HOW DID YOU GET INTO WRITING? DID YOU ALWAYS INTEND TO BECOME AN AUTHOR?
I was probably seventeen years old when I realised I wanted to be a writer. And I might even be able to pinpoint a particular moment: when I was reading Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging”. Becoming a writer was very far removed from my world and the family business, which was steel. No one in my family had ever been to university and we weren’t big readers. But when I read “Digging”, it resonated so powerfully with me that I’ve never forgotten it. In the poem, Heaney sees his father digging the flowerbeds. He remembers as a child watching his father in his younger, stronger days digging in the potato fields. Remembers that his grandfather, before that, was an expert turf digger. But Heaney knows that he has ‘no spade to follow men like them’ because he is a writer, not a farmer. For me, the last three lines say it all.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
That was when I knew it was OK to follow a different path, when I admitted (to myself at least) that I wanted to express myself through creativity and figure myself out through writing. I got into uni to study English Language and Literature…then dropped out to be the lead singer in a pop group. As you do. Over the course of my music career I wrote loads of songs but when I left that all behind it seemed the right time to throw myself into fiction. The quiet, contemplative nature of writing proved a therapeutic and welcome antidote to years of the, often rather nasty, music industry. I wrote a novel and got nowhere with it so I wrote another, funding this ‘word addiction’ by writing advertising copy and making music for movie trailers. I moved to New York with the manuscript of RAVEN: Blood Eye under my arm, and after enough rejection letters to wallpaper a small room, I was eventually taken on by the prestigious Writers House literary agency. Even so my agent struggled to find the right publisher (or a decent deal) for my Viking novel. Historical fiction was a tough sell in the States. Still is. Then, on a trip back home, I approached A.M. Heath, one of the UK’s leading literary agencies, via a mutual contact. Fortunately, they saw the potential in my manuscript and offered to represent me.
I was back in New York when my agent Bill Hamilton phoned one morning with the news that Transworld (Penguin Random House) wanted to sign the RAVEN: Blood Eye trilogy. I had told them I planned a trilogy because, well, I thought it sounded better, and so I got writing in earnest. But the journey was long and emotionally fraught. I wrote RAVEN Blood Eye in 2004, got a publishing deal in 2007 and it hit the shelves in 2009. It was, I am delighted to say, a bestseller.
CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT HOW YOUR FAMILY HISTORY AND UPBRINGING INFLUENCED YOUR CHOSEN SUBJECT MATTER?
My mother is Norwegian and as a child I spent many, many holidays in and around the fjords of Norway’s west coast, not far from Bergen. We had a family home there for twenty-one years and I love that part of the world more than anywhere else on earth. It’s where my soul feels most at peace. Then, as it happened, in 2003 I visited the Oslo Viking Ship Museum for the second time, on a stag weekend with a group of overexcited friends. I stood there entranced by the Oseberg and Gokstad ships in their miraculous state of preservation, and I got to thinking of the men who, over a thousand years ago, sat on those benches and manned those oars. They were like us, I thought, comrades out for adventure and perhaps an ale or two. I imagined the friendships and rivalries, the companionship and the dark humour, and it was all so clear. When I got home and my head and bloodstream returned to normal, I wrote the first lines of RAVEN: Blood Eye. It seems I’ve been living with Vikings ever since.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST PUBLISHING BREAK?
I was so desperate to be a published writer that it physically hurt. I would wander around my local bookstore in Nolita, Lower Manhattan, New York, trying to imagine what it would feel like if my book (then just the manuscript of RAVEN: Blood Eye) was sitting on one of the shelves. I would attend the weekly author talks and soak it all up. Didn’t matter what the author had written about – I just wanted to bask in the glory of a writer, a real writer, talking passionately about their book. I was working with designers in a movie marketing company and they would kindly mock up book covers for me which I would then wrap around Bernard Cornwell hardbacks, just to visualise what it might feel like to hold my own book. Yep, I was that desperate. And maybe it’s just as well I admit that, because I never took a creative writing course and I don’t have a degree and I never really read books as a child. Before I got my publishing deal it seemed to me there was this secret club and you had to know the rules to get in. I bought books with titles like How To Get Published and So You Want To Be A Writer, desperate for any advice, any advantage. But it turns out there are no rules. None. What you do is you write a good story in an engaging way. Then you get it in front of a literary agent or a publisher. That’s it. Not saying it’s easy, but if I can do it…
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO WRITE HISTORICAL FICTION OR IS AN ASPIRING AUTHOR?
The first thing I’d say is: don’t just talk about writing a book. Actually sit down and, you know, write it. Chances are you already know what you like to read, have books in your head which you would love to have written yourself, and might have written your own book with that in mind. Don’t worry about sounding like another author. We all get influenced by the last good book we’ve read, but that’s fine because your voice and your writing is unique to you and will come through. Once you have a first draft or are well on the way to having one, and if you can afford to spend the money, get your work appraised by The Literary Consultancy (there are others too who provide this service). They did a manuscript assessment on an early draft of RAVEN: Blood Eye back in 2005 and the feedback I received was invaluable. I really do believe that their advice opened my eyes and helped me to hone the manuscript until it was ready for submission. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, resist the temptation to tout it around or have your friends read it. Put it away for at least a couple of weeks. When you pick it up again you’ll come to it with a little bit of objectivity and you’ll see so many things that can be improved. You’ll be very glad indeed that you haven’t sent it off yet. The saying ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’ may be a cliché but it happens to be true.
After that (or even before that), buy a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. It really is the most important book, full of useful advice from publishing professionals and successful authors, as well as listings/contacts for agents and publishers. There’s a new version every year so it’s constantly updated. Trust me, it’ll be the best £16.00 investment you’ll ever make.
Then it’s down to the business of trying to find the right agent for you and your manuscript. Follow the submission advice listed in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and while you’re waiting for a reply (and believe me, you’ll wait, and wait, and wait some more) get on with writing something new. This will keep you positive and busy, and nothing improves your writing more than writing. Furthermore, this way when you hook a publisher and they ask, ‘What other ideas do you have?’, you’ll show them you’re not a one-hit wonder AND you might even get signed up for a two-book deal.
Or you may want to self-publish, of course, because these days you can do that with comparative ease and without stigma. I can’t offer much advice there, other than this: pay a professional to copy edit your book and pay a professional to design the cover.
Other than all that, write because you want to write, because you need to write. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a good or easy way to make a living. It’s neither. It’s hard, intense, lonely, poorly paid work…and I love it!
DO YOU WRITE EVERY DAY? IF SO, DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS?
I write five or six days a week and try, though often fail, to stick to traditional working hours so that it doesn’t take over family life. I have a cabin in the countryside which is where I go for peace and quiet and where the serious business gets done. But I also have an office at home which is warm and comfortable and has good internet, which is better when I’m doing a lot of research. I tend to read the previous day’s writing, editing as I go, before starting a new session. This reminds me where I am in the story and also, importantly, puts me back in the same mood, so that the prose flows properly from one session to the next. Furthermore, editing as I go makes for a first draft which is much closer to the final draft. First draft to get the story down. Second draft to polish it. Third draft to make it sing. Personally, I don’t do loads of rewrites. I’m slow but I try to get it right first time. Depending on the scene I’m writing, I might listen to a particular piece of music to help get me in the mood. Movie soundtracks are great for this; Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, The Last of the Mohicans etc. Other times I might need silence in order to hear the music of the prose. Coffee is essential. Twitter and Facebook are my enemies. Oh, and if I can, I try to quit for the day knowing roughly what I’m going to write when I next sit down. That prevents the hour of head scratching and thinking So, what now?
WHICH AUTHORS DO YOU LIKE TO READ? AND WHAT FIVE BOOKS DO YOU FEEL HAVE REALLY SHAPED AND INSPIRED YOU AS A WRITER AND A PERSON?
I don’t read anywhere near as many novels as I’d like. I keep buying them but never get the chance to read them because I’m always fighting my own deadlines. These days I tend to read outside my own genre. I like thrillers and loved I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels and I like post-apocalyptic stuff like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and World War Z by Max Brooks. As I mentioned earlier, I came to reading novels late in life. I was 15 and off school for several weeks with glandular fever. My mother bought me a fantasy novel, The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore. It was the first novel I had read voluntarily, and it led me to Terry Brooks, David Gemmell and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien. Since then, some of the books that have influenced me, or simply inspired me, are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Just mind-blowing in their scope and a triumph of the imagination, these eight books, based on King’s multiverse, draw upon The Lord of the Rings, the Arthurian myth, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as inspirations. Then there’s Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles. My favourite ever trilogy, these books inspired me to want to write historical fiction. No doubt about it. I read them twenty years ago and they still linger in my mind. Similarly, Conn Iggulden’s EMPEROR series was huge for me. I lived and breathed those wonderful books and they taught me much about the craft of storytelling. Lastly, and more recently, there’s Christian Cameron’s Long War Series. These novels are so well researched, so immersive and so well written that I think they provide a benchmark within the historical fiction genre. I simply love them.
NOW YOU’VE HAD NINE NOVELS PUBLISHED AND ARE WORKING ON THE TENTH, CAN YOU TAKE US BACK TO HOW THIS ALL BEGAN FOR YOU AS A WRITER?
So, having been the first member of my family to go to university, I dropped out after only a few months to join a pop group. I was at the University of Central England doing a degree in English Language and Literature because I wanted to become a writer. But I found my brief time at uni difficult. I was an introvert and living off campus didn’t help me assimilate. I was an outsider and I was baffled by the linguistics side of the course. All I wanted to do was write. I wanted to create. Then the band thing happened and blew it all out of the water. I went from being a shy, homesick, somewhat confused student to lead singer in a pop group, appearing on Top of the Pops, doing TV and radio every other day, performing in arenas and jetting off to exotic locations to film music videos. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. This was 1995. Gods but the world was a different place back then!
Several hit records and countless incredible experiences later, we called it a day. I wasn’t the only one in the band for whom it had stopped being fun. In truth, it was always going to be hard for me, a twenty-one-year-old man into rock and indie, to fully embrace the pop world and the image we were supposed to portray.
We split. I threw myself into song-writing and spent as much time in various recording studios as in my own home. I wrote an album’s worth of pop rock and started again, trying to get myself a record deal as a solo artist. It was a slog but eventually I got signed and spent a couple of years touring on and off in Europe. It was great fun, but again I found myself confronted with a dilemma. The record company wanted me to record and perform music that my heart just wasn’t into. I had already been there and done that and I just don’t think you can make a success of something you don’t believe in.
Somewhat disenchanted with the music industry, I went back to my other love, writing. I read and enjoyed David Gemmill and Bernard Cornwell and told myself, ‘I can do that.’ (Oh, the arrogance of the young). I wrote a 160,000-word novel about the second son of an earl who joins the First Crusade and fights his way to the Holy Land. I don’t think it was very good, which was why I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher to sign it. So…I started again. Again. This time writing a novel about an outcast who is taken from his village by a Viking warband. Having a Norwegian mother, you could say I went back to my roots. I began it in 2004. I got the publishing deal in 2007 when I was living in New York. RAVEN: Blood Eye was released in 2009 and was a bestseller.
It was, as the Beatles said, a long and winding road. But the journey is often what it’s all about. A shame we usually only realise that with hindsight. And funnily enough, my music career is probably what gave me the confidence to believe I could be a published author in the first place. Had I stayed in uni, shy and retiring, learning about language and literature, I may never have ended up writing for a living.
MANY PEOPLE ASK IF WE WILL EVER SEE THE RIVERS AGAIN. WILL YOU WRITE ANOTHER BOOK IN YOUR ENGLISH CIVIL WAR SERIES?
I really, really want to write another book in The Bleeding Land series. I have the first 40,000 words down but I can’t yet say when I’ll finish it or when it’ll be published. One way or another it will happen. Ideally, it would be published in glorious style like The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, but that will be up to my publisher. They would need to be convinced it would sell enough copies and keep things moving the right way, and that’s another story, because the Viking books are quite popular and even the RAVEN books continue to sell well. Alternatively, I could perhaps release it as an e-book only. At least it would be out there and available and I’d satisfy many of those readers who email asking for another Rivers book. I’m really proud of the Civil War books and hope that more and more people discover them in their own time.
IF YOU WERE THROWING A DINNER PARTY AND COULD INVITE FOUR PEOPLE FROM ANY POINT IN HISTORY, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE AND WHY?
Well then, let’s assume Stephen Fry is booked up all year being other people’s fantasy dinner party guest. The following list might change depending on what mood I’m in. I mean, it’s like choosing your favourite four songs or movies. Anyway…
Alexander the Great. By the age of thirty he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. That he persuaded men to follow him on his extraordinary trail of conquest is testament to the force of his personality and his ability as a warrior and leader. He founded some twenty cities and his spreading of Greek culture resulted in a new Hellenistic civilisation. Few men who ever lived can have had such an influence on the world. I want to know what that sort of god-like charisma looks like in person (though I might not invite my wife to dinner).
Harald Hardrada. For the age, Hardrada was incredibly far-travelled and experienced. He lived a life filled with war, fighting on land and sea from Scandinavia eastward through Russia to Byzantium, where he rose to lead the Varangians, the Emperor’s elite bodyguard. For thirty-five years he slaughtered his enemies and yet he was a keen poet who was even composing on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge, where he finally fell in 1066. He was a giant of a man and his favourite possession was his raven banner, Landwaster. For me there’s something intriguing about a man who must have been more sophisticated and widely travelled than his countrymen, whilst also being the most feared warrior in Europe. Basically, he’s the ultimate Viking, so if he’s round for dinner it’s going to be a memorable night. Plus, I’d like to know what he made of The Last Viking, the film Philip Stevens and I made about him: http://bit.ly/LastViking.
Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is invited because, like Alexander, he was able to inspire thousands upon thousands of men to fight and die for him. A man of great intellect, vision and drive, Bonaparte was one of the greatest and most successful military commanders in history (Wellington said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 soldiers). Bonaparte’s ambition and drive was beyond extraordinary and I admire his belief in a meritocracy and hard work. Indeed, historians regularly praise the talent and vigour which took him from an obscure village to commander of most of Europe. There’s no doubt his influence on the modern world has been huge, but ultimately Bonaparte’s ambition proved his undoing, and there is something of the flawed genius about him which is intriguing. And standing at 5ft 6in tall, I’d very much like to see him standing next to Harald Hardrada, who was a mountain of a man and likely well over six feet. Although, I am beginning to worry about the egos around this dinner table, and I’m not sure my next guest is going to tone that down any.
Elvis Presley. Just to lighten the mood slightly. Again, off the chart charisma, as well as an incredible voice and someone whose influence on popular music and performers can hardly be overstated. One of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, Elvis was a hero of my father and we grew up listening to his music. My dad, who sang in a rock ‘n’ roll revival band for many years, would sing an Elvis Presley song at any given opportunity. We even visited Graceland for my Dad’s 60th, which was an amazing and strangely moving experience. But when all is said and done, despite very humble beginnings Elvis went on to become the biggest-selling solo recording artist in history. Just yesterday I listened to If I Can Dream on my dad’s original 1956 model Wurlitzer jukebox. You just don’t get that authentic sound from an MP3 or smartphone.
YOUR NEXT BOOK IS ABOUT LANCELOT AND THE ARTHURIAN MYTHS. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THAT PROJECT? WHY LANCELOT? ARE YOU STICKING TO A GROUNDED HISTORICAL SETTING? OR IS THERE AN ELEMENT OF THE FANTASTIC ABOUT THE STORY YOU ARE TELLING?
I’ve been sitting on the idea of LANCELOT for nearly five years. The Arthurian myth, in its many forms, is an enduring and world-famous story, and because of this there are countless King Arthur novels out there. But I don’t think we’ve heard much, if anything, about Lancelot. So, there’s my angle. Lancelot, the best of Arthur’s warriors. Lancelot, the great lover. Lancelot, the man whose affair with his best friend’s wife brought down a kingdom. A reputation like that gives me a lot to work with! Twenty years ago, the first in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles was published. To this day those books remain my favourite ever trilogy, as well as being the only novels of Arthur that I have read. They were a huge influence on me and were probably responsible for making me take my first serious steps on the long road to becoming a published author. And yet as much as I loved them, my story has almost nothing in common. That’s the great thing about the Arthurian myth – it’s so varied and complicated and contradictory, with myriad strands heading off in all sorts of directions, that you can pretty much do your own thing. Although, like Cornwell’s trilogy, LANCELOT is set in a Dark Ages Britain and there is no overt magic in the sense of dragons or goblins or whatever. There is a kind of magic in my book, but you’ll have to wait and see what that’s all about. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a story of friendship, love and war. And, in some ways, it’ll be unlike anything I’ve written before. Oh, and it’ll be one volume, one big book, rather than a trilogy.