I had the honour of reading “Monsters (Sword of Woden 3)” by C.R.May for the Historical Novel Society (scroll down for my review) and I’m delighted to welcome him here as part of my interview series. My review is attached to this post further down. Tell us a little about yourself as writer and as person.
I am an English writer living in the market town of Framlingham in Suffolk, famous for its castle, college and, latterly, as the home town of the singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. After an unsatisfying decade or so spent commuting to the City of London I swapped roles with my then partner, combining childcare with several hands-on renovations of historic houses. These ranged from a Victorian townhouse to a 14th Century medieval hall, learning such age-old skills as oak frame repair and lime plastering as I went. Later a further two children arrived making four in total (plus two bull terriers), and the demands of running a large household while living among the debris of a major restoration helped to instil in me the self-discipline and work ethic needed by anyone who writes.
Why did you choose to write historical fiction?
I have always loved history. Living in southern England you are literally living on top of the debris of millennia. In my own small back garden I have picked up a piece of a medieval quern stone within a few feet of a stone age hand tool and the bowl of a Georgian clay pipe. Inside the hall (it sounds very grand, but it was really a small medieval shop with a room attached called a hall house) there were obviously signs of past occupants everywhere. I found an arrowhead pushed into a small hole alongside a bean wrapped in raw wool. The skull of a duck and a battered shoe to ward off witches in the loft. The bottom step was a solid rectangle of oak, 600 years old, the tread worn down on the right hand side by centuries of footfalls (most people have always favoured their right side). I sometimes sat and tried to imagine the people who had lived there over those centuries. What were their names? What were they like? How many people had been born and died there? Good historical fiction can answer these type of questions, it allows me to repopulate the past and bring it back to life.
What in particular fascinates you about the era(s) you write about?
So far I have written a trilogy and novella which are set in sixth century Scandinavia and a two book series set around 400B.C. Although a few written records have come down to us from Mediterranean sources for both periods, as far as the ancient Celts and Migration Age Scandinavians are concerned, both sets of people were on the outer limits of the then known world. Both were thought of as barbarians by those in the south but both societies were in fact technologically advanced for their time. Migration, differing religious beliefs, and the resulting friction which accompanies both can, I hope, help us to understand our own era as we realise that these events have happened throughout human history, and that the problems of today are far from unique.
In my first trilogy I set out to tell the early life story of Beowulf. Originally I wanted to explain away the fantastic elements of the original poem and leave him as a real figure in sixth century Scandinavia. For example Beowulf’s boast that he was dragged to the bottom of the sea by a sea serpent which he then killed single-handedly became a tussle with conger eels. However the deeper I got into the story the less satisfied I became. The Beowulf tale without superhuman feats of strength and daring was a bit like Batman taking the bus to the scene of the crime, more realistic but hardly the stuff of legend. By introducing the god Woden into the tale I could keep the character of Beowulf as ‘merely’ an extraordinary man, while explaining away any supernatural events as the scheming of a god. I was always keen to show the everyday connection between the people of northern Europe and their gods in my writing and this gave me the ideal opportunity to do so. When I realised how easy it was to slip into the mindset of the time I chose to expand this in my next series. One of my main characters is a female druid, and the tale of the physical and psychological journey of this very likeable young woman is, I think, one of my most successful pieces of work. Her two childhood friends accompany the migration led by Brennus from the present day region of Paris. Crossing the Alps, the tribe of 80,000 are led into conflict with the then small city state of Rome which they defeat and occupy. This ‘Terror Gallicus’, as the Romans termed it, had far reaching consequences for both peoples, in many ways it was the birth of the Roman empire.
What makes you laugh?
What Sly and the Family Stone called Everyday People make me laugh. ‘British humour’ is notorious the world over, maybe it the historic mix of Celt and German, but even complete strangers joke about everything and anything, all the time.
Who would you like to invite for dinner?
That would have to be Harold Godwinson. The man was at the heart of so many of the situations which led to the Norman Conquest of 1066, an event which still affects millions of us to this day. There are so many questions which can now never be answered. How did Edward the Exile die? Why did he travel to Normandy in 1064? Did he covet the crown or did he feel that he had no choice? Why did he move against the Norman army before his own forces were ready? I dealt with many of these questions in a collection of short stories called Spearhavoc and I make my own views known there, but I would love to know the truth from one of the central figures in the drama.
For the Brennus books it would have to be the Beatles, The Long and Winding Road.
What are you working on now?
I have just completed a book which will be the first of an open-ended series called Eofer king’s bane. It is called Fire & Steel and it follows on from my first series, the Sword of Woden trilogy. Eofer is an Englishman married to the daughter of King Hygelac, so he is kin by marriage not only to the Geat royal family, but through them to Beowulf himself. I had the idea when I started the Beowulf books that the Geats would migrate to England on his death, but later decided to end the series with the death of Grendel’s mother, as in the poem itself. I live twenty minutes drive from the ship barrows at Sutton Hoo which Beowulf visits in book three, Monsters. By changing the main character I can shift the focus of the tale from Scandinavia to what is now England at a vital stage in its formation, but Eofer’s kinship ties will keep the connection alive. There was such a wealth of material for a novelist hidden within the Beowulf narrative that it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage. Ongoing wars between the Danes, Swedes and Geats; a battle on a frozen lake. Some of the connections I had already made, especially in book two, Wraecca, when Beowulf is exiled in Sweden, so much of the background to the story has already been written. On the British side of the North Sea, the famous warlord Arthur has just died and Cerdic and Cynric have just returned to found the kingdom which will become Wessex, ‘The Last Kingdom’ of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred books and now t.v series, and ultimately England itself. Add in the conflict between Christianity and Heathenism and it is a veritable feast which I can’t wait to get my writing teeth into.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
Best: You don’t go to work.
Worst: You are always at work, even in the middle of the night.
Tell us one odd thing about you and one really mundane thing.
The toilet roll sheet MUST lay flat to the wall, not hanging over the front like an elephant’s trunk, and be torn neatly along the perforations.
Who are your favourite authors?
Harry Sidebottom. Fabulous prose, effortlessly combined with a deep knowledge of the subject (he is an Oxford Professor of Classics, so no excuse really!)
Justin Hill’s book, Shieldwall, was superbly written but the follow up is yet to appear. If it is even half as good, I can’t wait.
Plus, a special mention for the thirteenth century Icelandic historian and writer, Snorri Sturluson, without whom our knowledge of the old gods would be scant indeed.
Which character is your favourite?
The young female druid, Catumanda. Reading my reviews everyone loves her, even though she can be a killer. I think that it helps that she is on a long physical as well as spiritual journey, the interactions which she has with the various people that she meets really help to flesh out her character. She really is a likeable young woman who just happens to have been a druid 4000 years ago.
How have you found the experience of self-publishing? What were your highs and lows?
The best part of self-publishing is obviously the fact that it gives you the opportunity to publish your work at all. I find the process pretty much trouble free. Given patience and time just about anyone can now write and publish their own book, and what’s more, it’s free! Although the fact that someone is willing to spend a little of their hard earned money to buy your book is of course fantastic, the best feeling always comes from a glowing review. To think that you have taken an idea, sat for hundreds of hours and typed it out, edited, rewritten, rewritten…and that that idea has entertained or fired the imagination of a person who may live on the other side of the world whom you are unlikely to ever meet in person is a very high, high.
A low for me personally is the fact that it would seem that the big publishing houses seem to be using their wealth and influence to win back control. It reminds me of the late 1970’s music scene with the punk rock and indie explosion. For a couple of years it seemed that anyone could cut a record and stand a good chance of hearing it played nationally. Some were good, most not so much, but at least they got the chance. Slowly the EMI’s of the world bought up the small fry until it was back to business as usual. Should people expect indie authors to achieve the same standards of production as Harper Collins? Although I always strive to produce the best product possible, is it right to expect a self-published work to be indistinguishable from those produced by the big publishing companies? I recently read a post on Facebook which had been shared by a well-known writer. It was advice by another top selling author about becoming published; go to lots of book fairs, always have details of your book on you in case you meet a publisher at a ‘do’. It struck me that these people just had no idea how the majority live. Read the author Bio’ and most of them sound the same. University followed by either a few years teaching or a career in journalism or visual media.
Editors and proof readers cost many hundreds of pounds, a cover can cost over a thousand. In reality this means that a single parent in say Hull, Gelsenkirchen or Billings, Montana may be the most wonderfully original and gifted writer who ever walked the earth, but their lack of funds will pretty much always mean that their masterpiece sinks without trace while the bookshops are filled with the latest ‘celebrity’ cash cow. It’s a vicious circle. Published authors charge £10 and up, even for downloads, while the small fry have to almost, and often literally, give their books away. Would your favourite piece of music sound any better or worse with a less than perfect cover? Would you even get to find out? I always try to judge a book on the blurb. If the subject appeals you can usually read the first chapter or so of an e-book online before you decide. Released from the need to make a sure-fire profit, many independent authors can really give full rein to their creative influences. Help the little guy and leave a review when you can spare a moment. Tell your friends to spread the word or we may find ourselves back paying £17-£20 for a hardback and a tenner for a paperback or download. Indies need your support and you never know, you just might just unearth a gem.
“Monsters (Sword of Woden 3)” by C.R.May was a fascinating and insightful read for me. Based on the infamous ‘Beowulf’ poem, which is dated between the 800s-1100s, the trilogy combines historical credibility with mythology, legend and fantasy.
I was initially suspicious about such a combination, preferring my historical fiction to stay as close to the facts as it can, but the fantasy elements fitted in with the belief systems of those times and, for me, contributed immensely to the authentic feeling of the novel.
The use of language, of place names and the descriptive details seemed well researched and the battle descriptions, the locations and the action were treated with care and attention. All of this makes the book more than just a Tolkien-esque legend. It is a genre blend but one that deserves its place in historical fiction. The glossaries were helpful, a small map might have been useful, too.
The characters are particularly well drawn and the story is entertaining and historically informative.
“Reviewed for the Historical Novel Association Indie Reviews”
I was born and spent the first decade or so of my life in Bow, a district in east London. This was at a time when large parts of London, especially the east end, still carried the scars of wartime bombing and although we had the very large expanse of Victoria Park at the top of the road, most of our play time as children was inevitably spent on the far more dangerous but exciting bomb sites which littered our little world.
Later my family moved to South Ockendon in Essex and my interest in history blossomed into a passion. A friend told me that the name of the village meant Wocca’s Hill in Saxon and although I laughed at the time I now know that he was right. It is difficult to imagine the lack of information which was available in those not so far off pre internet days but the central library was only a short bus ride away and soon I was spending a large amount of time there. This one small district, Thurrock, (Saxon – it means the bilge of a ship) contained such historical gems as Fobbing (a seat of Wat Tyler’s rebellion) and one of the earliest Saxon settlements at Mucking, on its terrace overlooking the Thames. The village next to ours, Aveley, had been the site of a large watering hole during prehistoric times and the bones of lions, crocodiles, hippopotamus and the famous ‘Aveley Mammoth’ had all been found here. A short bike ride across the border into Havering brought you to the old Battle of Britain spitfire aerodrome at Hornchurch and many summer holidays were spent reading and rereading my dog-eared copy of ‘Nine Lives’ which described the experiences of one famous New Zealand pilot at the base during that hectic period.
Later my love of history led me to historic sites all over Europe and America, from the bullet scarred buildings of Berlin to the desolate site of Eric the Red’s hall in Iceland and the ‘greasy grass’ about the Little Big Horn. I have personally renovated several of my homes, including a 14th Century hall house and scurried aloft to sweat in the sails on the replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endevour.
One day I reread my old penguin copy of Beowulf and, in a eureka moment, I decided that the poem contained a virtual treasure house of Scandinavian history around the time that men like Wocca, Fobba and Mucca were moving their families across the North Sea and settling in Thurrock. Spurred on by my reading of both fiction and non-fiction I decided to see if I could weave my own tale from the threads which the poem contained. I sat at the laptop and wrote ‘The boy stood at the base of the tree…’ and the rest as they say, is history.
CONQUEROR OF ROME
SWORD OF WODEN
other short tales