Angus Donald interviewed by Theodore Brun

The two novelists of the Viking Age chat about Angus' latest novel, and historical fiction.
Angus Donald
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Angus, what particularly drew you to the late 8th century, the period in which The Last Berserker is set? 

I’ve long been interested in Vikings. And the 8th century saw the start of the Viking Age. I think the idea of bold, tough people who live by raiding, who are predators on normal, humdrum society is appealing to me for some dark, messed-up reason. I had written a long series about a gangster-ish Robin Hood before this (The Outlaw Chronicles) and I like the idea of the outcasts, the men and women who live outside of society, and who don’t obey society’s laws. I don’t know why. I would make a terrible outlaw, a dreadfully soft pirate, a useless Viking. But these kinds of dashing people do have an appeal to me, a deep fascination. Maybe because they are free to do whatever they want beyond the bounds of civilisation. They are strong and independent. Risk-takers. I was very drawn to anarchism when I was a student in the 1980s. Everyone else was a Marxist but I was too posh and public school to pull that off. I even contemplated getting an Anarchy symbol tattooed on my arm for a while before chickening out. It was in the post-punk years, of course. Anarchy is a silly, nihilistic philosophy, I realise, now that I have a wife, kids and a mortgage but, back then, I found it romantic, cool, excitingly dangerous. I guess that writing these kinds of adventure novels now is a regression of sorts to my 18-year-old self. He would certainly have loved The Last Berserker.

You’ve written both fantasy and historical novels. I believe The Last Berserker began life as a historical fantasy before evolving into a squarely historical novel. What do you enjoy most about each genre, and when it comes to writing them, what do you find most challenging?

I initially began writing it as historical fiction but that genre was not doing well at the time. There had been a historical fiction boom about a decade before but the genre had fallen out of fashion. My agent suggested that I write the same story but as historically inspired fantasy. That, he said, would make it easier to sell to a publisher. I was happy to do that since I had written a fantasy novel called Gates of Stone, set in a lightly imagined 18th century Indonesia and enjoyed the process. Historical fantasy and historical fiction are not so different, I think. Historical fiction is more constrained by the facts, obviously; you have to follow what actually happened. In that way it is more challenging. But both require vast leaps of imagination. In the 8th century there is not all that much material to work with – we know Charlemagne was here or there because he issued a charter, but of his daily interactions we know little. The doings of ordinary people, and even some aristocrats, are not recorded at all. As a result, much of what you are writing either as fantasy or fiction (in the 8th century) is invented anyway. Good historical fantasy should be utterly believable, I think, and indeed when my publisher read the original manuscript, he actually thought it was historical, which is a terrific compliment. It didn’t take very long – a month or two – to turn it back into historical fiction, since most of the elements of the novel were based on real places, real people and actual historical events.

The two protagonists of The Last Berserker, Tor and Bjarki, feel wonderfully original and authentic. But in a lot of ways, they are far from typical heroes, almost subversive. Having written so many novels about Robin Hood, an archetypal hero, which do you prefer writing about and why?

I wouldn’t call them subversive. They are a young man and a young woman who desperately want to do something meaningful with their lives. They both want to become berserkers – elite warriors, the best of the best – which is the highest achievement they can imagine. According to their belief system, a good death in battle is the goal. Then they will win renown and lasting fame, plus they get to go to Valhalla and feast for all eternity with the gods and other heroes. Their eyes are fixed on the next life, not this one. In that way, they are not too dissimilar to the Christian Franks who are their enemies. If you are looking for subversive, my version of Robin Hood completely turned the heroic archetype in its head. My Robin is not a good guy. He is trying to get rich and powerful. He’s not trying to help the downtrodden poor. He is a gangster – ruthless, greedy and brutal. His only redeeming qualities are that he will protect his own followers, his familia, with his own life, and he is utterly faithful to his wife Marie-Anne.  Which did I prefer writing about? I think the two Fire Born heroes. Writing about Bjarki and Tor is a more sophisticated, more mature exploration of the nature of violence and its effects on both perpetrators and victims. Being a berserker, as readers will discover over the Fire Born series, is not a blessing but a curse.

As a full time novelist, one assumes that being forced to stay at home during lockdown hasn’t been the hindrance it might be for other kinds of professions. Even so, how has it affected you and your work – the good and the bad?

I’ve had had it easier than most during the various lockdowns of the past year. I have a decent sized house in the country and a big garden and I write in an office out there away from home-schooling kids and all other family distractions. I wrote nearly three full novels over the past year, which is better than I’ve ever done before. All literary events were cancelled. I couldn’t even go up to London to see friends for much of the time. And during lockdown many more people have been reading my books, so sales have gone up quite a bit. On the other hand, all work and no play has had an impact. I long to go to the pub again; to go out to lunch and dinner; to see friends and family. Most of all I want to travel. I’ve been writing about places in Germany and Denmark that I’ve never set eyes on. Thank God for the Internet, and Google Earth. Otherwise I’d be sunk.

What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

I used to make a point of visiting many of the places where the action takes place in my books. Particularly battlefields. There is something very special about walking the ground where your heroes fought, and seeing landscapes they would have seen. But as I get older (and write more books each year) I have been doing this less and less. I now write, usually, two novels a year, and that doesn’t leave much time for a week-long jaunt in, say Normandy. For my second novel, Holy Warrior, I followed the route of the Third Crusade, travelling down through Europe to Sicily, then to Cyprus and finally to Israel. It was great fun but it cost a fortune in travel and hotels. The book sold well but the economics of it were unsustainable. Recently (pre-Covid) I’ve been allowing myself one research trip a year. I went to Ireland two years ago and visited the battlefield of the Boyne for my novel Blood’s Campaign, about the Williamite wars. It really helped with the writing. And the museum there is fantastic!

Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

To research the life of Charlemagne for The Last Berserker I read Janet L. Nelson’s brilliant King and Emperor. He really was an extraordinary man – and rightly called the Father of Europe. To get inside the heads of my Viking heroes, I read Neil Price’s fascinating The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. I highly recommend both to anyone who wants to know more of the background to my novel. Also, I read several of David Nicolle’s Osprey books – excellent for an overview of the Saxon Wars and the Frankish and Saxon battle tactics.

What advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

Well, it’s a cliché but I would say, don’t give up your day job. It is increasingly hard to make a living solely as a historical novelist. I think I have been very lucky in my career. But if you are determined to follow this path, then I would say: do the research but don’t let it clog up the story. Plot is paramount. Write the whole book, then polish it until you think it is absolutely perfect. Then show it to your friends and listen to their criticism. Then make the book even better before you try to find an agent. Persevere with finding an agent for at least a year. Don’t send it directly to a publisher, no one will read it. If you can’t get an agent, or later he or she can’t find a publisher, self-publish the book with Amazon. Whether you traditionally publish the book or self-publish, in either case you will have to do a ton of marketing and publicity. Nowadays, the writing of the book is only half the job. The rest is selling it, relentlessly. Having said that, being a historical novelist is the most fulfilling career in the world. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.  

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?

I would like to meet Widukind, the leader of the resistance to Charlemagne’s annexation of Saxony. Not much is known about him, even his name is shrouded in mystery – Widukind means Child of the Woods, which is a kenning for Wolf. He is a rather Robin Hood-like character, actually. Fighting as a guerrilla in the thick forests, possibly using a bow and arrow. He must have been a very charismatic fellow, to have kept the Saxon peasants fighting on for thirty years, long after hope of victory had faded. I think he would be an inspirational man to meet.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

I am a huge fan of the late, great George Macdonald Fraser. I think his Victorian-era Flashman novels are the finest examples of comic historical fiction on the market. I also love Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin naval stories and re-read them regularly. Both O’Brian and Macdonald Fraser are dead, of course, but of living historical novelists, I admire Bernard Cornwall’s novels – particularly the Warlord Chronicles about Arthur. That trilogy may be my favourite of all time. I very much enjoy Giles Kristian’s truly excellent Viking sagas and Matthew Harrfy’s Dark Age Bernicia adventures as well.

Can you tell us about your next project?

I’ve already started work on The Saxon Wolf, which is the next novel in the Fire Born series. This one is about Widukind (see above) and how he rose to prominence as leader of the Saxons. I have a contract to write one more Fire Born after that but my publisher has said that he is keen for more in the series, perhaps as many as eight or nine.

 

The Last Berserkerpublished by Canelo, is the latest novel from Angus Donald, and is Volume One in the new series, Fire Born. Angus is always happy to chat to his readers on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Theodore Brun studied Dark Age archaeology at the University of Cambridge before a career in law.  In 2010 he cycled 11,000 miles from Hong Kong to Norfolk.  He is the author of the epic Viking series, The Wanderer Chronicles.  His latest novel, The Burning Sea, is set during the siege of Constantinople in 717/718AD.