Monday 12 September 2011

MIND THE GAP by H.M. Castor

"The novel now approaching Platform 3 is the 15:09, heading to 16th century London. South West Novels would like to point out that passengers may encounter funny clothes, dreadful diseases, and sword fights. There is no flushing toilet on any of the carriages, and the buffet may look a little strange. If you wish to board, please mind the gap between the novel and the platform..."

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.

And this:

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.


adele said...

This is fascinating, Harriet. Can't wait to read the book.

b said...

I've read the book and loved it. It's a wonderful read. I have also experienced the problem of how to represent Tudor speech when writing Road to London,(out in April '12). Too much authenticity and young readers are turned off. It's quite a dilemma.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Sorry, Harriet. Finger slipped. The above post came from me. I wan't trying to be anonymous! Good luck with the book.

Will Coe said...

Look forward to reading it. I think you encapsulate the dilemma of writing about a real historical character well.
What you are creating is historical fiction in the purest sense, as opposed to period fiction which sets a story - usually romance or crime - in a particular era. The former demands even greater historical accuracy and a higher suspension of disbelief. Since Hal is so well known, every reader is going to bring some baggage to your book, making them either easier to disappoint or easier to enthuse. I don't know which voice you're using but I presume there's a first person viewpoint of some kind, otherwise it would be an historical biography. Making that voice convincing is the hard bit. Your narrator must be 'well dead' yet using language they wouldn't have used when they were alive.
Perhaps that's why you think male readers tend to take against histfic. They're more literal, more cynical, more picky, aren't they? As a male writer, I've found that a self imposed hurdle. I've tried to get over it by suggesting that egos big enough to make the history books never die. So when someone currently alive reminds them of themselves they are tempted to reevaluate their lives through the prism of today.
That device is allowing me to retell the story of a famous, but overlooked Elizabethan writer through the lens of Jeffrey Archer. It may be unnecessary and artificial but it makes me feel better about not getting into too much hey nonny no. It's not that different from you looking at all those old portraits and seeing your neighbours in them.

Emma Pass said...

I love Holbein's sketches. As you say, they're a reminder that the people in them were living, breathing human beings, not the remote, stony-faced effigies they often appear to be in their formal portraits. I feel such a sense of connection with them.

A fascinating post which has made me more impatient than ever to get my hands on a copy of VIII! Very best of luck with it all.

H.M. Castor said...

Many thanks for all these lovely comments - and I knew it was you, Barbara, because you mentioned 'Road to London' (which I can't wait to read)! Your comments are very interesting, Will, and I'd be fascinated to read what you're working on, too. Yes, I do use the first person - first person, present tense, in fact. Your device that you say 'may be unnecessary' is perhaps akin to the way I had to trick myself whilst writing 'VIII'... early on, when I was still overwhelmed with fear at the thought of trying to write 'as' Henry VIII, I told myself that this world (that I had constructed through research) was actually a fantasy world, and this was a character entirely made up by me... Of course he - and it - were built on the framework of known facts, but this pretence was, initially, the only way I could get past the voice in my head that said 'How dare you attempt this?!' Later on, when the world of the book was well established, I could let this pretence go. But it took a long time.

Katherine Longshore said...

This is fantastic! And exactly the sort of thing I wanted to read as a teen. I must find a way to smuggle a copy into the US...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Smuggle one for me, Katy. This sounds like a terrific read!

michelle lovric said...

I've read and loved VIII and I think you definitely close the gap between the modern sensibility and the past, with no dropped shoes or tickets at all. Brava!

Caroline Lawrence said...

I love the way you see people from the past in your local shops! lol.

One of my favourite pastimes is to sit in the cafe Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona in Rome (preferably with a tartufo under my spoon) and mentally undress the men and women walking by. Of course I quickly dress them again in tunic, toga or stola! Even without this mental wardrobe replacement some of them seem to have stepped straight out of the past.

Sue Purkiss said...

Am looking forward even more to reading your book now. I think your approach to what you want your readers to get from a historical novel is very much like mine - but you put it so much better than I ever have! The bit about 'feeling his breath on your cheek' sums it up beautifully. I haven't come across the Holbein sketches: they look marvellous.

Mefinx said...

Fascinating post, Harriet. Working on my recent dissertation, I often came across writers like yourself struggling with similar problems related to Shakespeare. It is easy to become blinded by the icon and write about that rather than the person. I was struck by the fact that almost the only really convincing portrait of Shakespeare (apart from the wonderful King of Shadows) was Jan Mark's in Stratford Boys, and in that he is a teenager writing his first play.

I think the popularity of the Scholastic My Story series shows that young people really do respond to vivid, first person accounts of history through the eyes of people their age. It's important that in the struggle for absolute authenticity writers don't lose sight of the power of their reader making an emotional connection with an historical character. I look forward very much to seeing what you do with Hal. (Incidentally, have you read the very recent NF biography of Henry VII, The Winter King, which goes into Hal's early years in considerable detail - it really was a race against time to get him fit to rule before his father died, since the Tudor claim to the throne was pretty flimsy. And that must have put immense pressure on any young man).

Mefinx said...

Me again...I forgot to mention that another Shakespeare I really enjoyed was the one in Celia Rees's The Fool's Girl because she showed the complexity of the materials he gathered together to inspire a play. And she showed him writing - that happens less often than you might expect!

Geri, The History Lady said...

What a terrific concept. I cannot wait to read it, YA audience or no. There is so much about Henry the husband, and very little about Henry the boy/man destined for the church, living in the shadow of Arthur. I eagerly await it and promise a review on The History Lady ( -- Congratulations.

Katherine Roberts said...

I can confirm it's a great book! (After I signed with Templar, I sneaked away with a proof copy and started reading it on the train home... was hooked from the very first sentence.)