A Q&A with James Forrester / Ian Mortimer
Q: With a long career as a critically acclaimed writer of non-fiction, what prompted you to write fiction?
A: Lots of reasons but one immediately jumps to mind. I enjoy the drama of people's lives, and exploring why they make the decisions they do--whether for outward reasons (threats, physical force, etc.) or inward reasons (fear, their own prejudices, etc.). There is only so far you can push an exploration of this historically, especially with kings; so fiction is a natural form of escapism for me. And once you make that leap away from relying on a evidence base and proving your case, you realise there are all sorts of poetic understandings of the past that you can introduce into a novel but have to leave out of a non-fiction book.
Q: How important do you feel is it to be accurate when writing historical fiction?
A: This is a hard question to answer: it needs a whole book! Briefly, it depends on the plot, its location, its political nature, things like that. A writer's accuracy is a bit like a diet in that he/she has to try things out to see what works for him or her. For example, I am quite happy to invent a character if a certain sort of character is needed for dramatic tension--and in that inventiveness I am throwing away all pretence of accuracy--but I consider it very important to get the character right. I myself consider it equally important to be accurate with regard to social detail. If a Catholic man walked into a tavern in 1563 and saw meat being roasted on a spit in Lent, he would be appalled--and for this not to be remarked on in a modern story would show a lack of understanding of the period on the part of the author, and thus question the author's engagement with the period.
Q: Your first novel Sacred Treason begins in 1563, during the reign of Elizabeth, the last of the Tudor dynasty. What is it about this period that fascinates you as a writer?
A: All the human past fascinates me--at least, all the past that I can imagine and sympathise with. I could just as happily write about Roman Britain or twentieth-century textile workers. As long as there was some drama to their lives. But the 1560s have several particular advantages. The political situation is sufficiently removed from our own that we can simplify its threats and opportunities for the sake of an exciting story. Its ‘differentness' also allows us to escape our modern technologically maddening, resource-constrained era. I like the environment of the pre-industrial past, in which people can be lost somewhere and not tracked by GPS signals or thermal imaging or Internet usage. Also it is possible to picture what people looked like and how they spoke, as enough portraits, letters and literary works survive. The same cannot be said of fourteenth-century England. So it is perfect escapist platform for a novelist--different and yet not wholly alien from our own age.
Q: Your protagonist William Harley holds a unique position in Elizabethan society as a King of Arms. Can you explain to the reader a little more about this role?
A: Heralds were (and still are) members of the College of Arms, incorporated by a charter of Richard III in 1484. In medieval times they arranged tournaments and recorded knights' coats of arms for the purposes of identification. They still do the latter but modern day knights tend not to joust against each other (more's the pity). Clarenceux King of Arms was second highest-ranking of three ‘kings of arms' who were (and are) the senior heralds. The character on whom I based my story, William Harvey, was Clarenceux King of Arms in 1557 and declared war on France on behalf of the queen. So it was not all just family trees and shield designs.
Q: The plot centres on the discovery and concealment of a manuscript, a manuscript which holds a powerful secret with the potential to change the course of history. Did such a manuscript exist? If so, where is it now?
A: I can't properly answer this question without giving too much away about the story. Basically yes. The chronicle that appears in the book is today in the British Library--although the real thing lacks its cover and quite a lot of text, having been burnt in 1731. The specific bit that had the potential to change the course of history... No, I'm not going to tell you! It's not entirely fiction, put it that way.
Q: Besides Clarenceux, of all the other characters in the book, which ones did you most enjoy creating and which presented the greatest challenge?
A: Historical evidence before 1800 is biased towards men, and as a historian I am constantly writing about men doing male-only things with other men. And much though I love all that, the absence of women from the pages of the past makes me want to hear more female voices. So it's writing about women that gives me most pleasure. But for the obvious reasons, they present the greatest challenges. A comparative lack of evidence for women's lives, coupled with my being a man, means that I find it far harder to imagine the daily life and concerns of a sixteenth century merchant taylor's wife than the merchant taylor himself.
Q: How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?
A: History is all about people, not dry dusty objects or ruined castles. It is about how people relate to one another, and how they deal with life's human challenges and natural adversities. Both history and fiction have this in common: they are ways of describing human nature and all its foibles, achievements and wonder over a period of time--not just showing it in the mirror of the present moment. The difficult decisions that a man has to make when struggling with his faith are common to many periods in time; the exact nature of those decisions alters over time but the issue of whether one stands by a matter of faith in the face of political repression is common to many periods and places.
Q: And finally, will your protagonist Clarenceux King of Arms return?
A: I am writing the sequel now. Clarenceux returns in a big way--the working title is The Roots of Betrayal.
"the book is an ingenious, authentically imagined treat from an author who knows how to conjure up a vanished world." -- Peter Millar, The Times, July 24, 2010
Anyone impatiently waiting for their next CJ Sansom fix could do far worse than investigate James Forrester's excellent new novel Sacred Treason... James Forrester is certainly one to watch and Sacred Treason is that most underrated of things, a damned good read. -- bookgeeks.co.uk, August 2, 2010
"an Elizabethan romp featuring a conspiracy, a secret manuscript and whispers about Anne Boleyn" -- John Dugdale, Sunday Times, August 15, 2010
"Vivid and dramatic, with some nail-biting set pieces involving the sacking of houses and a headlong pursuit through a maze of secret passages, Sacred Treason wears its considerable research lightly." -- Laura Wilson, Guardian, August 14, 2010
"really absorbing thriller set around the puzzle of Anne Boleyn's first marriage... Forrester writes gripping fiction, with realistic characters who retain their historical plausibility."
-- AN Wilson, Financial Times, August 14, 2010
"really absorbing thriller set around the puzzle of Anne Boleyn's first marriage... Forrester writes gripping fiction, with realistic characters who retain their historical plausibility." -- AN Wilson,Financial Times Weekend, August 14, 2010