Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't Defame The Dead

Given the continuing surge in historical fiction’s popularity, backlash was inevitable. First, it was an article in the UK Guardian, in which certain historians bemoaned the success of historical novelists, which in turn has lowered historical nonfiction’s profile and their own advances, and even led some to defect to a genre they clearly feel is beneath them. Now, in a recent article in the same Guardian, historian Anthony Beevor makes his case against what he dubs “histo-tainment”, stating: “…when the historical novel is made into a TV play or film the process of faction-creep accelerates. From selling fiction as truth in books and movies to the big lies of counter-knowledge is not such a very big step after all. The key point, surely, is that we play with facts at our peril.”

Earlier in the article, Mr Beevor argues that the trend of fictionalizing actual events in film and, to a lesser degree, books corrupts history and misleads us as a culture. We are losing a sense of our historical past and giving conspiracy theorists the upper hand, as these thrive in a fact-deprived environment. He mentions hearing a young man whisper in the row behind him at the end of The Da Vinci Code movie, “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” and not knowing whether to laugh or be appalled. Well, neither do I – but mostly because Mr. Beevor evidently paid to see the film.

In any event, the article ruffled my fur. First of all, as a historical fiction novelist I strive to remain as true to facts as possible and I know most of my respected colleagues do the same. Some of us even have a saying: "Don’t defame the dead." Yet for years, the lofty gatekeepers of academia have looked down on historical fiction novelists as second-rate hacks who can never fully achieve the illusory veracity of history. Much of their disdain reads like sour grapes; nevertheless, everyone has a right to their opinion. That said, most historical fiction writers do not set out to castrate history; while the words ‘a novel’ are emblazoned on our covers, we take our research very seriously – sometimes, to our editors’ despair, too seriously.

No one can argue that Story is the primary component of commercial fiction, the arena where historical fiction competes for readers; within this vast arena, maintaining factual veracity at all times is not so simple. For starters, history itself is contradictory. Seek out three sources on the Tudors and I guarantee you’ll find different opinions on Henry VIII. The historical novelist’s task is therefore complex: we must research everything there is to find out; distill this unwieldy mass of information into what is relevant to our particular book; and, in the case of contradictory facts, make decisions about what probably happened based on what we know about the era, the event, the character in question—all the while never forgetting the dictates of Story. Factual accuracy is essential. But within a finite amount of words, we know going in that not everything that happened to our Historical Protagonist will make it into the book. And sometimes, painful as it can be, we must modify or alter situations and characters to create a seamless narrative, because unlike the historian or biographer for the historical novelist the biggest challenge is what not to include.

The truth is, our readers and our editors require the same ingredients from us that they require from any novelist: complex, interesting characters; a well-constructed plot, and, above all else, irresistible story. At best, historical fiction draws them into the past and gives them a sense of what life might have been like. If their imagination ignites, they’ll hopefully seek out more fiction and nonfiction on the subject. At worst, historical fiction is just entertainment, on par with much commercial fiction published today. Some writers do it better than others; but it should never be mistaken for History. It is fiction, based on actual events, people and eras, so there is no excuse for sloppy research. A historical novelist worth his or her salt will not show Lucrezia Borgia plugging in the can opener. Still, when it comes to story . . . well, that can depend on who’s telling it.

I believe historical fiction writers bear the responsibility to adhere to known facts and not go hog-wild re-inventing the past to suit their whims; but I also believe that as readers, we bear equal responsibility to not believe everything we read.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

INVASION Giveaway!

I'm proud to announce my first official ARC giveaway on Historical Boys. McBooks Press has kindly offered 5 advance reading copies of INVASION, part of the popular Thomas Kydd series by Julian Stockwin.

This a great series set in the 18th century, full of adventure on the high seas. In INVASION, Napoleon’s army is massing for an invasion of England, relying on American inventor Robert Fulton's "infernal machines" - creations that Fulton claims can wreak mass destruction.

But the English employ a clever scheme to bring Fulton over to their side. The plan calls for Kydd's friend Renzi to help the inventor escape Revolutionary France and develop the devices in England. Though Kydd believes that standing man-to-man is the only honorable way to fight, he agrees to take part in the crucial testing of these new long-range weapons and finds himself embroiled in a fight that will determine the fate of nations.

The Kydd series summary: In 1793, twenty-year-old Thomas Kydd earns his living as a wig-maker in England, only dimly aware of the war breaking out across Europe. When he is seized by a Royal Navy press-gang and forced to be part of the crew of the 98-gun man-o’-war Duke William, he meets the mysterious Nicholas Renzi, a man with a past, who is destined to become Kydd’s greatest friend through many dangers and adventures. Kydd soon finds that he is a born sailor and a natural leader, and has no wish to return to his old life. And as Renzi knows only too well, times are changing: for the first time, a man like Kydd has the chance to rise all the way to the top.

To win one of these exciting ARCs, just leave a comment here on this post. Please make sure to include a way for me to contact you. I'll randomly draw five winners on August 10. Best of luck!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interview with Rory Clements, author of MARTYR

As some of you may know, I'm a big fan of historical thrillers, so I was excited when I heard about MARTYR by Rory Clements, a novel set in the later years of Elizabeth I's reign that introduces us to the intelligencer John Shakespeare, older brother of the playwright. While investigating the brutal murder of a noblewoman, Shakespeare finds himself drawn into an assasination plot against Sir Francis Drake and the hunt for a deadly Jesuit; what he discovers will shake his belief in himself and the world around him. (Picture: US cover / Bantam)
Mr Clements excels in his debut. While he can write spine-tingling action with flair, his best asset is his ability to render believable, flawed characters, as well as the complexities of a society torn apart by religious discord, poverty, and greed. I invited the author to an interview and I'm delighted to introduce him to you here on Historical Boys. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Rory Clements!

1. Congratulations on the publication of MARTYR. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in the Elizabethan era shortly before the Armada invasion, MARTYR depicts a dark and dangerous time of religious discord in England, and introduces us to the intelligencer John Shakespeare, older brother of the famous playwright. This is not the habitual look at Queen Elizabeth's reign, which is usually given a Renaissance Faire air, but rather a gritty true-to-history depiction of the intrigue and violence that both Catholics and Protestants indulged in to further their cause. Through Shakespeare's adventures, you offer a balanced look at this terrible conflict. What inspired you to write about this particular time in the Tudor period?
Difficult question - it’s a bit like asking a junkie what inspired him to take up heroin. The truth is I’m not entirely sure what drew me in, but I confess that I am now well and truly addicted to the late 16th century – it’s where I have lived a lot of my internal life these past fifteen years or so.
Hollywood barely scratches the surface of Elizabeth’s England, which is a shame because there are a lot of great stories down there. For me, the bit-part players are often more interesting than the well-known knights and nobles. Take my villain Richard Topcliffe, a licensed brute and rapist who makes Goldfinger look like a charity worker. One US reviewer in the School Library Journal asks whether he could be so consistently evil. Well, yes, I’m afraid he was – and he evidently delighted in his cruelty.

Nor was Elizabeth a saint. She ruled with ferocity and connived at the tearing apart of men’s and women’s bodies for the “crime” of being a Catholic (though it was dressed up as treason). But she was also a very cultured lady without whom there would have been no Will Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson.

In your question you say I offer a balanced look at the conflict. I was glad you said that, because I tried hard to be fair. There were atrocities on both sides and the threat to England in 1587 must have seemed as real and terrifying as the threat posed by Hitler in 1939.

2. MARTYR is a great read, fast-paced, involving, and full of twists and turns. It also offers a vivid and rare depiction of the common people of London, including prostitutes, tavern keepers, and others. You also bring give us a fascinating look at the ways in which Jesuit priests inflitrated the country, were hidden by sympathizers and hunted down by men in the Queen's pay. What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the way these common people lived and how they were affected by religious issues?
I discovered their incredible courage and their utter belief in their own versions of Christianity. As an occasional church-goer who was brought up in the Church of England, I cannot imagine being willing to die for my faith. But in the 16th century many ordinary English people were prepared to undergo the torments of fire and steel for their beliefs. One man, a tailor named Nicholas Horner, was hanged by Topcliffe simply for making a jerkin for a priest. (Picture: UK cover /John Murray)

3. A key plotline within the novel is Shakespeare’s struggle to save Sir Francis Drake from a Catholic assasination attempt. How much of this is based on actual events?
In 1582, King Philip of Spain put a price of 20,000 ducats on Drake’s head. I mention this in Martyr. My 1587 plot is fictional – but it certainly wouldn’t be a major surprise if there had been other attempts on his life which went unreported. One thing is certain – Philip was happy to resort to political assassination to further his cause, as he proved in the case of the killing of William the Silent in 1584.
4. Besides John Shakespeare, of all the other characters in the book, which ones did you most enjoy creating and which presented the greatest challenge?
I love Drake. He wasn’t big physically, but his character was huge. I just hope I have done him justice. But I didn’t create Drake, I just interpreted him. I did enjoy creating Boltfoot Cooper, Gilbert Cogg, Harry Slide and Starling Day. All the ordinary folks, the people who don’t get their names in the history books.
5. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?
This goes back a long way. I always wanted to write novels, so I went into journalism hoping it would teach me to write well. I don’t know if it did – but I think it probably taught me to spot a good story and tell it clearly and with verve. I have tried my hand at various novels along the way, but without much conviction because earning my daily bread always intruded.
Then some years ago, as I became more and more engrossed in the Elizabethan era, I conceived the basic idea for the John Shakespeare series. It took me a long time to work it all out but finally, in 2007, I had time to give it my undivided attention. I wrote off to an agent called Teresa Chris (who seemed to fit the bill as she was listed as liking crime novels and historicals). She called me back and said she liked the idea but I had to write it first – she couldn’t sell it on the basis of a synopsis. So I settled down to write and six months later I felt it was ready.
I sent the finished manuscript to Teresa. She contacted me within days saying she loved it. A few days later it had been bought in a pre-emptive strike by Kate Miciak at Bantam Dell in America. That was one of the best days of my life. Soon after that, it sold to John Murray in the UK, Karakter in Holland, Piemme in Italy, Lubbe in Germany and Agave in Hungary.
6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate in today’s world?
There are obvious echoes. You might think that Darwin would have done for religious strife, but it looms as large as ever. As for terrorism, political assassination and torture, well, what’s changed? That said, I do hope my book resonates with today’s readers. I have tried to give it a modern edge because, let’s face it, the Elizabethans saw themselves as the most modern, enlightened people there had ever been – just as we do today. This was the age of William Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake!
7. Please, tell us about your next project.
My next book, the second in the John Shakespeare series, is called Revenger and is scheduled to be published by Bantam Dell in the US next spring/summer. It’s 1592 - five years on – and Walsingham is dead. With Elizabeth about to enter her 60th year, the question of who will succeed her is more fevered than ever. Meanwhile, her courtiers Essex, Ralegh and Cecil are fighting like ferrets in a sack. And there is a dark mystery to solve – with a distinctive American flavour to it. Don’t forget, England had a foot in America long before the Pilgrim Fathers ever arrived…
Thank you, Rory. I'm really looking forward to your next book and we wish you much success. To find out more about Rory and his work, please visit: