Conn Iggulden is one of the most successful authors of historical fiction writing today. He is the author of Stormbird and Margaret of Anjou, the first two books in his superb series set during the Wars of the Roses, a remarkable period of British history.
His previous two series, on Julius Caesar and on the Mongol Khans of Central Asia, describe the founding of the greatest empires of their day and were number-one bestsellers. Iggulden lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and children.
Historia Interviews: Conn Iggulden
9 June 2016 By Toby Clements
The fourth and final novel in Conn Iggulden’s epic Wars of the Roses series was published in May. Toby Clements chats to Conn about Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors, and asks, Richard III: did he or didn’t he?
After Ancient Rome and 12th century Mongolia, why medieval England? What makes one era catmint to some while another is just so so?
The stories I like the most are those ones that aren’t common knowledge. I enjoy sharing new things with readers – the young life of Caesar, Genghis and his sons, or the Wars of the Roses. That period 1455-1485 isn’t general knowledge even today. Luckily for me, it isn’t often taught in schools, but the ‘story’ is there, the magnificent grand-opera, tragic, appalling, heroic story is there in spades.
And did you find it more or less difficult researching a period about which more is known? I’m imagining frustration at known ‘Facts’ messing up a Good Story.
Every now and then, I have an editor query an event as not being ideal for a storyline. I have to reply that I might not have written it in a fiction novel, but I can hardly leave out a key battle, or ignore what clearly happened to the princes in the Tower, say. In historical fiction, the key events must be included. If the characters and those events are good enough – and they always are – that is never a problem. It has been my experience so far that because history is the detailed record of lives, wherever I look, whatever the period, I find veins of gold. I discover fascinating, extraordinary events, all the better for not being well known.
We all know the satisfaction of hearing a personal, human moment, such as Buzz Aldrin celebrating a religious service on the moon, for example, before he stepped out. It’s not about having too many sources. People themselves are fascinating and surprising, wherever you look.
Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar are both huge characters around which to centre a series of novels, but the period of the Wars of the Roses is a crowd scene in comparison. How do you overcome the challenges of juggling so many different characters and voices, often quite similar to one another, each chipping in a vital act, and then slipping off the stage, and each named after a place he rarely came from?
I’ve always dealt with multiple characters and plotlines, switching from one to another, so it’s not such a radical change as it might first appear. However, these four books are more of an ensemble piece than a single thread, I agree. I wanted to try and bring the reader on board with one loyalty, then push them another way – and so get a little closer to the nuances and delicate balances of real life.
My aim, as always, is to write characters well enough to have the reader care, actually care about them. Shakespeare managed it well enough in just a few lines – and he was better than me. However, unlike old William S., I have access to a form of writing he never knew, the novel, which allows an author space to build and develop worlds and the men and women in them. There is no greater vehicle for character, in my opinion. Shakespeare had to cut the Wars of the Roses to ribbons to squash them into his plays.
Other than reading what sorts of research do you do for your books? I confess I am also writing a novel set during the Wars of the Roses, and I spent quite a bit of time with reenactors at various camps and so on. At the time I did not think it was teaching me anything I could not have imagined, except how cold it always was, but then one weekend I saw a man without a hat on, and it struck me as really odd, and I knew then that in fact I was soaking stuff up. Is this kind of thing useful, or a bit niche?
I think that sort of thing is vital. I went to Sandal Castle ruins in winter and it was brutally cold. The thought of trying to use a sword in those temperatures changed how I looked at battles like Towton, fought in snow.
I have to visit key locations to look at the geography. Walking from the village of Saxton to the battlefield at Towton was a key part of understanding how the forces of York moved. Seeing a totem pole in Mongolia was a Damascene moment of revelation: the Genghis story is an Apache story, a Sioux story.
I rather envy you the experience with re-enactors. I remember the odd reaction I experienced first putting on a set of Roman lorica armour. I’d been expecting to think it was too heavy to march and fight in, but the truth was I felt invincible – and far more aggressive for being so. I think that sort of revelation comes only from experience, rather than the archives at the British Library, though they certainly play a part.
I took up Tae Kwon Do to gain those sorts of experiences, rode horses in Mongolia, sailed on a tall ship when I was writing Roman naval scenes. I made Wildfire that would not go out with water poured over it, shot arrows and so on. Research, frankly, can be enormous fun – and it’s tax deductible.
Did anything really surprise or delight you in your research into this latest series?
Certain events, of course – the discovery that Margaret set foot on English soil after years in exile at the exact moment Warwick was dying was positively Shakespearean. I was surprised at the sheer number of blows inflicted in battle – as revealed in skeletons from Towton. That was clearly a frenzy of fear and violence, a scar of a day so terrible we almost wiped it from our history.
I was delighted by the discovery of the Wogan, the cave hidden under Pembroke castle that dates back to prehistoric tribes and may be the reason for the castle being built there. Henry Tudor would have known that cave well. The further discovery of tunnels under Tenby was just a joy – it’s said he and his uncle used them to get out to a boat when they were being hunted. King Henry VII is always overshadowed by his son, but he spent the first fourteen years of his life in Pembroke castle, with neither mother or father, surrounded by those hostile to him. That was a part worth telling.
Did you find yourself liking or admiring the men and women you were writing about? Whom did you most admire and whom did you most dislike?
I found myself admiring Edward IV. He lost his father when he was just eighteen and his revenge would be the engine for the latter part of this conflict. Six foot four and a tank in armour, he led from the front, never truly comfortable in years of peace. Even when he lost it all, when he had nothing and had to give his coat to the captain who took him across the Channel, he was able to win it all back. Honestly, Edward IV was one of England’s greatest kings and yet is almost unknown.
To know is to understand – and so I rarely find myself disliking a character. The reality of writing the life of a man or woman is that you are working hard to understand their motivations. Very often this creates a certain sympathy, if not forgiveness. I believe I understand completely why Augustus had Julius Caesar’s son Ptolemy Caesarion killed, for example, though it was an evil thing to do.
Richard III: did he, or didn’t he?
If you read the book, you’ll know. In true clickbait style, No.4 in the Wars of the Roses series will shock you.
Why do you think so many people still hold such an intense passion for a man who died 500 years ago? Are you anxious of offending them, because they can be very vocal?
I learned early on that you can’t please Roman re-enactors. That’s not a life lesson that applies to everyone. However, it does mean that I’ve had a few emails over the years – re-enactors all have email, which feels a bit ironic. As a result, I have a slightly thickened hide and so can read and think and visit – and make perfectly clear who killed the Princes in the Tower, say, because it was obvious.
The veneration of Richard III is rooted in the love of an underdog, I believe, a tragic life that ended early and in complete failure, with no redemption. Yet he was brave and that counts for a lot. When Richard went out to meet Tudor at Bosworth, he had no wife, no heir and he knew his line would end with him if he failed – yet he still went. That is impressive, with the stakes as high as they could possibly be. He was also a good battle tactician and he supported his brother Edward through thick and thin. That friendship, that trust, is usually ignored by his supporters, perhaps because Edward IV would eclipse Richard if they allowed it. Richard was utterly loyal to his older brother and supported him through triumphs and disasters. That relationship is a key to the man.
Someone in my Book of Quotations said that good historical fiction is never just about the past, but always about the present. Do you think that is true? And if so, what is it about the 15th Century that has any bearing on the present?
I try not to let that be true, though we are all products of our time and it isn’t easy to avoid the value judgements. If I have a teacher flog a boy half to death, must he then be hated? By modern standards, of course, but the big bearded AA man who realised my father had once caned him seemed to regard the memory with some fondness. He confided he’d had an unbreakable comb in his back pocket. My dad asked if he’d managed to break it.
‘Three pieces!’ the man told him in delight.
The point is that it’s important to reflect the values of the time in which the story is set. That can be ugly, of course, when you have boys stringing sparrows alive, or the medieval attitudes to Jews. I will not write a Disney version of history, though at the same time, I don’t want to upset my readers with horrors. It’s a line to walk. I think so, anyway. Some authors fling themselves over it without even touching the ground.
The 15th century is the story behind the Tudors, who remain at the core of English identity. It’s the lead up to the creation of Britain and the Industrial Revolution that still goes on. It is the beginning of the end of armoured knights, the great flowering of chivalry and the arrival of cannon and guns on the battlefield. It is Agincourt, it is Towton, it is Lancaster, York and a period of turbulence that led to a great Elizabethan age. Good times.
Do you read historical fiction yourself? If so, whom? And if not, why not, and what in its place?
I read a lot of historical fiction, most recently Giles Kristian’s Viking books. ‘God of Vengeance’ is excellent. I grew up with Bernard Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, James Clavell, Patrick O’Brian and so on. I love a good story – and history is full of them. I also enjoy reading fantasy, (which is often similar to historical fiction, Game of Thrones being a good example) and crime novels.
Nerdy writers’ question: what is your routine? Hours a day, days a week, weeks a year kind of thing. Coffee? Tea? Silence? Music? Café or splendid isolation? Pen or pencil? Mac or PC? No detail is too small!
Coffee in a drip, suspended from an IV bag. No cigarettes now. I used to smoke, but the whole savage early death thing was a bit of a pain. I write in the mornings now, where once it used to be at night. Things change as we age, I suppose, though regardless of the hows and wheres, I am always writing something. I’ve finished a fantasy novel and a children’s book this year. To my slight surprise, it looks like the fantasy might be quite good. I’ll have to put it out as CF Iggulden, to keep the genres apart.
I’ve found a story worth telling, an extraordinary life. I was reading a history book to my kids at the dinner table (as you do) and thought….hang on, this is a really interesting individual. Research followed and a huge amount of work. It’s still a bit early to reveal the title and century though. Loose lips sink ships.
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