Wednesday, August 31, 2011
A conversation with Giles Kristian
Having been bowled over by his Raven trilogy, I contacted Giles via twitter (@GilesKristian) to try lure him into a chat about the books. Fortunately no coercion was required as the enthusiasm he'd shown at the launch of Odin's Wolves was still very much in evidence.
Welcome to MFB, Giles and thank you for a cracking read!
MFB: What was the seed or catalyst for the story? What sparked it into life?
GK: Being half Norwegian, I spent many, many childhood holidays in and around the Norwegian fjords. I would imagine longships brimming with warriors setting off through the island channels towards the open sea, the men’s families waving them off, children running and jumping over rocks, calling out excitedly, trying to keep up. I would imagine the warriors themselves, full of bravado thought they knew they might never return. There is no doubt that the 1958 film The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis coloured my imagination and I remember even at that age thinking I’d rather be the ‘all out’ no-nonsense Viking (Douglas) than the film’s conflicted, moral-burdened hero (Curtis). We have a family cottage in the fjords and it’s my favourite place on earth. Even now, I get a palpable thrill from being in a land/seascape that, to all intents and purposes, appears to my eyes as it would have to a sea-raider’s eyes one thousand years ago. In that environment if a boy doesn’t think of Vikings then I feel sorry for him. But it was whilst on a stag weekend in Oslo that the vague story in my mind began to reveal itself, like a dragon ship prowing out of the fog.
We were visiting the incredible Viking Ship Museum and I was staring, utterly captivated (for the second time in my life) by the stunningly beautiful Gokstad Ship, dug out of the ground on a farm in Gokstad in 1880. Surrounded by my own crew of enthusiastic young men from foreign shores I got the notion that what we were engaged in was a little raiding trip of our own, not so different from those of days gone by, though perhaps the risks were less for us. Then again perhaps not. That sense of camaraderie, of a ‘fellowship’ in search of adventure was the ember that would become the flame of the RAVEN saga.
MFB: Which of the trilogy proved the most difficult to write?
GK: The third book, Odin’s Wolves, was the most difficult to write because in it I have tried to re-create, or at least give a believable impression of, Rome and Constantinople (or Miklagard – the Great City, to the Norsemen). My aim was to capture Rome in all its faded glory and Constantinople in all its magnificence. This is quite a challenge compared to describing a muddy Saxon village that is little more than a clutter of wooden dwellings and animal pens. Depictions of Rome in its heyday are everywhere, not least in historical fiction, but descriptions of Rome in the 9th century – fiction or non-fiction – are not all that easy to come. I wondered what kind of state it would have been in by then and wondered, too, how historical ruins might have been viewed by folk who are to us historical themselves. My aim was to try to give a sense of how extraordinary these great and ancient cities must have appeared to my Norsemen who have no reference for what they are seeing, no concept of such size, let alone the architecture, wealth, politics etc of such metropolises.
In one scene in Odin’s Wolves they come across a mosque. Bearing in mind that Raven himself is narrating the story (not the usual literary device of an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent narrator whom the reader conveniently agrees not to notice or question) how would he describe a mosque, having never seen a domed building before? Even using the word ‘dome’ felt utterly wrong to me, almost anachronistic. So I had to have the Norsemen describe the mosque within the confines of their own framework of reference. Rather embarrassingly (but perhaps fittingly) to them the building’s shape conjures the image of a giantess’s breast, and so the mosque becomes Gerd’s Tit. (Don’t blame me!).
MFB: What kept you going when the going go a bit rocky?
GK: The emails I receive from readers make the whole experience of writing even more satisfying. To think that people take the time out of their busy day to express how much they’ve enjoyed the books is something I find amazing. Also, reading a good review makes my day, even though other authors I respect have told me to take little notice of reviews good or bad. (Yeah, right). But really, I don’t need much to keep me going. Being a novelist is an absolute joy and a privilege. There is nothing I would rather do.
MFB: You’ve certainly demonstrated a good grasp of the era and captured real feeling of ‘being there’. How did you get inside their minds so convincingly?
GK: I like to think that the sense of camaraderie amongst my motley crew is what keeps the reader rooting for them even though at times their behaviour can be somewhat poor even by 9th century standards. The good-natured insults, the banter, the arrogance and occasional insecurities that you find aboard Serpent or Fjord-Elk can be found in any football or rugby team’s dressing room, or in any army barracks around the world today. It’s a sense of belonging to something, being a part of something and sharing experiences. It’s really about friendship, I suppose. Warriors sometimes fight for ideals, or because they’re simply following orders, but mostly they fight for each other. That was the same then as now. So I don’t really think it’s too difficult to get inside their heads. It’s their clothes I wouldn’t fancy getting into (apart from Cynethryth’s. ha!). Imagine the scratchiness.
MFB: The guys from Urban Apache did a fantastic job with the prologue for Odin's Wolves, which I've embedded at the bottom of this post. How did that come about? And how does it feel seeing your characters coming to life beyond the pages?
GK: Urban Apache and director Phillip Stevens did an incredible job in bringing the prologue to glorious (goryous?) life for the big screen. I met Phil at one of my book launches and he gave me another short film he and his crew had made (Northmen) and I was so impressed I knew straight away that I wanted to work with them. Together we came up with the idea of making a book trailer that went beyond anything else we’ve seen out there for an historical fiction novel. The result is a 12 minute film, from which we cut two short trailers. It was an incredible experience! Cast and crew from near and far gathered in a longhouse in York one freezing day in January, and after several day’s shooting in various locations we had a film we are all enormously proud of. Raven himself (superbly played by David Clayton) is the only character from the books represented on screen (the rest are all long gone) and he blew my mind. His intensity and charisma as the ageing and proud warrior is as tangible as a Dane axe in the face. For me it was an honour to work with Urban Apache and you can take it from me that they are going places. Talent like that won’t be ignored. I only wish we could spread the word and get more people watching it, because to me it shows that talent and enthusiasm are more than a match for a big budget. Please help the film fly and pass it on to your friends if you enjoy it.
MFB:The covers of each book are very striking. Did you have any input into them?
GK: I am lucky that the design team at Transworld are top notch and really know how to make an (blood)eye-catching jacket. I do get involved in the cover designs to an extent, though only because I have worked with movie poster designers for several years and have some modest appreciation of the process. I remember for Blood Eye asking that the character’s face be much more heavily shadowed. I thought he was too clean-cut, too good looking to be a Viking. I also thought it would lend a sense of mystery and foreboding, which is never a bad thing to my mind. Plus, I thought the readers would assume the character on the cover was Raven himself, and rather than plant that image in their mind’s eye, I would rather each and every reader has their own mental image of what Raven looks like. When all’s said and done, I think it’s only fair that a book cover with my name on it should have my blessing. The last think you want is to let something go and then regret it every time you look at the cover. I think each of the RAVEN saga book jackets really capture, by way of colour palettes as well as visual themes, the spirits of each tale, and for that I have the Transworld crew to thank.
MFB: Did you have a series in mind when you started writing?
GK: The honest answer is that I had a series in mind but very little idea where the tale would lead. But one day in 2007 (three years after I’d begun writing Blood Eye) my agent phoned me in New York to say that Transworld were interested and that they wanted to see the outlines for the second and third books. I thought, doh! Better come up with something! Fortunately though, the Norns were busy weaving and it all turned out OK.
MFB: Do you write in silence and/or isolation, or to music? If the latter, what sort?
GK: Mostly I write in silence in my study at home. However, often if I’m writing a battle scene I’ll play movie soundtracks to inspire me, to perhaps echo the rhythms of the fight. I’ll play the gladiator score, or Kingdom of Heaven or Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, or Lord of the Rings. Gets me in the mood and sometimes makes it feel less like work!
MFB: What’s the coolest thing you discovered while doing your research?
GK: I commissioned Nigel Carren , a master armourer, to hand make me a Viking helmet (all in the name of research of course) and I love it. It’s a 4-piece steel Spangen helmet with one-piece cross and nasal, and highly ornamented occularia. (The golden eyebrows above the eyeholes!) and is loosely based on the Gjermundbu helmet, the only example of a complete Viking helmet in existence. One can barely imagine how terrifying it would have been to come face to face with a warrior wearing something like this. It showed he had money and power and that he more than likely had the ability and inclination to carve you into pieces.
When I had come up with the idea for my next series (Civil War) I was at a book signing in Dorking when I walked past an antique dealer that had a three bar lobster tail pot helmet in the window. For me it’s the iconic image of the English Civil War and when I saw this particular helmet I just had to have it (again, all research you understand) and so in I went. To think that this helmet is 370 years old and that someone used to put it on hoping he’d make it through the day (literally) is quite something. I have been known to wear it whilst writing, to get a sense of what it feels like to be in the thing certainly, but mostly because when it’s on my head I just feel like causing trouble.
MFB: What are you currently working on? Will you be delving into the Viking world again?
GK: I have a new series beginning in April next year. It’s a trilogy set during the bloody and tumultuous years of the English Civil War and will be very different from the RAVEN saga. This series follows the (mis)fortunes of a family ripped apart during the struggles, with the reader spending time with each of the three central characters; two brothers and their sister. I have found the writing of it an extraordinary and at times moving experience and can’t wait for the release of the first book, titled The Bleeding Land. Nevertheless, I will certainly return to the Viking world, possibly even to my Fellowship from the RAVEN books. They are like old friends (the ones that I haven’t killed off!) and already I begin to I miss them.
MFB: I'll reserve some space on our shelves! Best of luck... now get back to work!
This is Urban Apache's awesome prologue for Odin's Wolves..
You can also watch the (shorter) trailer here.
You can follow Giles on Facebook, Twitter, or visit his website.