Sunday, August 10, 2014

THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM. Author interview with James Aitcheson

Those of you who have been acquainted with me for a few years know that I rarely give quotes or endorsements for novels.  Even so, 'rarely' does not mean 'never.'   My pact with myself and my readers is that I will only endorse novels that I have read under my own steam and that I have thoroughly enjoyed and would love to share.
A couple of years ago, I picked up a debut novel at the library called SWORN SWORD by James Aitcheson and was immediately hooked.  Here I should say that I often try out new to me authors at the library and if I love them then I go out and buy their work. This is what happened with SWORN SWORD.  I loved the rendition of post Conquest England and seeing it through the eyes of its personable hero Tancred a Dinant, an ambitious young Breton hearth knight.  I've since gone on to buy, read and love the second novel  THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM and the third KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK.

THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM is just being published in the United States by Sourcebooks and so I asked James if he would like to be interviewed on my blog and give me and other readers some insights into these fine works of historical fiction - how they came to be written and just what it entails behind the scenes. 

Over to James:
1. James, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your novels ever since picking up SWORN SWORD when it was first published and THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM was no exception.  I have become something of a fan of your hero Tancred a Dinant.  I’d love to know how his character and his story came to you in the first place?

Tancred’s evolution was a gradual thing. I didn’t start out with a fully formed protagonist in mind, but rather the sketch of an outline of an idea that then grew and developed as I began writing what later became Sworn Sword.

Right from the beginning I decided that I wanted to tell the story of the Norman Conquest from the unconventional perspective of the invaders rather than from that of the native English. My main character should be a man of action, I thought, and what better than a knight serving in William the Conqueror’s army?

Still, though, Tancred remained something of a blank canvas, and in those early drafts of the first few chapters, he wasn’t terribly well defined. It was only when I made the switch from writing in the third person to writing in the first person that I really began to probe his character and find out what made him tick.

As soon as I began writing in Tancred’s voice, things began to click. I found it easier to get inside his head and discover not just what drove him, but also his fears, doubts and dreams. Over time this intriguing individual emerged: ambitious, principled but tortured by guilt; an experienced warrior with a keen sense of honour, who nonetheless a maverick streak that often lands him in trouble.

And he continues to develop in each new book according to the various struggles and triumphs that he undergoes. Thus the Tancred we see The Splintered Kingdom, the second book in the series, is a different man in some respects to the one we saw in Sworn Sword. He’s maturing as he acquires new responsibilities but at the same time growing more ruthless in pursuit of his goals.

2. Have you written anything before and if so was it historical?

I’ve always written stories since I was very young, and for as long as I can remember I harboured ambitions of being a professional writer, although back then I never imagined myself as a historical novelist. As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and so I used to write a lot in those genres.

It was only when I went to study History at Cambridge, where I became hooked on the Middle Ages and the Norman Conquest in particular, that I started to consider turning to historical fiction. Since then I’ve never looked back.

3. I particularly like the way you paint the characters as individuals with dilemmas that a modern reader can immediately identify with, but at the same time your people are firmly grounded in the 11th century.  Is this something you consciously thought about while writing?

One of the biggest challenges that the historical novelist faces is getting inside the heads of his or her characters. To write convincingly about the Middle Ages, you need to try to get yourself into a medieval mindset. Understanding their thought-world – that is to say, their attitudes towards religion, family and society – is vital, since all of those things will have an impact on how your characters reason, speak and behave.

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts you can take towards achieving this; I think it only comes through deep immersion into the period and extensive research into all the small details of life at the time. For me, it’s also essential that I go back to the primary sources – the original chronicles, poetry and other writings that provide us with the voices of the past – since these offer useful glimpses into the preoccupations of people living at the time.

Offa's Dyke path overlooking the Teme Valley near
Knighton, Powys, which is only a few miles to the west
of where Earnford, Tancred's fictional manor is sited.
4. You have a very firm and visual sense of time and place. It’s so evocative that whatever it is, mist or moonlight, or the wide fenland marshes, it’s there with me in the room. Did you visit any of the locations or similar landscapes?

My research takes many forms, and while I love nothing more spending time in the library engrossed in the literature surrounding the subject, I also enjoy getting out in the field. When it comes to visualising and recreating landscapes in the novels, I find that there’s no substitute for going and treading the very soil that my characters would have stood upon.

My travels have taken me all over England, and I’ve used my on-the-ground research to help construct a virtual guide to the country c.1066, which you can find on my website. It’s called Tancred’s England, and it features mini-histories of several of the principal locations featured in the series, for readers who are interested in finding out more.

Members of Regia Anglorum in 11thc Norman kit
Photo courtesy of Rosemary Watson
5. And you must have intensively researched the weapons, warfare and tactics of the time to be able to write such convincing battle scenes?  I got a real feel for being in the desperate thick of it that showed emotional investment that went well beyond the technical blow by blow.  These were always real people with too much to lose.  How do you do that element of your research?

To learn about the various elements of arms and armour and how they were used, I not only turn to books but also speak with re-enactors. But when it comes to trying to capture something of the feel of a medieval battle, that’s not something that can be easily recreated in today’s world, nor would anyone want to! However, reading and listening to interviews with modern soldiers are very useful for getting an insight into how individuals deal emotionally with fighting and killing. The historian John Keegan’s pioneering book The Face of Battle, an absorbing study of the psychology of battle, was also an eye-opener for me.

6. The politics of the time between the different factions was pretty complicated but you explain them very well in THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM – no mean feat.  I assume you had to do a lot of reading around the subject in order to distill it for the readers?  In broad brush strokes can you tell us about some of the factions in play at the time.

As you say, there were many different factions competing for power and territory at this time. In the wake of the Norman victory at Hastings, everything suddenly became very uncertain, and the invaders battled for several years to consolidate their hold on England and put down various waves of native risings.

Taking advantage of the uncertainty were the Welsh kings, who launched repeated raids across the border, and the Danes, who saw in the chaos an opportunity for plunder, and whose king, Sweyn Estrithsson, had long had designs on the English crown. Meanwhile, the last in the ancient Anglo-Saxon royal line, Eadgar Ætheling, who also believes he is the rightful king, is marching at the head of a Northumbrian army to which the king of Scots has also lent his support. So within a few years of their arrival in Britain, the Normans suddenly find themselves in a very precarious position, under attack on all sides.

In researching this particular episode of the Norman Conquest I had to open myself up to completely new avenues of research. My specialism until then had been largely in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England, and so in order to write about the Welsh March where the novel is largely set, I needed to become acquainted in fairly short order with the complicated and turbulent history of early medieval Wales. Naturally only a very small fraction of all my research made it into the book, but without it I wouldn’t have felt properly equipped to begin writing.

7. You clearly have a love for language and I enjoy the light seasoning you use in your novels including THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM.  A little allied to the above question, can you explain (in short!) about the languages that would have been spoken in Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest.

As the Normans extended their reach throughout the British Isles, they found themselves in contact not just with English, but with Welsh, Norse and Gaelic speakers too. One of the key things I wanted to show in the series was how disconcertingly alien the cultures of Britain would have seemed to the Normans when they first arrived, and how strange its languages would have sounded to a French-speaker.

That’s one of the reasons I chose to refer to places by their contemporary names – Eoferwic (York), Lundene (London) and Brycgstowe (Bristol), for example – and to use old forms of personal names in favour of modern ones – thus Eadgyth instead of Edith.

In time, many of the conquerors, especially those who had been granted land under the Norman kings, did learn to speak the native tongues, if only so that in everyday life they could converse with the folk who lived on their estates without needing an interpreter. But French remained the language of the elite and continued to dominate court life for several generations after 1066.

8. If you could go back in time and do your historical research on the ground so to speak, what would be the things you would really like to know?  I know the reply is probably all of it, but could you give a couple of examples?  I know, from my own work that I would love to go back to a 12th century tournament and see just how they grabbed each other by the bridles in the thick of the fight.  What would be on your wishlist?

That’s a difficult question to answer! I think what I’d most like to see is how the Normans went about constructing the castles and cathedrals that you see across England today, and which are among their greatest legacies. They were well practised in the art of building fortifications quickly, and indeed contemporary chronicles suggest that the first castle at Dover (1066) and the second at York (1069) were thrown up in just eight days, which if true is quite incredible, given the scale of the work involved.

UK cover for Knights of the Hawk
9. I understand KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK is coming to Sourcebooks next year, and Tancred has more adventures in store I am pleased to say.  Can you say a little about that?

Yes, the third book in the series, Knights of the Hawk, is due to be published by Sourcebooks in summer 2015. (It’s already out in the UK.) Set in autumn 1071, one year after The Splintered Kingdom, it sees Tancred waging war in the Fens, where a group of rebels, including perhaps the most famous outlaw of them all, Hereward the Wake, are making one final, desperate stand against the Normans.

There will be further adventures for Tancred – I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels might take him in future. In the long term I’d very much like to send Tancred on the First Crusade, although by that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting.

For the time being I’m working on a new project, which is also set during the Norman Conquest but which features an entirely new set of characters. It’s slightly different in style and tone, but (I hope) equally exciting. I can’t say too much about it just yet, but I will be posting updates on my website in the following months.

10. Can you suggest a good reference book for someone to read if they wanted to find out more about the period?

Anyone seeking a general introduction to 1066 and its significance would be well-advised to try Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest, an up-to-date and accessible study that combines a historian’s scholarship with a storyteller’s flair and narrative drive.

For a more in-depth view of life in England during this period and the changes wrought by the Conquest, I can highly recommend A Social History of England, 900–1200, edited by Julia Crick and Elisabeth van Houts.

11. And for fun, what was a fiction read you’ve recently enjoyed?  Any subject, doesn’t have to be historical.

Recently I’ve very much enjoyed reading Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. A light-hearted, swashbuckling novel, it features Zelikman and Amram, two Jewish bandits and swords-for-hire, who are plying their trade in the Caucasus c. 950 and find themselves drawn into a campaign to restore the rightful heir to the Khazar throne. It’s a slim volume – only a couple of hundred pages long – but crammed with twists and turns, ploys and deceptions and feats of derring-do, written in a grandiose and captivating style. 

Thank you very much for those detailed and enlightening answers James.  I shall certainly be looking up Gentlemen of the Road.  The Marc Morris book is on my TBR; I'm definitely a fan of his.
Everyone, do add James Aitcheson's terrific novels to your TBR pile if your interest has been piqued!