Today it is my great pleasure to welcome to my blog, author Edoardo Albert, with whom I share a love of seventh century Northumbria.
I remember the first time I heard of Edoardo. It was during the London Book Fair 2014. My agent was pushing my book, The Serpent Sword there, so I was following with interest what was going on at the fair, even though I didn’t attend it. Imagine my surprise (some would say horror) to see Albert's book Edwin, the first in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, being launched at the LBF. For anyone who doesn’t know, The Serpent Sword begins towards the end of Edwin’s reign, and my second book, The Cross and the Curse picks up with the reign of King Oswald. So, seeing that Albert had got his book out there before mine had even been pitched to publishers felt like a real punch in the stomach. As time went on, I decided to look on the bright side. If he could get a book deal for books set in 7th century Northumbria, then so could I! There was clearly enough interest out there. Having read Edwin, I know that our approaches are very different, and I’m sure there is plenty of room for both of us on people’s book shelves.
I think the horror was mutual! There I was, thinking I'd got 7th-century Northumbria all to myself, and then I saw your blog and Twitter. If I remember right, my first reaction was 'Oh, bugger.' Followed by a string of muttered words deriving straight from Old English. Still, it's interesting how ideas can, as it were, be in the air, to be caught by a number of different people. Have you ever read Jasper Fforde's brilliant Thursday Next novels? They're set in an alternate England where a few people can enter the parallel literary universe - and some book characters can come into the 'real' world. I still cherish the image of Miss Havisham, cheroot in mouth, brandishing a sawn-off shotgun as she finishes off ne'er-do-wells. Anyway, the point of this is that at the time Fforde was writing the first of these books, I was working on a short story where literary characters also were real, living beings, inhabiting a parallel universe. Only Fforde's work was much, much better than mine!
Hopefully, our shared inspiration might mean that we've tapped into some aspect of the zeitgeist, meaning that there should be more than enough room for your Northumbrians and my Northumbrians. To readers of Matthew's blog - and to the man himself - I must now make a shameful admission: I have not (yet) read The Serpent Sword. I wanted to, I intended to, and then my publisher asked me to read a novel they were set to publish about Hild of Whitby. I did so, but only just - reading another writer's take on 'my' characters was, for me, intensely, extraordinarily disorientating. It felt as if my mental map of people and places was being subtly pulled out of true. So, herewith my apology: I will read The Serpent Sword (and The Cross and the Curse) but only after I finish writing Oswiu: King of Kings, the final volume in my Northumbrian Thrones trilogy. Actually, by then it will probably be a relief to set these characters free!
Tell us a bit about how you chose the period and how you went about getting published.
You might guess from my name that half of me is Italian. What's not so obvious is that the other half is Sri Lankan (and that half is split between Sinhala and Tamil) - the surname comes from an attempt by a great grandfather to ingratiate himself with our colonial masters. So, not a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in me. What's more, I was born and brought up in London and, like most Londoners, deep in my bones I really, truly thought the country ended somewhere around junction 10 on the M1. So how did I end up writing about 7th-century Northumbria? Well, my wife's sister is married to an archaeologist, Paul Gething, who is director of the ongoing excavations in and around Bamburgh Castle, the Bamburgh Research Project (note for any budding archaeologists: you can sign up to work on the dig when it's active during the summer). Paul kept on inviting us up to Northumberland to see the dig and, in the end, I ran out of excuses. So, in 2002, we drove up from London - I realised I was getting into the north when, somewhere after Doncaster, a loft of racing pigeons matched our car, wing beat for wheel turn, for some thirty miles as we drove up the A1. Those birds were fast! We were doing a steady 70mph and they paced us.
The pigeons found their loft and we turned up the road from Seahouses towards Bamburgh and - you know those cartoons where a character's mouth drops to the floor in amazement? That was me. For ahead of us, squatting upon the great lump of dolerite that forms part of the Great Whin Sill - a layer of magma that squeezed between rock layers 295 million years ago and set hard - was Bamburgh Castle, commanding land and sea and sky. It was an epiphany. And then, when I stood on the vast beach in front of the castle and saw, out to sea, the Farne Islands, alive with swirling birds, and to the north Lindisfarne Castle upon another outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, I realised I had happened upon one of the most extraordinary places in the British Isles.
Talking to Paul and the other archaeologists, I swiftly learned just how extraordinary. The Bamburgh Research Project has been digging on and around the castle since the late '90s, but already their findings have done much to bring about a complete reconsideration of the role Northumbria played in Early Medieval England. But Bamburgh has been settled for much, much longer than that. Before Doggerland was drowned by the tsunami triggered by the Storegga Slide, neolithic hunters sat upon the rock, looking east over the land of rivers and marsh that connected Britain to Europe, while they marked the movement of the herds of bison and deer.
I got so excited by all Paul and his colleagues had discovered, I asked why they hadn't written a book about it. Turned out, a publisher, the History Press, had already asked them to do so, but Paul had simply been too busy. By the time I learned this, we'd made a number of trips to Northumberland, heading up the A1 most summers (although we never raced pigeons again), and the crash had crashed down upon the publishing industry, putting an end to my job as a journalist and editor at Time Out. So, with more time on my hands than was good for me, I suggested to Paul that we co-write a book about the history and archaeology of Northumbria, with him providing the knowledge and me doing the words. I went along to the London Book Fair and spoke to the people at the History Press, and they gave the project the go ahead. So, in 2012, my first book was published: Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom.
But in writing Northumbria, I learned of the stories of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Even at the time, I thought their successive reigns made an extraordinary story arc - so much so that I was sure someone must have written about them before. But, it turned out, no one had.
Now, this might be interesting to you and the readers who have followed your path towards getting an agent and then, when the agent could not find a publisher for The Serpent Sword, self-publishing with great success and a view towards landing a publisher for the next volume in the Bernicia Chronicles. I took a different tack. I'm a writer with a publisher (well, four publishers at last count) but without an agent. I first went to the London Book Fair in 2010 and I struck lucky that year: 2010 was the year of the Icelandic volcanic dust cloud, when all air traffic was halted, and that meant that half the people who were meant to come to the LBF2010 couldn't make it. And that meant that the people on the stands were desperate to talk to anybody - even writers! OK, I didn't get far with the Random Houses of this world, but I made some good contacts with smaller and medium-sized publishers, which lead to Northumbria for the History Press, and the start of a series of short biographies of major figures in Islamic history for Kube Publishing.
Building on that, I returned to the London Book Fair (I now had something to show people) and, among others, approached Lion Hudson, suggesting I do something similar for them as I had for Kube. But, as luck would have it, turned out they were launching a new fiction imprint, and seeing that I could actually write, they asked me rather for ideas for novels. I sent back three: a young adult novel set around Bamburgh; an urban fantasy/theological thriller (Charles Williams with jokes); and the suggestion for the Northumbrian trilogy.
What's particularly interesting, from a writer's point of view, is the thought a publisher puts into choosing what to publish. It's not just a case of reading a book and loving it. No, the ideas (and then the first three chapters of Edwin) went to marketing, PR, the editorial team, just about everybody. The key questions were, one, was it any good, and, two, could they sell it?
Marketing and PR came back with the answer that publishing Edwin was a 'no brainer', so, there I was. In a world where every single manual for writers seems to say that having an agent is essential, I'd signed a three-book deal with Lion. What's more, while attending an archaelogical conference, I'd got speaking to an editor at Amberley Publishing and they later approached me, asking if I'd be interested in writing a book for them. Which was how I came to write my biography, In Search of Alfred the Great, with Dr Katie Tucker, the archaeologist leading the search for King Alfred's mortal remains.
So, I would say there is still space for a proactive writer to manage his or her own career, in partnership with a publisher or publishers, but without necessarily having an agent. However, this is a long, hard slog; you have to be prepared to put in the legwork, to use every connection and contact you can make, to take rejection and downright rudeness with equanimity or at least the resolution to show the bastards, and to keep going on and on and on… Rather like this interview!
I notice that your publisher, Lion, is a Christian publisher. How important has that fact been in your writing of Edwin and Oswald (and next, Oswiu)? They are all important kings in the rise of Christianity, but does your publisher insist in any way that the religious element of their stories is pushed to the fore in the novels?
As I mentioned above, I approached Lion because I thought they would be interested in doing something similar to what I had already written for Kube. However, when they asked for novel proposals, the fact that Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu are probably the three key kings in the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was certainly of interest to them, as it fitted with their own brief. But I must make clear that Lion have in no way tried to pressure me to make the books fit a 'Christian' template - quite the opposite in fact. Speaking to them, one of the key things Lion is trying to do with their fiction imprint is to get away from the idea of 'Christian fiction' that has become popular in America, where problems mount up and then everything is solved at the last minute by the wave of a Bible and a sudden conversion. Think on writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and JRR Tolkien: all three Christians, whose faith informed and moulded their work, but there is no sense reading them that you are being hit over the head with a folded Bible. That is what Lion is looking for, and what I hope I have done.
And a more personal question – are you at all religious? Is this what drew you to these kings?
Yes. But it's been a rolling road, via childhood and youthful atheism, an early interest in the occult, neo-Platonism, comparative religion and, finally, back to where I started from. Is that what drew me to these kings? In part, I suppose, but more it is the fact that conflict is the driver of stories and here, in their tales, you have a conflict of world views, of civilisations, as well as the ordinary motivations of revenge and glory and honour.
Also, I wanted to understand the conversion. There's a tendency among writers today to romanticise the pagan Anglo-Saxons but the simple fact is that, when faced with a choice between paganism and Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons freely chose Christianity. Now, it was by no means a straightforward process, with all sorts of factors coming into play, but this was no conversion at the point of a sword. So, why did they do it? We have very few sources for the nature of Anglo-Saxon paganism, so our understanding of the religion is a reconstruction. But obviously, in the 7th century, men like Edwin and Oswald had the real, live religion all around them - they had been brought up in it and they knew paganism for what it was. So, why did they change, and adopt the religion of the Britons, the people their forefathers had defeated? I'd suggest this is deeply mysterious - and quite fascinating. So, in these books, I set out to try to propose some answers to this question. And, what's more, there's lots of swords and battles too!
I also think there are clear and interesting parallels to our own day, when we see and read about clashes of world views and religions: we are living in a time of transition as much as Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu were.
Tell us a bit about your latest novel, Oswald and the Northumbrian Thrones series.
Oswald: Return of the King begins with the exiled ætheling of Bernicia, who is living on the Isle of Iona, learning that his uncle, King Edwin - the man who had killed his father - has been killed and the kingdom, Northumbria, is being ravaged. Oswald is faced with the choice of remaining in the north west, with the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada and the monks of Iona, or returning to attempt to claim the throne. The book tells Oswald's story: how he chooses to return and wins the throne, and then sets about the conversion of his people, and the forces ranged against him.
I'm sure, if there had been any betting men in the 7th century wagering on whether the Anglo-Saxons would stay pagan or become Christian, the clever money would have gone on them continuing pagan. Augustine's mission to Kent had stalled and all but withered away after the death of the king who invited him; kingdoms that had accepted Christianity (Kent, Essex) were reverting to paganism, and there was still the open question of why should conquerors accept the religion of the people they had conquered. Oswald is the key that unlocks this mystery.
Were there any surprises for you while writing these books?
How fast I could go when my back was up against the wall and deadlines were approaching! I wrote Edwin in four months and Oswald, which is longer, in three!
Which of these three Northumbrian kings do you like most?
The one I'm writing about at the time! But I do have a sneaking fondness for Edwin.
What writer or book has had the biggest influence on your work?
My favourite writers are JRR Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Evelyn Waugh and CS Lewis. Their biggest influence is my vain hope to some day come somewhere near matching them (although, clearly, I have also shamelessly nicked from Tolkien in the title of Oswald: Return of the King; my only defence is that Tolkien writes of Oswald in his seminal essay, Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics and there are clear parallels between his life and Aragorn's).
What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer is the writing - as simple as that.
The worst thing is the poverty - very few writers make a living from writing and I'm certainly not yet in that category.
What is the best book you've read in the last twelve months?
Definitely Godric by Frederick Buechner. It's a slim book, only about 150 pages, telling the story, in the first person, of an obscure saint, Godric of Finchale, who lived from 1065 to 1170. But the language… The best I can do is quote a bit:
'Here are the sounds of Wear. It rattles stone on stone. It sucks its teeth. It sings. It hisses like the rain. It roars. It laughs. It claps its hands. Sometimes I think it prays. In winter, through the ice, I've seen it moving swift and black as Tune, without a sound.
'Here are the sights of Wear. It falls in braids. It parts at rocks and tumbles round them white as down or flashes over them in silver quilts. It tosses fallen trees like bits of straw yet spins a single leaf as gentle as a maid. Sometimes it coils for rest in darkling pools and sometimes it leaps its banks and shatters in the air. In autumn, I've seen it breathe a mist so thick and grey you'd never know old Wear was there at all.'There, what do you think? Extraordinary, no? I'd almost say, go out and read this book over any of mine.
What is the most exciting experience you've had as a result of writing?
The final full stop!
Once you have completed the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, what’s next? More historical fiction? Or something else entirely?
Even while writing the Northumbrian Thrones I've been doing other things. In between Edwin and Oswald I wrote my biography of Alfred the Great. And then, after finishing Oswald, I wrote - and have just finished - London: A Spiritual History and, in the process, I suspect invented an entirely new genre: hageography. You know how Peter Ackroyd and Will Self and others have been writing psychogeography? This is the intersection between mysticism, magic and myth, filtered through general and personal history. Once I've written Oswiu - at the moment, I don't know. A deep breath I should think!
And now for the quick-fire questions:
Tea or coffee?
Burger or hot dog?
Villain or hero?
Beer or wine?
Movie or TV series?
Happy ending or tragedy?
In the car, audio-book or music?
On my own, audio-book; with family, music
Thank you very much, Edoardo, for taking the time to answer my questions and let's hope the interest in seventh century Northumbria continues!
Connect to Edoardo Albert: