Monday 11 July 2011


How dare I? That was my first thought. And my second, and my third... Not just how dare I write a novel about Henry VIII? (and that seemed risky enough) but how dare I write it in the first person?

How could I be audacious (or presumptuous) enough to attempt to see through these eyes?

But I felt I had no choice. And the resulting book, VIII, (which will be published this coming October) is not just my forty-somethingth book (I have a hopeless and possibly superstitious inability to keep track of the numbers) but a life-changing event for me.

I would like to attempt to tell you why.

When I began work on VIII, I had already been reading about Henry (or skirting closely around him) for thirty years. My obsession with Tudor history began at primary school, continued through my teenage years, and took me on to a university degree in which I specialised, whenever given the choice, in the sixteenth century. Thereafter, my tottering pile of bedside reading has rarely been without something related to the subject.

Before VIII, I had dipped my toe into writing about the Tudors, but only in the form of non-fiction: I wrote biographies of Henry, as well as of other historical figures, for junior school readers. I had written fiction too but, though the idea attracted me, had never dared venture into historical fiction. Here formal training as a historian can, I think, prove a disincentive. You are taught that speculation must only go so far and no further. And, besides, I felt such reverence for the best academic historians (including, closest to home, my intimidatingly brilliant sister Helen Castor)... not to mention for the scholarly and thrilling historical novels already out there. The Lymond Chronicles, by the late and very great Dorothy Dunnett, have always loomed especially large on my mental horizon, since they shook me to the core (in the best possible way) when I read them as a teenager.

How dare I?

The truth was, I was at a crisis point in my writing life. Lucky enough to have had so many books published, and having written each one as skilfully and (I hope) entertainingly as I knew how, I was nevertheless achingly dissatisfied with myself as a writer. I hardly knew what was wrong, let alone how to remedy it, but what I did know was that the gut instinct that had driven me to write through all these years had, paradoxically, not been able to take part in the writing itself. It was like a hunger, and my writing seemed to be my attempts to feed it... I was eating and eating, but evidently not choosing the food it wanted, for I was only becoming hungrier still. What did it want to say, and how on earth could I make it speak?

It actually reached the point where I formed this rather melodramatic thought: I don't want to die never having found out what it - what I - want to express.

I had tried, believe me. Repeatedly I had, so to speak, gritted my teeth and clenched everything and tried to push this gut instinct into communicating with me. It hadn't worked, and what I can best describe as my 'thinking mind' came to two conclusions, neither of which were comforting:
  1. It's an illusion; there is nothing there.
  2. You're not trying hard enough!
...because hadn't I learnt, in pretty much every aspect of my life as a child, that above all one must try one's best? If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

And then the idea for VIII arrived. Big, bold, and so exciting that I could barely sit still. I believed I had something new to say about Henry VIII. Something historically valid, but something that could only be expressed through a novel - and a first-person narrative at that.

Now I knew categorically that the clenched teeth, grimacing trying would not succeed... neither could I think my way into Henry's psyche. I had to find another way to work. But what was it? And could I discover it in the nick of time for this novel - the most important (and ambitious) book I had ever written?

Yes. (Oh, the relief, the joy - even now, months later - of being able to give this answer.) And perhaps it was the enormity of the challenge that meant, at last, that I had to find it. I had no choice but to throw away, pretty much, everything I knew about trying to write.

Trying to write... As Marion Milner, the wonderful writer and psychoanalyst, discovered and detailed in her books (such as A Life of One's Own (1934) and the gloriously titled On Not Being Able To Paint (1950)) it was that very act of trying that was the problem. In An Experiment in Leisure (1937) she says: "the ideas I needed for my work would... come silently nosing into my mind after I had given up all attempt to look for them."

I found that I too needed to stand aside - alert, watchful, but wanting nothing, straining after nothing, simply noticing the quality of intense interest that led me in certain directions. I discovered it was vital not to rush to pummel these clues into shape or quiz them into extinction. The process seemed akin to building up a big splattish lump of clay prior to moulding it, or sitting in a soup of things that I knew were significant, but had as yet no idea why. My job was simply to sit there attentively, steeping myself in the rich mixture, waiting for something to emerge like a creature from the depths.

Of course my thinking mind, the one that tries, the administrative will, if you like, is immensely important, vital in all my research and in the nuts and bolts of finishing the book. But I have found that it must not occupy the driving seat the whole time. It cannot do the job on its own, much though it would like to - anxious though it is about handing the reins to anyone else.

There is a wonderful photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Herbert Matter, which I keep, in postcard form, on my desk. You can see it here. I used to assume - when I was wringing my hands over work - that it was a picture of exhaustion and perhaps despair. Now my view of it has changed entirely. It seems to me to be a portrait of intense internal focus: Giacometti has shut his eyes to concentrate on the whole vivid world that exists within.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about that. But - with apologies to Giacometti, if he is standing in the spirit at my elbow - it perhaps does not matter so much; I keep the picture on my desk because of what it symbolises for me. When I look at it, it reminds me to listen, to wait...

VIII is at the printers' now, being prepared for its October publication. I am sending it off into the world nervously, of course - eager and curious to know whether what struck such a reverberating chord with me will make sense to others too. I am anxious, but the aching dissatisfaction has gone.

I wonder if my long struggle to find what's right for me, creatively, is unusual? I tend to assume that many (perhaps even most) other writers tap into their instinctive side naturally... instinctively! But of course I don't know how it is for anyone else; I can only describe my own experience. I can only sit here in my soup. How joyous - and dangerous - and nerve-wracking (but thrilling!) - it is to be here at last.

VIII will be published by Templar on October 1st 2011.


H.M. Castor's (embryonic, as yet) website
H.M. Castor also writes as Harriet Castor

View the trailer for VIII on YouTube or Vimeo


alberridge said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing this.
I wonder how many of us feel it, this sense of not yet having found 'the' book, the one we really COULD write. I'm still groping for mine, and it feels a little like getting little snatches of a half-remembered tune. Maybe one day...
How does it feel having found and written it? Is it completely satisfying, or does a bit of you still feel there may one day be something even better?

Oh, and Harriet - WHO DARES WINS! I can't wait to read 'VIII'.

J.T. Webster said...

I can't wait to read your book and to see what it is you have to say about Henry. This book is obviously incredibly important to you as a writer - I wish you great success with it.

Anonymous said...

Having been lucky enough to read a proof of VIII already, I know that your gamble has paid off. It's a wonderful book, and yes, it does say something new about Henry. The transition from fact to fiction probably must be accompanied with pain and anguish, like all worthwhile artistic endeavours.
Michelle Lovric
(typing as anonymous as Blogger is having one of its tantrums this morning)

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

It's such a joy to learn of the angst and the internal struggles you experienced, Harriet. I've read the proof of the book and loved it - so it was obviously all worthwhile. This was an inspiring blog for all writers. Good luck in October.

Joanna said...

Thank you for this really fascinating and inspiring insight into the writing process.

adele said...

I found this enthralling, Harriet and can't wait to read the book. Fantastic post.

Sue Purkiss said...

A brilliant description of the process of trying to write the book you need to write - and like the others, I can't wait to read it!

Unknown said...

The premise of your book struck me as interesting and I've put it on my TBR list.

The creative process is wonderful, isn't it? Never stops pushing you to do something new, better.

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