A scarlet hooded robe for this superhero! Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
The early scenes would all take place on the island of Jersey, where I grew up. The first is in 1975, when I was ten years old and belonged to a club run by the local museum. We had an all-day coach trip around the prehistoric megaliths of the island, and it culminated in a visit to La Hougue Bie (a 6000 year old stone burial chamber beneath a mound with a chapel on top) – my first sight of the place that lies at the centre of this novel. Fast-forward to 1988, and I am in the second of the three years of my PhD studies, in the museum on the same site, in a windowless room, measuring thousands of flint flakes. In my lunch break, I emerge into the sunlight and walk up the winding path to the top of the mound, now covered in daffodils. I look out across the sea towards the French coast and imagine the people who made the flint tools, and built the tomb beneath me. I imagine them crossing the sea in boats. Fast forward again, this time to 1995, and I am at La Hougue Bie again, directing an excavation with my own students. As we dig slowly through the layers, I realise that there is more to this place than just a prehistoric tomb. There is also the 12th Century chapel, with a 16th Century crypt built in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre, an 18th Century tower (long-since demolished), an observation tower built by the occupying Germans in the Second World War. It will be fifteen years before I conceive the idea for the novel, peopling each of these epochs with a blend of historical and fictional characters and linking their stories together by means of objects, ancestry and the place itself.
I belong to an online critique group, so some of my early drafts may still exist on the computer disc of my partners! I haven’t kept copies myself, and I wonder, sometimes, if even a single sentence survived intact from the first draft. I doubt it, actually.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
I am the anonymous figure pouring over a Medieval manuscript in the reading room of the British Library; I am the lone man in the galleries of the British Museum, taking things down in a notebook, when all the tourists are taking photos of the displays with their smartphones; as I wait for a friend in a bar, a glass of red wine by my left hand, I have a pen in my right hand, and am sketching out the plot in my notebook.
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
The curators, librarians and archivists are my partners in crime, though they probably don’t know this, or at least they don’t know the nature of the “crime.” If they were to ask me, I would tell them the truth, but they rarely do ask, and probably assume that my research is academic. Their superpowers are to make permanent what nature has decreed perishable: paper, parchment, oak-gall ink, the words and thoughts of those long-dead.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
From other writers: from Homer and Virgil, from Dante, from Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Sjon, Hannah Kent and dozens more that I don’t have space to name, write down to the one whose book I was reading earlier today (that’s Ali Smith, by the way).
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
It’s the classic writer’s garret in south-east London (though I’m not starving in it), a third floor flat in a converted Victorian terrace-house with a marble fireplace and a large mirror in a golden frame above it. There are piles of books all over the floor, and I have to take care not to acquire too many more (except on my Kindle), for fear that they may become too heavy for the floorboards and crash down on my downstairs neighbour’s head. There’s a sycamore tree below my window, which is great because it brings birdsong within earshot of my desk (there are lots of birds in my writing).
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you ensure they are used only for good?
Teaching (for the Open University) keeps me grounded, as do the friends with whom I visit exhibitions, watch films and go to the theatre: it’s not good for anyone to associate exclusively with people who are either long-dead or wholly fictional. Necromancy is a superpower to be used with care, especially when the people I am bringing back to life are more often sinners than saints. In my first novel I had to imagine an ancient religion, and it did cross my mind, after the book had gone to print, that some folks might be foolish enough to start practicing it (it doesn’t involve human sacrifice, but does include things that English Heritage wouldn’t approve of at Stonehenge). Thankfully it hasn’t happened.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
I rather like the one in which Petrarch was depicted (a scarlet robe with a hooded cape). He was, like me, a necromancer, although he was a harsher judge than I am of the characters he resurrected, especially when it came to poor old Cicero, whose vanity was, I think, excusable in the context of his time (he was, after all, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony).
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
The streets of London are paved with kryptonite! In recent months it has included “Electra” and “The Crucible” at the Old Vic, Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” at The Globe, Matisse at Tate Modern.
The biggest challenge in my writing is not to find the next story (a walk around the galleries in the Museum of London suggests any number of possible stories), but to find new and engaging ways of telling them. The novels that have most impressed me in recent years (Sjon’s “From the Mouth of the Whale,” David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake,” Ali Smith’s “How to be Both”) have all brought something new to the art of storytelling itself. I hope I have done so, also, in this novel, but now it’s been done, and I need to think up a new way of telling the next story.
What was the supervillain that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
There were a couple who came on the scene at an early stage (before I started work on the novel itself. I won’t name them, but I’m sure they know who they are. One was motivated by envy and opportunism, and was easily dealt with. The other was driven (or so it seemed to me) by malice of an altogether purer sort. He became a minor character in a story, in which I dispensed the sort of justice that (mercifully) only a writer can deliver.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
The importance of fact-checking, especially as I move further away from the time periods in which I have been an academic expert. There were a handful of quite significant anachronisms and straightforward errors that survived right down to the penultimate draft: the notion that a Catholic priest would be addressed as “Father,” for example (not the case until the 19th Century), or that Thomas Becket was a man of the church (he was ordained as a priest only a day before he became Archbishop of Canterbury).
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
There have been moments of revelation, most of which have occurred whilst I was researching in the archives. I knew, for example, that I wanted to refer to a 12th Century Anglo-Norman poem, the “Roman de Rou,” and to include its author, Wace, as a character, but it was only as I read the text that I found a specific line that suggested a scene in the novel, and part of the storyline.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I can’t yet think of much that I would change or do differently in this book (I don’t stop revising until I reach the stage at which h, it seems to me, there is nothing left to change), but I am already thinking that the next book will need to be very different, and I’m not yet sure how.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
“A successful writer is an unsuccessful writer who didn’t give up.” There are a tiny handful of writers who become best-sellers, or win major prizes, with their debut novels, and good luck to them, but many of the writers I most admire had a much longer trudge to success. Hilary Mantel, for example, was virtually unknown until she won the Man Booker Prize with “Wolf Hall,” her tenth novel. John Williams enjoyed a brief moment of fame when he won the US National Book Award with “Augustus,” but, two decades after his death, the literary world has found a new level of interest in his work.
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
It is a Russian doll of a historical novel, with six stories, one inside another which, together, take the reader on a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, through six thousand years of our shared history. The stories are linked by a specific place (though most of the action takes place elsewhere), by ancestry and by objects, and by the theme of transgression and reconciliation, with many of the characters finding themselves on the wrong side of history.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
I have a character whose story I want to tell. Her name is Fortunata, and she was a slave in Roman London. Archaeologists recently found a letter which mentions her in the mud of the Walbrook stream, so we know who sold her, who bought her, and for how much money, but that’s all we know. I have to make up the rest, based on what we know, more generally, about London in the 2nd Century AD, and about slavery in the Roman world.
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