Friday, May 10, 2013

Q&A with James Forrester, author of ROOTS OF BETRAYAL

I'm delighted to welcome back James Forrester, whose second novel ROOTS OF BETRAYAL was published this week. Following the harrowing adventures detailed in Sacred Treason, Forrester's first installment of this exciting series set in the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholic herald William Clarenceaux is now the custodian of a highly dangerous document. When it is stolen, Clarenceaux suspects a group of Catholic sympathizers and soon enters a nightmare of suspicion, deception and conspiracy. Conflict and fear, compounded by the religious doubts of the time, conceal a persistent mystery. Where has the document gone? Who has it and who really took it? And why? The roots of betrayal are deep and shocking: and Clarenceaux's journey towards the truth entails not just the discovery of clues and signs, but also the discovery of himself.

Please join me in welcoming James Forrester.

You are well known for your non-fiction work. What inspired you to turn to historical fiction? What can you tell us about your reasons for writing THE ROOTS OF BETRAYAL?
At the most fundamental level, it has to do with the messages we send out when writing history, and the limitations of non-fiction. I play around with non-fiction more than most people. I devise new ways of analysing historical evidence, and I find new ways of disproving myths. I also come up with new theories and forms of how to write history – from treating the past as a ‘foreign country’ that we can visit to writing an objective diary of a year, day by day. BUT – but, but, but – no historical form or theory allows you to say what you want to say about humanity as you see it through your own eyes. Non-fiction history is always primarily about someone else, someone in the past. If you want to write history that expresses something in your heart, you have to turn to fiction, plays or poetry. And plays and poetry don’t sell.

The first book in the trilogy, Sacred Treason, was partly inspired by some documents I came across in the course of doing some historical research for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts in the nineties. More important, however, was a woman who… How shall I put this? Well, to be honest, she encouraged me to think of her in romantic ways. I am a happily married man, so it created problems. However, the problems that arose for me in the modern world weren’t half as bad as those I’d have had to deal with in Elizabethan or Puritan times.

This is what got me thinking about the whole historical fiction thing. Using the past as a magnifying glass, we can expose aspects of our daily lives in different ways. Adultery in the modern world is today unworthy of a newspaper column inch (unless you’re royal) but in the 1650s you could be hanged for it. Treason today is almost laughable – but you could be tortured to death for it in the 1580s. And heresy, which today no one blinks an eye about, could result in your being burnt at the stake in the sixteenth century. The backdrop of the past can be used to say things about humanity in a bigger and more vibrant way – and historical fiction can be used to say things about your own life that are true. Put those two things together, and there you have it. There were truths that that I was keen to explore that could never have been fitted into a non-fiction history book, and they were important and dramatic enough to warrant them being set in dramatic times.

As for The Roots of Betrayal in particular,I wanted to create an atheistic character to set as a foil against my religious hero, known as Clarenceux. One night I went round the corner to my local pub and there was a good friend of mine in the bar. The way he was standing, legs slightly apart, reminded me of a pirate standing on the deck of a ship – and as I looked at him and he smiled back, the character of Raw Carew was born. Just as Clarenceux is loosely based on me, then Raw Carew is loosely based on my friend. And plenty of other people from this village are to be found behind the masks of the faces of his pirate crew.

Tell us about the time period in which your book is set. What drew you to this particular era? What are some of the challenges and/or delights about writing about this time?
The Roots of Betrayal is set in 1564. The doubts about the religious change in England – from Catholicism to Protestantism (but not as far as Puritanism) allow the historian to talk about a wide spectrum of things that really mattered to people, about the challenges of the world and how people understood their place in existence. At the same time people were just about becoming able to think that there is no god, and so atheism is something we can stir into the mix.

There were some great historical characters too. I loved writing the dialogue between Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, in which each is trying to outwit the other.
In my day job as a historian I research and write about England in many time periods, over the last thousand years. The attractions of the 16th century are that it is sufficiently familiar that people can visualize the period easily (portraits, TV shows), and they can pretty well understand the English of the time when you want to quote it (it’s much harder for the medieval period - Latin and French). There are many more things that can be safely taken for granted about life in the sixteenth century (for example, widespread ability to read (25% men in 1600, 10% women), or to communicate with someone by letter). These things are very difficult to keep out of a medieval novel because you have to explain to the reader, who automatically assumes that literate people could and would write a letter, that they normally would not even think of doing it (because they could read but not write, or they did not have vellum or ink, or did not have the means to send the letter, etc). It’s also a period in which I did a PhD, so I’m very happy writing about anything to do with medicine, nursing and ill-health for the period.

What process did you use to transport yourself and your readers to another era? How do you go about your research and incorporating it into fiction?
I don’t do any research. With four history degrees, years working in archives, and a lifetime engaged in historical enquiry, it’s more important for me to LOSE facts rather than gain them. I need to get rid of the bits of the past that are unnecessary to my storytelling. This is the main thing: the books are not about the past; they are about us now. They are set in the past but they are about me and the people I know, and the things I feel, and the ambitions and desires I have (for myself and for others). If I wanted to write about the 1560s, I would write a history book (and I have – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England). My novels, in contrast, are rather are about me expressing myself, not about the past, or recreating the past. You know yourself: the passions we write about are our passions and (in the broadest sense), what turns us on. We don’t try to recreate the enormous fun and amusement had by the masses of people who flocked to see people hanged or to bet on the cockfights, or rushed to see the dogs and bulls killed at a bull baiting. What matters in historical fiction is what matters to us in the here and now. When I am writing fiction, I don’t want to be a slave to a period in which cruelty, hierarchy, misogyny and racism were all seen as justified in the eyes of man and god. I have to deal with that quite enough in my non-fiction!

Does your historical fiction convey a message or theme relevant to our world today? If so, what do you think it is? If not, how do you think readers can find common ground with the characters in your story?
Oh, this is a good question, especially now that I’ve expressed where I’m coming from in my fiction. Yes, there are moral, sexual and relig

ious dilemmas through the book – throughout all three books. I suppose the big story in my historical fiction is this: there is only one true virtue and that is loyalty - but everything in life conspires to make people stray from the path of loyalty. In this book, enmity does, love does, desire does, fear does, sadness and loss do, the state does, vengeance does, protective instincts towards a child do, a refusal to accept responsibility does. Loyalty to one person/thing forces you to be disloyal to another. And yet any disloyalty is to alienate yourself from part of your earlier world. In my opinion, making these difficult decisions is what makes us human. That is what my fiction is about.
I could set my stories in any period and say much the same things. But because of the public reactions to disloyalty in an age which saw loyalties tested to the extreme, the second half of the 16th century is the best.

Can you tell us about your next project?
The Clarenceux Trilogy is finished. The third and final volume, entitled The Final Sacrament, came out in the UK last year and will be published by Sourcebooks in the USA in Fall 2013. My current project is a 3-part TV series based on my second Time Traveller's Guide (Elizabethan England), which will be aired in the UK in April, and then I hope will be shown elsewhere in the world. My next non-fiction book is entitled ‘Centuries of Change. Basically it asks which century of the last ten saw the most change, in the Western World. My next novel is going to be completely off-the-wall, utterly different from anything I’ve ever written  - or ever read , for that matter. It covers one man's life - but over 600 years. More than that I can’t say at the moment. It’s a secret. But I’ll tell you over a pint when next you visit England!

Thank you, James! We wish you the best success with The Roots of Betrayal. To find out more about James Forrester and his work, please visit his website.

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