What prompted you to chose the period you wrote your first book in?
In fact, the seed was a lecture I attended back in 2009 about an 8th century English missionary called Winfred. (He was later renamed Saint Boniface and is sometimes known as the Apostle to the Germans.) The lecturer recounted a story about Boniface chopping down the Sacred Oak of Donner, the Germanic god of thunder. Immediately this conjured images in my mind of dark Teutonic forests and the spark of conflict between the opposing worldviews of old pagan Europe and the new religion of Christianity. My curiosity was whet enough to dig a little deeper into Boniface’s life and I discovered that during that period, Islam was in the mix too. There were a series of incursions into the European heartlands that brought Muslim forces within a hundred miles of Paris, the high water mark being the Battle of Tours in AD732 when the Muslim were turned back. It felt like a significant moment in the birth of medieval Europe and I wanted to explore it. The eyes through which I’ve chosen to do that belong to a fictional exiled warrior whose life begins in the far north of Europe, in pagan Scandinavia. The first book in the series begins in that dark before the dawn, as it were.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to History. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
There’s an Old Norse and Viking scholar called Neil Price who, for me, is the go-to expert for that culture. His wonderful book, The Viking Way, was a brilliant starting point for my background research into the series and this period of 8th century Scandinavia. Aside from the material culture and archaeology, his book is a lucid and thorough exploration into the Viking “mind” or “worldview” – how they made sense of the world – in particular the strong link between the warrior ethic and their forms of religion.
By the third book in my Wanderer Chronicles series, the Wanderer’s adventures carry him down to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. There were two or three really helpful texts that brought that world to life for me. The first was Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich. It’s a masterpiece, full of intrigue, colourful characters, and salacious stories. It’s almost like history written as yesterday’s gossip, and his narrative is as compelling as any novel.
Another useful text was Byzantium: The Surprising Life of A Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. This was particularly useful for making sense of the different aspects of Byzantine culture and how these developed over time. For example, art, religion, architecture, court administration (the role of eunuchs and the like), food (very important for Byzantines), the role of slaves, etc. Another great world-building resource is Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire by Marcus Rautman, which does exactly what it says on the cover. For prosaic detail, it was a great book to plunder, although stylistically it’s a little drier than the others.
For sheer fun, though, it’s hard to beat Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword which, among other episodes, provides a fantastic re-telling of the drama of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in AD717 – the historical centre-piece of my latest novel, A Burning Sea.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period who would it be and why?
Without doubt, King Harald Wartooth. He’s pure box office. If the sagas are to be believed, Harald managed to unite under his rule a huge territory, spanning parts of modern-day Russia in the east, through Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) in the centre, over to Northumbria in the British Isles in the west. Somehow, he hung onto it for a good portion of the 8th century. In every way, he was a larger-than-life character, as well as being exceptionally long-lived: one saga has it that he lived to the age of one hundred and twenty-seven, which may stretch the limits of our credulity. Let’s just say he was very old. The stories attributed to him describe a man with overwhelming charisma. One can imagine a feast in his great hall of Lejra (on the island of Sjaelland in Denmark) would have been a riotous affair. Perhaps nothing about him was more dramatic than his death during the Battle of Bravellir, a battle which he had organised for his own benefit as a kind of glorified send-off to the delights of Valhalla. (An event described in my novel, A Sacred Storm.) Alas, I don’t believe in Valhalla, but if anyone deserved to be there, it was Harald Wartooth.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history what would it be and why?
As a Christian, I guess I should say the resurrection of Christ. But while we are on the miraculous, and a curiosity as to whether certain events in the past happened or not, I think for sheer epic spectacle, it would be hard to beat the parting of the Red Sea.
More prosaically, it would be quite something to witness the moment Napoleon’s Imperial Guard broke at the Battle of Waterloo. Although with all the smoke smothering the battlefield by then, perhaps one wouldn’t see all that much. I don’t think even Wellington was aware of the extent of his crushing victory until the thing was well and truly over.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
Within my own genre or close to it, I really admire the novels of Giles Kristian, Matthew Harffy, and Justin Hill. Giles’s writing is poetry to read, and his sagas, particularly his Arthurian ones, pack a slow-burning, but powerful punch. Matthew’s capacity for story-telling is limitless, it seems; his productivity is a wonder to behold, and each novel he produces is better than the last. (I have visions of smoke pouring out of his keyboard.) Justin’s Viking Fire is probably the most perfect encapsulation of a heroic life (Harald Hardrada’s) that I’ve ever read.
Aside from them, I’ve always loved George MacDonald Fraser for pure entertainment value. Reading the Flashman Papers as a young man was the first time I wondered what it would be like to become an author, rather than getting a “real” job. The historical events he chose for his novels gripped me far more than most others I’ve read. (Disaster makes for compelling reading, as GMF well knew.) And what better guide through those events than the wonderful “voice” which Fraser chose for his anti-hero.