Thursday 17 September 2015


Of all the novels I read while writing The Serpent Sword, two stand out in my memory: The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth and Shieldwall, by Justin Hill. Both are set later in history than my Bernicia Chronicles, but they stood out for each using language to evoke the time and place of Anglo-Saxon England. The Wake is quite radical, with a so-called “shadow tongue” used by Kingsnorth. A mixture of Old English and modern English to conjure up a “word-scape” of what it might have been like to live and talk in England a thousand years ago.

Justin Hill’s writing is easier to digest, but his love of the language of the period shines through each page of Shieldwall. His use of words that are firmly rooted in Old English and his poetic cadences that bring to mind the epic phrases of Beowulf, elevate the book beyond other novels set in the same era. I once joked when editing The Serpent Sword, that I could see the point when I had started to read Shieldwall during the writing -- my prose suddenly got better! Justin Hill’s writing is powerful and poignant. Few writers make me revel in the language they use in the way that Hill does in Shieldwall.

So, having explained that I am a fan, it should come as no surprise that I am extremely happy that Justin has agreed to do an interview with me. I hope you enjoy reading his responses as much as I did.

Your first books were about exotic (at least to me!) locations, such as Eritrea and China. What made you choose to write Shieldwall, which is set in England in the 11th century?

Well, first of all, thank you so much for the comments about Shieldwall. The initial inspiration for the book was the language I would use in telling. It sets the mental geography for the reader. It’s subtle, but hugely important part of the book.

With the exotic locations – well, I spent my twenties avoiding a career. I worked as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer for most of that time, and so the books I was writing were largely based or inspired on the places I was living.

Shieldwall was a home-coming, in many ways. I’d always loved the Anglo Saxon and Viking periods of history, and I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer who only wrote about exotic foreign places and so had been looking for an English story.

Having grown up in Yorkshire, in the 1980s, with both sides of my family having grown up in mining villages, I’d originally tried a novel that portrayed life twenty years after the miner’s strike. It didn’t really work. The first few chapters of that novel are languishing on a hard drive somewhere.
I was living in Ireland at the time, and there was a lot of talk about ‘800 years of English oppression.’ It seemed a little lazy, historically, as the first 200 odd years were Norman, not English oppression, and then it seemed that of all the countries subdued by the Normans in the early medieval period, it was the English who had lost most: our language, literature and literary traditions, our geo-political position spanning the Scandinavia and Europe.

No one had written about that period, and so I started looking at the Battle of Hastings, and the story grew from there. It was clear that the story of Hastings had to start with the Danish Conquest of 1016, as it puts into play the characters and storylines that end in 1066.

Shieldwall is part of a trilogy. Tell us a bit about the other books. When are they due out and at what stage of the writing process are you at?

Yes, Shieldwall was originally planned as the first of a trilogy, but I am open to a longer sequence of books. I’m finishing up the second book, which is working under the name Viking Fire. It picks up the threads from Shieldwall, and carries them forward. It is the story, essentially, of Harald Hardrada, commonly thought of as the last Viking.

You have recently written the novelization for sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Green Legend. How did you go about getting that gig and how has it affected you as a writer?

I’m on a fairly short list of writers who have written successfully about modern and historical China. I also knew the agent for Wang Dulu’s family (the writer of the original novels) and so I think I was a fairly obvious choice.

It was very liberating to work on. Firstly it was a pleasure to be back in the Chinese landscape and working within a landscape which I could embroider with all the fabulous wealth of Chinese traditions.

The biggest impact it had was exploding everything I thought I knew about writing. I’d previously said that I couldn’t write a book if I knew what was going to happen at all stages of the story. Essentially, the writing process was as much a journey of discovery for me as it was for the readers. With Crouching Tiger, I was given a copy of the script, and asked to plan out a synopsis of the novel.
The script wasn’t long enough to base a whole story, so I went back to the original Chinese novels, and framed something that linked to the first film, and then continued along the path of the script.
The other challenge was that there were only six months to finish the whole novel, so I cleared the decks and powered through, finishing 8,000 odd words a week to get the first draft done.
It was incredibly invigorating to be doing something so fresh and original, and I’m hoping to bring some of that speed and efficiency into my future writing. I’m generally frustrated by how long it takes me to write a book, so would love to speed this process up.

How did the process of writing based on a screenplay work? What was the biggest surprise for you while writing The Green Legend?

A film script was couriered to me from LA. Each page had my name printed across it so I kept it under lock and key as I worked on a synopsis.

We were looking for a style vaguely along the lines of Game of Thrones set in China, so I worked on a few style pieces, to make sure we were all happy with the tone and style, and then I worked on the overall synopsis.

We’re all familiar with the way the screen condenses stories; this worked the other way round. The script was too short for a full length novel, so I went back to the original books and brought in some of the storylines from that. The original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was based on the fourth of five books, but it deviated from the books in some major ways.

I worked to make it all comprehensible and cohesive.

You lived until recently in Hong Kong where you taught at university. You have now returned to the UK. Are you planning on being a full-time writer now, or will you be teaching again, or perhaps you have other plans?

I’ve decided to go back to writing full-time. There’s a lot on my plate, but it’s an exciting time for historical novels, so I’m aiming to get the books out better and faster.

I’m really enjoying being back in the UK – especially the change of the seasons. Hong Kong doesn’t do seasons in the same way – I’m watching the first couple of trees that are starting to turn. I can’t wait for autumn and winter.

I’m hoping all the changes will feed into the writing…

What writer or book has had the biggest influence on your work?

Undoubtedly JRR Tolkien in that he turned me from a slow reader who liked kits of batteries and light bulbs, to one who devoured books.  I remember being amazed by the way Tolkien created a fantastical world which still felt so real. I closed Lord of the Rings and thought ‘I want to do that!’
So, at ten years old I went from wanting to be a fireman to wanting to write books. I never changed my mind. That was a huge help, I think, in actually getting published. Single-mindedness and stubborn determination.

My reading varies wildly, though. I loved the work of David Gemmell and Julian May as a teenager. At university Thomas Hardy completely bewitched me. I think the next gob-smacking moment was discovering the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Tang Dynasty Chinese poets, who remain a great source of inspiration.

Now I’m very eclectic in my reading. I read pulp, literary fiction, academic literature (often an oxymoron!) poetry and histories. At the moment I’m reading English Historical Documents Volume I, which covers the years up to 1042.

I like to hear characters voices in the original. They speak to you more directly.

What are the best and worst things about being a writer?

The best thing is the first page of a novel, when anything can happen. It is the five star review on Amazon, when someone gets and loves the book. It is the email from a reader. It is the sweaty palmed reader who waits to talk to you after a reading. It is the first public reading of a new novel, when the audience goes silent, and the for the first time the book comes alive in the minds of an audience.

The worst thing – huh – not sure I can think of anything. The pay, perhaps: but we don’t write for pay.

What is the best book you've read in the last twelve months?

It has to be Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. I found Wolf Hall too easy to put down and not pick up again, and still haven’t got to the end, but Bring Up the Bodies was a much more focused and compelling book with all the literary flourishes of Thomas Cromwell.

What is the most exciting experience you've had as a result of writing?

My first novel – The Drink and Dream Teahouse – was an explosion of all kinds of themes and ideas.  It was six months from beginning to end, and in some ways it’s as good as anything I’ve written since. It’s ballsy, confident, ignorant and na├»ve in a way many first novels are, and went onto be a Washington Post Book of the Year, which was all an extraordinary experience.

Once you have completed the Conquest trilogy, what’s next? More historical fiction? More film adaptations? Or something else entirely?

I don’t see myself exclusively as a historical novelist, so have a lot of interesting ideas. I find it takes me a long time to bring together my ideas and themes for a modern novel, so they’re a long time coming. I’d like to write about Hong Kong, which would be a modern novel. But I’d also like to go back to non-fiction. What gets called Creative Non Fiction, CNF, these days. Not sure what that would be – but I’m thinking something along the lines of an almanac.

And now for the quick-fire questions:

Tea or coffee?

Tea. Jasmine tea, or Yorkshire Gold.

Burger or hot dog?


Villain or hero?


Beer or wine?

Wine. Preferably a Pomerol or a Chablis Grand Cru. Or even better, one of each.

Movie or TV series?

TV series. Sopranos style.

Happy ending or tragedy?

Tragedy. Bitter sweet like Lord of the Rings, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

In the car, audio-book or music?

Music. Sing a long stuff.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and for all the support you have given this debut novelist!

Connect with Justin Hill:
Amazon Author Homepage

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