I'll happily say it: James Aitcheson is one of my favourite authors. His tales of Norman derring-do and plotting in the years after the conquest of England have continually impressed since I picked up his first, Sworn Sword, in 2011. Through the Welsh Marches in The Splintered Kingdom and ranging across East Anglia, Viking Dublin, and the Western Isles in The Knights of the Hawk, the Conquest Trilogy allowed me to experience the hard life of the frontier warrior alongside Aitcheson's hot-headed hero Tancred.
His latest, The Harrowing, is something of a departure for the Heron-published author. In this tale, a group of five people made refugees by war travel through the post-apocalyptic world of Northumbria following the devastating Harrying of the North. In his own words: "Priest, lady, servant, warrior, minstrel: each has their own story; each their own sin. As enemies past and present close in, their prior deeds catch up with them and they discover there is no sanctuary from fate."
In this interview I want to see what the inspirational quotes of some of literature’s most famous sons and daughters can entice from one of the most outstanding historical writers working today. How will James reflect on the well-known words of Melville, Wells and Fitzgerald? What will literature’s most famous lines reveal?
“Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world”
When I graduated from Cambridge ten years ago, having studied History, I had little idea what I wanted to do with my career. However, I’d always written fiction from a very young age and had long harboured ambitions of becoming a novelist, and so while most of my friends were looking for graduate jobs, I enrolled on the highly respected MA in Creative Writing programme at Bath Spa University.
Over the course of a year on the programme, I developed the concept for a novel set in post-1066 England: a period I’d specialised in during my studies. This project subsequently evolved into my first book, Sworn Sword, which was published in 2011, and I’ve been writing full-time since then. Compared to my peers, I’ve taken quite an unconventional career path and one that hasn’t been without its challenges, but it’s been an extremely rewarding experience: a journey of exploration both personal and creative.
To paraphrase another well-known writer: taking the path less travelled by has certainly made all the difference.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
Much of medieval history is defined by the deeds of men: of kings and lords, bishops and priests and monks. The majority of our written sources for the period are written by men, and women rarely feature as principal actors in the narratives that have been handed down to us. While writing my Conquest Trilogy (of which Sworn Sword is the first instalment), I was very conscious that my protagonist, the Norman knight Tancred, operated in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment revolving around military matters, and that it was always a challenge to find significant roles for female characters.
In my latest novel, The Harrowing, I made a conscious effort to redress the balance by placing women at the forefront. My protagonist is Tova, a fourteen-year-old English maidservant caught up in the convulsions that followed the Norman Conquest of England. Above all else the novel concerns her struggle to survive through the many upheavals that 1066 heralded.
Tova is not a shaper of events; she is one of the countless many who exist in the margins of history, anonymous and unacknowledged by the chroniclers of the age. But then I’m less interested in the affairs of kings and queens and nobles than I am in giving voice to ordinary people, and examining how they might have responded to and coped with events beyond their control. Those are the sorts of stories that seem to me most worthwhile telling.
“It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning”
Novel-writing is an iterative process. Very rarely does a passage emerge perfectly first time; usually it requires several redrafts – sometimes major overhauls, sometimes minor tweaks – before it’s right. It’s important for me to step away from the manuscript in order to be able to assess it properly. What might appear to be a stroke of genius one evening can seem banal the next morning when I return to it with fresh eyes after a night’s sleep.
It’s not unknown for me to dive headlong into a new project with a rush of enthusiasm, only to have to backtrack later when it becomes clear that the avenue I’m pursuing in fact leads to a dead end. During the early stages of writing my third novel, Knights of the Hawk, I deleted 15,000 of my first 30,000 words, having realised I’d made a wrong turn early on and that I wasn’t happy with the route the plot was taking. But that’s simply part and parcel of the writing process; I don’t consider the weeks I spent writing all those words to have been time wasted, and I never get sentimental about those sections I consign to oblivion.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind”
The most common questions I’m asked as a historical novelist all concern research. Where do I get my ideas from? What are my methods? How do I locate the relevant sources? How long do I spend reading around my subject before I begin writing?
The fact is that research is by far the least challenging, least time-consuming and least exciting part of all the work that goes into writing a novel. Authenticity is essential, but there is so much scholarship to absorb that one could spend years engrossed in a period and still only grasp a fraction of the information necessary to recreate it faithfully in every single aspect.
An excess of knowledge can sometimes stifle imagination. My advice to novice writers looking to get started in historical fiction or indeed in any genre – strange as this might sound coming from a History graduate – is not to get hung up on research. Begin with the story concept and acquire the necessary knowledge based around the demands of the plot, rather than attempt to build an encyclopaedic comprehension of your subject before you set out on your writing journey.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
I’ve never been afraid of going against the current, and in my work I’ve always tried to do things a little differently to others working in the historical genre. In making the hero of my Conquest Trilogy a Norman knight, I wanted to challenge readers’ preconceptions about the period and show that the events of 1066 and the years that followed were more morally complex than is usually recognised: the battle for England was certainly not a straightforward struggle of good versus evil.
Similarly with The Harrowing, I wanted to break away from the action-centred military-historical subgenre and attempt something more ambitious. The novel is a composite of five viewpoints – of which Tova’s is one – each offering a different perspective on an especially brutal phase of the Norman Conquest known as the Harrying of the North. Alternating between present and past tense, and written in a generally terser style than my earlier work, its influences – which include Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood – lie more in contemporary than in historical fiction.
I continue to be fascinated by the Middle Ages, and see myself exploring it for some time to come. My next project is still under wraps, but in the same vein I hope it will break with some of the conventions of historical fiction and offer something distinctive – something that has never been seen before.
Ruadh: Many thanks James - and the very best of luck with the new publication!