It is a fantastic interview and here it is:
1. In 2007, along with your brother Hal, you won the Best British Book Award for the book "The Dangerous Book for Boys". You both went on to be named among the elite in Time Magazine's "People That Mattered" feature for that year. If you were to dig deep and think of ways that such an incredible year could be bettered, how could you improve upon it and why would "that" make it better?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything to improve that year. Not only did the book win, but Richard Dawkins came second. That was all icing and no cake. I mean, it would have been nice if it had happened ten years before, when I was slimmer – for the pictures, you know – but I’ll take it as it came, even so. When I was a kid, I used to fantasise about writing a book that would be No.1 for months and sell millions around the world. (I also used to fantasise about being a Ninja, but I was too tall and they turned me down, so the book was the only realistic chance.) To have it actually come true was astonishing and wonderful. My second son was also born that year, so I can’t imagine anything will ever top it.
2. You appear to be "manufactured" to write. Your Great Grandfather was a Seannachie, your mother a natural storyteller and your father a teacher. You must have been drawn to writing like a bee to the scent of pollen. Indeed, it seems both your education and teaching career honed you, with the accuracy of modern day satellite navigation systems, directly to the sweet tasting nectar. You simply had to raise your quill, allow the inbred magic to flow, and the rest as they say would quickly dissolve into history! Of course, nothing in life is really so sweet. Bees have a single sting, the use of which tragically leads to their imminent demise. What in your life is so precious that you would exercise the use of such a sting and what is the closest you have come to such an event in life so far?
That’s a really interesting question. It has long been my belief that the purpose of life is not to be happy. Cows are happy and I have always aimed higher than cows. As an extreme example, I used to say that I’d exchange all the years of my life for one chance to sit on the moon and watch the earth, even if it meant my death. That’s not strictly true, but it serves to illustrate the point, for me. Of course I’d like to write a book that is treasured and loved by the world, long after I’m gone. In my twenties, I might have said I’d exchange my life for writing that book. With age – and particularly, with children – priorities change. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write stories that give pleasure and just occasionally mean a great deal to those who read them. I had an email from a man recently who described a very dark time in his life and how finding my books had helped. He finished by saying: “So hopefully one day if you’re having a bad day or wonder why you bother with certain things, you could remember this letter and know that in this world you made the difference and changed a complete stranger’s life for the better.”
I don’t ask for more than that. I’ve already been given more than I could possibly have deserved.
3. On your website you are quoted as liking "just about anything by David Gemmell, or Peter F. Hamilton or Wilbur Smith", stories that hold you spellbound include "Hornblower and Tai-Pan, Flashman, Sharpe and Jack Aubrey". Who are your favourite artists and what attracts you to their work?
I used to know an actor who had trouble watching films because he kept seeing the process and not the result. He saw the ‘blocking’ (where the actors stand) and the lighting, and the scene cuts – and was unable to lose himself in the story as a result. I used to worry that the same thing might happen to me with books, that through writing them, I’d see too much of the mechanics behind the story and lose one of the greatest pleasures of my life as a result. So far, thank God, that hasn’t happened. I read all the time and I can be gripped by a character, or a fast plot, racing through just to ‘see what will happen’. It’s the key to all fiction, of course: people are interested in people. I love books like Tai-Pan, with such a powerful lead character that it doesn’t feel manufactured at all. It feels like I’m reading a real life and his struggles, triumphs and disasters are real. For me, that’s good writing.
I am aware, of course, of the sort of books where the reader is meant to wade through tortuous paragraphs to some sort of personal realisation. With a few exceptions, they can all take a long trip off a short pier. I find beauty in being alive and in those I meet and know. A book must never allow the style to overcome the story and the characters, in my opinion. It is possible to deal with great truths of the human condition in fiction, obviously. It has been the joy of my career that writing about Caesar and Genghis, for example, has allowed me to explore fatherhood, family, honour, courage and a hundred other themes. Yet the story has to be there – if the reader isn’t interested in ‘what comes next’, I would have failed, I think.
Like millions of others, I’m attracted to the Me+ hero books. In the old saw about there being ‘seven stories in the world’, one of them has to be ‘The boy with power’ – Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter being two good examples. They have something that sets them apart. Our world is filtered through our own senses and it’s an obvious truth that people do feel as if they are the centre of the universe. We have no real awareness of it existing before and after us, so we look for validation of that ‘special’ feeling. Book characters often play to that. Kurt Vonnegut defined fiction in this way: ‘There’s this guy, right? And he’s a pretty decent kind of guy. And then something bad happens to him.’ He might have added: ‘He’s a guy a bit like you, but he has a talent for something, a talent you can admire. For just a while, you’ll feel like him when you read the book.’
Also with those millions of others, I enjoy reading about people who resemble me, but also those who can do things I can’t. Me+. I don’t think that’s any great revelation, but it is a great truth of fiction.
4. You clearly relish engaging with your readership. Your website has its own forum, currently home to over 7,300 topics and 145,000 posts and a membership stretching into the thousands. I am limited to writing a few interviews per week and sometimes struggle to keep up the pace! Do you continue to be directly involved in writing responses and what is the most awkward question posted that didn't quite make the "banned" list and how did you or the administrators reply to it?
As a general rule, I don’t interfere with inflammatory topics or posts. I believe in Free Speech, with the usual caveat about not shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. It makes for more interesting discussions and those who do troll are usually taken on by others on the forum. That can be an educational experience for them! I’ve had to ban only two people in about eight years: one who was some kind of neo-Nazi nutter and the other who was a Muslim nutter. I’d like to think we could have kept both, but at the end of the day, it’s a family forum and I feel responsible for the things posted on it.
I do relish the contact, I admit. Writing is a solitary thing, for the most part. I enjoy going to literary festivals when I can and also in the emails and responses I get. Some are from those with expert knowledge who point out errors. I don’t mind those and I’ve made changes in the past as a result, if they’re right. Others are just those readers kind enough to let me know they enjoy the books. I love those.
5. Wars of the Roses is your latest series of historical novels, Stormbird is the latest book, promoted by Penguin and backed up with some tense and highly theatrical, promotional, film shorts. In 2008 there were rumours of films based upon your Emperor series of novels being planned. Sadly, those hopes were thwarted back in 2012. Given the years of effort in getting the film under the noses of Hollywood "players" you must have been devastated to see such effort go to waste! Did that put you off going down the film route and at present, where do your books stand with those in the world of the big screen, what is the first Conn Iggulden led film we are likely to see on the big screen and, given the choice, who would you pit as the actors for the lead roles?
If you’d asked that question six months ago, the truthful answer would have been none of them. Film deals had fallen apart, left, right and centre. The Emperor series is back on for a film, to my intense pleasure. I had a long conversation with a new Director and script-writer a couple of months ago, so keep fingers crossed for that one. More recently, I was in contact with Bryan Cranston (Of Breaking Bad) about turning the Dangerous Book for Boys into a TV series with him in it. As a fan of Breaking Bad (and Malcolm in the Middle!) that was incredibly exciting. Believe it or not, there is also a film deal for the Genghis books in the works. I’ve seen enough of them crash and burn over the years not to get too excited, but there are three irons in the fire.
When I was still starting out, the Emperor books were picked up for the first time by a film studio and I was understandably thrilled. I met Phillippa Gregory in Ireland, on the same promotional trip. She advised me then not to get my hopes up, as film options come and go all the time. They do, but as you’ll note of her, sometimes they get made as well. I remain an optimist – a grave half-full sort of person, me.
As for actors, I’d like to see Michael Chiklis in something. I enjoyed ‘The Shield’ series very much. Bryan Cranston as well, obviously!
6. I don't know if you are aware, but I have a Time Machine tucked away, hidden from those evil doers that would use it for sinister means. I regularly allow my 10 Q interviewees the exclusive privilege of taking limited journeys in it. (I also used to see pink elephants fly over my house each morning....Ah, no, I am being corrected, apparently they were RAF Red Arrows!) However, sadly I must limit you to 3 trips as I am hoping to keep the machine in good working order until I've sent Dan Brown on a trip in it. Past, present or future (or one of each). Which three places would you go, in what time period and what would be your purpose having arrived at each destination?
Trip One (Past, Present or Future): Raising Lazarus
First Destination and Time: Jerusalem, around 32AD
Purpose: Twofold. To confirm with my own eyes whether Jesus raised someone from the dead – which seems to me to be the miracle, the most impressive one that would prove the basis of Christianity beyond all doubt. The second part would be to try and have a conversation with the man himself, so I could come back and read this in the New Testament.
“And Lo, a man walked from the local town, dressed in strange raiment. He spoke no Aramaic and grew quite testy when the disciples questioned him. They watched as he examined the body of Lazarus, holding its wrist and pressing his head against the chest of Lazarus, until he finally nodded and spoke strange words. Only then did Jesus approach, though he was quite red in the face by then and muttered about sightseers and people who would not believe if it stared them right in the face.”
Matthew 6: 6-12
Trip Two (Past, Present or Future): King John
Second Destination and Time: The Wash, Norfolk. October, 1216
Purpose: To see where the king dropped the Crown Jewels and Royal Great Seal. I would need diving gear and a small boat. It would, in short, be the greatest recovery of a thing lost in history and I’d love to be the one who found it all again.
Trip Three (Past, Present or Future): WW2
Third Destination and Time: September 1944
Purpose: To see my father as a young man, possibly to buy him a drink before he took off towards Arnhem. He didn’t have me until he was 47, so I didn’t know him until he was a man in his fifties. I am still not yet as old as he was when I was born, a fact that astonishes me. I’d like to have the chance to meet the man when he was still a very young pilot, with seventy years still ahead of him. Of course, it goes without saying that I would probably say the wrong thing, muck up my own future and pop out of existen…
7. You wake up one morning to find yourself, mind, body and soul propelled back to your pre teen self. Armed only with the book which you had been reminiscing over the previous evening "The Dangerous Book for Boys", you decide to go on an adventure based upon the information within said book. Where do you go, what do you do, and shouldn't you have known better from attempting it the first time around?
I was fascinated by old tobacco tins back then, just the whole concept of a ‘survival’ tin filled with needle and thread, a compass, a knife, matches, all sorts of things. Looking back with an adult perspective, I might say that it was an attempt to reduce the wide world to something I could control and put in a pocket, but it might be just that I liked tins.
With just such a tin in hand, I’d probably go to Wales. I’ve always loved the Brecon Beacons and the highest point, Pen Y Fan, is a place you can walk up in a day, with views to steal the breath when you sit on the top. I’d certainly go alone, which says a great deal about me at 12. It’s one of the most beautiful place in the world and fitting in a trip that early would be a good thing. I don’t think my first trip was actually until I was around seventeen.
8. You are soon to launch your new book "Trinity" in the "War of the Roses" series published under the Penguin Books label. How will the series appeal more to your existing fan base than in the Emperor or Conqueror series, and what can you say about the "War of the Roses" series to entice new readers into the already vast Conn Iggulden following?
I look for good stories and good characters, regardless of where they are set or which century. I spent a lot of time roughing out King Arthur and came very close to doing it before putting it aside. Wars of the Roses was just an extraordinary story, with men and women who are not very well known, but ran the whole gauntlet of human experience: love, betrayal, courage in war, madness, murder, everything. I couldn’t have asked for a better background, in fact. I was a little wary of simply choosing another historical figure and following their life from birth to death, as I did with Genghis. This series is about the two main houses, of course: York and Lancaster and everything that allowed the Tudors to rise. It has England’s most famous villain in Richard III, though we’ll have to see how I handle him in the third book. I could not have dreamed that they would find his body while I was writing the first book about his father!
I hope those who have enjoyed the previous books will love these ones as much. All I ask is that they trust me to tell the story. It’s there – I just have to do it justice. As for new readers, it’s my hope that those who might have considered Genghis a bit brutal will take a risk on these ones. All I ever ask is that someone picks one up and reads twenty pages. In the book shop, even. If you don’t like it, if it doesn’t catch your interest, put it back on the shelf! What could be simpler? In fact, if I had a fantasy, it would be for the entire world to read just twenty pages of say ‘The Gates of Rome’ or ‘Wolf of the Plains’ or ‘Stormbird’. It is frustrating knowing that there are millions out there who would love them, but have never picked one up. Those people must be reached. They must be saved.
9. If you were to find yourself marooned on a desert island and granted a wish to call three authors to come and live alongside you for the rest of your days, who would you nominate, why, and once they have forgiven you for nominating them, what would you do to ensure that in the fullness of time you didn't recreate a Lord of the Flies scenario, albeit amongst adults!
When I think how I’d react if someone summoned me in such a way, it becomes clear that I’d better choose very small and physically weak authors. Hemingway would kill me, the moment he’d worked out what I’d done, so he’s out. Look, if it’s going to be for the rest of my days, I’m going to pick female authors, I’m sorry – and I’m going to pick attractive ones. That might seem shallow, but hanging out with three guys when I could have an island harem as the only turkey in the shop? No chance. That said, I think I’d get some pretty irritated responses if I listed three female authors by how physically attractive they are, so I’m not going to do that either. Did Marilyn Monroe write anything? The question is a good one, but I’m going to have to draw a discreet veil over my answers.
10. I have now reached the moment of regret, that time when I wish I had another 10 questions to ask! Alas, it's Simon's 10 Q Interview and we are at number 10... My last scenario has you sitting at your desk pondering... You have been asked to interview an author for Simon's 10 Q Interviews. You reach into the top draw of your desk and withdraw your little black book brimming with telephone numbers and the names of authors from across the globe. Who is the first you would call and what is the burning question you have for them that leads you into making that decision?
If I had a free choice, I’d really like to interview Harper Lee. As far as I know, she has never given an interview and I’d love to ask her about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The characters in that: Jem, Scout and Atticus in particular are incredible and I’d love to know how she wrote them and what experiences in her life led to their creation. I once used the jailhouse scene from the book to bring hundreds of kids back in to school, when they were sort of rioting and refusing to come in. As Scout had done, I named the boys one by one. In doing so, they stopped being part of a mob and became individuals again. There’s a lot of wisdom in that book and I’d like to speak to the one who wrote it.
Thank you – those were fascinating questions. I hope the answers were half as good.
In the run up to the paperback publication of Wars of the Roses: Stormbird in April, Conn answered a few questions on his historical research and what inspires him the most as a writer.
- Who have been your biggest writing inspirations growing up and in your career?
I’m certain every writer would answer this in roughly the same way: when I was a kid, I found certain books absolutely gripping. I found myself caring about certain characters and wanting to know very much what happened next. Over time, I began to want – or to need – to make up stories myself. I learned what worked by reading: scene gaps from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, for example. I remember being infuriated by the way he did that, but also intrigued. I learned about creating characters from writers like Stephen King, David Gemmell and James Clavell. I began to pick up plot development from Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell as well as a hundred others, a thousand. I soaked it up, often without conscious thought. It’s a kind of magic, that readers can care about someone who doesn’t exist – though of course historical fiction has the Ace of trumps because the characters did exist, once. All I ever wanted from the world is that it had magic in it, somewhere, some twist of reality that is more than carbon atoms and amino acids dancing in sterile spirals. The great frustration of my life is that I can’t lay my hands on what I could see so clearly in my imagination – so I damn well had to go out and make some. I just wanted to make, rather than to destroy. Destruction was just too easy.
- Your latest novel Stormbird focuses on the backstabbing and betrayals of the Wars of the Roses, can you tell us a little about what drew you to this period?
I spent a long time looking for something worth doing after Genghis and Kublai Khan. I’d been wrapped up in that world for about five years and I wanted to find a story at least as good. I knew I had one more Roman book in me, a period of joyous nostalgia as I went back to the Caesars and so revisited my younger life, when I didn’t know the first book would be published. For two years then, I looked. Friends and family suggested subjects, topics, characters. I thought of writing a massive series on the generals of Alexander the Great, after he was dead. They sat in a room and carved up the world. That would be a great first scene. I looked at King Arthur, as I studied all the known texts in university. The trouble with that one was that Bernard Cornwell had produced a superb trilogy on Arthur – too recently for me to think of tackling the subject. I did get as far as writing the first chapter and choosing when it should be set, but oddly enough, I couldn’t solve the problem of magic to my satisfaction, not for that subject. Either Merlin is a charlatan, or he could be written with real power that somehow doesn’t work today. Neither option appealed, particularly. Historical fiction is very similar to fantasy in some ways – a darker twin, perhaps. I wasn’t ready to blur the boundary that far, at least for now.
I considered a number of lives, from birth to death. Yet I’d done that with Genghis Khan. I felt ready for a different challenge. I’d read GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones and over and over I heard they were based on the Wars of the Roses. I looked and yea, the door was opened unto me. I found a story – one that, like Genghis, was known to most and yet not known at all. More, it was an English story, which filled me with both dread and excitement. The history of England has a special place in the culture, in part because every generation delights in believing the previous generation is completely uneducated. Yet the stories are the best in the world, I think, even the ones that have sort of slipped under the carpet over the centuries. Not many people today know James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, for example, or the Victorian, Richard Francis Burton, but their lives are great tales and there are hundreds more. In King Henry VI, I had the perfect tragic figure – the son of Henry V, the greatest warrior king of them all. His son was decent and honourable, too much so for the fifteenth century perhaps. His story is one worth telling, with all those around him, strong and weak, right and wrong.
- The worlds you write of are pretty far from the dreary day to day of modern life. Does writing offer escapism for you, and do you try and offer that to your readers?
It’s such a cliché to say one can ‘lose themselves’ in a book, but it’s so instantly recognisable to any reader as well. Escapism suggests there is something worth escaping and of course that could be true. Yet feverishly turning the pages of a good book in the small hours, watching the alarm clock tick, but being completely unable to put the thing down – that’s not a retreat from something, that is a joy, an experience. It’s pouring water into a cracked jug, (at least in my case) as a great deal leaks right back out again, but good characters, good lines stay with me, influencing me.
Writing that has just made me recall a period in my late-teens when I tried to solve moral problems by employing four or five fictional characters as my guides. That sounds a little bit like multiple personality disorder, but it wasn’t that at all, at least I don’t think it was. (And neither do I.) If you’d given me a problem then, I might have asked myself how Sherlock Holmes would handle it, or James Bond – he was one – or one of the incredibly capable characters in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. I’m not saying it worked – it was a disaster, as it happens, but that’s a story for another day.
- Are you excited about new interest brought to historical fiction by television and film adaptations, notably Game of Thrones?
Excited is an odd word to use, I think. When I was young, I watched Sean Bean as Sharpe and loved them. I watched Hornblower episodes, though I preferred the books. I usually do prefer the books, though the film Gladiator was a bit special and probably did kick off a great deal of interest in Roman fiction, if not historical fiction as a whole. Television reaches a massive audience and the best television can be as powerful as the best written fiction – but it’s a different thing. I’m just pleased they both exist. The film of Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian was different to the book, but both were wonderful, in completely different ways. I do not feel the same way about Facebook.
I suspect it is impossible to say anything original about the symbiotic relationship between books and films, so I will say only this: books take longer to read than it takes to watch a film. They unfurl at your pace and not someone else’s – and the pictures in your head are yours and not the actor playing the lead. Both can be wonderful, but I could live without TV, though I’d probably have to learn a foreign language just to fill the empty hours. I could not live without books.
- How do you go about researching for a historical series like The Wars of The Roses?
I have to go to places, if at all possible. I like to think it’s not a failure of the imagination, but it probably is. When I knew I was going to write sailing scenes for The Death of Kings, I signed on for a tallship in the Pacific. My older brother was second mate and I learned about taking watches and tying a bowline knot, but I also picked up a thousand sense impressions, from watching dolphins under the bow, to crashing about in a storm, or the smell of damp, or watching the sun come up. I met a Shetland islander there, who was dour and unresponsive, monosyllabic to the point of grunting once or twice a day. Then we caught a fish, three or four foot long, heaved up onto the deck to flop about with extraordinary energy. He took a wooden club and battered it dead, spattering tiny blue scales on the wooden deck. That was interesting, but not the point at all. The point was that for the next hour, he came awake. He talked and laughed and reminisced about his days in Shetland, mending nets with his grandfather. For just a time, he was cheerful and vital – then it seeped out of him once again.
I don’t think I could have made that up, not without the actual experience of it. In the presence of death he came alive, or to be blunt, killing something woke some spark in him for just a time. It is my feeling that men like him would be very, very useful in times of war.
That’s research, for me. I ended up with brutal saddle-sores in Mongolia, because I really needed to see the place and experience the smells and sounds and colours of the landscape. Oh, and I read, of course. I read a lot. I hang about the British library and antiquarian bookshops and I collect anything and everything I can find on a subject, the older and more obscure the better. I read as much as I can and I make notes and there comes a time when I’m so filled up, I’m ready to write the first scene. It doesn’t stop then, of course. It never stops, while I’m writing a subject. I read, and I read, and I read – and I write.
- Much of Stormbird is very accurate to the original history. How hard is it to strike a balance between entertainment and believability?
My job as a writer of historical fiction is to show the men and women of the past as real people, rather than names and events, or battles. I choose to believe that ‘entertainment’ comes from bridging that gap, from feeling that Genghis walked and rescued his kidnapped wife in such a way – and there we are, with him, standing at his side, seeing his flaws and his greatness. Lots of things from history are absolutely unbelievable. Is it really true that a Spanish regiment ran from the sound of their own rifle fire while fighting with Wellington in the Peninsular war? Well, yes, it did happen and it is true. Is it true that Julius Caesar was captured by pirates and held for ransom when he was very young? Yes, also true. Entertainment can stretch the bounds of believability, when the truth is sometimes so very strange. I’ve always included an historical note at the back of books, outlining major changes I might have made to keep a plot going, but mainly just to confirm some of the more extraordinary bits of the real histories.
- As this is your first series based in England, how did carrying out your research for this differ from previous series?
I was able to get in my car and drive to the battlefields and castles. The other main difference is that I drove myself absolutely frantic trying to get the details right, much more so than for the Genghis series. I had an excuse there – it was on the other side of the world, for a start. Though I’m half-Irish and half-English, this would be considered my culture – and so mistakes would not be easy to forgive. I suspect I’ll still get emails, of course. Bernard Cornwell once had an email from an ‘archeological botanist’, who pointed out that the snowdrops Cornwell had mentioned in a hedge, were not indigenous to Britain and were imported later than the period in which his story was set. That kind of specialist knowledge is difficult to reproduce, when an author is, you know, describing a hedge and chooses to put some snowdrops in the description.
Yet, when I look back at the first Caesar book, ‘The Gates of Rome’, I put a character in there who could heal with the touch of his hands. I put in magic, in fact, because if I can’t find it here and now, I want it somewhere.
I did get emails from people insisting Caesar and Brutus were father and son (they weren’t) or that Brutus was a nobleman (Plutarch says opinions were divided) and so on, and so on. Not one person mentioned you can’t heal people with your hands. I miss the confidence of that younger writer, sometimes. Yet when a botanist writes to me to point out some plant I included is wrong, I’m sure I shall be very polite.
- What does your typical day of writing look like?
Messy, probably. I’ve learned not to sweat too much when it doesn’t come easily. Actually, that’s a complete lie. I drive myself to frantic insanity trying to force it, like a man trying his kid’s shoes on and losing his temper, over and over. I drink a lot of coffee and I smoke far too much, but sometimes it comes easily and I’ll have written three thousand words that please me – that is a good day. I often work at odd hours – it’s 1.36am as I write this for example. If the kids are knocking around downstairs, I tend to wander down and play with them. That’s why summer holidays should be banned, in my opinion. Or they should be kept in a sound-proofed room during daylight hours. Something like that, anyway.
- How do you think the idea of the battle for the throne translates to readers who are living in a time without active monarchs? Do you see any of this alive in modern politics?
I remember wondering once, in an idle moment, what would happen if Prince Charles walked out into St. James’ Park in London and planted the banner of the Prince of Wales and said: “Come to me, if you are loyal.” – or words to that effect. You don’t think anyone would come, as word spread? I think there’d be about a million people standing with him before the end of the day. Sandwiches would definitely be needed. Monarchs may not have real political power any longer, but they still have weight in the minds of the people. There is something powerful there, even if it is only the echoes of history. Beyond that, the ‘Clinton effect’ as it’s sometimes called, or the instant charisma of a position of power is fascinating. Some human beings can lead – they are rare and extraordinary snake-charmers, one and all. The stories they create around them are always worth the price of admission. (Usually £6.99 for a paperback, though often discounted.)
That said though, it is of course true that historical fiction can’t deal with just the rulers. In real life, we are connected to dozens of other people, surviving trials, falling in love, living well and falling ill. No historical fiction book is about the king, not really. Even Genghis would have been a shadow without his parents, his wives and his brothers and sons. It’s all part of a character, of course and lies at the heart of why we read. People are interested in people, even those who claim they’re not. We like stories, because we have an ability unique in the world to feel the pain and the triumph of another person. “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail’, as Gore Vidal said. People are complex, be they kings or chimney sweeps.
- A lot of your earlier writing focuses on heroic males. How did you find writing a heroic female from history as your lead character?
Margaret of Anjou isn’t the lead in quite the same way that Caesar and Genghis were leads, with everything revolving around them. What I tried to do in Stormbird was set up a court, with three or four ‘leads’, rather than making it the tale of Margaret and Margaret alone. As such, I’ve written dozens of female characters before – and she really is a special one. I’m intrigued by the challenge of representing her growing and changing. After all, she comes to England to be queen at just fifteen years of age. I don’t know what you were like at fifteen, compared to say thirty, but I was very different. From my point of view, it’s a wonderful chance to develop depth – and therefore a step closer to reality – with a character.
I had to do something similar with Caesar, taking him from a boy to a man and then an increasingly hard and distant leader of nations. It’s another thing I think books can handle better than shorter media like TV episodes and films. There is just more space to show someone change. Having a central female character in a position of power is interesting, I must say. For reasons that escape me, she’s been treated rather badly by both historians and writers of historical fiction. Her story is tragic, without a doubt, but by God, she fought. She gave her entire life to protect her husband and her son from men like Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. All I have to do is speak well for her. Her story is good enough without any flourishes I might add.
- What has been your most interesting discovery whilst researching for this series?
In terms of single events, I’d say it was the Jack Cade rebellion. I think I knew the name, or at least had heard it somewhere, but I didn’t know he fought his way across the only bridge into London and successfully breached the Tower. Just a week ago, I was standing next to the London stone in Cannon street, that Cade struck his sword on, that night in 1450. It’s what I always hope to find when I’m reading around the main events of a period: smaller stories that are not well known, but are nonetheless brilliant and interesting episodes in the life of the time. Like the Chinese general defeated by Genghis, who rode from the battlefield and returned to the emperor knowing he would be executed. Instead, he killed the emperor and assumed power himself, in the middle of the Mongol invasion. Moments and events like that are the meat and drink of historical fiction, at least as far as I’m concerned.
- Why do you think we are fascinated with the likes of Game of Thrones, The Borgias, the Tudors and The White Queen TV series?
History is full of good stories and great characters, of course. It’s us, humanity, cheerfully poisoning each other, betraying, loving and stamping down on the fingers of everyone else climbing the ladder. As I’ve said above, we have the ability to sympathise or empathise with strangers, to come to know them and admire them, or at least forgive their flaws. The separation of centuries has an odd effect on morality as well, as we can tolerate ruthlessness much more easily in a historical character than one set in the modern era.
With the exception of GRRM, all those series have been cherry-picked from history by writers, delighted at what they found. They have the added joy for those reading or watching them, that we come away with a little knowledge of the period and the people involved. I have always relished learning history through historical fiction. It’s the best way to soak it in. In GRRM’s, case of course, he used the same structures and added just a pinch of dragons. That works as well, clearly.
- How do you prepare for writing a battle scene? Do you enjoy the violence or find it hard to get through?
I admire the skills, certainly. I’ve always enjoyed martial arts, though three years of Tae Kwon Do and another three of Judo only heightened my awareness that I am too clumsy to ever be a danger to anyone except myself. As my dad once said when he boxed for the RAF, he quite enjoyed hitting the other fellow, but not so much getting hit himself.
That same father saw many of his friends and colleagues die around him in Bomber Command during WWII. He told stories that fascinate me still, with their dark humour at the edge of great pain. I find such things fascinating.
Bernard Cornwell and I met George McDonald Fraser once, shortly before his death. Cornwell said to me that the difference between the three of us was that George had fought in a war, was in fact, such an efficient killer that it became almost like murder, rather than anything resembling a fair contest. As a result, GMF could handle battle with lightness and humour, whereas Bernard and I, to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett, ‘inexplicably forgot the intestines’ at times.
I suppose I do enjoy the mechanics of battles – the difficulties of communication over large areas, for example, or the sheer exhaustion that comes with fighting, more than any other activity.
I prepare for it, by visiting the spot if I can, in case there is some hill or river that might not be mentioned in the official accounts, but must have played a part. I read as much as I can find on it, as well as the necessary details of army structure, tactics and weaponry. After that, I focus on the main characters present at the time and write it from their point of view – often with limited understanding, as of course they don’t have the Godlike perspective granted to me.
- What draws you to writing in serialised form rather than stand alone novels? Do you feel this adds to character development and insight?
As far as I’m concerned, I don’t write in ‘serialised form’ – I just pick such massive subjects that it would be near impossible to tell them all in a single book. Even if it was possible, we’re dealing with entire lives, with a hundred complex events and people, over decades. The Catiline conspiracy, where Julius Caesar was accused of being part of a cabal trying to assassinate senators, for example. That could have had a book on its own. In fact, the more I look into a life, the more I realise the best stories, the best histories, have a thousand others spinning off them. That is the absolute joy of historical fiction: it is a permission to scrabble around in dusty archives and come out holding a crown, a few coins and a skull, each one with its own tale to tell.
Wars of the Roses: Stormbird paperback is published on the 24th April 2014 - Click Here to pre-order your copy now.