Today I’m talking with James Wilde about his historical fiction.
Martin: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
I’ve known pretty much since primary school. Books were very important in my family and the value of stories, in any medium, was always highly regarded. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing tales. By the time I reached secondary school I’d decided it was the only possible course for me – I had no interest in any other path. I completed my first novel shortly after leaving university. Rubbish, of course, and never shown to anyone. But it proved to me that I could finish a work of that length. After that, there was no holding back.
In the note at the end of ‘Hereward’ you eloquently describe the opportunities available to writers of historical fiction. Did you consider other genres or did you always know you wanted to write historical ficition?
I don’t think any writers really think in terms of genres. That’s more for the marketing people. At heart, we all just want to tell stories. Sometimes you might feel passionately about an historical tale. Other times you might want to do a contemporary psychological thriller. Or a wild west surfing story. Whatever.
Most writers’ secret dream is that they can write whatever they want whenever they want to do it. Having said that, history is a fantastic place to write because it can encompass all other genres. Historical thrillers, crime and detectives, romance. Even historical SF, if you really wanted to mix things up. I think that is a real strength.
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
As a child, Alan Garner changed the way I thought about books. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath were phenomenal works of imagination and showed me how the deep past still affected the present. Later I consumed just about everything by the sadly-missed Ray Bradbury, as well as Lord of the Rings. John Steinbeck, Thomas M Harris and Umberto Eco, particularly Foucault’s Pendulum, have all been big influences.
The character of Hereward is a real ‘life-force’. What made you decide to develop such a vigorous and powerful figure?
I weighed several approaches, but most of the basis for my Hereward is there in what little we know about the historical figure. In his younger days, he was wild, robbing, violent, tearing apart the local community, to such a degree that someone thought it was important to record it. His father couldn’t control him and in the end beseeched the king to make Hereward exile. That is a massive step and it sets up a great many questions. Who was this teenage thug, and why was he the way he was?
I like flawed protagonists, the more flawed the better, and I felt there was a lot there with which I could work. On a structural note, the time when the novel is set, around the Norman Conquest, was one of cold intellects and political machinations in pursuit of power. It was good to have an emotion-fuelled character who could cut through all the weasel words and point up what was really important.
Do you have a favourite character in any of your books? If so, what is it about this character that is so appealing?
I like Redwald, Hereward’s adopted brother, because his psychology is so skewed, but I became particularly interested in Harold Godwinson as I wrote him. Here was a man groomed from his earliest days for power, driven very much by the commanding, if not domineering, presence of his own father.
Harold as a symbol, the last defender of England, has had a lot of traction over the centuries. But if you look at him as a human being, things are not so clear-cut. In the events that whirled around Harold, there are lots of suggestions of the lengths to which he went to achieve power. And then, when he had it, it was snatched away from him, partly because of his own failings. At heart, a tragic figure.
If your most unpleasant character were to give you advice what would it be and would you take it?
Redwald, I suppose, is unpleasant in the things he’s prepared to do to achieve his own ends, but most of the characters who encounter him find him very pleasant indeed. I think the advice he would give me would be, forget sentiment, focus purely upon your objective. But we are all driven by our psychology, and I am a sentimental man. I couldn’t sacrifice the people I care about to achieve any worldly objective. Which is probably a good thing, as the ability to do that probably defines psychopathy.
How do you research your novels? Do you do it before you start to write or is it more of an ongoing process?
I do a vast amount of broad research before I begin writing a novel – events, places, people, but you can never know exactly how much research you need until you begin writing so it’s usually an ongoing process. In the middle of a paragraph, you realise you absolutely need to know about this item of clothing or work of art or this particular foodstuff. It’s a good job I love it or it would get very exhausting.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I’m a disciplined writer. I don’t believe in this airy-fairy, waiting for the muse to arrive. That’s usually an excuse made by people who don’t know how to work for a living. I try to achieve a set word count every day, probably around 2000 words. I remain flexible on the times. I like to begin around 8-ish, but sometimes I feel I’m more productive at night so I tend to go with the flow.
I don’t have set spaces – quite the opposite. Sometimes I’ll write in my study, sometimes in a pub or café, sometimes outside somewhere. I find breaking up the routine minimises boredom and allows for greater concentration which is the key to productivity.
Rituals – I write on a MacBook Pro and always listen to music on earphones when I’m working because it keeps the world at bay.
What is your next writing project?
Hereward The Devil’s Army is out on July 19 from Bantam and there will be another Hereward book next summer which completes the tale of the English rebellion against King William’s rule.
You can find out more about James Wilde and his books by clicking on the following links.
Website/blog with news, extracts etc: http://www.manofmercia.co.uk/
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/manofmercia