VIII (my YA novel told from the viewpoint of Henry VIII) is my first historical novel. In setting out to write it, I was faced immediately with the problem of the gap between the world of the reader and the world of my protagonist. What was I to do about it?
With the Tudor period it's no insignificant gap we're talking about: 500 years - half a millenium. Never mind dropping your ticket down it (as I did when boarding a train this summer - doh!), or your shoe (as my mother once did) - I was worried that whole readers would get lost down this gap, would see the yawning gulf and refuse to board. 500 years ago? I could hear them saying. What does that have to do with me?
My concern may sound odd. After all, the Tudor period is one of the most familiar in British history. You practically can't switch on the TV without seeing Tony Robinson digging up one of Henry VIII's palaces here, or Jonathan Rhys Meyers brooding in exquisitely embroidered velvet there. And doesn't everyone know the 'Divorced, Beheaded, Died' rhyme, now made into a song on the Horrible Histories sketch show?
Yes, but... history, to state the obvious, can be approached in different ways. One way is to highlight the strangeness of the past. The massive success of Horrible Histories attests to the fascination of this approach. Funny clothes, dreadful diseases, poo chucked out of windows... Open up that gap - as wide as possible! Stare into it... ewww! Weren't they weird?
(Don't get me wrong - I love the Horrible Histories TV show. It's clever and witty and memorable (wasn't that the ultimate accolade in 1066 And All That?).)
But with VIII, I wanted to do the opposite: I wanted to forget that there is a yawning gap of time between the life of my reader and that of my protagonist... and I wanted my reader to forget it too.
I particularly did not want to assume that my reader loved Tudor history (or history at all, in fact). Was I tilting at windmills? I don't know, but I had it in my head that some readers (perhaps especially some male readers? I say this very tentatively; I don't pretend to know) feel that they don't like historical fiction, as a category. Perhaps even without having read any historical fiction, they assume that it is heavy on the swishing skirts and romance (not that there's anything remotely wrong with either of those things, of course) or that it is written with an off-putting (to them) sprinkling of hey-nonny-nonny archaisms. They assume - in short - that all historical fiction is broadly the same kind of thing (that 'same' being something they happen not to like). Which is, of course, every bit as ridiculous as saying that all fiction set in the present is the same.
Call me ambitious (/awkward/crazy), but I wanted in particular to reach out to those readers. To break down that barrier. To write a book about Henry VIII that you could forget was a book about Henry VIII (or at least that iconic version of Henry we all know so well). I even wrote using the name 'Hal' instead of 'Henry', because 'Henry' for me came with so much baggage, so many received ideas.
You see, I am gripped - obsessively - by the idea that Hal's story is an archetypal fallen-angel story: he is a shining, virtuous youth who turns, to use a well-known phrase, 'to the dark side'. I have the proselytising sense that as such this story could have particular appeal to teenage readers, whether they are into history or not. Come, I'm thinking, let me convert you! (You'll have to imagine the mad glint in my eye for yourself, here.)
So. I took the decision to include no specific (year) dates whatsoever in the text. I especially didn't want a reader to open the book, spot the year 1497 at the top of the first chapter and think: what does that mean to me, is this a thinly disguised attempt to make me learn things? No, I wanted them to read the first line instead.
Similarly, I wanted very accessible dialogue (without it sounding ridiculously anachronistic). I took the view that it was important to show that Hal had different 'registers' of speech - for example that, as a teenager, when exchanging banter with his friends he would sound different from when, say, he was having a conversation with his father. That, in short, he had as many different styles of communication as we all do today.
We cannot know exactly what those different registers of speech sounded like in the Tudor age, but even if we could, they would not strike the right chord for the modern reader. I wanted my reader to be able instinctively to pick up the nuances of when Hal was joking, when, suddenly, he might use his status to threaten within an apparently friendly conversation, when he was being sarcastic...
No dates. Modern dialogue. And yet, and yet... I am totally committed to research and to historical accuracy. I wrestled, every day of writing, with this question: how can we possibly know how people thought 500 years ago? Their world view, their religious outlook, their upbringing, the social mores of the times were all so different from now. Academics can (and do) spend whole careers painstakingly piecing together just one aspect of life in 16th century Britain. How could I recreate the entire interior and exterior world of a learned, devout, sports-mad king?
It's enough to make a writer down tools and give up. What stopped me from doing that? In part, it was my precious collection of reproduction Holbein sketches (the preparatory sketches Hans Holbein the Younger made for his portraits of members of Henry VIII's court). Look at this:
It's the spitting image of one of my neighbours.
Didn't I see him yesterday in the DIY shop?
And, while this stern look challenges me forbiddingly to guess what this noblewoman thought of life...
...this preparatory sketch, for the very same painting, is so much more reassuring:
Holbein's sketches remind me, should I ever doubt it, that the Tudors were people too. 500 years? In evolutionary terms, it's less than the blinking of an eye. Human nature, in its most fundamental aspects, cannot have changed in that time. Tudors felt fear and love and rage and frustration like we do. They laughed and got the hiccups and tripped over.
And whilst we cannot guarantee ever being able to see the world quite as they saw it, the attempt, with all its imperfections, is not only worthwhile, but vital. Because the alternative is to cut ourselves off psychologically from the past - which is a huge impoverishment. Not least because it deprives us of some fantastic stories.
Now that VIII is about to be published, a question I am constantly (and entirely understandably) being asked is: how much research did you do? How much is fact and how much is fiction? The answer: I did loads of research. I made it as accurate as I possibly could. But that is not the point of the book. It is not a history lesson in novel form. If you want an exhaustive account of the policies and events of Henry VIII's reign, find a non-fiction tome with his portrait on the front (there are, after all, plenty). This one is for something else: this one is for feeling his breath on your cheek. This one is for finding yourself identifying with a golden boy who degenerates into a paranoid tyrant. This one is for closing the gap.
VIII will be published by Templar on October 1st in the UK. You can enter to win one of 5 signed copies in our competition on September 30th!
The trailer for VIII, made by Bath Spa University film students, can be viewed here.
You can see an interview with H.M. Castor about VIII (also filmed by the students) here.