A conversation with Conn Iggulden, author of Stormbird (Wars of the Roses).
1. Your upcoming novel WARS OF THE ROSES: STORMBIRD focuses on the backstabbing and betrayals of the Wars of the Roses. Can you tell us a little about what drew you to this period?
I spent a long time looking for something worth doing after Genghis and Kublai Khan. I’d been wrapped up in that world for about five years and I wanted to find a story at least as good. I knew I had one more Roman book in me, a period of joyous nostalgia as I went back to the Caesars and so revisited my younger life, when I didn’t know the first book would be published. For two years then, I looked. Friends and family suggested subjects, topics, characters. I thought of writing a massive series on the generals of Alexander the Great, after he was dead. They sat in a room and carved up the world. That would be a great first scene. I looked at King Arthur, as I studied all the known texts in university. The trouble with that one was that Bernard Cornwell had produced a superb trilogy on Arthur – too recently for me to think of tackling the subject. I did get as far as writing the first chapter and choosing when it should be set, but oddly enough, I couldn’t solve the problem of magic to my satisfaction, not for that subject. Either Merlin is a charlatan, or he could be written with real power that somehow doesn’t work today. Neither option appealed, particularly. Historical fiction is very similar to fantasy in some ways – a darker twin, perhaps. I wasn’t ready to blur the boundary that far, at least for now.
I considered a number of lives, from birth to death. Yet I’d done that with Genghis Khan. I felt ready for a different challenge. I’d read GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones and over and over I heard they were based on the Wars of the Roses. I looked and yea, the door was opened unto me. I found a story – one that, like Genghis, was known to most and yet not known at all. More, it was an English story, which filled me with both dread and excitement. The history of England has a special place in the culture, in part because every generation delights in believing the previous generation is completely uneducated. Yet the stories are the best in the world, I think, even the ones that have sort of slipped under the carpet over the centuries. Not many people today know James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, for example, or the Victorian, Richard Francis Burton, but their lives are great tales and there are hundreds more. In King Henry VI, I had the perfect tragic figure – the son of Henry V, the greatest warrior king of them all. His son was decent and honourable, too much so for the fifteenth century perhaps. His story is one worth telling, with all those around him, strong and weak, right and wrong.
2. The worlds you write of are pretty far from the dreary day to day of modern life. Does writing offer escapism for you, and do you try and offer that to your readers?
It’s such a cliché to say one can ‘lose themselves’ in a book, but it’s so instantly recognisable to any reader as well. Escapism suggests there is something worth escaping and of course that could be true. Yet feverishly turning the pages of a good book in the small hours, watching the alarm clock tick, but being completely unable to put the thing down – that’s not a retreat from something, that is a joy, an experience. It’s pouring water into a cracked jug, (at least in my case) as a great deal leaks right back out again, but good characters, good lines stay with me, influencing me.
Writing that has just made me recall a period in my late-teens when I tried to solve moral problems by employing four or five fictional characters as my guides. That sounds a little bit like multiple personality disorder, but it wasn’t that at all, at least I don’t think it was. (And neither do I.) If you’d given me a problem then, I might have asked myself how Sherlock Holmes would handle it, Or James Bond – he was one – or one of the incredibly capable characters in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. I’m not saying it worked – it was a disaster, as it happens, but that’s a story for another day.
3. How do you go about researching for a historical series like WARS OF THE ROSES: STORMBIRD?
I have to go to places, if at all possible. I like to think it’s not a failure of the imagination, but it probably is. When I knew I was going to write sailing scenes for The Death of Kings, I signed on for a tallship in the Pacific. My older brother was second mate and I learned about taking watches and tying a bowline knot, but I also picked up a thousand sense impressions, from watching dolphins under the bow, to crashing about in a storm, or the smell of damp, or watching the sun come up. I met a Shetland islander there, who was dour and unresponsive, monosyllabic to the point of grunting once or twice a day. Then we caught a fish, three or four foot long, heaved up onto the deck to flop about with extraordinary energy. He took a wooden club and battered it dead, spattering tiny blue scales on the wooden deck. That was interesting, but not the point at all. The point was that for the next hour, he came awake. He talked and laughed and reminisced about his days in Shetland, mending nets with his grandfather. For just a time, he was cheerful and vital – then it seeped out of him once again. I don’t think I could have made that up, not without the actual experience of it. In the presence of death he came alive, or to be blunt, killing something woke some spark in him for just a time. It is my feeling that men like him would be very, very useful in times of war.
That’s research, for me. I ended up with brutal saddle-sores in Mongolia, because I really needed to see the place and experience the smells and sounds and colours of the landscape. Oh, and I read, of course. I read a lot. I hang about the British library and antiquarian bookshops and I collect anything and everything I can find on a subject, the older and more obscure the better. I read as much as I can and I make notes and there comes a time when I’m so filled up, I’m ready to write the first scene. It doesn’t stop then, of course. It never stops, while I’m writing a subject. I read, and I read, and I read – and I write.
4. Much of WARS OF THE ROSES: STORMBIRD is very accurate to the original history. How hard is it to strike a balance between entertainment and believability?
My job as a writer of historical fiction is to show the men and women of the past as real people, rather than names and events, or battles. I choose to believe that ‘entertainment’ comes from bridging that gap, from feeling that Genghis walked and rescued his kidnapped wife in such a way – and there we are, with him, standing at his side, seeing his flaws and his greatness. Lots of things from history are absolutely unbelievable. Is it really true that a Spanish regiment ran from the sound of their own rifle fire while fighting with Wellington in the Peninsular war? Well, yes, it did happen and it is true. Is it true that Julius Caesar was captured by pirates and held for ransom when he was very young? Yes, also true. Entertainment can stretch the bounds of believability, when the truth is sometimes so very strange. I’ve always included an historical note at the back of books, outlining major changes I might have made to keep a plot going, but mainly just to confirm some of the more extraordinary bits of the real histories.
5. As this is your first series based in England, how did carrying out your research for this differ from previous series?
I was able to get in my car and drive to the battlefields and castles. The other main difference is that I drove myself absolutely frantic trying to get the details right, much more so than for the Genghis series. I had an excuse there – it was on the other side of the world, for a start. Though I’m half-Irish and half-English, this would be considered my culture – and so mistakes would not be easy to forgive. I suspect I’ll still get emails, of course. Bernard Cornwell once had an email from an ‘archaeological botanist,’ who pointed out that the snowdrops Cornwell had mentioned in a hedge, were not indigenous to Britain and were imported later than the period in which his story was set. That kind of specialist knowledge is difficult to reproduce, when an author is, you know, describing a hedge and chooses to put some snowdrops in the description.
Yet, when I look back at the first Caesar book, The Gates of Rome, I put a character in there who could heal with the touch of his hands. I put in magic, in fact, because if I can’t find it here and now, I want it somewhere.
I did get emails from people insisting Caesar and Brutus were father and son (they weren’t) or that Brutus was a nobleman (Plutarch says opinions were divided) and so on, and so on. Not one person mentioned you can’t heal people with your hands. I miss the confidence of that younger writer, sometimes. Yet when a botanist writes to me to point out some plant I included is wrong, I’m sure I shall be very polite.
6. How do you think the idea of the battle for the throne translates to readers who are living in a time without active monarchs? Do you see any of this alive in modern politics?
I remember wondering once, in an idle moment, what would happen if Prince Charles walked out into St. James’ Park in London and planted the banner of the Prince of Wales and said: “Come to me, if you are loyal.” – or words to that effect. You don’t think anyone would come, as word spread? I think there’d be about a million people standing with him before the end of the day. Sandwiches would definitely be needed. Monarchs may not have real political power any longer, but they still have weight in the minds of the people. There is something powerful there, even if it is only the echoes of history. Beyond that, the ‘Clinton effect’ as it’s sometimes called, or the instant charisma of a position of power is fascinating. Some human beings can lead – they are rare and extraordinary snake-charmers, one and all. The stories they create around them are always worth the price of admission. (Usually £6.99 for a paperback, though often discounted.)
That said though, it is of course true that historical fiction can’t deal with just the rulers. In real life, we are connected to dozens of other people, surviving trials, falling in love, living well and falling ill. No historical fiction book is about the king, not really. Even Genghis would have been a shadow without his parents, his wives and his brothers and sons. It’s all part of a character, of course and lies at the heart of why we read. People are interested in people, even those who claim they’re not. We like stories, because we have an ability, unique in the world, to feel the pain and the triumph of another person. “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail,’ as Gore Vidal said. People are complex, be they kings or chimney sweeps.
7. A lot of your earlier writing focuses on heroic males. How did you find writing a heroic female from history as your lead character?
Margaret of Anjou isn’t the lead in quite the same way that Caesar and Genghis were leads, with everything revolving around them. What I tried to do in WARS OF THE ROSES: STORMBIRD was set up a court, with three or four ‘leads,’ rather than making it the tale of Margaret and Margaret alone. As such, I’ve written dozens of female characters before – and she really is a special one. I’m intrigued by the challenge of representing her growing and changing. After all, she comes to England to be queen at just fifteen years of age. I don’t know what you were like at fifteen, compared to say thirty, but I was very different. From my point of view, it’s a wonderful chance to develop depth – and therefore a step closer to reality – with a character.
Having a central female character in a position of power is interesting, I must say. For reasons that escape me, she’s been treated rather badly by both historians and writers of historical fiction. Her story is tragic, without a doubt, but by God, she fought. She gave her entire life to protect her husband and her son from men like Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. All I have to do is speak well for her. Her story is good enough without any flourishes I might add.
8. What has been your most interesting discovery whilst researching for this series?
In terms of single events, I’d say it was the Jack Cade rebellion. I think I knew the name, or at least had heard it somewhere, but I didn’t know he fought his way across the only bridge into London and successfully breached the Tower. Just a week ago, I was standing next to the London stone in Cannon Street that Cade struck his sword on, that night in 1450. It’s what I always hope to find when I’m reading around the main events of a period: smaller stories that are not well known, but are nonetheless brilliant and interesting episodes in the life of the time. Like the Chinese general defeated by Genghis, who rode from the battlefield and returned to the emperor knowing he would be executed. Instead, he killed the emperor and assumed power himself, in the middle of the Mongol invasion. Moments and events like that are the meat and drink of historical fiction, at least as far as I’m concerned.
9. Why do you think we are fascinated with the likes of Game of Thrones, The Borgias, and The Tudors TV series?
History is full of good stories and great characters, of course. It’s us, humanity, cheerfully poisoning each other, betraying, loving and stamping down on the fingers of everyone else climbing the ladder. As I’ve said above, we have the ability to sympathise or empathise with strangers, to come to know them and admire them, or at least forgive their flaws. The separation of centuries has an odd effect on morality as well, as we can tolerate ruthlessness much more easily in a historical character than one set in the modern era.
With the exception of George R.R. Martin, all those series have been cherry-picked from history by writers, delighted at what they found. They have the added joy for those reading or watching them that we come away with a little knowledge of the period and the people involved. I have always relished learning history through historical fiction. It’s the best way to soak it in. In GRRM’s case, of course, he used the same structures and added just a pinch of dragons. That works as well, clearly.
10. How do you prepare for writing a battle scene? Do you enjoy the violence or find it hard to get through?
I admire the skills, certainly. I’ve always enjoyed martial arts, though three years of Tae Kwon Do and another three of Judo only heightened my awareness that I am too clumsy to ever be a danger to anyone except myself. As my dad once said when he boxed for the RAF, he quite enjoyed hitting the other fellow, but not so much getting hit himself. That same father saw many of his friends and colleagues die around him in Bomber Command during WWII. He told stories that fascinate me still, with their dark humour at the edge of great pain.
Bernard Cornwell and I met George McDonald Fraser once, shortly before his death. Cornwell said to me that the difference between the three of us was that George had fought in a war, was in fact, such an efficient killer that it became almost like murder, rather than anything resembling a fair contest. As a result, Fraser could handle battle with lightness and humour, whereas Bernard and I, to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett, ‘inexplicably forgot the intestines’ at times.
I suppose I do enjoy the mechanics of battles – the difficulties of communication over large areas, for example, or the sheer exhaustion that comes with fighting, more than any other activity. I prepare for it, by visiting the spot if I can, in case there is some hill or river that might not be mentioned in the official accounts, but must have played a part. I read as much as I can find on it, as well as the necessary details of army structure, tactics and weaponry. After that, I focus on the main characters present at the time and write it from their point of view – often with limited understanding, as of course they don’t have the Godlike perspective granted to me.
11. Who have been your biggest writing inspirations growing up and in your career?
I’m certain every writer would answer this in roughly the same way: when I was a kid, I found certain books absolutely gripping. I found myself caring about certain characters and wanting to know very much what happened next. Over time, I began to want – or to need – to make up stories myself. I learned what worked by reading: scene gaps from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, for example. I remember being infuriated by the way he did that, but also intrigued. I learned about creating characters from writers like Stephen King, David Gemmell and James Clavell. I began to pick up plot development from Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell as well as a hundred others, a thousand. I soaked it up, often without conscious thought. It’s a kind of magic that readers can care about someone who doesn’t exist – though of course historical fiction has the Ace of trumps because the characters did exist, once. All I ever wanted from the world is that it had magic in it, somewhere, some twist of reality that is more than carbon atoms and amino acids dancing in sterile spirals. The great frustration of my life is that I can’t lay my hands on what I could see so clearly in my imagination – so I damn well had to go out and make some. I just wanted to make, rather than to destroy. Destruction was just too easy.
12. What does your typical day of writing look like?
Messy, probably. I’ve learned not to sweat too much when it doesn’t come easily. Actually, that’s a complete lie. I drive myself to frantic insanity trying to force it, like a man trying his kid’s shoes on and losing his temper, over and over. I drink a lot of coffee and I smoke far too much, but sometimes it comes easily and I’ll have written three thousand words that please me – that is a good day. I often work at odd hours – it’s 1:36am as I write this for example. If the kids are knocking around downstairs, I tend to wander down and play with them. That’s why summer holidays should be banned, in my opinion. Or they should be kept in a sound-proofed room during daylight hours.
13. Is there a book that moved you more than any other?
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome made me laugh out loud until I couldn’t stand it. I’ve read that book many times and it still makes me chuckle. David Gemmell’s endings might have occasionally led to a bit of eye-moisture, the sort of thing a man might experience if he watched his mum jump on a grenade to save his favourite dog, something like that – not hysterical sobbing or anything.
It all comes down to character. If the writer has done his job and the reader really cares about the people, their tragedies strike home. At least for me, tragedy is perfection, the aim of all fiction.