Monday 29 April 2013

GUEST - Ian Mortimer interviewed by Katherine Roberts

Ian Mortimer (aka James Forrester)

Today's guest is Dr Ian Mortimer, historian and (as of this month) TV presenter. As James Forrester he is the author of a trilogy of historical novels set in the 1560s. He talks to Katherine Roberts about his books and his passion for history.

KR: You are probably best known for your Time Traveller’s Guides, which seem to approach history with a novelist’s eye covering details that are often overlooked by other books, such as how history would have smelled and tasted… how did you get the idea, and where did the (absolutely brilliant!) title come from?

Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Ian M: It is not really one idea but a heap of ideas that have been growing since childhood. I’ve written several times about how I was taken to Grosmont Castle at about the age of ten, and, in my excitement to see the place where the first duke of Lancaster was born – with the fire burning on a central hearth in the hall and the walls all painted with red lines marking the stones, and servants coming in with firewood etc – forgetting it was a ruin. I was very disappointed by its open-to-the-sky, broken-tooth state. I stood there listening the wind in the nearby trees that day thinking that the people who lived here were described as dead, like so many butterflies pinned out in a museum case. But the best way to see butterflies is flying about – alive. So too are people. If you want to know what someone was like, you don’t think of them as dead.

The ideas have grown from there. I had a contract to write the book in 1999 but ripped it up as the contract and publisher were not quite right. I wrote "The Greatest Traitor" instead. It really helped that I got to grips with the postmodernist critique of history before starting work on the eventual text, so I had an intellectual platform on which to define and justify what I was doing. One of the best lessons I have learnt from history was a lecturer asking me: ‘would the Reformation have happened if Luther had not personally undergone his own reformation beforehand?’ To which the answer has to be – ‘if the Reformation had still happened, it would not have been because of Luther.’ So a lot of personal and intellectual preparation went into the book, which hopefully does not show. It appears instead in a long academic article written at the same time as the book, called ‘What isn’t history?’ (It is freely available on my website and will be for a few months yet.)

Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England

The working title in the very early days of thinking it through, in 1994, was ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to History’ as I thoroughly enjoyed the Douglas Adams books. That original scheme was a guidebook to the parts of the past that you should really try to avoid, due to the punishments or diseases etc.

An important idea hit me driving home from Exeter one night after watching the film Atonement. I was writing chapter 7 or 8 at the time. I asked myself: ‘if a novelist can create an emotional impact when writing about the past, why can’t historians, especially when they are presenting their work as the truth?’ That thought led to the Envoi at the end of the book, which I sketched out as soon as I got home.

KR: You’ve also written biographies of historical figures, including your namesake Sir Roger Mortimer in "The Greatest Traitor"… I’m fascinated to know if he was an ancestor of yours?! 

The Greatest Traitor

Ian M: My father told me the medieval Mortimers of Wigmore were our ancestors, and took me to Wigmore Castle as a child. I love the place, and am now one of the Hon Presidents of the Mortimer History Society. However, the descendants of the man you mention, the first earl of March (1287-1330), died out in the male line in 1425. There are still Mortimers descended from his uncle, Roger Mortimer, Lord Mortimer of Chirk (1256-1326); I don’t imagine I am one of them, however. My ancestors on my father’s side are all from Devon.

Having said that, at the end of my biography of Edward III, "The Perfect King", I show how that king is a common ancestor of the English people now. The first earl of March had even more descendants by 1500, because he had eight daughters and seven of them married: so you and I and probably everyone of English descent is descended from him!

KR: I’m very much enjoying "Sacred Treason" at the moment, a novel you wrote under the pseudonym James Forrester. Whose decision was it to use a pseudonym for fiction, and is James planning to write any more novels?

Ian M: Thank you for your kind words. ‘James’ and ‘Forrester’ are my middle names. I did not want to use a pseudonym but I really did not want to write fiction under the name Ian Mortimer. In one strand of my work I argue that we can prove things about the past (a very contentious debate in professional circles). It would have been very unwise at the time to say we can prove historical details and then go and publish a book in which I simply made them up. "Sacred Treason" was followed by the "Roots of Betrayal" in 2011 and the last volume of the trilogy, "The Final Sacrament" in 2012.

Sacred Treason

KR: Sacred Treason is set against a background of Catholic persecution by a Protestant monarch. How important is faith in your work, and are you drawn to any particular period of history because of this?

Ian M: Wow. What a question. Okay, let me start with the easy bit. I am drawn to all periods of history, and religion is just one of many factors, so the answer to the second part of your question is a simple ‘no’. Apart from the fact that religion was more important an issue in the 16th century than probably any time before or since, and so it leads to some pretty fundamental discussions between my characters.

The important thing to know in this respect is that my historical fiction is not primarily about the past. It is about my concerns: a modern day story set in the 1560s. The reason I set my story in the past is because so many aspects of life are much more consequential in that time period than they are in the modern world.

"Sacred Treason", for example, is about loyalty – to one’s spouse, to one’s state, and to one’s religion. All these things mattered much more in the 1560s than today. Today no one really cares that much if a husband or a wife has a fling (except the parties themselves); in the 16th century you could be flogged and publicly humiliated just on suspicion of adultery. Disloyalty to the state – treason - would normally end in hanging, drawing and quartering. Disloyalty to the word of God – heresy – could result in being burnt at the stake. Therefore you can use the past as a magnifying glass to say things about humanity in all times – and to highlight the drama and importance of certain aspects of life.

I am not religious myself, in the sense that I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God or a godly consciousness. But as a historian I can say that the Church has been the principal force for learning for all but 100 of the last 1500 years. At times it was the only agency working for peace in the western world. As an individual I am intrigued by the existence of life on Earth and its evolution, and this interest gives me something in common with many serious religious people. I find the spiritual quest uplifting; religious art, music and architecture are among the most beautiful creations I know, and I don’t think you need to define what it is you seek in order to engage in that spiritual quest. An atheist can quite happily be engaged on a spiritual quest.

My main character, Clarenceux, has no doubts about his faith but he does doubt his interpretation of God’s direction. He is a fervent upholder of the Catholic cause – but not at the cost of killing other Christians. He is very much a man of his time, and I say this (having said my novels are about me and the modern world) because only through a man of his time – a religious man, someone passionately concerned about matters of life, death and spiritual value – could I express what I think about these things. In the second book in the trilogy, "The Roots of Betrayal" Clarenceux comes up hard against an atheistic pirate, Raw Carew. I really did enjoy writing the argument about religion between them, and expressing Clarenceux’s shock that ungodly men might do godly things too.

KR: Being the proud owner of a Kindle, I noticed an abridged version of the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England published as an ebook. How do sales compare with the original hardcover/paperback Guides, and do you think history-lovers in general enjoy traditional books rather than ebooks?

Ian M: Don’t buy the abridged version, the ‘brainshot’. It is only 10% of the book, and people feel ripped off by it (judging from their comments on the waterstones and amazon sites). You can buy the ebook as a whole, which is the same text. As for sales, most history readers want the hardcopy, the paperback. Ebooks (whole ones) account for about 20% of my UK sales of history books.

KR: I saw you interviewed on TV the other week wearing your very distinctive black hat! Are you planning to do any more TV work, and do you enjoy it?

Ian M: I am presenting a 3-part series for BBC2, based on my "Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England". It will be broadcast later in the spring. The black hat you saw has been retired. But I do use a different black hat with a leather band – very similar to the old one – in the series. I like working with people, so the odd bit of TV is good fun. Would not want to do it all the time, though.

KR: Finally, this blog was set up for History Girls… what would be your female pseudonym, and what sort of books do you think “she” would write?

Ian M: My father, who had two sisters, desperately wanted a daughter and decided before I was born that I was to be called Catherine Elizabeth Forrester Mortimer. So, I guess that if I had been a girl, then I’d have written history books as Dr Catherine Mortimer and fiction as Elizabeth Forrester. As a professional historian, I have met many women whose intellectual prowess fills me with admiration, and I like to think that if I were a woman I would be like them. In other words my history books would be much the same as they are – perhaps with a little less blood and thunder in the medieval biographies. The Time Traveller’s Guides would be more or less the same because they were slightly biased towards representing women’s lives (as men tend to dominate my biographies). My fiction too would not be that different, as I do like a strong female character – one who can speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, even though the law and social prejudices might be against her. Hey, perhaps I should try writing as Elizabeth Forrester one day!

KR: Thank you very much, Ian!

Ian M: The pleasure’s all been mine. Thanks for asking me.


Ian James Forrester Mortimer is a historian and historical writer. He has four degrees: BA, MA, PhD (medical and nursing assistance to the dying in the 17th century), DLitt, and has published numerous research articles. In 2004 he won the Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize for his work on the social history of medicine. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1998, and a full-time writer since 2001. A firm believer in the public good of history, he sits on various public bodies, including the Lord Chancellor's Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Academic Research, the Fabric Advisory Committee for Exeter Cathedral, and Dartmoor National Park Authority. Spare time is spent walking, writing songs and poetry, and playing the guitar. He lives in Moretonhampstead, on the edge of Dartmoor, with his wife and their three children.

Ian's history books:
Complete bibliography:


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Time Traveller's Guide To Mediaeval England. I will be adding it to my research shelves. Fascinating interview!

Susan Price said...

Thanks to both Kath and Ian. I very much enjoyed this - as I did 'A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England.' I felt, as I read it, why has no one thought of writing something like this before? - It's one of those beautifully simple ideas that seem obvious once they've been done - but somehow not at all obvious until they've been done.

Penny Dolan said...

What a pleasure to open up History Girls this morning and find this interview. Thank you, Katherine and Ian.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England was just such a brilliant idea and I - among others it seems - very much enjoyed the range of the contents and its on my research shelf too.

I've put the more recent TTG on my wish list - in book not kindle format - and will be watching out for the novels. Did not know you were both people - let alone a tv series to look forward to seeing.

And I do like the thoughts you give on writing historical fiction too.

Mary Hoffman said...

I've read both TTGs and possess them on paper; they are beautifully produced as well as very well researched and extremely readable.