Saturday 29 September 2012

A South London Viking Boy - Tony Bradman

Our guest post this month comes from a very old friend, Tony Bradman. I (Mary Hoffman speaking) have known Tony for so long that I can't even remember when or where we first met. We've been on committees together, argued over the merits of books, sometimes agreed, campaigned for justice in both global and individual causes. So I know he is an all round good bloke, with his heart in the right place. I am not much of a one for weapons of war but if it ever came to any other kind of  fight, I'd certainly want him as my wingman.

Here's what our guest says about himself:

Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books as a writer, reviewer and anthologist for over 30 years. He has been a member or chair of various committees and a judge of several major book awards. And yet strangely he is still not rich or famous enough to retire...

Photo courtesy of Speaking of Books

This autumn sees the publication of my first standalone novel, Viking Boy, and I’m very honoured (as a mere male) to be invited by the History Girls to explain how I came to write it. I feel that I’m in exalted company, and in particular I’m delighted to be following in the footsteps of Kevin Crossley-Holland, a writer I admire enormously. His own recent novels Bracelet of Bones and Scramasax set the bar for fiction with a Viking background high indeed!

I have a very clear memory of the moment when my passion for all things Viking began. It would have been on a Saturday morning, probably in 1965 or maybe 1966. My parents had been divorced for a couple of years, and my Dad’s access visits generally involved him taking me out on Saturdays. We went to all sorts of places in London – occasionally somewhere special like the British Museum or the Tower of London, more often to see a film – but on the way home my Dad always gave me some money to spend in a shop of my choosing.

For a while that had usually been a toyshop where I could buy an Airfix model. But by the age of eleven or 12 I had become a bookish boy, and had discovered that my Dad could be persuaded to buy me a book. He was a reader too, and Puffins at that time were very reasonably priced – a children’s novel could be had for three shillings and sixpence in old money, which is only 17 and a half pence today (this all sounds incredibly historical, but then it is nearly 50 years ago!) – and the place to find them was the nearest branch of W.H. Smith.

So there I was, browsing through the shelves, when I came upon a title that caught my interest – Horned Helmet by Henry Treece, an author I hadn’t come across before. I pulled the book out and was instantly captivated by the striking image on the cover. It showed a bearded Viking warrior in a horned helmet who was also holding a sword and shield. Behind him were two more Vikings, and the billowing sail of a Viking ship. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that the cover and brilliant black and white pictures inside the book were by the legendary illustrator Charles Keeping. But there was something about those characters – their wildness, their sheer toughness – that I responded to.

Horned Helmet is the story of Beorn, a fugitive Icelandic boy who falls in with a group of Vikings led by Starkad, the warrior on the cover. It’s a short book (128 pages) written in a very spare, even stark style which I realised later is Treece’s attempt to reproduce the clipped, bare language of the original sagas. At the time I read it one gulp, and loved everything about the world it depicted – the chainmail and swords and spears and axes, the menace of these men, their easy banter and the sheer practicality they relied on in dealing with the harsh northern world they lived in. It’s not a word I would have used then, but it’s the only one that really sums up how I felt then – Vikings were just very cool. For a boy living with his mum and sister in grotty rented flat in south London they were like a bracing blast of chill northern air, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

After that I went through the rest of Henry Treece’s books like a dose of salts, and loved his Viking Trilogy. I moved on to Rosemary Sutcliff (some of whose books Charles Keeping also illustrated), although she wrote far less about the Vikings than the Celts and Romans – but she did produce two of my all-time favourite Viking novels, Blood Feud and The Shield Ring, her story of the long resistance of the Cumbrian Vikings to the Norman yoke. Reading fiction about the Vikings also led me to reading some proper history, and that helped me to fill my mental picture of the Viking world with a great deal more detail.

I should mention one last influence. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a lot of my internal visual image of the Viking world is taken from one of the greatest movies of all time (I can never understand why it isn’t number one in the Sight and Sound list of great movies), The Vikings. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Viking ships, Kirk Douglas throwing battle-axes at a castle gate so he can use them to climb up it, lots of quaffing ale from cow horns, rampant sexism, Ernest Borgnine leaping to his death in a snake-filled pit with a Viking war cry – I mean, what’s not to like? I probably saw it on TV at about the same time I read Horned Helmet, and not long after that my Dad took me to see another Viking epic, The Long Ships starring Richard Widmark as a Viking adventurer and Sidney Poitier as his deadly enemy, a north African corsair.

Let’s fast forward a few years now, to my early days as a writer of children’s books. I remember talking to an editor in the 80s – I started out as a writer of poetry and picture book texts, but wanted to write historical fiction. The editor warned me off, saying that ‘nobody was interested in historical fiction any more’, so I put that particular ambition on hold and concentrated on shorter books. I had a fair amount of success in that area and made a decent living out of it, so by the time historical fiction was back in fashion (as it has been recently) I was locked into other kinds of books. I still wanted to write longer fiction, but I wasn’t sure I could afford to. I’m a slow writer, and I knew a novel would take me far more time than the average advance for one would buy.

Enter a certain Mr David Fickling, or to be more precise, his comic project, known at the time as The DFB and subsequently transmuted into The Phoenix. I’ve known (and admired) David for a long time – he’s a great publisher. He asked me if I had any ideas for a story strip, and I came up with an outline for a story about a Viking boy whose home is raided and his father killed. At around that time I’d written a short book for Barrington Stoke about Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king and Viking adventurer killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 (my book is called Harald Hardnut, which is pretty much what hardrada means in Old Norse). My interest in the Vikings had never died, but the research I’d done for that book had brought it to the front of my mind.

It didn’t work out with The DFB, but not long after that I had a conversation with another editor I’ve known for a long time, Gill Evans of Walker. Gill told me they were going to be publishing some graphic novels, so I showed her my outline for Viking Boy, as it had become by then. Gill liked it, but as we were talking about it I suddenly realised that I wanted to write it as a novel. I was lucky enough to be commissioned, and set about working on it.

This involved doing a lot of research. I read about the Viking period, of course, but I also read the Viking sagas to get a feel for the kind of people they were – the sagas are amazing stories, full of incident and insight into human nature, with fully rounded characters who leap off the page. I studied some Old Norse so I could read the Havamal, the brilliant collection of Viking proverbs and practical wisdom. I visited Norway and Denmark to do some on-the-spot research at the Viking Ship Museums in Oslo and Roskilde. The latter has a shipyard where you can go for a ride in a reproduction of a small Viking ship, which I did, of course. Inside the Roskilde museum there’s also an area where you can dress up as a Viking. There were few people around the day I was there, so of course I did what I would have done as a Viking-mad 11-year-old...

The writing itself took quite a long time. I’ve spent most of my career writing fiction of less than a few thousand words, so to begin with I felt I just wasn’t writing enough. That led to a first draft of 60,000 words, but Walker wanted a junior novel of not much more than 30,000. The prospect of cutting my draft by half was daunting, but I got it down to 42,000. Then came the copy edit, and although I was asked to change very little, when I re-read the story I had that sinking feeling we all get sometimes when we realise that what we have written could be a lot better. It was just too long-winded in parts – it needed to be as sparse and stark and cool as I could make it. In recent years I’ve been working with my son Tom – we’ve written quite a few books together now – and he gave me some advice that really helped. So I settled down for a six-week burst of cutting and re-writing, and the final version is 32,000 words. And though I say so myself, I think it’s a much better book – a proper Viking book.

That was the point for me. I wanted to pack into it everything I liked about the Vikings. There had to be a boy on quest for his father, mostly because as someone whose Dad wasn’t around much in my childhood the theme of fathers and sons has a lot of resonance for me – so my young hero Gunnar decides to go to Valhalla to get his Dad back. There had to be a special sword with a name, and a beautiful Viking longship. There had to be a fantasy element – Odin makes an appearance, as do his Valkyries (women warriors who ride giant flying wolves in the original tales!). There had to be lots of tough Viking warriors (one of them is called Starkad!) and some great fight scenes which were exciting but which would still leave the reader in no doubt that violence is terrifying, especially when it affects those we love. Last but not least there had to be a great plot, one with the kind of twist that’s a real surprise, and as we all know, the dark art of creating a great plot is not easy.

Walker have done me proud in terms of production – Viking Boy is a very handsome paperback with a great cover and black and white illustrations by a young French illustrator called Pierre-Denis Goux. It was a very long journey from that moment when I became a fan of the Vikings, but I love the idea that it started with a book and ended with one too. Whether or not I’ve succeeded in writing a good story is something only readers can tell, but I have a strong feeling that if a certain 11-year-old south London boy had picked it up in W.H. Smiths in 1965 he would have read it at a gulp. I hope so, anyway.

Let's hope the journey hasn't ended yet, Tony! And, blog readers, look out for a giveaway of copies of Viking Boy tomorrow.  I'm only disappointed we didn't get a photo of Tony dressed up as  Viking!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds wonderful, Tony! I will keep an eye out for it when it arrives in Australia. Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff are both great roles models for children's historical fiction.

As a school librarian I ave to say that there aren't, alas, that many of our kids reading historical fiction...unless the book has a cover that attracts them. Some years ago Sutcliff's Mark Of The Horse Lord came out with a cool new cover. Next thing I knew it was being borrowed and one of our boys was asking for"something like Mark of the Horse Lord". I managed to get him the Eagle trilogy under one cover.

The fact that your book has fantasy elements in it will help, because they WILL read historical fantasy. The cover looks good, though like a graphic novel, which may disappoint graphic novel fans who open it to find a regular novel - but they WILL open it. :-)

Joan Lennon said...

Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault - I remember their versions of history more - and more vividly - than anything I ever learned as an adult!

Thanks for posting, Tony, and best wishes for the book - it sounds great!

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating to hear how much has gone into the writing of this book! Like you, I devoured historical fiction when I was young (I remember a very grumpy Latin teacher called Mr Gibbons recommended Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease, and I was very grateful to him) - and I don't understand this thing about kids not reading it now. I've come across lots of children who enjoy it - perhaps we just need a blockbuster that will convince them it's okay to admit to liking historical fiction. So - no pressure there, then!

adele said...

Nice to see you on the History Girls blog, Tony! Good luck with Viking Boy!

Essie Fox said...

Thank you, Tony and I look forward to reading Viking Boy. Great cover!

Jonathan MS Pearce said...

Hi there

I am a year 5 teacher and was wondering if anyone here had literacy or history resoucrces associated with this book (eg Guided Reading etc).


Jonathan Pearce