Where do I find the time?
I once read that all human beings spend a third of their time fantasizing/day-dreaming. I suppose I use my one-third in dreaming up plots, characters and new novels! I was blessed with a fairly formidable classical education. I loved reading and used to devour Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Stevenson, etc. In my youth Penguin started bringing out the classics so Herodotus and others joined the list. My novels are often inspired by something I read years ago. As a boy, I read the abridged version of Marco Polo’s life. I’ll never forget his dying words: the great traveller was challenged that he’d exaggerated what he’d seen in China. Marco Polo replied that he hadn’t told them the half of it! What an invitation to a story-teller, to speculate on the things he may have omitted! I write in the early morning and evening, I always make time for it, and a little bit every day soon adds up.
Do I enjoy researching my novels?
This is one of the best aspect of novel writing, particularly historical mysteries. I will read whatever I can get my hands on, particularly non-fiction. They can give you a great deal of inspiration. E.g. I read about 17th century Japanese daimyo that had a contract taken out on him by the Ninja. (Yes, they did exist!). He built himself a special palace with a nightingale gallery so, when anyone ever walked along it, the gallery sang and he would know someone was coming. I wrote a novel entitled THE NIGHTINGALE GALLERY but transported the scene to 14th century England.
I particularly love the stories about “the undergrowth of history”, those items which are footnotes or even omitted by official historians. For example, the con-man who persuaded Henry VIII to fund a marvellous way of defending England against the French fleet. The man claimed he would build a massive series of mirrors along the South Coast and they would catch the rays of the sun and set the French fleet alight. The Exchequer believed this. Of course, they never saw the man or their money again! When I did my Doctorate at Oxford, I was intrigued by the relationship between Edward II and the de Spencer family and the chroniclers’ assertion that the whole community as a realm took an oath that no de Spencer would ever become King! Or that Edward II’s corpse is not buried in the beautiful sarcophagus in Gloucester Cathedral.
Why did I set my Amerotke novels in ancient Egypt?
I actually began THE MASK OF RA 32 years ago when I was studying to be a Catholic priest in Ushaw College (in Durham). I was enthralled by the Tutankhamen Exhibition which led me on to Egyptian literature, particularly their letters and love poetry. (There is a marvellous edition by the University of Texas Press). It’s not so much the Pyramids or the Sphinx which motivated me but their writing which brings this glorious civilisation to life.
I studied Middle Eastern literature and was fascinated by Pharaoh Akenhaten who believed in a single deity, declared all life was sacred and even told his troops not to fight the enemy. It’s the thought processes of the ancient Egyptians rather than their monuments which really fascinates me. Publication of THE MASK OF RA was a fulfilment of a dream and I have continued to recreate Ancient Egypt of the 18th Dynasty in a series of books.
What is so fascinating about mediaeval England?
What I particularly like is the contrast of light and dark, the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and the narrow evil smelling alleyways of the cities or the lonely track ways of the countryside. Chaucer was my key to this era: he introduces a wide array of characters who really existed: corrupt pardoners, fornicating friars, malicious monks, villainous pardoners and saintly parsons. It was a time of great prayer as well as hideous violence, of courtly ideals yet violent practices, of great innovation as well as deep rooted prejudice. If the cast of characters are compelling so are the sets: lonely castles, claustrophobic villages, Gothic monasteries, turbulent, exciting towns. A time when people rejoiced in the light and feared the coming darkness. A marvellous period for a novelist to explore!
And the difficulty of research?
You owe it to your reader to do your very best. They, in turn, must expect surprises. A critic once asked was there ice in ancient Egypt? Well of course there was. Anyone who’s been in the Middle East for the first time will tell you they don’t know which they fear the most, the dry heat of the day or the hideous cold of the desert night. We tend to think of development, that the present is always better than the past, that’s not always true; just compare the stolid worth of a house built in 1900 to some of our modern houses so hastily erected! Moreover, Roger Bacon in the 13th century conceived of machines which could go under the sea, as well as ones which could fly from the air; he simply lacked the technology and the material resources to carry it through.
What have you planned for the future?
At this moment in time I am finishing the last Athelstan ‘The Mansion of Murder’. And I have yet to decide whether to go back to Corbett or the glories of Ancient Egypt. I am also seriously looking at doing a series of novels around the Lady Margaret Beaufort and her circle. In my view, Minister General was a very astute, brilliant politician who played a decisive role in the fall of the House of York and the elevation of her own son in the House of Tudor. A truly fascinating woman served by a coterie of ruthless, dedicated intriguers.