In the beginning – a historical novelist’s early influence

To begin at the beginning: why did I first become a writer of historical fiction? It seems obvious that it begins with what I read. Loved to read.

The great film editor, Walter Murch – ‘Apocalypse Now’ for one – talked about early influence. He felt that if you could make a living out of what excited you at the age of nine, you would be a happy person. He was into cutting and splicing audio tape together.

I was into in historical fiction.

I don’t know exactly why I gravitated to the genre. I know that from an early age I loved ‘the sword’. I lived in California till I was seven and there was a TV series, ‘Zorro’. There’s a photo of me aged three in mask and bandana, rapier raised. Then, from seven on I was in London. I was raised by warriors – my father was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, my mother a Norwegian spy. There were stories. And at my traditional English prep school, history was still taught traditionally – tales of a hardy people who, from a tiny island, had run the largest Empire the world had known. My Norse side gave me a passion for the Vikings. Then, like many Brits, I always loved an underdog. Especially a gallant defeat to Johnny Foreigner. The idea of sacrifice always moved me to tears. Still does.

The first time I remember crying over a book I was ten. It was Henry Treece’s ‘Hounds of the King’, a tale of a boy who wished to be one of Harold Godwinson’s huscarles, who arrives too late at the battle of Senlac and runs to his dying king as the death chant rings out:

“Here lies our leader in the dust of his greatness

Who leaves him now be damned forever.”

It floored me. And maybe, just maybe the wish came then: to one day try to find the way to convey such a passion to others.

The biggest influence though was – is – Rosemary Sutcliff. The great stories. The perfectly captured worlds, from Celt to Roman to Viking. I read her still, sometimes, when I wish to be reminded why I sought to write what I do. A few years back, while working in a 250 year old Shropshire cottage on ‘Jack Absolute’, I found her novel, ‘Warrior Scarlet’, the tale of a Bronze Age boy in Britain, with a withered arm so he could never don the scarlet cloak of the warrior – Sutcliff conjured her worlds from a wheelchair, so knew of what she wrote. I think I cried six times in the last 50 pages. And I am not really a cryer.

So there they are, some of my early influences. The start of the journey that led me to what I write, how I earn my living.

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Once more unto the pantaloons – Wisdom with the Elders

I had a wonderful time up in Comox on Vancouver Island last week. I was invited to don my pantaloons again and speak to the Elder College there.

Author in ruff holding forth!

Author in ruff holding forth!

They are running a lecture series for seniors: ‘Great Cities of the World’ at certain periods in history. I, obviously enough, talked about Shakespeare’s London 1601.

Sheer indulgence on my part! I get to take a stage for an hour and a half and blather about the Bard. Of course I issued the disclaimer at the start: not an academic but an amateur enthusiast. However what I was able to give them, I believe, is the same that people get when they choose to pick up a novel rather than a history text. A more psychological look at a time. Seeing it through character, through the minds of those who lived there, then. I also wanted to do a tour of the senses – what would it have been like to walk London’s streets on one particular day in 1601.

So the first half was more fact based – tried to do a quick catch up of history, especially the late part of Elizabeth’s reign. What Shakespeare would have called ‘the form and pressure of the age’. I wanted to give people a glimpse into the mindset of the theatre goers of the time – a time very different from ours, a police state, where spies lurked on street corners and satire had actually been banned. A time when people went to the Globe not just to be entertained but also to have their concerns addressed. It would not have been a soap opera on the platform, nothing so direct. But within a play such as – ooh, I don’t know, Hamlet? -  what is going on outside can be explored within the Wooden O. A surveillance state. Regicide and usurpation. And a man questioning his personal place set against those big events.

I explored all this terrain in my novel, Shakespeare’s Rebel, of course.

SHAKESPEARE'S REBEL 3bHere I did it live and, in the second half, took the audience as if they were out of town visitors hitting the city for a big event: the newest play from the quill of Master Shakespeare. Took them across the bridge from the city, under the gatehouse where the skull of that arrant rebel, the recently executed Earl Of Essex, has been picked clean by crows. To the Globe where, amidst the crunching of nuts, the popping of beer bottles, and the slurping of oysters a man walks out and says: ‘To be or not to be. That is the question,’ for the very first time.

Did I mention indulgence? It is where and when I would thumb a ride with Dr Who if he was passing. But since I can’t I can revisit the Globe in my own way. On a stage in Comox. Trying to speak the speech, not only trippingly on the tongue (as Will instructs the players) but also as if it is not a well known aria but someone working out something in front of us for the very first time.

So thanks, Elder College Comox for indulging me. I’ll don me pantaloons for you anytime!

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Words = Energy Squared: Hearing my play

It was such a buzz! A cast of fine actors gathered around a table yesterday, reading aloud the stage adaptation of my novel, ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel‘. Bard on the Beach, Vancouver’s Summer Shakespeare festival (and one of the most successful such festivals in North America) is considering it for their 2015 season. After the reading, which delighted actors, listeners and nervous playwright alike, I think it’s in with a good shot.

Cover finalWriters are often advised against adapting their own work. And it is hard to take a story told one way and re-imagine it for a very different medium. Of course, I began as a playwright and have spent my life in the theatre as an actor so I had a bit of a head start. But I was truly lucky to have a great mentor – Martin Kinch, one of the top play development people in Canada. He pushed me gently in all the right directions.

In 1991 I came to Vancouver not knowing a soul, planning on hanging out in a beautiful city for a summer and then going back to England. After a series of extraordinary encounters and much happenstance within six weeks I was playing Oberon in ‘A Midsummer Nights’ Dream’ at Bard on the Beach. I doubled the role with Theseus, King of Athens. Usually fairly thankless, he does have the one great speech, ‘The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet.’ I always think it is Shakespeare telling us what he truly believes is his craft, what it is he does.

“And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.”

But for that poet, the shapes he’s downloaded from the ether are turned back into the spirit they came from… by actors speaking them. It’s an energy loop: words set down as shapes, given a name, spoken aloud, released back out for an audience to absorb. When it works, there’s nothing like that moment when that connection is established in a theatre.

Here’s hoping that I get the chance to hear my ‘airy nothings’ released again soon.

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May I read to ye afore ye sleep? ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’: the Audio Book

Over the years there have been a few occasions when I’ve have been asked to come to a person’s house, enter their bedroom… and read them to sleep. Sometimes I felt that reading was not what they had in mind. However, I could be wrong. And now all those lovely people have the chance – to hear my voice ‘ere bed, at least. For the audio book of ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’ is now out.

Audio CoverThis was such fun to do! When Oakhill Publishing asked for the rights to publish the audio book of ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’ I asked if they’d let me read it. I’d done my first three novels for Isis and always loved the experience. So they said ‘yes, but you’ll have to come to London.’

Oh dear! Well, needs must I suppose. I suffered for my art, consoled myself with my favourite drink – English Extra Special Bitter. Truly, its never a hardship to spend time in the city I grew up in.

I discovered something very interesting when I began to record the audio book of my first novel, ‘The French Executioner’: I write to be read aloud. Preferably by me. I suppose its not a huge surprise being an actor, but my writing is… performable.

So for 3 days I went to a small terrace house in Chiswick, West London, where the wonderful Douglas Keen has his studio. Douglas is a former rock musician who always dabbled on the technical side. When the rock and roll life got a little too much, he moved into audio book recording. He was terrific, letting me run if I kept going, putting me straight back on track in seconds if I stumbled. Its intense work, sitting in a claustrophia inducing booth for 8 hours, talking continuously but he made it easy and fun.

So I may not be able to join you in your boudoir and read to you tonight. But if you just click on this link, and pay a modest fee, my voice will be with you very soon.

http://www.oakhillpublishing.com/bookinfo.asp?id=1204

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When a Rebel’s reviewed: God Praise the Bloggers!

Look, I don’t want anyone playing violins. I am that rare beast who gets to make a living out of his passion for storytelling, so truly who am I to complain?

But I am human so I do. One thing that always gets me is that I strive hard to craft a novel, go through all the process of publishing, the book appears  – and then vanishes. Its very hard for anyone to get reviewed these days in the national press. Shrinking book pages, loads of books by people far better known than I. ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’ got one review in a UK national – The Daily Express. It got none in Canada.

Does it make a difference? I am not sure if reviews do drive sales. But, in a way, that’s not what I desire. I’ve put a book out there. Aside from my family, who have to be polite, and some friends, who don’t necessarily, I do not get much feedback. I receive neither kudos or brickbats. There is, mainly, silence.

Step forward then, to cheers, the bloggers and the reviewers of the various forums – including Amazon and, I think especially, Goodreads. People who are passionate enough about books to spend time writing about them. Sharing. Entering the debate.

I am not someone who spends a lot of time seeking them out. I’m so busy writing the next book. But sometimes someone points one out. Like this elegantly written appraisal by David Graham of:

Cover finalWhen I am pointed in the direction of such reviews I will pause and look at others. I will read those who don’t like it too, and wince like any creator does. But I enjoy the fact that people are engaged enough to write, for good or ill.

So thanks, David! And I’d love to hear from the rest of you!

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/811425146

 

 

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Eating Crowe (Russell) – a Gladiator speaks!

I tell you, I’d have eaten Russell Crowe. I mean, look at me.

Gladiatorcolour copyThe 1000 yard stare. The  pecs. The casual grip on my weapon. I was a highly trained Retiarius ( a net and trident man)

Meet Metellus, Gladiator (aka Caleb the Zealot). The latest shot from my vault and the second from the NBC/BBC mini series from the 1980′s: ‘AD – Anno Domini’.

I loved that trident. Loved everything about the gig, actually. Ten months in Tunisia filming it. Getting to fight with a variety of weaponry. For a swordsman, historical nut and all round fantasist time traveller, it didn’t get much better. We actually shot in a genuine colisseum, one of the best preserved in the world, at El Djem ( A little weird, to be honest, making pretend were so many people had died doing it for real).

You can see how well I was looked after. The historical details of weapons and costumes were superb. And I got myself into the best shape of my life to do it -  I mean, if you are going to spend most of a 12 hour show dressed in a loin cloth and the odd leather strap you’ve got to do something! And the stunt team was tremendous. All Italian, once they saw I could do it they accepted me into the brotherhood. We trained very hard for the various fights we did,  weeks of it. I think I had nine active wounds on my body at one point. But the results were terrific – though we terrified the life out of the 1st Assistant on the first minute-and-a-half mastershot of the assassination of Caligula. ‘We don’t shoot fights like this,’ he yelled after it. ‘What if you got a sword across your bugle?’ We’d be…f#$%^ed’.

I didn’t and we weren’t. It probably came close though. But I loved it all. 27, in my fighting prime, living the fantasy. It may not have been the most successful show on TV but I can claim my small place in the pantheon of epic Gladiatoral combat.

And Russell Crowe? I’d have eaten him. Because, you see, he wouldn’t have known the secret of the Retiarius: the weapon is not the trident. The weapon is the net. He’d never have seen it coming.

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New Years Honours – ‘Rebel’ tops a list!

Well, it may not have been reviewed much nor made much of a splash but I know SHAKESPEARE’S REBEL  gave some people pleasure. And it did top today’s ‘Best Of’ list – from the excellent Parmenion Books UK.

http://parmenionbooks.wordpress.com/2013/12/31/parmenion-books-2013-in-review/

Hope all my readers have a wonderful year of books. My new one ‘PLAGUE’ will be out in the UK and Canada in July 2014.

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