Sunday, 28 July 2013

Blog Interview With Author GILES KRISTIAN

Giles Kristian is becoming a familiar name in historical fiction circles, and it is not only for the reasons you expect.  He writes of course. Is an author with a reputation as solid as any. Has written a three book Viking trilogy called the RAVEN Series, which is about to get the Prequel wand passed over it as Gods of Vengeance batters and carves its way from the authors mind onto paper.
He has also taken on the 1600's and a story set against the English Civil War in his new RIVERS Family Series of which Brothers' Fury is the latest release.

What else is he becoming familiar for then? Well, it is for his love of history! For Giles Kristian is one of those authors who lives and breathes his settings. He gets out of his chair, removes himself from his office, and really puts himself out there. He wants to not only draw inspiration from research, but from life experience as well.
Most recently, that urge to breathe and walk his historical eras saw him stalking the timbers of a replica Viking Long Ship in Norway with fellow esteemed historical fiction author Robert Low.

So not only was it my lucky day to have landed this interview with Giles Kristian and hear him talk about all those wonderful things that we love so much to read and learn about, but we are also able to hear first hand of Giles' experiences on a beautiful replica Long Ship. What was it like? How did it
feel? Was it what he expected?
He has answered all these questions and more in this months Author Interview.  Done to coincide with the August 2013 Group Read of RAVEN: Blood Eye in Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group.
So grab yourself a horn of mead, stir your cauldron, stoke your fires, gather your children, shrug on your wolf pelts and settle in for some moments with Giles Kristian and Medieval Mayhem as we talk of books, histories and sagas and so much more.

Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel?

I think this is the question we historical novelists get asked the most, and yet I still never really know how to answer it. In the past I’ve found myself bristling ever so slightly at this one and feeling somewhat defensive, as if the question’s subtext goes something like this: So, don’t you feel bad about changing history to fit your make-believe story? How very dare you! Or something. Nevertheless, I can see why readers (myself included) want to know the author’s feelings about truth verses story - as though the two are mutually exclusive - in historical fiction. So, how to answer…?

Well, let’s start with this author’s ultimate aim when writing a novel. I am not an historian. I am not an academic. More than either of these two things I am an entertainer. I want my tales to transport people to another time and place after a hard day’s work. I want nothing more than for them to feel as though they are inside the story, for my writing to weave a spell that keeps them turning the pages. I believe the best way to do this, particularly in an historical novel, is to be meticulous when crafting the world my characters inhabit, to let the details conjure that sense of time and place which the reader can smell and all but reach out and touch. To do this I make sure I do my research. And to be frank it can be a huge pain in the arse. The research is at least 50% of the job and probably more. The secret is, of course, to sow these details carefully and lightly and not to be tempted to show the reader how very clever you are and how much you know about, say, the twenty-five or so separate procedures in loading and firing a matchlock musket. As the writer I need to know every one of them, but the reader does not. Not unless they’re having trouble sleeping. If they did want to know this kind of stuff they would be reading a non-fiction book.

I rarely if ever get things wrong intentionally. I might not be averse to conflating historical events slightly if I have no choice, shifting the date of a political incident or skirmish by a matter of days to fit the timescale of my story, but I won’t ‘change history’ as we understand it. But then there’s another issue here. What is the truth? The truth is more often than not simply one person’s very limited view of an event already coloured by their own bias and/or prejudice. The hard-working non-fiction writer piecing it all together (to whom I’m very grateful) for her book has probably chosen to write the book in the first place because of a passion for, and possible bias towards, her subject. For example, Charles Spencer’s Prince Rupert:The Last Cavalier, whilst a brilliant and entertaining study of King Charles I’s nephew and poster boy of the Royalist campaign, is clearly written by a man who respects and likes his subject. Another historian might despise the proud, reckless prince and his book might reflect that. In short there are many versions of history. As a fiction writer my job is not to explain the past but to help the reader to feel the past, to give them an understanding of what it was like to slide 'into another’s clothes until we find what it was to wear them,’ as my fellow author and friend Manda Scott put it recently.
Indeed, of History of Alexandre Dumas said something like;
It is the nail on which I can hang my novels.’ For me though it’s perhaps more than that, it is an intrinsic part of the tale.

So back to the question. Yes, I think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel. But none of it matters at all if your novel is dry, academic and void of texture, and if no one has the inclination to turn the next page.


Who is your favourite historical figure and why? And do you think you will ever write about them, if you already haven't?

One of my favourite historical figures is Hannibal of Carthage.  But David Anthony Durham  (Pride of Carthage) and Ben Kane (Hannibal Series)  beat me to him. Another is Alexander the Great (everyone has beaten me to him) and another is Harald Sigurdsson by-named Hardrada (literally, hard counsel, although perhaps a better translation would be ruthless) who was the king of Norway and whose death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 marks the end of what we call the Viking Age.

‘So much taller and stronger than most men, and so shrewd that he won the victory wherever he fought, and so rich in gold that no-one had ever seen the like of it.’
Snorri Sturluson– Harald’s saga.

Hardrada is remembered for his ill-fated invasion of England and his last stand at Stamford Bridge, but these events simply mark the end of an incredible life, a great journeying arc of warfare spanning thirty-five years and which must have made Harald Sigurdsson one of the most widely travelled men of his age. What I like about Harald, other than him being some sort of uber Viking (albeit a Christian one) in terms of his wander-lust, his martial prowess and his obvious charisma, is that he had an ambition and never let go of it. 17 years after his first battle, Stiklestad, he became sole ruler of Norway, a prize he had had his eye on for so many years.

I have not written about Hardrada in my novels but many of his exploits inspired my own RAVEN saga. I did though write some lines dedicated to the great man. I wanted these to have the feel of the old sagas and so filled the piece with kennings, which is the old Norse and Anglo Saxon convention of figuratively mentioning something without using the obvious word – a bit like a riddle. For example, some kennings for blood are: battle-sweat, slaughter’s dew, wound-sea. A ship might be a wave-steed or fjord-elk and the sun a sky candle. Pretty evocative aren’t they? If you’re interested, you can read my poem about Harald’s life here:


If you could go back in time where would it be to and who or what would you most like to see in the flesh when you get there and why?
As brutal as it sounds, I’d go back to Senlac Hill on that fateful day of October 14th 1066. On that day England was changed for ever, the old order swept aside to be replaced by a new ruling elite. England’s orientation was turned from a formally Scandinavian one towards one with mainland Europe, affecting our culture and language and establishing this island nation as a player on the European stage. It gave rise to a hybrid English and Norse culture which had an enormous and lasting affect on our language, literature, architecture and law. Perhaps this has always resonated with me partly because I am a half blood myself, having a Norwegian mother and an English father.
The Battle of Hastings itself was the culmination of events in which three great men had played their parts; The English king Harold Godwinson, Duke William II of Normandy and Harald (Hardrada) Sigurdsson (my favourite!). That October saw three great forces collide, Hardrada and Godwinson in turn suffering extraordinary misfortunes which left the Conqueror standing. There are so many ‘what ifs’ about those three weeks leading up to and including the great battle and they are questions I love to ponder over a cold beer. Somewhat more gruesomely, I’d like to witness the battle with my own eyes to know what really happened that day. There is something about a band of huscarls standing with their lord in that shield wall atop that hill, huge Dane Axes in their hands, that I find impossibly alluring. Brave, hard, loyal men doing their duty to the last. Just as Hardrada’s Norsemen had done three weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge. I’d love to meet these three men, though I think all three around one dinner table could spell trouble. But what a night that would be!

You recently did a trip to Norway where you and fellow historical fiction author Robert Low manned the oars of a replica Long Ship.
Did you come away with any new knowledge on travelling by Long Ship and do you think travel that way was faster or slower than expected?

It was the seaworthiness of the Viking ships, together with the Norsemen’s knowledge of navigation and seamanship, which made it possible for them to conquer the ocean. The Vikings’ relationship and understanding of the sea is reflected in the Old Norse language that has about 150 words for waves. Thousands of ships were built in the Viking Age and yet few have been found. In fact only 13 ship burials have been discovered in Northern Europe and these were found in pieces, often with large parts missing. Clearly, this sample is hardly representative of what the Vikings achieved in terms of shipbuilding expression and technology, and we must admit that we still don't know much about how the Viking ships were built, how they were sailed, how they were rowed or how they were navigated.

When we try to reconstruct a Viking ship today, we must rely on different interpretations. We look at archaeological material and examine what has been found (and what has not always been put back together as it would have been!) We can look at the Saga literature and other sources from Old Norse literature. We can pore over foreign contemporary sources from the Viking Age and we can study visual representations of Viking ships. One invaluable resource is traditional boat builders working today and, of course, sailors themselves. Though I believe there are only a handful of sailors in the world today with square sail experience.

The Draken Harald Hårfagre.
This is how I got involved with Draken Harald Hårfagre. Named after the king who is credited with uniting Norway, the Dragon Harald Fairhair is the largest Viking ship reconstruction of modern times. What the Sagas call a ‘25-sesse’ (a ship with 25 sections), meaning it has 50 oars, it comprises a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak. It is twenty-seven feet on the beam and displaces seventy tons. The great sail is thirty-two hundred square feet of pure silk. With two people on each oar it takes a crew of 100 to row it, but it can be sailed by only twelve.

But how is a ship of this enormous size rowed and sailed? Is having two people on each oar significantly more beneficial (faster), or would it make more sense to have two shifts, one lot rowing while the other lot rested? How well does the ship turn with only having a side steering oar rather than a central rudder?

I was lucky enough to be part of the crew invited to Norway to help the team behind the project figure all this out. For me, rowing a Viking ship in the same waters my ancestors rowed and sailed (my mother is Norwegian) was breathtaking. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and it’s bound to colour future descriptions in my novels.

You can listen to me talking about the adventure here:


You have a new book in the RAVEN Series, Gods of Vengeance, that you are currently working on. It will be a prequel.
 What made you decide to do a prequel and without giving too much away, can you tell us anything about it?
Other than I receive an enormous number of emails asking when the next Viking book is coming, when writing the RAVEN saga I came to realize that I had a thing for Sigurd, the Wolfpack’s jarl. He seemed to become a favourite of the readers as well, which was great. I always intended to go back and finish the saga but I suddenly thought what would be enormous fun to write (and to read, hopefully) was the tale of Sigurd as a young hot blood in his first hall-burning days. I wanted to tell the story of how Sigurd becomes the man we see in the RAVEN novels, how he becomes someone who others will follow to the end of the sea road. The story is set in Norway around the islands where I rowed Draken Harald Hårfagre. It’s enormous fun bringing back from the dead characters I had killed off in Odin’s Wolves, the third in the RAVEN trilogy. They are old friends and I have missed them.

Your newest series which saw book two, Brothers' Fury, released in May this year, is set during the English Civil War.
 That is quite the leap forward from the RAVEN Viking setting.

What stirred you to write in this era and do you envision it to be an ongoing series? 

Bernard Cornwell hadn’t done it! Seriously though, it seemed to me to be under represented in fiction, at least in the kind of action adventure fiction that I write. I’ve always had a thing for the English Civil War, ever since I used to fence at a child. I think I saw myself as a dashing Cavalier, flashing my foil around and taking on all comers. So I started researching the subject and came across some wonderful anecdotal stuff that convinced me that the ECW would lend itself to fiction wonderfully well. Here are just four stories that inspired me:
Just before the battle of Edgehill, before all the carnage and death, the devout Royalist officer Sir Jacob Astley uttered the following prayer. 'O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me'.

Upon the outbreak of the war, knight marshal and hereditary bearer of the royal standard Sir Edmund Verney was a somewhat reluctant Royalist. ‘I do not like the quarrel,’ he remarked, yet nevertheless he remained true to his master and friend, King Charles. His eldest son Ralph joined the Parliamentary forces. For reasons we’ll never know, at the battle of Edgehill Verney refused to wear armour and his only weapon was the spear point of the ensign he carried. Perhaps the thought of fighting against his own son was too much to for him but either way it seems he was intent to lay down his life in the King’s service, (you’re always going to receive a certain amount of attention if you’re waving the king’s banner) and in the event his party was whittled away in frenzied fighting. Verney himself fought until the last breath, killing four men with his make-do spear. Legend has it that his grip on the ensign’s haft was so tight that the rebel who captured it had to hack off his hand to carry off the prize.

In 1643 Prince Rupert was besieging the Cathedral Close at Lichfield. After a failed assault with ladders the rebels captured several Royalist soldiers. They paraded one of these prisoners, attached by a noose around his neck, goading Prince Rupert to rescue the man, if he could, by shooting through the rope. Needless to say the poor man died hanging from the walls.

1649, the storming of Drogheda and one of the most vicious episodes of the ECW during which the garrison and many civilians were massacred. The Royalist commander Sir Arthur Aston, after agreeing to surrender, was bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg. It is believed that Cromwell’s troops thought the Aston’s wooden leg concealed gold coins.
You just couldn’t make this stuff up! The 17th century was a time of pirates, highwaymen, witch-hunters and Cavaliers. It was a time of regicide and revolution. If I as an historical novelist couldn’t find excitement and inspiration in this extraordinary period, and in the 17th Century generally, then I might as well get a real job with a real salary.

However, my books are not about the English Civil War. Rather the war is the backcloth against which I tell my story. I found my tale, the heart and soul of it, wrapped up in one family, the Rivers, a family of Lancashire landed gentry who find themselves caught up in, and ripped apart by, civil war. Rather than deal with the political and religious struggles of the time I wanted to indulge in the personal struggles of Tom and Mun Rivers and their sister Bess, and my story is told through them. I wanted to explore the complexities of familial duty (and love) set against the pull of ideology, social pressures, or darker motives such as revenge. How far would my characters be prepared to go for a cause, for each other, for survival itself? How strong are bonds of blood amidst what must seem like the chaotic collapse of civilization, or even, as some believed at the time, the end of days as brought about by Man’s sin. I also based the family set up on my own immediate family so that I might try to imagine how we would deal with the situation. It made the writing really very emotional at times.

The books are very different from my Viking series, as you may discover if you decide to saddle up and ride with me. The Bleeding Land and Brothers' Fury have both been published and there is one more book to come.

What authors and books inspired you growing up to love history and want to write about it? And what books and authors inspire you now as an adult and an accomplished author? 

I have recently answered this one (in the back of Brothers’ Fury maybe?) so will borrow from there if I may. Although I hate to admit it, I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Perverse, right? I played a lot of sport; rugby, soccer, fencing, swimming, and as for reading, well, I just wasn’t into it. In fact, I was made to repeat a year at school because I was always out of my chair and messing around distracting my classmates.

Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I suffered a bout of glandular fever and spent several weeks away from school. It turned out to be an auspicious event. I was home all day every day and bored out of my mind, so my mother bought me a book. There were warriors with axes on the cover and she knew me pretty well. That book was The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and it changed my life. There, in my hands, was the key to another world. This story of Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the displaced dark elf, captivated me absolutely. It wasn’t just the fighting, the monsters and the magic that enthralled me. I think even then I was drawn in by the author’s skill at getting under the skin of the human condition. I found that I cared for the characters and lived every moment with them. Ok, it was the fighting, the monsters and the magic.

I went on to read Terry Brooks’ Shannara series: TheSword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, and I loved them. Eventually, of course, I got to The Lord of The Rings and I realized how much the Shannara books (though brilliant on their own terms) and other fantasy novels had drawn on Tolkien’s world. Of course, Tolkien drew on the old Norse sagas and the likes of Beowulf, but if you read the blurb for The Sword of Shannara it sounds like The Lord of The Rings just with different names…and a sword instead of a ring.

The Amazon blurb reads: Long ago, the world of the Four Lands was torn apart by the wars of ancient Evil. But in the Vale, the half-human, half- elfin Shea Ohmsford now lives in peace - until the mysterious, forbidding figure of the druid Allanon appears, to reveal that the supposedly long dead Warlock Lord lives again. Shea must embark upon the elemental quest to find the only weapon powerful enough to keep the creatures of darkness at bay.
The thing is that it doesn’t matter. Terry Brooks is brilliant and I have such fond memories of those stories and can still remember where I was when I read certain passages.

Then one day I picked up a Bernard Cornwell novel, one of his Sharpe books, and from that day on I’ve tended to read more historical fiction than fantasy. I’ve always been drawn to conflict. To make war is all wrapped up in what it is to be human and will always be. Unfortunately. I’m fascinated by conflict, horrified by it, and utterly compelled by it. In historical terms, I’m intrigued by warriors and great leaders, men who inspired thousands to fight and die for their cause; men like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson. These men must have had such force of personality. I imagine you would have felt the charisma coming off them. These characters also make great subjects for historical fiction authors. Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s trilogy on Alexander the Great is superb. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read him since he changed his translator, which just shows how important your translator is.

I loved David Anthony Durham’s Hannibal: Pride of Carthage. It’s a weighty tome but drew me in completely and I’ve always admired Hannibal Barca. Anyone who could unite disparate peoples and give Rome a run for its money must have been something special. Stephen Pressfield (Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, Tides of War) is another author who writes conflict brilliantly. He knows how warriors think. He has the knack of showing how, although the way in which wars are fought has changed beyond recognition, the mind of the fighting man has not. Perhaps somewhat predictably though, my favourite author is Bernard Cornwell (and not just because he was kind enough to read Blood Eye and Odin’s Wolves and say good things about them) because in my opinion he is a craftsman who has mastered his art. His stories flow effortlessly and he weaves in rich historical detail with the lightest of touches. There are a great many wonderful historical novelists around these days, and largely thanks to the HWA (Historical Writers Society) I am lucky enough to call them friends. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.

Do you prefer ebook or paper?

Paper. No contest. I have books waiting to be read on my Kindle and I have a pile of real books three foot high and I always fetch one off there rather than picking up the Kindle. Of course there’s a place for ebooks, long holidays being one, but a paper book, particularly a first edition hardback, is to me a precious object. I love everything about them. Over a pint or two not long ago I told fellow historical author Anthony Riches that I’m not sure I’d want to spend years of my life writing novels if they were only going to be ebooks and never physically manifested. I think he was appalled, and maybe it does sound terribly snobby and old-fashioned of me. But for so many years I dreamt of being published and that meant seeing my stories become real books on real shelves in real bookshops. Those shelves and those bookshops may be fast disappearing but I’ll hold on to my ‘real’ books as long as I can. 

Thankyou to Giles Kristian for a wonderfully entertaining interview.
Giles on Twitter:
Giles on Facebook:

I would also like to thank Random House UK and Transworld Books for helping to promote this great interview.

- MM



  1. What an informative interview! I love this sort of thing.

  2. Me too. An interview you can sit down with a cup of coffee and enjoy for a few minutes in a busy day. And being a big fan of history, books and history in books always helps. :-)

  3. Excellent interview. Many thanks...