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VIII. H M Castor Makes Us Think Again About the Boy Who Would be King.

February 24, 2013

VIII Book Cover

When anyone is asked to think of Henry VIII, the chances are the vision of Hans Holbein’s painting immediately comes to mind; feet apart, fists clenched, in a defiant and aggressive pose, his eyes not leaving us for a moment. H M Castor’s VIII creates not only a narrative behind that painting, but makes us realise that it is only a moment frozen in time and that this bully and tyrant may have once been a vulnerable child.

It is clear from the ease of reading, that the book is intended for a young adult audience. But, both its content and the way it is written, is so successful in not patronising its audience that, only a few pages in, an adult reader will be too immersed to notice it was not meant for them.

Give a brief description of what was happening politically around the period where the book begins.

VIII opens in 1497. Henry VII has been on the throne for twelve years, but he cannot rest easy. The pretender Perkin Warbeck, styling himself Duke of York, has been a threat for several years already, gaining support both abroad and within England – the fear for Henry is that Perkin will do exactly as Henry himself did: bring an army from abroad and seize the crown. On top of this, there is a revolt in Cornwall against Henry’s taxes. The rebels march east towards London, gaining support as they go. They send a message to Warbeck calling on him to lead them. As the rebels approach London, this is (yet another) dangerous moment for Henry and his grip on the crown. As he rides out at the head of his troops to meet the rebels, his queen, Elizabeth of York, flees with her young son Henry (the future Henry VIII) to the Tower of London for safety.

How accurate are written accounts of that period and how much is political propaganda from a later period?

In written accounts of any period – including our own – as a researcher, I must always be aware of who the author is, what his or her perspective is, and, crucially, what the purpose of the document/letter/chronicle (or book) is. An ambassador’s account, for example, is on the face of it designed to give his master straightforward news… but of course the ambassador will also try to present his own actions in the best possible light. There is no such thing as an unbiased account – every perspective will exclude others, or give its own interpretation, however subtle. That goes for modern history books too.

Why use the first person?

The reason I wrote this book is that, though I had read many books about Henry VIII over a thirty-year period, none had ever made me identify with him. From youth to middle age he undergoes an extraordinary metamorphosis – from devout, uxorious, golden youth to paranoid tyrant – and I wanted to see if I could plot the process of how and why that happened from his point of view. To him, there was logic and rectitude in what he was doing – so, what was going on in his head to make that possible? What sense, psychologically, does his story make? Given that I, therefore,s wanted to tell the inside story – I mean inside his head – using the first person was an obvious choice.

There is a great deal of visual and verbal information from conversations. How did you manage to keep the pace up without the details getting in the way and slowing things down?

I simply tried to be aware of pace at all times, both within passages or scenes and in the rhythm of ‘cutting’ from one scene to the next. I wanted to keep up the pace, as you mention, but also to vary it, since maintaining a single pace, even a fast one, is not ideal, I think.

How did you go about constructing your child’s point of view?

I have young children of my own, and bore my experience with them in mind. Beyond that, it is simply an imaginative leap – as is so much with writing! – to try to put oneself in the character’s shoes, as an actor would.

Every so often your character Hal provides an explanation of a word (for example ‘keeping a length’ when aiming an arrow). Why did you put this in and not find some other way of putting over the concept?

Ah, is this a way of saying that had you been my editor you would have queried it? Fair enough! I felt that, in the instances where it happens, it fitted with the tone of voice and the way the narrator is speaking to the reader. My editor was happy too – but obviously it’s down to personal taste. There are many places in which, for clarity, I needed to put information across, and I always tried to do that in the most natural, straightforward way possible.

As this is a young adult book, how did you work out what words or issues may or may not be suitable? And following on from this question, how did you know where to pitch the tone of your novel to work with a young adult audience?

To be honest I don’t think in too calculating a way about this when I’m writing. I’ve already got an idea of the book I want to write before I start, and if it strikes me that it’s a YA book, then it’s the idea telling me what it wants to be, rather than me setting out to do something with a formal recipe to hand, if that makes sense… But, clearly, during the editorial process there are always nuances to be discussed. Mostly, in this case, discussions were around making sure things were clear for the reader who has no prior knowledge of the period. Regarding ‘issues’, if you have in mind Henry’s sex life, I wasn’t to be honest interested in writing about that in detail because I felt it’s ground that’s been ploughed over quite a lot already, and if I wanted the book to be shorter than 2,000 pages I had to make choices! I couldn’t write about every aspect of Henry’s life. I wanted to take a particular angle and it wasn’t the sexual one. That wasn’t self-censorship, it was a positive decision.

You have chosen to encapsulate a very long story arc (Henry’s life as Hal and transforming into a relatively old king) into one book. Did you consider writing more than one book, to make a series?

No, I didn’t, and the reason is that the story arc rests primarily on Henry’s conviction that he will be great, and his total inability to modify his idealism when messy reality gets in the way. For that story arc to work, I felt we had to reach the end of his life to consider the question of whether or not he faced up to reality ultimately.

Occasionally modern language slips in, what is your view on how conversation in a historical context should work for a modern audience?

I wouldn’t say ‘slips in’, since it was done very consciously. Right from the beginning of this project I wanted to write a novel set in the Tudor period that could appeal to readers who, perhaps, thought they weren’t interested in history as well as those who knew they were. That’s why there are no dates in the book, for example. I didn’t want a reader to look at the first page, see ‘1497’ and think: what does this have to do with me and my life?

Secondly, no historical novels are written in ‘real’ Tudor language. Firstly, they would be extremely difficult to digest if they were and we simply cannot know – past educated guessing – how people spoke to one another in all contexts. Just as we have different registers of speech now (when we’re engaged in casual conversation, or making a formal presentation, for example, or the difference between young people talking to their friends and their parents) so there were just as many subtle differences in register then. I have no wish to try to recreate them: I am not writing a study of language, I am writing a book that I would like the teenage reader to be able to identify with. I would like him or her to sense, instinctively, when a speaker is using sarcasm, humour, a veiled threat, or feeling awkward etc. This was my priority.

What resources did you use for your research?

Many and varied ones! In my degree, 20 years ago, I specialised in the sixteenth century, and I have continued to read about the period for pleasure ever since, so I have been studying this period for a very long time. I read many books, including many specialised ones about, for example, Henry’s campaign in France, fighting techniques of the period, archaeological research on Henry’s palaces, clothes, London maps, plus the wonderful inventory of all his possessions that was made at his death.For transcripts of original documents, I also made extensive use of the archive available at the website ‘British History Online’.

Beyond that I took up martial arts to get a feel for fighting, read a huge and excellent biography of Elvis Presley to think further about charisma. I also consulted two analysts about Henry’s psychological development, and read quite a number of books and articles on psychology too. I also thought quite a lot about Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) in Star Wars, whose mythic journey mirrors Henry’s in a very interesting way.

You’re quite specific about certain things such as the weather. Is this artistic licence, or did you actually have sources that told you about the weather?

If sources mention the weather, that’s a bonus. Otherwise I use it as I want to. As anyone knows who’s read the climax of ‘Middlemarch’ (amongst many other things), weather is very useful!

You have the mother practicing archery. What role did women play in defending the home at this time?

That’s something I don’t know about, but I’m sure there are great books on the subject somewhere… I just know from the sources that Elizabeth of York practised archery, as did (for example) Anne Boleyn.

There’s some great detail in the sword fight. How did you find out about this?

There are fascinating sixteenth century treatises on this subject, but – crucially – there are also people now who research and practise – sixteenth century English fighting techniques. Terry Brown, in particular, has written a brilliant book called ‘English Martial Arts’. Usefully there are also many clips on the internet to watch.

Does your background as a historian create any conflict with the fiction writer; for example, when fact merges with fiction? How did you decide where to use you imagination and where to stick to fact?

Absolutely there is conflict. I have struggled with this, and still do. I have two hats, the historian and the imaginative writer and I need to wear them both when writing historical fiction. The historian in me instinctively does not want to make anything up – and yet I am not writing a biography or a text book; there is simply no way I could explore the aspects I want to explore without using my imagination.

What does having a history degree bring to the table when writing a historical novel?

The degree itself, as a qualification, is neither here nor there, I suppose, but the years of study and training in research, and in analysis of sources and arguments, is very useful. Also, I think the conflict described above is very useful – though often painful! – because it makes me think very hard about where and how I take imaginative leaps.

How did you know there was a market for this novel?

I didn’t! I can’t think that way… That’s for the publishers to decide when I submit the book proposal…

H M Castor

H M Castor

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4 Comments
  1. coolteenreads permalink

    Reblogged this on itsateenagelibrarything and commented:
    VIII is an excellent historical novel for young adults, written by a historian and taking the viewpoint of Henry VIII as a young and vulnerable child. It is one of my favourite reads from the past year and well worth a try. Most adults would never guess that it is aimed at the teen market.

  2. On the strength of this interview I have just purchased VIII. I adore reading historical novels in particular those from the Tudor period. And so, when I read that this booked is from Henry’s point of view as a child, I felt compelled to read it. It does not matter if it is aimed at the YA market, if the story is intriguing and well written, anyone one will read it. I look forward to immersing myself in another world-view of the Tudor dynasty.

    • I think it’s very interesting to have the viewpoint of a historian writing fiction and the tension that might cause between the academic standpoint and the need to tell an absorbing tale. I really feel that the combination of the two fields of practice have come into their own in this novel, making it a wonderful read.

  3. It will be interesting to look at in the first person. What an intriguing book. I remember taking my year four classes around the National Portrait Gallery each year and the looks on their faces as we entered the room. They always loved his portrait of Henry VII.

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