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Gate of the Dead by David Gilman – Review and interview with the author

Gate of the Dead | David Gilman | 2016 | Head of Zeus | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

This week sees the publication of Gate of the Dead, the third book in David Gilman’s fantastically exciting and brutal Master of War series that brings the Hundred Years War to life through the story of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a powerful knight in his own right. I’m delighted to present below an interview with David Gilman but, before that, here is a review.

Review
Gate of the Dead by David GilmanIt is 1358 and Sir Thomas Blackstone is banished from England. With his loyal men beside him, Thomas is a mercenary in Tuscany, caught up in the violence between cities that is tearing Italy apart. His job is to protect Lucca and its surroundings from the rapacious forces of Milan. And what Thomas sees and experiences in this lawless country is appalling. A chance to escape the bloodshed comes in the shape of a mortally wounded messenger who carries a message from the King of England’s mother, Queen Isabella. Thomas is recalled back to England to take part in a tournament alongside the Black Prince, a man Thomas assumed could no longer stand the sight of him. But an invitation from the Queen is not lightly ignored.

Of course, this is the mid 14th century and the rest of post-plague Europe is as lawless and brutalised as Italy and Thomas’s journey north is not an easy one. And Thomas is a man who makes enemies and his latest is in pursuit. So begins a series of bloody adventures that take Thomas and his men back to England and an uncertain welcome, before Thomas is returned to the continent and thrown into the heart of a peasants’ revolt in France that almost defies belief in its savagery and bloodlust. But Thomas is on the trail of his wife Christiana and their family and there is nothing he won’t endure to protect them. It’s just as well because Thomas will be tested to his very limit.

David Gilman, again, achieves wonders with his recreation of the Hundred Years War. But a strong part of its appeal has been watching Thomas Blackstone grow from the young stonemason archer who fought at Crécy. He’s a man who inspires loyalty and over the books I’ve grown attached to a fair few of his band of men – their banter provides welcome light relief, for us and for Thomas. Unfortunately, this being a novel of war, the headcount suffers. Fact and fiction are well mixed, with Thomas’s personal experiences of conflict, survival and love set against the backdrop of war between kings, petty nobles and armies.

I do like the way Gilman treats the women in his novels. They have strong roles and a great deal of influence, especially Christiana, while having to endure enormous stress. It’s difficult to know who to worry for most in Gate of the Dead – Thomas or Christiana. In Gate of the Dead, I was particularly fascinated by its depiction of life in medieval Lucca in Tuscany. This is a city I visit regularly and it’s brought to life here in a way I haven’t imagined before.

All of the Master of War novels are bloody and uncompromising in their portrayal of war and violence and Gate of the Dead is no exception. This is, though, the darkest of the novels. It is episodic in structure as Thomas moves around Europe from one crisis to another but the tension builds throughout, leading to a shocking climax that I doubt I’ll forget.

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death

Interview
Congratulations on Gate of the Dead – another fine book in this wonderful series, The Master of War. What inspired you to write about the Hundred Years War?

Thanks, Kate. Gate of the Dead, like the other books in the series, feels very much alive to me. Thomas Blackstone and the men who serve with him have developed a life of their own and become such strong characters. Ideas for stories tend not to leap out of the imagination but tend to sneak up and take you by surprise. I saw a painting of a Englishman in the Duomo in Florence. He was dressed in his finery on a wonderful war horse. It turned out to be John Hawkwood who served Italy as a condottieri – a soldier of fortune. After the great battles in 14th century France when King Edward III defeated the French in two great decisive battles, many soldiers were paid off (if they were paid at all) and became soldiers for hire. The Italian city states particularly prized the English and Welsh because of their fighting skills. The question that would not go away was how did this Englishman rise to such prominence? And who exactly was my character going to be?

Gate of the Dead is set during the mid-14th century, one of the bleakest episodes in the last thousand years! What is the appeal of writing about this time – and would you have liked to have been alive then to see it for yourself?!

The medieval period is often considered nothing more than sheer brutality. But that’s how wars were fought in those times. Close quarter fighting of the most vicious kind meant that for any one man to stand out he had to be stronger and more courageous than most. A knight’s honour was closely linked to his fighting ability on the battlefield. King Edward III valued his fighting men and he rewarded commoners as well as noblemen and knights. It was a time of enormous conflict and Edward was as courageous as the men he led. And, of course, Edward’s greatest weapon in his arsenal of outstanding knights and noblemen was the English and Welsh bowmen. The breadth of history, personal, political and social, gave me a vast field of research and interest to write about.

GILMAN_Master of War_PBWhere did the inspiration for the character of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a knight, come from?

Starting the series with a man from a humble background meant that he was skilled in the art of survival on a day-to-day basis. Thomas Blackstone had physical strength and was imbued with sufficient compassion and duty to care for his younger brother, so when this village boy was thrown into a terrifying war I already had characteristics that would cause him conflict. A nobleman’s and knight’s chivalric code embraced good manners and an idealism that was only applied to those of equal or more senior rank, so creating a situation where a common man from the ranks of archers was thrust into a higher social order meant I could develop his character with more depth.

How many books do you envisage the series having? Do you know how the series will end or does it develop as you write it?

Gate of the Dead is the third book in the series and Thomas Blackstone will have his fourth outing in 2017, and there’s a fifth book planned for 2018. As a character he can have a long life and there are enough elements already laid into the books to be embellished and developed further. Writing these books is an adventure. When I sit down to start the new story I have no idea where it will take me or the characters who inhabit my life on a daily basis. My study can get a bit crowded at times. Historical events often trigger the time and place where he is placed.

How difficult is it to mix history with fiction?

It has its challenges. No author can change historical events but characters can operate within the historical context of where they’re placed. The big events – the great battles, the kings and queens, those elements can’t be messed about with too much, but, as an example, who’s to say how such important characters in history might, or might not, have reacted in certain situations. I do a lot of cross –referencing in my research to try and get the facts as correct as possible, but even academics and historians are not always in agreement. I think that provided the fiction is well grounded in time and place there can be some flexibility. It’s fiction.

Defiant unto Death by David Gilman PbYour novels also feature strong women, something I don’t take for granted in historical fiction. How important is it to you to give women representation in your books?

Women often played a subservient role in medieval times, but as always, there were exceptions. I remember coming across a French noblewoman by the name of Blanche de Harcourt when I started writing the Master of War series. I scribbled her name on the back of envelope – which I still have because she was part of the genesis for Thomas Blackstone. At first I could find out very little about her but then, slowly but surely, she emerged. A noblewoman in her own right, independent of her husband, she ended up creating her own army of mercenaries. There were times in that period of history where women were forced to take on the mantle of responsibility for their families – particularly when their husbands and sons were killed in war. They were hardy, resilient women and I have always wanted strong female characters in my books. It’s not always easy to realistically bring female characters into the story mix, given that it was such a male-dominated era – but I hope that so far my female characters have developed satisfactorily into the fabric of the stories. Blackstone’s wife Christiana, is an example. She’s a strong-minded, but vulnerable woman who faces challenging events that I believe female readers can identify with even through modern eyes.

Is there another period of history that appeals to you to write about?

So many. My ideas are stacked up like ghost planes over Heathrow. World War II is always a great pull, and for some time I’ve had a storyline sketched out. Elements of the 1920/30s and emigration to North America also interest me and I have a female character lined up as the protagonist. It’s a tough story to tell and is firmly based on facts and the personal recollections of those involved. I also have a series in mind which has an Anglo-Saxon character in post-Norman invasion times, who moves on to take part in another great empire’s conflict. I have recently completed a standalone novel – The Last Horseman – written in between my Master of War series. It is set in 1899, begins in Dublin, Ireland and follows a character, an older man, who is embroiled in the Irish politics of the time. He journeys to South Africa at the time of the Anglo-Boer war. The “Last Horseman” will be published mid-2016. Other ideas aside, I will be staying with Thomas Blackstone and the 14th century for a while yet. He has a long journey ahead of him.

Which authors have inspired you to write?

This is always a difficult question to answer. So many authors, so many books, but there’s also another element involved. When I was young I not only read everything I could lay my hands on but also listened to a lot of radio drama. So the ‘reading eye’ and the ‘listening ear’ both stimulated my imagination and inspired the storyteller within me. It’s a real mixed bag of authors. Early works I remember are those by Norman Mailer, Alistair Maclean, Neville Shute, Wilbur Smith, Robert Ruark, William Wharton, Saul Bellow, James Clavell, Helen Dunmore, Edith Pargeter, Josephine Tey, … the list goes on because there’s something in every novel that piques my interest and triggers my own imagination. As the years progress my reading has become even more diverse. Every book offers something special. Have just finished Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I am currently reading Sebastian Faulkes’ Where my heart used to beat.

What’s your favourite novel of 2015?

Terrible question. Pitting one author against another is like comparing your best friends. I probably need more time to think about the answer. As an example, I am (still) enjoying the Richard Burton diaries but was gripped by Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. (I don’t always read the most currently published novels.)

For the Most Beautiful – an interview with author Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserThis week, Doubleday publishes the really rather gorgeous debut novel by Emily Hauser, For the Most Beautiful – a memorable account of the Trojan War, written from the point of view of not only some of the leading women caught in the conflict but also of the gods themselves. You can read my review here. I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the publication, which gave me the perfect excuse to put some questions to Emily. Here Emily talks about her inspiration for the novel, her different take on the Trojan War, the role of the gods in this human story, the challenges of writing historical fiction and the writers that have influenced her. Thanks so much to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions.

Congratulations on For the Most Beautiful, I read it in a single day – a captivating read! What inspired you to write about the legend of Troy and, out of all the characters available, why did you choose to focus on the two women, Krisayis and Briseis?

Thank you so much! The inspiration for For the Most Beautiful came during a class at Yale, when we were asked to read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, and I thought, “Why has nobody done this for the Iliad?” I was instantly drawn to re-telling the story of Troy from the female perspective because it’s a story we so often associate with men – Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and all the other heroes of Homer’s Iliad – and I wanted to change that, to bring the women to the fore. Few people actually realise that there are in fact two women who are absolutely crucial to the action: Briseis, princess of Pedasus, and Krisayis (spelled Chryseis in the Iliad), daughter of the High Priest of Troy. Their capture, and the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon that erupts over their return, sets off the entire chain of events that becomes the Iliad of Homer. I wanted to show that there is more to this legendary war than just the battle exploits of the male heroes – that, in fact, these two women were at the very heart of the action, and that it was their choices and their intrigues and relationships that really brought about the siege and fall of Troy.

The fall of Troy is a well-known story. How did you make your version of it feel fresh and different?

I think the fact that so few people are aware of the stories of Briseis and Krisayis meant that I could bring a very new perspective to the age-old story of Troy. I really focused in my retelling on exploring the inner lives of my characters – I have endless character sheets, sketches and maps of their story arcs – so that, hopefully, the two women really leap off the page, and readers can really identify with them and their stories. I wanted to bring them alive, to show that people in Bronze Age Troy really weren’t as different from us as we think they were. I believe that there are traits we share, as human beings, across time – love, passion, violence, the search for meaning – and it is these timeless themes that I tried to bring to life through my characters as I wrote.

The novel contains an intriguing mix of ancient history and fantasy. How difficult was it to make this world feel real while still keeping its almost magical air of mystery and myth?

Interestingly, it was only at the moments of intersection and cross-over between the mortal and immortal worlds that this became a challenge. Originally I intended the gods and the humans to stay quite separate, so that the realm of the gods on Mount Olympus, with its fantastical cloud-palaces and ambrosia-eating divinities, could exist quite happily apart from the real, bloody, war-torn humans of the Trojan plain. But as the novel progressed I could see the mortals and the gods coming closer and closer together, and I knew that eventually they would have to meet. The challenge was simultaneously to bring alive for the reader that ancient unquestioning belief in the gods that the Trojans would have felt, as almost a permanent, geological part of the landscape, at the same time as conveying the sense of shock and disjunction which the characters must have naturally felt when those two worlds collide. For me, it was the small markers of human physicality which were useful for making this separation: on Olympus, for example – as in Homer – the gods cannot eat human food. Back on the mortal plane, I tried to give as much detailing of physical objects as I could – clay pots, lamps, bronze cauldrons, woollen skirts – to create a sharp and tangible contrast with the sheer, cloud-like immateriality of the Olympian realm.

The novel doesn’t just focus on mortals, but also on the gods. Why did you choose to include the gods as characters?

You know, the gods weren’t originally a part of the book, but after writing a few chapters I realised that they had to be there. The first reason is a very simple one – that they’re a major part of Homer’s epic, and, more importantly, of his world. Although many modern authors who have reworked the Iliad have chosen to omit the gods – Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy is a notable exception – I felt that the gods were so central to Homer, as well as to the Greeks and Trojans and their view of their world, that to omit them would be to miss half of what the legend of the Trojan War is about.

Then, of course, there are the reasons which critics and scholars often cite with reference to the Iliad: first, the contrast between the mortal and immortal planes; and, second, the necessary relief which the scenes on Olympus provide. In a story filled with war, death and loss, in which my protagonists suffered terrible traumas from witnessing their husbands killed before their eyes to being faced with near-rape, I found that the gods provided an important break in the relentless narrative march towards the inevitable sack of Troy. Moreover, the contrast between their frivolous immortal existence on Olympus and the deep emotions and attachments forged by their human counterparts serves – at least I hope it does – to throw the fears and losses endured by mortals into a sharper and more poignant relief. The immortals play their trivial games with human fate, but they never quite understand the importance of mortality and a sense of urgency of being alive – all these things that lead us to have passions, emotions, love – that make life worth living.

Considering how the gods misused humans, could Paris have made any other choice?

That’s a really interesting and important question. It is, in fact, something which lies at the heart of my second book, For the Winner, so I won’t say too much – except that I think that it depends on if you think the gods are able to understand human desires…

Would you like to write more novels set in ancient Greek legend and/or history?

Yes, absolutely! For the Most Beautiful is the first in a series called the Golden Apple trilogy, all centred around retelling the legends of the mythical golden apples. The second book, For the Winner, is set around twenty years before the time of the Trojan War and retells the legendary myth of Atalanta – a young woman and a warrior, who set out along with Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage to capture the Golden Fleece.

Is there another historical period that appeals to you?

I love ancient Rome (if it’s not cheating too much to choose another period within classical antiquity!). There’s something about the urbanity of imperial Rome, its sex, its vices, its intrigues, that is wonderfully compelling. I was fortunate enough to participate in an archaeological dig a few years ago in Pompeii and I adored wandering through the ruins of the ancient city in the morning before the tourists arrived, imagining the early morning salutatio, the clients outside the doors, the slaves running to and fro from the public fountains… But who knows, maybe I’ll come across a fascinating story from another time period just waiting to be told!

Which authors have inspired you to write?

Robert Graves was probably my first inspiration. I was given I, Claudius when I was about ten and read and re-read it incessantly – it was from around then that I think I decided that I wanted to write something like it, something that could bring the classical past alive. Philippa Gregory was also a very formative influence for me, with her ability to retell history from a female perspective: reading her books, particularly The Constant Princess, I began to see that there was a different history, a different story just waiting to be told.

What’s your favourite novel of 2015?

Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling. I found Kelsea Glynn, the protagonist, to be refreshingly spunky and down-to-earth, and I enjoyed following her progression through the novel from insecure girl to fully-fledged queen.

Links
Review
Buy the book

Thanks so much to Emily! For further stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below, a thing of beauty in itself.

For the Most Beautiful Blog Tour

Battle for Rome by Ian Ross – a review and Q&A with the author

Battle for Rome | Ian Ross | 2016 | Head of Zeus | 449p | Review copy | Buy the book

This month sees the publication of Battle for Rome, the next installment in one of the best historical series about today, which brings one of the most extraordinary periods of Roman history to life – on the battlefield and in the corridors of power. I am delighted to include here a Q&A with the author Ian Ross, in which he talks about the appeal of the early 4th century for a writer, the character of Constantine, the future of this marvellous series, writing historical fiction and the authors who have influenced him. The interview follows the review.

Review

Battle for Rome by Ian RossIt is AD 312 and the Roman empire is on the brink of civil war. Constantine controls the west while Maxentius, son of the former emperor Maximian, rules Italy, North Africa and Rome itself. Two other rival emperors, Licinius – in the Balkans and Greece – and Maximus Daza – in Egypt and the east – ensure that peace will stay out of reach.

Aurelius Castus, celebrated for saving the life of Constantine, has been promoted from centurion and is now a tribune but his life is no less perilous. His courage has marked him for those missions that should be difficult to survive. Constantine needs to win over the support of Licinius to the east as well as the senators in Rome and Castus soon finds himself deep in enemy territory. Castus has personal troubles of his own – he suspects that his wife may be involved in the political schemes that are dividing the empire, working against him with one of his greatest enemies. It’s almost impossible to know who to trust as spies crisscross the empire and politicians plot to save their own necks whatever the final outcome. Nothing is certain, not even the gods. While some, including Castus, pray to the old gods, and others turn to sorcery, many more are following a new religion. It is even suspected that Constantine himself is becoming a Christian and, as a result, Christianity begins to move its way through the army ranks.

Battle for Rome is the third novel in the excellent Twilight of Empire series and it is a corker. Castus, now fully proven as a warrior and leader but still regarded with hostility by Rome’s aristocrats, occupies the perfect role at the centre of the empire’s breakdown. He moves between factions, somehow retaining his honour, and in this novel visits for the first time in his life the city of Rome itself. The battles are bloody, thrilling and brilliantly re-enacted by Ian Ross but the corridors of power are no less deadly. Castus is in maximum danger throughout.

This isn’t a period of Rome’s history that I’m too familiar with but what a fascinating time, not just for the civil war but also for the rise of Christianity, which must have been hard for many to accept. Ian Ross brings it alive. I have enjoyed watching Castus’s character develop over the novels but for me the most memorable portrait of Battle for Rome is Constantine. We largely see him through the eyes of others so he remains as much a mystery to us as he does to the people around him. Here is a complex man, flawed and proud but clearly with something about him that made people follow him into war. Castus’s relationship with Constantine is complicated.

The Twilight of Empire series has really come into its own with Battle for Rome. Castus is continuing to move across the Roman world, from Britain in War at the Edge of the World, along the Rhine in Swords Around the Throne, and now he has reached Rome itself and armies are on the march, Romans fighting Romans. This is a tense, exciting and gripping read and a fine contribution to what has become one of my very favourite series.

While you don’t need to have read the previous two novels to enjoy Battle for Rome, I certainly recommend that you do.

Interview with Ian Ross

Congratulations on Battle for Rome – I loved it! The Twilight of Empire series focuses on a period of Roman history that is relatively overlooked – the early 4th century and the rule of Constantine. What drew you to write about this time?

Thanks! I’m very glad you enjoyed the book. The period I’m writing about was a time of great change, and writers, I think, are always going to be drawn to situations of upheaval and revolution. By the early 4th century, the Roman empire was already centuries old. It had been through vast crises, and it was in the process of evolving into a new and different shape. The people of that time lived among the ruins of their own ancient past; the age of Julius Caesar and Augustus was as distant to them as the days of Marlborough and Queen Anne are to us today. So there’s a sense of historical perspective, of the depth of time. But it was still a recognisably Roman culture, feeding off the past. The empire may have been battered and crumbling, but there was a great vigour and energy to its society. Also, of course, it was a tremendously dramatic time, with wars all across the Roman world, from the wilds of northern Britain to the deserts of Mesopotamia, and a host of competing emperors and usurpers. It was an age of treachery and intrigue, of astonishing wealth and draconian government, of strange new religions and social transformation. An unfamiliar setting in many ways, but still oddly recognisable to us today, I think.

War at the Edge of the World by Ian RossI love the way in which Castus’s character has developed over the three novels. He seems that he’d be fun to write about – an intriguing mix of strengths and flaws, sometimes out of his depth as anyone would be at such a time! Can you tell us what you like most about him?

I had a very clear picture of Castus from the beginning. Actually I think my image of him came to me before the story itself, or even the setting. Initially I envisaged him as the opposite of me – I’ve always found it more enjoyable to write about people at a remove from myself, who experience the world in a different way (I’ve enjoyed writing about female characters for the same reason!). So Castus is a born soldier, illiterate at the beginning, brutal-looking and rather clumsy in social settings, but with a firm code of honour and a strong sense of loyalty. I didn’t want him to be either an author-avatar or a superhero; he’s a man of his time, similar to the many other career soldiers, often from a Danubian background, who played such an important role in the military and political history of the age. His rather straightforward approach to problem-solving leads many people to underestimate him, often to their cost. But his sense of honesty and justice puts him in conflict with the rather more twisted morals of the age, and as the stories continue many of his assumptions about the world and the empire are challenged. He’s pretty tenacious too though, and seems to have survived everything I’ve thrown at him so far!

The character of Constantine is a particularly interesting one. He challenges the traditional view of him and he’s not an easy man to like or for Castus to follow. The rise of Christianity in the empire and in its armies is such a fascinating theme. Do you think Constantine was genuine or political in his beliefs?

Constantine is certainly one of the more fascinating figures of Roman history. There’s been a vast amount written about him, but most of it focusses on the religious angle, for obvious reasons. He does come across as a hard man to like – singularly ruthless, utterly vain, intent on absolute power, convinced of his own cause, and in many ways a forerunner of the more narrow-minded rulers of later ages. But he was also quite similar to the emperors that preceded him – very much a soldier, a heavy drinker, at ease in the company of his officers (who perhaps found the situation a bit less agreeable!). He had a caustic sense of humour, and enjoyed mocking people. Whether he was convinced of his religious beliefs or not is one of those questions that historians love to argue about. I tend to think he was genuine; he was a passionate believer, in himself as much as anything, and seems to have found in Christianity a system of faith that would elevate him above common men, besides uniting the empire under his rule. And anyone who could compose and recite the two-hour-plus ‘Oration to the Saints’ (a fantastically boring exercise in religious dogma that served no political purpose) was clearly a man who believed that God was taking a personal interest in him!

Swords Around the Throne by Ian RossHow difficult is it to mix history with fiction?

I’ve never found it difficult at all – quite the opposite in fact. History offers such a wealth of stories and dramatic situations that it’s hard to avoid the urge to start melded fiction with fact, and imagining the lives of the real people caught up in those events. I think there’s a lot more emphasis on accuracy in historical writing nowadays – perhaps because the internet gives everyone much easier access to the raw materials – but I’ve always tried to stick to the known facts and authentic details of the era. I find research an inspiration rather than a chore.

Do you have the future of the Twilight of Empire series mapped out? How many books do you envisage in the series?

I have six books planned in the series, taking Castus from relative obscurity as a provincial centurion to the heady, and dangerous, heights of power. The action of the stories maps very closely onto the events of the time period, but my focus is always on Castus himself and the personal challenges he faces. Having such a long timespan to work with – thirty years or more – allows for a fair bit of character development!

Is there another period of history that appeals to you to write about?

There are a great many, and I have to try to avoid thinking about them too much. I can very easily get distracted from the task at hand! The mid-19th century appeals to me, as do the Renaissance, the interwar 20th century, archaic Greece and assorted other eras. I could happily research and write about just about any historical period, I think. For now I’m fixated on Rome, but who knows what the future may hold…

Which authors have inspired you to write?

Such a lot of them! When I first started writing, many years ago, I was mainly inspired by contemporary fiction, of the more literary variety. For a while I tried to write those sorts of books, but I don’t think my heart was really in it. When I turned to the work I’m doing now, I think I was consciously reaching back to the books I’d loved in my younger years – Rosemary Sutcliffe (particularly her Flowers of Adonis), the fantasy/sf writer Gene Wolfe, C.S. Forester, and various adventure/thriller type authors. I do still love J.G. Farrell’s books, although I doubt any of his influence comes through in what I’m doing now!

What’s your favourite novel of 2015?

Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been non-fiction, for research purposes! I’ve very much enjoyed Harry Sidebottom’s new series though, and John Henry Clay’s second novel, At the Ruin of the World. Away from the Roman theme, Jason Hewitt’s Devastation Road and Kim Devereux’s Rembrandt’s Mirror both had me engrossed.

Many thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer my questions!

An interview with Joanna Hickson – author of Red Rose, White Rose

Last week, Joanna Hickson’s latest novel Red Rose, White Rose was published (review here), pulling the reader back into the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses. It’s a pleasure and an honour to host an interview with Joanna today, starting off the tour to accompany the novel’s birthday. It was so good to be able to ask Joanna about Cicely Neville as well as Catherine de Valois, Joanna’s previous heroine, plus the challenges and pleasures of bringing the past to life and the novels that have given Joanna pleasure in turn. So with no further ado, and with thanks to Joanna, here we go.

An interview with Joanna Hickson

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna HicksonThank you so much Kate for inviting me to share your virtual sofa at For Winter Nights. With its bright reds and silvers I think the cover of my latest book conveys a hint of holly-berries and tinsel and it will be lovely to curl up around your questions and have a pre-Christmas ‘chat’ about Red Rose, White Rose, so fire away while I raise my virtual cup or glass of something. I hope you’ve got one!

Your last two novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride focused on the life of Catherine de Valois, the young queen and widow of Henry V. Now that Catherine’s story is finished, what drew you to Cicely Neville for your next subject?

Perhaps weirdly it was the size of Cicely’s family that intrigued me to start with. When I discovered that she was the youngest of her father’s twenty two children (!) I immediately began to try and imagine how a family of that size would function and what would be the relationships between them, especially with the Wars of the Roses looming on the horizon. And when I researched further I realised that the Nevilles were crucially involved in those wars and that Cicely would inevitably be torn between the red rose and the white. To me her story was quickly revealed as an untold tale set in a period packed with action and intrigue.

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna HicksonWas it difficult to leave Catherine behind?
Yes it was, more difficult than I was prepared for because I had spent many years with Catherine. But once I had wiped the tears from my eyes, I realised that one of Cicely’s attractions to the writer in me was that she and Catherine were polar opposites. Catherine’s strength lay in her ability to overcome being used and abused in her youth and eventually to defy the powers ranked against her and seek some personal happiness. On the other hand Cicely is the spoiled youngest child who discovers that wealth and rank bring their own challenges and that war can turn all that upside down. She is spirited and ambitious from the start but finds that mental strength and determination are not always enough when fate takes a hand.

15th century women of status did not really share in the social revolution that was beginning to bring opportunity to those in the lower ranks at that time. They were still bound by the misogynistic rules and protocol of birth and privilege and none found them more frustrating than Cicely Neville, Duchess of York. She could kick against the traces but in the end there would be a price to pay. The one thing my Cicely and Catherine have in common however is that they can both keep a secret!

Red Rose, White Rose has two different narrative perspectives – Cicely’s and Cuthbert’s (Cicely’s illegitimate half-brother). Why did you decide to split the narrative?
When recounting Catherine de Valois’ life I chose to use a fictional commoner (Mette) to tell her story and found it a successful way to take the narrative out of court and castle and into the everyday lives of ordinary people. I wanted to achieve a similar balance in Cicely’s story only this time, with war moving centre stage in the later chapters, I needed someone who could take the reader onto the battlefield, and so it had to be a man. Also it would have been difficult to bring a male servant into Cicely’s private life but a half-brother, who was also a knight and her sworn bodyguard, would have access to her quarters, could be a confidant and could remain with her more or less throughout the book. Once I’d decided this, Cuthbert took root in my mind, had his own thoughts and opinions and I found him longing for his own family life. He more or less wrote himself!

What was your favourite part of the novel to write?
While visiting Middleham on one of my research trips I also explored Coverdale, the remote Yorkshire valley which runs through the hills above Middleham Castle, and I fell in love with it. Its narrow road runs through farm-yards and across wild stretches of moorland and I chose it as the perfect place for Cicely’s father, riding out from Middleham Castle, to have found a pretty farmer’s daughter for some ‘fiddle dee dee’ as the minstrel’s song goes in my (free!) e-book short story. So Coverdale became Cuthbert’s birthplace and the obvious spot for him to make his family home, when he eventually gets one. If you put your favourite character into your favourite setting I think it qualifies as your favourite part to write!

The Tudor Bride by Joanna HicksonHow much of a challenge is it to mix historical figures and events with fiction?
I must admit that I don’t find it a particular challenge. Essentially all the characters, whether fictional or historical, emerge from my imagination. Sources give you some clues for the historical characters but they don’t supply the dialogue and thoughts which make them live on the page. And it’s the same with events and locations. A battle may be described in some detail by a contemporary source but it will always have been written after the event and usually by someone who is biased towards one side or the other; similarly a location will have changed in six hundred years, sometimes almost beyond recognition. So it requires copious amounts of imagination to ‘create’ a historical character, location or event – I would argue just as much as is needed to invent them from scratch. The main challenge for me is the timeline. Writing historical fiction is like doing a jigsaw. When you fit one piece in it should lead to another and then another but sometimes it’s a struggle to keep them under control – and I do like to get the timeline right. You can’t muck about with dates in my opinion, although some ‘histfic’ writers do so unashamedly!

The Wars of the Roses is an increasingly popular period for historical fiction. Why do you think this is?
Maybe it’s because historical fiction has become increasingly popular among readers generally, with the Tudors consistently way ahead in the genre stakes. And now those who have familiarised themselves with the story of the Tudor kings and queens are becoming interested in discovering where they sprang from. So the pre-Tudor period – what used to be called ‘the Twilight Century’ – has come into its own, supplying action, intrigue and romance with the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist kings, the Princes in the Tower, the Battle of Bosworth and the whole drama of the fifteenth century cavalcade. Of course the ‘king in the car-park’ has had his part to play recently, to say nothing of the York/Leicester battle to acquire Richard III’s final resting-place! Long may the fascination continue because I have not yet completed my exploration of what the no-longer-so-twilit century has to offer.

Would you have fought for the Red Rose or the White Rose?
Good question! My researches have shown that it was one that a number of people at the time tried not to answer, either avoiding the fight altogether or only opting for one side or the other at the last minute, when they had decided which was going to win. Obviously when they got it wrong there were serious consequences, especially since deadly feuds were frequently settled by summary executions, which unfortunately became the norm after battles. So we know where the Tudors got their taste for them! Anyway, my mother was a Lancastrian and my father came from Yorkshire and they managed to stay married for fifty years so luckily perhaps I don’t have to choose!

What’s next?
Well you may have already gathered that I have not yet finished with the fifteenth century. A proposal for my next novel has been accepted by my publishers but I have not yet signed the contract so I won’t reveal too much now in case it all goes pear-shaped. It must suffice for me to say that the central character has connections with all my three previous novels and will carry us through many an adventure towards the Tudor ascendancy.

blog tour bannerWhich novels have you enjoyed most during 2014?
Perversely, in the centenary year of the start of the First World War, I read and very much enjoyed Barbara Erskine’s dual-time novel The Darkest Hour, set partly in the Second World War. I have also enjoyed the latest novels by a number of authors in my own genre; Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen, Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse and Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason. I love detective fiction and combined the two genres by following C.J. Sansom’s Tudor sleuth Shardlake through Heartstone and introducing myself to Lindsay Davis’s brilliant Roman-era detective Falco by picking up The Silver Pigs, first of a series which I believe now stretches to nineteen! I assure you I will be reading more of both! When I come back into the present I consume another of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels set in my favourite city of Venice – a joy to visit for someone who spends so much of her time in the fifteenth century!

Thank you so much for hosting me Kate. As you can tell, if you want me to talk about ‘my’ period and my books you only have to turn me on! But Christmas is coming and we all have presents to wrap. I hope some of them will contain a copy of Red Rose, White Rose.

Thank you, Joanna!

Reviews
Red Rose, White Rose
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride

Buy Red Rose, White Rose
Follow Joanna on Twitter

An interview with Livi Michael, author of Succession

Succession, the latest novel by Livi Michael, is published later this week. Within its pages lies the stories of two women who were to play a significant role in shaping the future of the English monarchy in the 15th century and beyond – Margaret of Anjou, Queen of the sometimes mad Henry VI, and Margaret Beaufort, who gave birth to the future Henry VII aged just 13 years old. Their stories are wrapped in the political and military turmoil of the Wars of the Roses – great themes for historical fiction. A review will follow in the next couple of days (the review is now ready to read here) but in the meantime I am delighted to host an interview with the author, Livi Michael.

Succession by Livi MichaelCongratulations on Succession! You’re known for your children’s books. How different a challenge was writing fiction for adults and why did you pick historical fiction?

I started off in adult fiction, but have written 11 novels for children – some of them historical. The main differences are that in adult fiction I write from or about an adult perspective. And although my stories for children might be dark, I provide some kind of hopeful resolution at the end! I always feel drawn to the rich variety of stories that history has to offer – truth is generally stranger than fiction, and the challenge is always to do justice to the original material. Also I think history offers a different perspective on where we are now.

The Wars of the Roses appears to be an increasingly popular subject for writers. What do you think are the reasons for its appeal?

People have been interested in the Tudors for a long time, but they didn’t just come out of nowhere, and the story of where they did come from is fascinating. It’s an epic tale of the birth of a nation, or at least of a recognisably modern England, and it has all the elements of high drama – conflict, heroism, love & betrayal, violence and idealism. You couldn’t make it up!

The style of Succession is highly original, incorporating contemporary sources and switching perspectives? Why did you pick this style of narrative?

Ah, where do I begin? I began actually with the story of Margaret Beaufort, which is extraordinary – married three times before she was 15, gave birth to her only son at the age of 13, who, on an unlikely chance, became king of England; lived through the reigns of 6 kings, became the most powerful woman in England etc. etc. But her life only makes sense when considered in the context of the historical period – the upheaval of civil war, the political developments and disasters that affected her personally. This is where the medieval chronicles came in – contemporary accounts of life as it was lived then. Initially I read about her in modern works such as The King’s Mother (Jones & Underwood) or Elizabeth Norton’s biography, but these all referred to the chronicles and I was increasingly convinced that I needed to go back to the original sources. And once I started to read them I was hooked. They are so vivid, personal, partisan, sometimes scurrilous – and they really convey the spirit of the time.

I don’t believe that a 21st century novelist can truly convey the spirit of the 15th century – only their own.

Also I became interested in the difference between the chronicles and the contemporary novel: one is focussed almost exclusively on events and action, the other, potentially at least, offers a more intimate exploration of individual consciousness, feelings and motivation. The chronicles seem to have been written by and about men – women feature peripherally if at all, – but the novel allows us to reimagine the lives of women involved or affected by the chronicled events. The two different kinds of narrative seemed to me to complement one another rather well. And the chronicle extracts allowed me to cut through large swathes of complex history – without them the book might have been 5 times longer than it is! Initially I saw my novel as an illustration of the content of the chronicles, but my editor saw it differently – and this was the cause of much redrafting. Eventually we reached a compromise that made us both happy – that hopefully retains the best of both forms while allowing the relationship between them to create a different kind of historical fiction.

What interests you about Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort?

What doesn’t interest me about them? That would be a shorter list. But here goes:
• Both strong characters and powerful women who played a vital role in the history of the nation.
• Each had one son to whom they were devoted. They put all their considerable resources into bringing that son to the throne – one was successful, the other not.
• For different reasons, both had to act alone in a man’s world.
• To me they symbolise the shift from medieval feudalism to early modern society – Margaret of Anjou was a warrior queen, Margaret Beaufort’s power was exercised through an absolute control of the economy and bureaucracy.

Would you have been a Yorkist or a Lancastrian?

When I started this project I didn’t think I had a bias. My family is almost exactly divided between Yorkshire and Lancashire and I have always lived on the borders of these two counties. In some ways the House of York is more colourful. But I do feel that the Lancastrians have had a bad press, even though they were ultimately successful. Henry VII, for instance, gets far less attention than either Edward IV, or Richard III, and certainly than his own son, Henry VIII, but he really laid the foundations of everything that followed. Henry VI is remembered, if at all, for being mad or feeble, and the chronicles have nothing good to say about Margaret of Anjou. Margaret Beaufort tends to be portrayed as a shrewish ascetic, ruthless and manipulative. I just think their stories are more interesting than that.

Will you be writing more historical fiction? If so, can you tell us a little about what’s next?

Well I will certainly be writing the sequel to Succession – which will take a similar form and follow the characters through to the Battle of Bosworth. I do have other ideas for the future, but this is taking up all my time and energy at the moment.

Which historical novelists have inspired you?

Historical fiction is such a varied field. I do tend to admire those novels that have something to say about the history of a nation or race. I’m thinking of Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Toni Morrison’s retellings of African American history. But I also love those novels that offer an unforgettable portrayal of an individual – Hilary Mantel’s virtuoso recreation of Thomas Cromwell, for instance, or Colm Toibin’s portrait of Henry James in The Master.

What are you reading at the moment?

Lots of student work and my own research! Also some poetry – John Burnside’s All One Breath is a magnificent collection.

Links and other posts
A review of Succession
Read more about Succession on Livi’s website
Buy Succession.

An interview with Nick Brown – author of The Far Shore (Agent of Rome)

The Far Shore by Nick BrownNick Brown’s Agent of Rome series has become one of my favourite series, not just of historical or Roman fiction but of any genre. It brings the world of the Roman secret service to life. Its place at the top of my To Be Read Pile was sealed by The Far Shore, the third and best of the series and also one of my top reads of 2013. You can read my full review here but, if I had to sum it up (and I quote from my best of 2013 post): The Far Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast and furious, often funny Roman adventure, populated by people I care about and set in a world in which demons are at work. I was so pleased to be asked to do an interview with Nick to coincide with the recent publication of The Far Shore in paperback. So with no further ado, except to thank Nick for his time, here it is.

Congratulations on The Far Shore! This is such a great series and The Far Shore was one of my top reads of 2013. What inspired you to write a series of novels about a Roman spy, a type of character that could have been very difficult to like?
Thanks very much! When I was working on the first book (original title: ‘Edge of the Empire’) I came across the ‘frumentarii’, a group often referred to as Rome’s ‘secret service’. I thought this seemed like a fantastic opportunity for a character charged with a series of unusual assignments. It’s true that spies are not generally all that ‘likeable’ but having proved himself as an investigator and ‘fixer’ I think Cassius’s superiors now appreciate his abilities. His commander, Abascantius, probably better represents the reality of the ‘grain men’ – a ruthless, crafty type who spends his time spying on Rome’s enemies at home and abroad.

The Agent of Rome series is set in the late 3rd century AD. What made you pick this particular period in Roman history?
When I saw what was already out there, it seemed logical to go later; I liked the idea of an empire struggling to survive – plenty of drama and excitement. And, when I looked closer, the era of Aurelian was appealing because he was a strong, comparatively ‘heroic’ leader. Also, though he only reigned for five years, those years were packed with incident.

Apart from Cassius, who is an immensely likeable hero, you have created two other very strong and memorable characters: Simo the Christian and Indavara the freed gladiator. Do you see them continuing to have a prominent role in the series?
Definitely. Simo was there from the beginning of course and my editor encouraged me to build up his role- something that has really benefited the series. When it came to the second book, it was clear that Cassius would need a bodyguard and I thought it would be a great start to see him win his freedom. Looking back, I suppose I didn’t really anticipate how the trio and their relationships would unfold but this aspect has developed naturally and become very important. I won’t spoil the surprise for people who haven’t got to book three yet but Indavara has his own secrets and story to explore and I certainly consider him an integral part of the series now . As a writer, it’s nice for me to be able to leave Cassius sometimes and write sections from Indavara’s point of view; occasionally Simo’s too.

The next novel, The Black Stone, is published this June. Can you give us any hints about Cassius’s next mission?
Well it’s set in Arabia, certainly Cassius’s biggest challenge yet and one that will have very personal consequences for him. In terms of genre it is a bit of a change because it’s not so much a mystery as a series of obstacles he and his allies have to overcome. It is probably the most action-packed so far though and – for the first time since The Siege – we follow one of the antagonists, which I hope adds a different dimension.

Do you know how long the series will run? Is it well mapped out or does each book have a life of its own as you write it?
I have my own ideas and a pretty solid structure for the overall arc though it’s hard to say exactly how many there will be. For the individual books I also do a fairly detailed plan but I’ve learnt that it’s important to leave room for organic developments while writing – sometimes it’s good to surprise yourself!

You bring the Roman period to life but does any other period of history appeal to you for a future novel?
I think you can find compelling stories in most eras but I would definitely like a crack at World War Two at some point. I would certainly like to do something set in Britain – easier for research!

Which novelists have inspired you and what have been your favourite recent reads?
As far as inspirations go I would mention writers like Fleming, Tolkein and C.J. Sansom in terms of historical fiction. A novelist I really admire at the moment is Joe Abercrombie who has a fantastic style and uses language in a very powerful way.

Reviews and links
Agent of Rome I: The Siege
Agent of Rome II: The Imperial Banner
Agent of Rome III: The Far Shore

Buy the book!
Nick Brown’s website
Follow Nick on Twitter

An Interview with Anthony Riches – author of The Emperor’s Knives

Earlier this month, The Emperor’s Knives by Anthony Riches was published, the latest and dare I say the best yet in Tony’s fabulous action-packed Roman Empire series. You can read my review here. I was delighted to be given the chance to ask Tony some questions – not least because this isn’t the first time I have subjected him to the ordeal. In the interview below, Tony talks about keeping the series fresh, bringing Rome and its soldiers and gladiators alive and also about the his next planned Romani Walk with Ben Kane and Russ Whitfield. As Tony is one of my science fiction gurus (a lesser known role), I’m pleased to say there’s a little bit about that, too.

The Emperor's Knives by Anthony RichesCongratulations for The Emperor’s Knives, which is one of the best Roman novels I’ve read and maybe even my favourite of the Empire series! How difficult is it to keep the series fresh and the story full of surprises?

Thanks Kate. The book’s been well received by readers of the series, and it was an absolute pleasure to write, as it effectively formed the end of the first story arc within the 25 books or so that make up the whole thing. I think it’s my favourite too! As to how hard it is to keep it all fresh, it’s not that difficult (I gloss over all of those staring out of the window moments, naturally). My technique is first and foremost to follow the history of the late 2nd century, which can be amazingly kind in some places. For example **spoiler alert!** it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a golden thread of narrative from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done) **spoilers over**. The other trick is to keep introducing new characters – I tend to find that they then do the heavy lifting for me in terms of moving the story on.

In this novel, our Tungrians are in Rome. The descriptions of the ancient city are fabulous. What kind of research did you do?

I wandered round Rome a fair bit, walking the seven hills and getting the topology straight in my head (and the book was in fact completed in Rome last summer, which was so cool – and *just* tolerated by my wife). I had the help of the incomparable ‘Dans la Rome des Cesars’ which is an amazing ‘street guide’ to ancient Rome which, while some of it is very artistic licence, is an amazing source as to what was where in the ancient city. Highly recommended. A little of it I made up – for example there is no known tunnel from the Dacian gladiator school to the Flavian Arena, but there is one from the Great School, and it’s not beyond possibility that the Dacian school had one joined up with it in some way.

There are gladiators here as well as soldiers. Was it fun to branch out?

Huge fun, I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. It was a whole different way of life to that of the soldier, since gladiators were rendered ‘infamis’ by their profession, lower even than slaves and yet irresistible to certain types of lady. Amazing! I also liked speculating how alike to modern wrestling it was in terms of fixed fights – and the occasional nasty surprise for one of the participants!

Are you willing to drop any clues as to where our Tungrians may be sent next?

I already have! Somewhere distant, and warm…

I understand that you’re off on another Romani Walk this year with Ben Kane. Where are you off to this time and why are you putting yourself through it again?!

We (Ben, Russ Whitfield and an unfit old bald man called Riches) are doing Pompeii to Rome at the end of April, with a film crew. We’re walking for Combat Stress and MSF once again, and you can give here if you’d like to be part of it (and get your name in the film). And why? Stupidity, a desire to give something back, the sense of a challenge… yeah, stupidity in the main.

What are you reading at the moment and do you have a favourite novel of 2013?

Hmmm. Right now? ‘Child44’. Not loving it yet, but the book is yet young. What I really want is a copy of Joe Abercrombie’s new one! And my favourite book of 2013…? Nothing stood out for me in lights, to be honest, not in the way that Iain Banks and Richard Morgan used to (Morgan’s not dead, he just stopped writing about Takashi Kovacs!)…I suppose ‘Red Country’ by the aforementioned Joe. I’m hoping to find a writer to replace the sadly departed Iain M in my affections this year, he’s a huge loss. Resquiat in Pacem.

Reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
A report on the launch of The Leopard Sword.

You might also want to take a look at this report on last year’s Romani Walk from the Telegraph