Talking with Angus Donald

Today, I’m delighted to be talking with Angus Donald.

Welcome Angus, and thanks for talking with me.

Martin: Before we focus on your own writing would you tell us about the authors and books that have had the greatest influence upon you?

A: I’ve been a fan of historical fiction since I was a child reading Rosemary Sutcliff and Cynthia Harnett – I was particularly impressed by a book by Harnett called Ring Out Bow Bells, an adventure story set in medieval London. I think that is the genesis of my interest in the medieval world – and I’m still fascinated by it forty years later.

As I got older I began to read more sophisticated stuff: Patrick O’Brien and Mary Renault, but the single most influential writer for me is Bernard Cornwell. I discovered his Sharpe books at university and devoured them – when I was supposed to be reading dry academic tomes for my degree in Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University. Perhaps if I had been a better student (I got a 2:2), I would now be an anthropologist studying tribes in the remote places of the world, rather than a historical novelist. But life has a way, I believe, of steering you in the right direction, and I’m perfectly happy with the way things have turned out.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?  Was there a specific event that made you decide?

A: I’ve always been a storyteller – I used to tell my parents and my brothers elaborate stories as a six-year-old child on long car journeys. They were a bit repetitive and I probably bored them stiff, but there was no shutting me up. I can’t remember the stories in detail but they were about wolves and witches, evil men and heroes – come to think of it, those long-ago car stories were the blueprint for my first novel Outlaw.

But I actually decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was in Indonesia doing six-months field work (anthropological research) for my degree from Edinburgh in the late 1980s. I was quite lonely as nobody in the little Balinese village I was living in spoke English, and there was no electricity in my room, no bars or restaurants or other meeting places for miles, and so I began to write a novel by candle-light, alone in my small living space above a hen coop. The novel was terrible, and I eventually lost the manuscript anyway in Hong Kong years later, but I enjoyed the process of writing so much – entering a world that you have created and meeting loads of interesting people there – that I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and preferably a novelist. After twenty years in journalism, much of the time in Asia, I was finally able to make my dream a reality.

What made you decide upon Robin Hood as your protagonist?

A: When I was thinking of writing a series of medieval books I was looking around for a hero who was instantly recognisable. I thought about making Richard the Lionheart the hero, and I considered King Arthur, but Robin Hood kept popping up in everything I read about the period, and he has always had a certain rakish glamour for me . . . so in a way you might say that Robin forced himself on me.

In truth, Robin Hood isn’t the protagonist of the books, Alan Dale is. And I’m not sure I even like my Robin character as much as Alan does. Robin always does these terrible things to people, murdering them mutilating them, robbing them, offering them a gangster-like “protection” – he’s not really a very nice guy. Although he does, of course, have a good side: he is loyal to his friends, loving to his wife, and very generous to those who are in his circle, his familia. But I would not advise anyone to cross him!

Which representations of Robin Hood have you most admired?  Are there any that you just don’t like?

A: My favourite Robin Hood is Errol Flynn – although my Robin is not very much like that Hollywood film version. I thought Kevin Costner was pretty good, too, in that he was fallible – you were never sure he was going to win.

I didn’t much care for Russell Crowe’s take on the legend. While I loved Russ in Gladiator – and I was very excited when I heard there was a new Robin Hood film coming out – I thought his portrayal of the outlaw was pretty average. I think the problem of the film was that it was rather confused; too complicated a story, the characters too thin. I heard that it was constantly being rewritten, with radical changes of story and cast, right up until shooting began and beyond. Shame.

Still, I don’t think we have seen the last of Robin on the big screen – somebody, at some time will have another go at it. Perhaps they will use my books as a source. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

You have chosen Alan Dale to narrate the story.  Has he developed in ways that surprise you?

A: Yes, I had originally seen him as a naïve, good-natured, sensitive fellow who stands as a counterpoint to Robin’s cynicism, hardness and cruelty. But as the books have gone forward, Alan is becoming more cynical as he grows up and Robin less brutal. Their characters seem to be meeting in the middle. So yes, Alan had developed in surprising ways.

He is also becoming less musical the more people he kills. As if all the violence is draining away his natural talent. He is a “trouvere”, what the northern French and English called a troubadour, and he is part of the cultural revolution – the 12th century renaissance, as it is called – that was occurring at the time, a great flowering of music, art and poetry and the genesis of the chivalric culture and codes.

How do you research your novels?  Do you do it before you start to write or do you research on an ongoing process?

A: Both. I start with a vague idea – for example, in King’s Man (book 3, out in paperback on July 5th) the story is loosely about Blondel, with Alan the trouvere rescuing Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment in Germany. I read a lot about Richard’s time in prison, and his ransoming by the English under the direction of his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then I visited the part of Germany that was relevant to the story, near Frankfurt. Then I started writing.

But I do research online along the way. I suddenly realised 40,000 words into the story that Alan (Blondel) would not travel to Germany on horseback as I had originally supposed. Everybody travelled by water on long journeys, if they possibly could, as it was so much easier and safer. So I had to research boat travel on the Rhine a third of the way through the book: what kinds of boats did they go on? How were they propelled? What did they transport as cargo.

As I say, it’s a bit of both – there are always details that you need to find out while you are actually writing the story. What day was Easter in that year? What did people do when they had a cold? What colour robes would the monks in this particular monastery wear? That sort of thing. I do that in libraries and online while I’m in the middle of the book.

What has been the most exciting thing for you about writing your novels?

A: I love the fact that I am able to write from home for a living. I don’t make as much money as I would if I had a real job but I get to spend more time with my wife and two small children. And I love being my own boss. If I decide that I need to go to France for a few days to research on something – I just go. (After checking with my wife, of course – few men are truly their own bosses.)

If your most unpleasant character were to give you advice what would it be and would you take it?

A: The most unpleasant character in the books (so far!) is called Sir Richard Malbete and he appears in book 2 – Holy Warrior – which is about the Third Crusade. He’s a foul, sadistic creature – at one point he boils a Jewish child alive for his own amusement. I wouldn’t take any advice from him. If I met him in the flesh, I hope I would have the courage to kill him on the spot.

The most unpleasant character in terms of physical appearance in the books is Nur, a one-time lover of Alan’s who is cruelly mutilated by Malbete. She has a rough time of it in books 2, 3 and 4, and I feel really sorry for her. But her fortunes change in Book 5, which I’m writing at the moment. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

What would be a typical writing day for you?  Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?

A: I write best in the morning. So my routine is geared to that. I get up around 7-ish, grab a cup of tea, and go up to my study, which is at the top of our very decrepit medieval house. I work in my dressing gown until mid-morning then shower, have breakfast and get dressed.

I try to go for an hour’s walk in the Kent countryside before lunch at 1pm with my wife and baby son, Robin. (The other child Emma is usually at school then.) In the afternoons I read, and sometimes take a nap, and I write/edit again from about four till six pm, when I come down and rejoin the family and have tea, or a drink and begin cooking supper for my wife Mary.

That is the basic structure of my day – but the pleasure of being self-employed is that I can change it as and when I like.

What is your next writing project?

A: I’m writing the fifth book of the Outlaw Chronicles at the moment, and that will be published in hardback in July 2013. But after that I hope to write more Robin Hood stories. I have another six or seven sketched out in my mind, but it all depends really on how well they sell. That’s the cruel truth of publishing.If your books don’t sell, you can’t do your job and you need to find something else to do.

I’m feeling fairly optimistic though that there will be more of these stories to come one way or another. The best thing readers can do, if they want me to write more Robin Hood books, is to buy them and to tell all their friends about them.

Thanks very much for talking with me today, Angus.

For more information about Angus Donald’s book go to his website

King’s Man (Outlaw Chronicles 3) is published in paperback on July 5th 2012

Warlord (Outlaw Chronicles 4) is published in hardback on July 19th 2012


Next week I’ll be talking with Gordon Doherty, author of Legionary and Strategos: Born in the Borderlands.


About Martin Lake

Martin Lake lives in the French Riviera with his wife. After studying at the University of East Anglia he worked as a teacher, trainer and company director. A serious accident shattered his arm and meant that he had to rein back his work. He decided to concentrate on writing and is now writing full-time. He writes a wide range of fiction. His main interests are historical fiction, short stories and fiction for young adults. Martin has a series of novels 'The Lost King' which are set in the years following the Norman Invasion of England. They concern Edgar Atheling, last representative of the ancient English royal dynasty and his fight to regain the throne from William the Conqueror. Martin has also published 'Artful' the further adventures of the Dodger and 'Outcasts' a novel about fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. His latest novel, 'A Love Most Dangerous' is about a maid of honour who becomes the lover of Henry VIII. Martin’s work has been broadcast on radio. He won first prize in the Kenneth Grahame Society competition to write a story based on 'The Wind in the Willows.' You can get the collection, 'The Wind in the Willows Short Stories' from Amazon.
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