripture in English translation. I grew up steeped in the rhythms and syntax of the King James Bible, the violence of its Old Testament stories. In Leviticus, the children of Israel practice blood offering, wherein their sins, symbolized by the blood of the sacrificial lamb, are sprinkled on the Mercy Seat within the Arc of the Covenant. My first novel The Mercy Seat reckons with the symbolism of blood sacrifice. Fire in Beulah reckons with the sins of a people. In Prize for the Fire, the character Anne Askew herself becomes the sacrifice.


When I set out to research Anne's life some twenty years ago, I quickly came to an uncomfortable conclusion: the woman was a religious fanatic. A zealous believer in the tradition of American abolitionist John Brown or the French saint Joan of Arc, Askew famously braved torture and death to stand for her beliefs. How could I make this person a character contemporary readers might believe in and yet stay true to her era, her beliefs, her words?

We have Anne's own writings about her trials in The Examinations of Anne Askew, so my challenge was not in understanding what she endured but why. She wasn't a hapless victim; she wasn't a madwoman or an ethereal saint but an extraordinarily intentional person. The question before me was this: what makes a person believe something so powerfully they're willing to die for it? And more important for the novel: how do I humanize Anne? The answer took many drafts in many voices over many years. The first words I wrote in her voice did not make it into the novel finally, but they still hold true:

"I am told for a disputatious woman. I am told for a Protestant martyr, a heretic, a wanton, a rebel, a saint. In the years following my death, Reformists claimed me, and later Quakers did so, and then Baptists, Evangelicals. Those who professed to speak for women. Those who said women must stay in their place."


My hope is that in Prize for the Fire, Anne claims her own story, speaks for herself.