Today I am delighted to be talking with Justin Hill. Justin has written travel books and novels dealing with subjects from China to Africa as well as historical fiction. His novel ‘Shieldwall’ was a Sunday Times Book of the Year.
I always seem to come up with a different list whenever I ask this question: but I suppose the place to start would be JRR Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings because I was in the rudimentary reading class when I was nine, and wasn’t very interested in books. Then I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and was smitten. I couldn’t believe that an author could make up, not only a story, but a whole world. And I put my paperback copy of The Return of the King down, and thought, I want to do that.
After Tolkien I read the sagas, had a role-playing character called Skarp-Hedin, and a lot of Tolkien lookalike fiction, stuff like Terry Brooks, but the author who really grabbed me was David Gemmell. My brother and friends used to visit the Fantasy section of WH Smiths on a Saturday morning, and look for the next Gemmell book. He seemed the most exciting writer around at the time.
A list of notables probably start with Thomas Hardy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bruce Chatwin, Mary Renault, Julian May and Raymond Carver. That’s a fairly literary list, and I always aspired to the same level of literary quality with the page-turning of more mass market authors. That list should probably include the Tang Dynasty poets, whose grasp of language and detail and symbolism is always a source of inspiration. I’d throw Robert E Howard in there as well, just to mix it up a bit. I’m a big fan of his Conan stories.
Most recently authors I really admire I’d pick two: Dan Abnett, who melds crime and sci fi and George RR Martin, who I’ve come to since the TV series came out, but who has really impressed me with his way of telling stories.
What made you decide to be a writer?
Blame Tolkien, and then all the other writers whose stories and worlds I’ve loved. I think of it this way: the only time I miss a stop on the metro here is when I’m engrossed in a great book and I lose sense of everything around me. That level of absorption only happens when I’m reading.
In a way I’m that absorbed when I’m writing too. There is a sense that writers are often writing the kind of books they want to read – but which haven’t been written yet.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
I think selling my first novel: The Drink and Dream Teahouse. I’d already had one travelogue published, but found fiction writing much more satisfying and exciting. The book was half finished, I was skint, and the book went to auction and sold for a record breaking amount.
I felt I’d made it then. It was the crest of a very large wave.
What attracts you to writing historical fiction?
I’d enjoyed Henry Treece and Alfred Duggan as a child: sticking pretty much to Alfred Duggan’s Dark Age work. But never really read much historical fiction, until my brother gave me Sharon K Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, about 15 years ago.
It’s about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, and as a Yorkshire man, I had taken quite an interest in that. I’d read a lot of history books, but it wasn’t until I read this novel that I understood how the personalities and familial relationships of the various families contributed to the history.
So I came away understanding how historical fiction is another doorway into the past, and I didn’t come away thinking I would write historical fiction, but the seed was planted.
Shieldwall and Hastings are set in the final century of Anglo-Saxon England, which is one of my favourite periods. What interests you about this period?
Well! What’s not to love about it!?
There’s a weird mish mash. I remember very young feeling that I had arrived at the wrong time of the world. I had no interest in cars, but felt the past –with cart horses, and firesides and seasons – was so much more interesting.
History also seemed very important to me. It felt personal – still does in fact. My family are old Northern Catholics, all from Yorkshire. I grew up in York, where everything was branded ‘Jorvik’ or Viking. But the Sagas seemed to talk to me across all those centuries, and felt more relevant, for example, than a lot of the literature coming up from London.
My village church – Skelton, near York – is a little gem, built by the same masons who put York Minster up, and little changed since. History seemed all about me, and so much of who and what I am, we are, comes from the history of our families and societies.
Which of your characters has most surprised you and why?
Recently Kendra because she was just a bit character who appeared in the opening chapter of Shieldwall, as a slave girl warming Wulfnoth’s bed. But it was clear as soon as I’d written about her that she was an important character, and although not at all historical, had an important place in the lives of the characters I was following.
She was the touchstone in many ways. And readers seem to have taken to her as well, which makes me feel I should keep her story going.
How do you research your novels?
For Shieldwall I started with academic histories written by people like Frank Barlow, to get the details, the characters, the events, the possible motivations. This is really the skeleton of the story. Then I started to plan it all out. Where each book would start and end. Who the main characters would be – all that kind of stuff.
But that’s all prelim stuff: the real challenge comes in the details and the characters. By details I mean all the little references in the novel that make the world and the characters feel real. This can be what they’re sitting on, what they eat, how they talk, what it’s like to put mail on for the first time, how a character would think, say when he went to watch bear baiting.
Building up the level of detail is a massive task that involves some like experience (I spent my 20s as a volunteer in rural China and Africa, which gave me a lot of insight into a non-modern world); research: I taught myself Old English to go back to source texts, as well as to get a sense of the language: it’s rhythms and cadences etc; I ploughed through archaeological pdfs of digs, went through all the episodes of Time Team, talked to re-enactors I knew; reading other novels; looking at the literature from other time periods and places (i.e. the Tang Dynasty poets who were writing about Mongolian invasions at a similar time, and had some good details about what it meant to be conquered).
That’s a huge job because a historical novelist has to construct a world that feels real to the modern reader, into which the characters go.
Last of all comes the characters: who are actually the most important and they’re a very complex mix of me, friends, who knows! Take Edward the Confessor, for example, who appears in Hastings. I started my research on him by reading biographies of Charles II – the only other king whose father was deposed, was exiled young, spent his time in France meddling with plots and schemers and drunks, and whose chances of reaching the throne seemed slight.
Which research tools, sources and web-sites did you find most useful?
Google Earth was a great tool because Shieldwall is largely set in parts of England I’ve never been to, and living in Hong Kong, were too difficult to visit. It allowed me to see the minute geography of a village, for example, or see if my characters were walking up hill or downhill.
The internet is second as it allowed me access to all that academic material and allowed me to research places, field views, photos, church names and details that I used for the novel. There’s all kinds of great sites: Anglekyn, The Viking Answer Lady, and all kinds of blogs about the period.
A third one is a favourite of mine, which is the poem called Maxims II. It’s a fabulously weird collection of gnomic sayings.
Then I do other things like listen to Julian Glover’s rendition of Beowulf as I fall asleep at night, so that it rattles around in my head at night and some of the magic comes out again in the morning.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I usually try and write three or four mornings a week, for about 3 hours a time. I have all kinds of little props, that I’m beginning to feel are all procrastinations: I burn incense, I have special play lists, which are currently a mix of Gregorian chant, Mozart’s Requiem and folk singers like Stan Rogers. Writing everyday doesn’t work so well for me. A few days thinking between seems good, so I can think the best place to pick up the next scene.
That’s when I’m working on the first draft. When I have a first draft I have a much better sense of the shape of the story: where the real drama is for each character, and then I can work all day every day banging it out.
Then I can work must faster. Maybe not banging it out, but getting the story just right. That usually takes me about six months. Writing and rewriting and cutting back.
The last stage is a vicious cut, so that the story moves along at a cracking pace.
Then I collapse and my wife and I sit down and enjoy a good bottle of wine and I’m a little shell-shocked, and wonder what the hell I’ll write next.
Looking back over your life who might have been most surprised at your writing career? What would you say to them about it?
I think the person who would be most surprised would be me: the boy who wanted to write, and knew how difficult it is to get published, and wasn’t sure I would ever make it.
I wrote a poem about that: Ings Walk. http://www.nthposition.com/ingswalks.php
Less seriously I think my history teacher would be surprised. He and I never quite clicked, which is a shame, because history has always been a passion for me. He predicted me a ‘C’ at A level, and never quite understood how I got an ‘A’ grade.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to write fiction?
I could talk their ear off, but there are two things that kept me going.
Write your story: which means write what really compels you. Don’t write what was a best seller last year; don’t write like Bernard Cornwell because you think it will sell. Write the story just the way you want to write it, and the closer you can get to that the better it will be.
The next piece of advice is the most important: don’t give up. Professional or published writers are the amateur writers who never gave up. This can be hard, because you will get rejections all along the way. I still get rejection letters! And however Zen you feel, they will come on the worst Thursday ever, when your dog has died and your girlfriend has told you that you need to talk, and you have just screwed up at work.
And when you get that letter saying that you novel is not for them, then you need to tell yourself that what you sent off was the best you could do three months ago, but that you have to somehow work out how to write it better and lift it that extra half inch.
The last half inch is the hardest: but it is the difference between published and unpublished novels.
What is your next writing project?
You’ll never have heard of him: but I’m taking some half-Danish lad called Harold, up to a battle at a place called Hastings, in 1066…
Thanks very much for talking with me, Justin.
You can find Justin’s books in all stores and online. You can find out more about him by visiting his website : www.justinhillauthor.com