Interview: Steven A. McKay, Author of Wolf's Head

The Wolf’s Head is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The first book in the series is the story of how Robin Hood, a normal man, becomes an outlaw to save himself and in the process gets entangled in national politics. The book was self-published and is a bestseller in UK.  Here is my interview with Steven A. McKay.

JK: The legend of Robin Hood has been around for centuries. Countless books have been written and numerous movies have been made. In fact I found that there was a movie made as recent as 2013. So what made you decide that this is a subject you want to tackle?

I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur books, and I wanted to do something similar, with a similar kind of hero. I’m from Great Britain, so I wanted to base my book here. I had these ideas but couldn’t think of a good character to base my series around. I was in my car thinking about it, and I drove into a street and saw a house that had the name “Sherwood” which is where most Robin Hood stories are set. It was really like a message from God, I instantly thought of Robin and realised he would be the perfect guy to write about.

JK: Before reading your book, the only knowledge I had about Robin Hood was that he stole from the rich and gave it to the poor and your book stays truthful to that. But it goes to his backstory and explains how he became an outlaw. Is there a different perspective that you are bringing to the folklore?

Well, there are lots of different variations of the legend, but the majority of them, including the 2013 film, suggest Robin was a nobleman – an Earl or a returning Templar knight or something like that. But when I looked back at the very first stories ever told about Robin, he was just a regular guy. He wasn’t rich, or a Lord, or anything like that, he was just like the rest of us. So I decided to go with that and make my version of the character a normal man who gets on the wrong side of the law, which was very corrupt anyway.

The idea that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor makes sense, which is why I mostly stuck to that – the rich were the only people it was WORTH stealing from – why steal a few coins from a poor man when you could steal a lot of coins from a rich man? And, since the outlaws would need a lot of help from the local villagers, they would have had to have kept them on their side. Giving the local people food and money would have made them much more likely to help Robin and his friends.

JK: Your book is  a retelling of the Robin Hood legend set in 1321 in Yorkshire, rather than the usual 12 century in Nottingham. Why is this important?

It’s important in terms of how I approached the story. England in 1321 was going through a lot of political upheaval and strife, so I thought it would make an interesting backdrop for the outlaws’ adventures. It’s also important because, as you say, there are a lot of movies, books, TV shows etc about Robin Hood already, and they’re all set in the 12th century so I felt I had to offer something fresh to the legend. Ultimately, it all goes back to those very first stories: to me, the “real” Robin, the guy that all these tales were told about, would have actually lived in the 14th century, not the 12th, and the stories also placed him and his men in Barnsdale, in Yorkshire. I wanted to make the novel as historically accurate as I could, so it was a simple choice to write about Yorkshire in 1321.

JK: The folks who appear in the story, Matilda, Will Scarlet, Little John…is there any historical basis to these characters?

It’s very hard – impossible! – to say with any certainty whether any of these people really lived in the form the legends speak about. Certainly, a man called Robert Hood lived around the time and was married to a girl called Matilda (Maid Marion is a much later addition to the original legend). There is also some evidence that a man that could well have been Little John came from the village of Hathersage and the sheriff, Henry de Faucumberg lived, and was the sheriff of both Nottingham and Yorkshire. In my opinion, those old stories must have been based around real people – people who fought against the corrupt lawmen and were loved by the peasants because of it. Over time, of course, their deeds were exaggerated, names subtly changed and so on, but that’s what makes the Robin Hood legend so interesting – everyone can have their own interpretation of it, because no one knows for sure what the truth is. 

JK: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books which you have read in the past few years?

Bernard Cornwell is my biggest hero in historical fiction, but I also love to read about the Romans. Douglas Jackson is great, I love his books, and he’s a Scotsman like me! Glyn Iliffe writes fantastic books about Odysseus, and he was a big influence, since he also took a well-loved legend and tried (very successfully in my opinion) to make it fresh and new. Outwith the historical stuff, I love the way David Gemmell wrote his heroes, that guy really knew how to describe a fight scene!

JK: Writing historical fiction is hard because you have to get not just the plot and characterization right, but the period detail as well. What was your preparation like? Did you spend a lot of time reading about that period to get the food, clothing and weapons right or did you focus on the plot and fill the details later?

Yes, when I first decided to write about the 14th century I read as much about the period as I could, and about the Robin Hood legend, before I even started to think about writing my novel. Graham Phillips and Professor JC Holt’s books were essential reading for the whole background. For specific things though, like maybe a character’s favourite meal, I would leave it until I’d finished the first draft then do some more in-depth research on what kind of thing they would have eaten back then. You really have to be careful, because people pick up on little things and it can ruin their enjoyment of the story. For example, in my first draft of the book, I had one of the men making a stew with potatoes – potatoes hadn’t been introduced in England at that time, and I knew that, but I’d let that slip in and only noticed as I proof-read it. It’s a minor point, but like you say, these period details are very important in creating a powerful, believable setting.

JK: At the end of the book you mention that you had collapsed various Sheriffs into one. How accurate should historical fiction be? Can the writer deliberately omit information or enhance it?

In my opinion, the most important thing is telling a great story. As you say, I decided to have just one sheriff, who will feature throughout the series, rather than having a variety of different men that readers would have to get to know. Since no one knows for sure who the REAL Sheriff in the Robin Hood legend was, I didn’t see a problem with that. I did try to have real names for the characters where I could – I spent a lot of time on that and, to be honest, probably only a tiny fraction of readers would even notice. How many readers know, or care, who the Archbishop was in 1321? Ultimately, I do think the history should be as accurate as possible, but if it makes the story better and it’s something minor then I have no problem with things being omitted or enhanced. No potatoes in stews though!

JK: Adding too much histo
rical detail can make the book look like a history book. Adding less will not transport the reader to the right period. How do you come up with the right mix of spices? Do you have any guidelines?

As I say, I steeped myself in medieval history books for a while so I got into the right frame of mind to write about the period, but in general I just write scenes as they come out then I might go back and add in something like the correct design for a coat-of-arms or a description of a medieval manor house. I’m not the type to put in too much history, because I’m not a historian. In fact, I probably know a lot more about the Romans and the Greeks than I do about medieval Britain since my Bachelor of Arts degree was built mostly on those eras. I think each writer, and indeed reader, has their own idea of how much history should be in a novel. I don’t have any guidelines other than “less is more”!

JK: Sue Grafton said this about self-published writers, “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. “ As a successful self-published author, what do you think about it?

I don’t know who Sue Grafton is, but she’s a lucky lady if she managed to find a publisher. The problem is, publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on a new writer very often these days – as everyone points out, Stephen King and JK Rowling were rejected countless times. Publishers want someone who is going to sell tens of thousands of books for them without them having to put in much effort in marketing or promotion. What does Sue Grafton suggest new writers do if they can’t find an agent or a publisher? Give up? Why should we? I don’t know, I haven’t read the interview where she said that, so I don’t know the context, but it’s the same with music. Bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica couldn’t get record deals at first, so they put their music out themselves – self-publishing basically – and now millions of people all over the world, including me, enjoy their music.

I don’t really care what Sue Grafton thinks to be honest, I’ve never heard of her until now. Does she listen to Iron Maiden?

JK: Based on your experience, what are some of the tips that you would give to someone who would like to write historical fiction other than the obvious ones like “read a lot” and “write daily” 🙂

Well I don’t suggest people write daily anyway – I only write when I feel like it! I don’t see much point in forcing myself to write every day, when much of it will end up being scrapped, so I would say you should only write when you are in the mood and have a good idea of what you’re going to be doing with the characters in that particular session. Writing is an art, not a science, so everyone can approach it however they like – just do what works and what feels right. The most important thing is that YOU enjoy what you’re writing – that’s why I don’t need to force myself to write every day. I know I’ll get it done eventually because it’s FUN! It’s a hobby, like playing Xbox, or playing guitar or playing football you know?

And don’t give up. Yes, everyone dreams of finding a publisher and becoming the next Tolkien, Dickens or Sue Grafton, but it’s so easy these days to self-publish that you CAN take your stories to people all around the world. I’ve done it, and plenty of other people have too, so take heart and get writing (when you feel like it)!

Writing Historical Fiction (11): Hilary Mantel

Over the past year I read books in the mythology retelling genre and almost all of them used modern words and idioms whichobviously does not make for a great reading experience. As you read works of writers like Iain Pears (Stone’s Fall, An Instance of the Fingerpost) or David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), you realize that there is tremendous effort involved in recreating that era. In this interview, Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel explains how she uses language to make the story authentic to the period.

I know language is said to be one of the great problems for historical novelists. It’s vital because it sets the tone, the register of the novel, and if you misjudge, your reader will flinch. But I can’t pretend I’ve ever agonised over it; the idiom seems to arrive along with the characters and the first line. I’m aware, of course, that much unconscious preparation goes on, below the line, before the first words register on the screen or the page. I think most of us working today are keen to avoid pastiche, and we privilege clarity. But if your language is totally modern, it implants the false suggestion that your characters have modern thoughts. So what you want is a flavour, a twist, like a hint of perfume or spice, which animates your plain prose and gives it a slight otherness. If you understand your characters’ world view, all the images and metaphors they might use in speech, or in the thoughts they share with the reader, will be of a piece, and all their expressions will be congruent. So I think you can’t separate the issue of language from the general effort to find out as much as you can about how their world was different from ours.[Hilary Mantel ‘like some inky clerk with a quill, scratching to keep up’]

Writing Historical Fiction (10): Geoff Nunberg

A while back, when I was reading one of those modern retellings of The Ramayana, I saw  a sentence which mentioned Rama walking through the Diwan-i-Khas and found that anachronism irritating. The Immortals of Meluha was  a collection of such anachronisms. Sometimes we need the Internet to find such oddities, but sometimes it just stands out due to lazy writing and poor editing. On NPR, Geoff Nunberg talks about this issue as well the question of historical characters speaking about modern issues instead of issues of their period.

But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don’t jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn’t have said “when push comes to shove,” and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to “step on it,” but that isn’t what’s problematic about “Downton”‘s vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren’t using them to express authentic period thoughts.

The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia, those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a period drawing room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they’d be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

Equality, prejudice, race itself. How can you have mid-19th-century characters use words like those without anachronistically evoking the connotations they have for us? To many of Lincoln’s contemporaries, and even his allies, equality still evoked alarming echoes of the French Revolution. To speak of race equality implied not just that people should all be treated alike, but that the races really were morally and intellectually equivalent.

That was an extreme and dubious proposition to all but a few radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln himself almost certainly didn’t believe it, nor did the prominent scientists of the age. In fact, race equality was the phrase the defenders of slavery used to charge that the Republicans wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation, charges that most Republicans indignantly and sincerely denied. It’s discomfiting to read the accounts of those debates in Michael Vorenberg’s “Final Freedom,” the book that Kushner chiefly drew on in depicting them.

It’s hard for us to adapt our understanding of words like equality to a 19th-century moral frame. And it’s to Kushner’s credit that there are some overtones of those attitudes in his screenplay. [Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?]

Writing Historical Fiction(9): David Gillham

David Gillham, the author of City of Women explains how he created the atmosphere of 1943 Berlin.

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.[Guest post by David Gillham: Watch, Listen, Eat]

Writing Historical Fiction(8): Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall in 2009. She won the Man Booker once again in 2012 for the sequel Bring Up the Bodies. In a Fresh Air interview, she talks about her technique

I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there, and I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are, and to look where things have gone missing. And it’s really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work, because inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there’s always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point? Every scene I go into, I’m looking for these contradictions, antagonisms, turning points, and I’m trying to find out the dramatic structure of history, if you like.[Mantel Takes Up Betrayal, Beheadings In ‘Bodies’]

You can listen to the entire interview on this page. In Guardian, she explains how she wrote Wolf Hall

After I had written the first page I was flooded by exhilaration. I am usually protective of my work, not showing it to anyone until it has been redrafted and polished. But I would have liked to walk around with an idiot grin, saying to the world: “Do you want to see my first page?” Soon the complexity of the material began to unfold. So many interpretations, so many choices, so much detail to be sifted, so much material: but then, suddenly, no material, only history’s silences, erasures. Until a late stage, what would become a trilogy was still one book. It was only when I began to explore the contest between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More that I realised I was writing the climax of a novel, not merely another chapter. The facts of history are plain enough, but the shape of the drama was late to emerge, and the triple structure later still. In my mind, the trilogy remains one long project, with its flickering patterns of light and dark, its mirrors and shadows. What I wanted to create is a story that reflects but never repeats, a sense of history listening and talking to itself.[Hilary Mantel: how I came to write Wolf Hall]