Author of the Month
I read a lot of history, historical mysteries and SF, but I never really got that caught up in the Arthurian legends that have become a very popular fictional subgenre of their own. I did, however read and enjoy some of the non-fiction, such as Geoffrey Ashe's The Quest for Arthur's Britain and even some of the sources, like Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain. When I came across Tony Hays' first Arthurian mystery, The Killing Way (review on Myshelf linked to below) I was mildly interested, because it was supposed to be about the historical Arthur rather than the legends, and history always interests me. While the book's hero was neither Arthur himself, nor Merlin, nor any of the other usual suspects for an Arthurian legend story. It was a former soldier, wholly the creation of the author himself, and one who freely admitted that he hated Arthur... hmmm, not much risk of another overly worshipful and forcedly romantic tale of a larger than life hero and his impossibly glittering court here. The publisher blurb suggested this was a sort of CSI: Medieval... hmmm, even more promising... OK, let's give this one a shot.
One of my better decisions. Tony is a genuinely nice and interesting man (check out his website—if my career was checkered, his is pointilist), who happens to have written some great books. The Killing Way was beautifully written, with solid historical detail, a nicely intricate plot well garnished with subplots, and a fascinating group of characters who are entirely believable as people. That group may include legendary names like Arthur and Guinivere, but not necessarily as the legends portray them. The period detail and feel is solid, making setting as believably real as the people in it. All wrapped around a well crafted mystery that makes it clear the author is not kidding when he says he loves mysteries himself. This would be a great find on it's own, but I just finished the second, The Divine Sacrifice (review link below) and it's is even better. That's almost scary, considering how good the first one was. Fortunately Tony himself isn't at all scary, so I took the opportunity of his being a willing, if not divine, sacrifice to ask him some questions. I hope you enjoy our chat too:
Kim: Historical accuracy is an ever fertile topic of discussion amongst historical mystery fans. Your version of King Arthur and his world is based on what's called the historical Arthur, best known through the works of people like Ashe and Alcock, but it's not identical to their versions. Could you talk about where your version of Arthur and his world came from? Including a bit about where you differ and why, for those less familiar with the historical Arthur than the legendary figure who tends to dominate fiction, how it differs from other versions and why? And not just with Arthur himself. I was particularly interested to find familiar names like Guinevere in not so familiar roles.
Tony: As you note, I'm beholden to Geoffrey Ashe and Leslie Alcock, but I also owe a debt to Christopher Gidlow and Christopher Snyder for a variety of things. Visions of Arthur are as varied as there are visionaries. The major problem with an historical Arthur is the lack of any, real dating outside of a window of say 450 to 550. Based on the works of the monk Gildas, most historians favor a later date. Ashe favors an earlier date because of some strong connections between verified events on the continent and elements of the Geoffrey of Monmouth story (among other things). I side with Ashe simply because he makes the most sense, and the one thing that is uncertain during this period are actual dates. Nobody really knows when anything happened. And Gildas was not an historian but a cleric, moaning about corruption and sin. I perceive Arthur in my own way, just as others have. What I do is stick to the oldest oral traditions and legends and show what MIGHT have been the reality behind them. Kay, Bedevere, Gawain, Guinevere, Mordred (Medraut) all date very, very early. They are believed to have historical counterpoints. And none of the very earliest tales talk about an unfaithful Guinevere. One historical source says that a king who might be Arthur was defeated in battle because of the treachery of one of his own men. Most of the commonly known stories about Arthur spring from Chretien de Troyes and Thomas Malory, (we can credit them with Lancelot and Galahad completely), but they have little basis in history. That's fine. Just as they expanded on the story, so have I.
Kim: What surprises readers most about Arthur and his times as they appear in your books?
Tony: No stone castles. The relationships and interrelationships between characters. How dark, confusing and dismal it was. While I envision a High King, it was more wish than reality. But that was the age after the Romans left, and along with historian Christopher Snyder, I believe some of the fractious tribes did try to hang on to their Roman past. But some saw the chaos as a way to promote themselves and their own fortunes.
Kim: What surprised you most while doing the research?
Tony: I am an historian by training, and though I knew of the scarcity of records from that period, I wasn't really ready for the near absence of records. Although I love archaeology, I spent countless hours reading archaeological reports to try and reconstruct their daily lives. Nearly every brooch, hair pin, jug is based on one found at a dig at one of these sites. In The Killing Way, there is talk of a grouping of skeletons found in the main entranceway to Cadbury Castle. They are there. Really. And Malgwyn's theories of what brought them to that end were stolen from Leslie Alcock's own theories.
Kim: Readers always wonder about how much connection there is between authors and their characters. I'm going to assume that you've never spent time as a drunken wastral and didn't lose a hand to an errant sword stroke, so where did Magwyn the person come from? Are there still large elements of yourself in him or in other characters? Why did you create that particular hero for your books. Are your characters other than the historical figures (loved your Saint Patrick, a very believable combination of awe inspiring pillar of the church figure and entirely human person) based on real people you've known?
Tony: I think a part of all authors find its way into their characters. But Malgwyn came from a need for a protagnonist/narrator to tell his story who did not worship Arthur. He had to be able to see him flaws and all. I felt like he needed to be other than the standard Kay, Merlin, etc. He needed to be unique in his own way. And so there's an element of redemption in Malgwyn's story, a human who otherwise would be cast aside but proves himself still worthy of their respect.
I intend to eschew magic (though not completely the paranormal) and so Merlin became a kindly old man, forgotten and sometimes befuddled, but who still had much to offer the world, hence his cleverness and minor knowledge of the black arts. Kay and Bedevere are drawn mostly from the tales, but I've given Kay a soft heart. Bedevere has seen more in his life than most, and hence he takes a pragmatic approach.
The very, very minor characters are chosen for the parts they play. Gareth, the bandit, operates a group that has hints of the Baker Street Irregulars.
When you create a character, you has a subconscious idea of what he looks and acts like. Such was the case with Patrick. We all had our own ideas of what Patrick looked like, which we know more or less. But I picked up from his Confessio the sounds of a good man who simply wanted to serve God, without accolodades. He was truly humble.
Kim: As I note in my review of The Divine Sacrifice (see below), characterization is a major strong point in these books. Which is not to say the writing, plotting, etc are in any way weaknesses, because they certainly are not, but the characters really stand out as interesting, memorable, and most of all real people. Is that an intentional point of emphasis?
Tony: Sure it is. I believe in a mixture of formats. I use story arcs, as they do in TV series, between novels. Hence the characters involved in those arcs have to be fully drawn for the reader to even care. But they are all real people. They have to be dynamic. Real people have flaws. And flawed people have their good sides as well. And understand that real people, especially in that world, die sometimes, often with little reason.
Kim: If you could change places for a day with a character in your books, which one would it be and why?
Tony: Malgwyn. He can see all rungs on the social ladder. And he is smart of enough to understand it all.
Kim: If you could enter a time machine and take a visit back to Arthur's time for just a day or two, where would you go and what would you like to see and do yourself?
Tony: First would have to be Cadbury Castle to see if it were truly Arthur's or any other mighty king's seat. Next I would go to Glastonbury and I would look at the graveyard and see if there is any sign that Arthur might have been buried there. And for all of my visits, I'd have to be looking to see how closely reality measures up to my creation.
Kim: What do you love most about writing and what do you most dislike?
Tony: I think I'd like for them to say: "Wow, it really could have been like this."
Kim: How do you work? Do you start with a core idea and a blank page / screen and take it where it will go? Outline in detail first?
Tony: I choose one of the old Welsh tales, maybe more than one, to ground the novel in, and then I try to show how the legend may have really started. I generally keep everything in my idea. I almost never use an outline. (blame that on the English teacher who tried to beat us to death with outlines).
Kim: What do you love most about writing and what do you most dislike?
Tony: Interruption. When I'm really into a book, it kills me to stop and do something else. It takes so long to get back into it. I can't just hop from one to the other.
Kim: What do you think would most surprise people about your own life as a writer? I've been speaking as if your Arthurian series was all you've written, but you've had a long and varied career, to say the least.
Tony: My very first published short stories were not mysteries (in a sense). They were rural, Southern humor often with the country bumpkin outsmarting the city slicker. I did a great deal of humor. While there are flashes of that in the Arthurian, that's not their main purpose.
Kim: Speaking of which, I'm delighted to know you are signed for a couple more books in this series, but do you have anything else in the pipeline you'd like to talk about?
Tony: I have an historical mystery surrounding Shakespeare that I'm chomping at the bit to get to. I'd also like to write a novel about the battle of Shiloh. While I think Shelby Foote did a great job, I think a battle of its sweep and imports deserves a broader treatment.
Kim: What question do you wish people would ask you about your work that no one has asked yet?
Tony: That's tough. Perhaps how I handle those readers who take great offense at my portrayal of Arthur and crew. Or how dare I leave Lancelot and Galahad out! I'm writing a series of historical mysteries, Lancelot and Galahad never existed. They were creations of later authors. If you're writing a "Sword in the Stone" type series, then go ahead. Use them to your heart's content.
Kim: Anything I missed that you'd like a chance to talk about?
Tony: I've been one of those individuals that's been fortunate enough to do literally everything they've ever dreamed about doing. I get up with a smile everyday because I delight in that thought.
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