What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
I have always been fascinated by King Arthur and the dark ages, since a trip to Glastonbury Abbey at the age of 11. That and the navy in the 20th century took me through my childhood. That would perhaps explain why I have been writing about Caractacus (in Nor Shall My Sword Sleep) and Alan Turing (in The Xanthe Schneider Enigma Files) – did they have anything in common (a rhetorical question!). Actually, I know there are other reasons too. Caractacus stems as much as anything from my interest in the mythology of the UK, and the tradition that Joseph of Arimathea came here in 38 AD. I like that idea, whether or not it is true, because it raises the possibility that Caractacus was a Christian leader fighting pagan Romans, and that would be one in the eye for the solemn classicists – which I would enjoy!
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
I find the process of writing fiction is different from writing non-fiction, at least for me. With non-fiction, I research and write each chapter one by one and feel my way into the story like that. With fiction, I have to immerse myself in it, which means doing the background research, letting it kind of marinade (so to speak), and then going away and doing nothing but write. That is quite hard, since I have a family, and perhaps that is why I have only really turned to historical fiction as my two boys have got a bit older.
Are there any historians who helped shape your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
Well, l love Steven Runciman’s three-volume History of the Crusades. And speaking of three volumes, James (Jan) Morris’s Pax Britannica series is an absolutely wonderful and very personal exploration of the British empire. I remember thinking when I first read Runciman that the events he describes are so strange – with kings murdered by the mysterious Assassins or falling backwards out of upstairs windows, dragging their dwarf servants to their death – was almost as strange as what you find in Lord of the Rings. I would not really describe Pax Britannica as in any way Tolkein-esque, but then it wasn’t intended to be. Finally, for the breadth of his knowledge, I would always recommend anything by David Kynaston, whose style I certainly aspire to emulate.
Three history books to recommend: I’d say Barbara Tuchman “The March of Folly”, a wonderful, quirky work of meta-narrative. Neal Ascherson “Black Sea” – a brilliant melding of history with travelogue, and Richard Grunberger “A Social History of the Third Reich”, which shows that serious subjects don’t need to be presented in a boring way, and that nuance need not be sacrificed for readability.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
When Richard Foreman used to organise public debates in bookshops and libraries about who was the greatest English monarch, I would always represent Richard the Lionheart (who I wrote about in Blondel’s Song). I never even came close to winning, but I did believe it. Richard I was and is one of my heroes – not so much for his military skills, which were considerable, but for his presence of mind, his two nervous breakdowns and his unfailing optimism. I would have loved to meet him, and the same goes for King Arthur. We have one great advantage going back in time, compared with anyone going the other way – even a few generations: we will understand what they are talking about (if we share a language).
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
My poor children have been stuck inside our narrow history curriculum – and now my eldest doing history A level covering – you guessed it – the Tudors and the rise of Hitler again. Both are, I know, fascinating periods, and I know that the Blitz of 1940 forms the myth of the modern British state. What would I add in? Local history for definite: give children the tools to appreciate what they see…
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
I would definitely tell myself to get on with it, to follow my heart – aware that few of us are born magically with the required skills, and if you want to achieve something in life, it is really just a question of working on it. Looking back, I wanted to write books but felt I couldn’t. I’m still not sure I can, but I do anyway!
Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?
I am writing a novelised autobiography of Caractacus – part one was called Nor Shall My Sword Sleep – because I misread a note in Graham Robb’s book (The Ancient Paths) about how he had written one himself which has been lost. When I understood that was not what had been said, I thought maybe I should write one anyway. I also like the ideas in George Jowett’s peculiar book The Drama of the Lost Disciples which got me thinking about Caractacus for the first time. Jowett died in 1969 after a career as a boxer, publisher and planner in Canada. He argued that, according to the Vatican archives, it wasn’t just Joseph of Arimathea who came to Britain in 38AD, as legend suggests – it was the Virgin Mary and many of the surviving disciples of Jesus who took refuge in Glastonbury that year, joined later by St Peter and St Paul. Jowett’s plea was that, given that the medieval church recognised this claim by giving British bishops precedence at the great councils of the Church – we ought to take this at least as seriously as the flawed and compromised memories of Roman writers with axes to grind. In this case, perhaps fiction writing is a kind of research – just to see if a set of ideas hang together after all. But whether Jowett was right or wrong, Caractacus managed to hold the Romans in check for more than a decade. We ought to perhaps remember him a little more often, and as one of ours – not as some kind of enemy