John Henry Clay on his debut novel, The Lion and the Lamb
JHC: This particular period has been called the ‘Golden Age’ of Roman Britain because of the extraordinarily rich élite culture that developed at the time – its palatial villas, thriving towns, and highly developed economy have all left traces. At the same time, it was something of an Indian Summer, with signs of decay even amidst the opulence. There were also real conflicts in society; with prosperity comes opportunity for ambition and greed, and it was a time of intense religious flux between the traditional paganism and the relatively young, vibrant religion of Christianity.
For my first novel, I wanted to focus on the height of this supposed ‘Golden Age’, at a point where cracks are already starting to appear in society. How do people react when their homes and families, their whole seemingly secure way of life, comes under threat? What does it mean to grow up in world of such uncertainty? There’s just such potential for drama in this period, and it’s been relatively unexplored in fiction.
SC: Did you intend the story have relevance to the present? If so, in what way?
JHC: On one level I wanted to write a fairly timeless story of young people growing up and finding their way in the world. That was always at the heart of it. More generally, the end of the Roman empire seems to be a topic of abiding interest to our own society, perhaps because we still feel the legacy of Rome so strongly. So when the Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Perkins, speaking of the end of Roman civilisation, warns that we shouldn’t be complacent about our own civilisation, I think there’s a lot of sense in that. We see what happens in the modern world when regional systems of government and economy break down – the disintegration of Yugoslavia is the example nearest to home, but there’s a theory that something similar happened in Britain when Roman government pulled out. It’s sobering to think of Britain as the ‘Balkans’ of the fifth century.
SC: You’re a historian by profession. What made you decide to write a historical novel in the first place? Isn’t historical fiction rather looked down upon by professional historians?
JHC: I wanted to be a novelist long before I imagined being a historian! It’s almost a happy accident that I ended up in academia, but I was writing short stories in my teens, and I started an embryonic version of this novel back in 1998. As for the attitude of professional historians towards historical fiction, it’s impossible to generalise. I know many historians who love historical fiction, whether Cornwell-esque swashbuckling adventures or the more weighty ‘literary’ historical fiction of people like Hilary Mantel, but I’ve personally never heard a historian deride historical fiction in general. I suspect that historians are more likely to be offended by sloppy research than by the nature of historical fiction itself. But I’m with Ian Mortimer, when he recommends that professional historians actually try writing fiction as a creative exercise – it’s a great way to build up a more holistic understanding of past societies, which can in turn help their academic research.
JHC: Absolutely they can complement each other. Each has its strengths and limitations. When I write ‘factual’ history, my concern is to be accountable, to make clear where I’m putting my own interpretation on the evidence. By nature it’s a forensic process, requiring lots of footnotes, appendices and so on. There’s obviously creativity and imagination involved, but it’s restrained by these (very necessary) conventions and by the extent of the evidence, and there’s a natural limit to how far inside a historical figure’s mind you can go without lapsing into supposition.
When done well, of course, non-fictional history can be utterly absorbing. But to engage with the full human experience of past ages, we need to loosen the restraints on creativity and imagination – not let them go altogether, but give them enough slack to explore within the bounds of plausibility. This goes for the reader as well as the writer; both are complicit in the suspension of disbelief. By doing this, historical fiction can offer a deeper emotional connection to the past.
SC: When writing historical fiction, which should come first – history or story? Is there ever a good reason to take liberties with history for the sake of the plot?
JHC: Story should always come first. That’s part of the deal with a novel. But there are thousands of ways to tell a story, so why not choose one that works with the historical evidence? I get irritated when historical novels or movies seem to be wilfully ignorant of historical facts. But even then, I’ll forgive a great deal if the story is good enough, provided the intention isn’t to mislead the audience or misrepresent past societies.
Being trained as a historian, I’m perhaps especially pedantic about my research. On the other hand, the evidence for late Roman Britain is so very limited that with this novel I had no choice but take liberties. I make a lot of connections that I would never make as a historian, and then present them as living reality. For the sake of a good plot I knowingly go beyond the evidence at a couple of points, but I try hard not to go against the evidence – even if some of my interpretations of it could be disputed. This is why historical notes in novels are important; the reader deserves to know where the fact ends and the fiction begins.
SC: You say in your Historical Note that 4th-century Britain isn’t well documented and archaeology is too impressionistic and ill-defined to really fill out the picture. Could you expand on that?
JHC: Archaeological evidence is a funny thing. On the one hand, it can bring us close to the daily lives of ordinary people. We can investigate diet and health from skeletal evidence, we can reconstruct living conditions from settlements, and the economic realities from such mundane evidence as pottery and coinage. But the people remain weirdly anonymous. From the excavation of a typical Roman villa, for example, we can learn so much about the lives of its occupants, without ever really knowing them as people – we remain ignorant of their personal histories, their relationships, their ambitions and fears. That’s where the fiction comes in. The evidence of archaeology helps the novelist create a general world for fictional characters that their real-life contemporaries, one hopes, would have found vaguely recognisable.
SC: Have any historical fiction authors, past or present, influenced your writing? Did you read much HF as a child, for instance?
JHC: I came late to reading historical fiction, unless you count Asterix! As a teenager I wanted to be a science fiction writer, if anything. One of the first historical novels I read was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, but it was The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset that really affected me, and probably opened my eyes to the deep pathos of the late Roman period. I could say something similar about Jack Whyte’s The Skystone. Other books that influenced me at an early stage include Ross Leckie’s Carthage trilogy, Edward Rutherford’s Sarum and Melvyn Bragg’s Credo.
SC: Do you have any favourite historical novelists, apart from the above (if any)?
JHC: For white-knuckle Roman-period adventure, I’ll turn to Ben Kane, Simon Scarrow and Anthony Riches, and especially Harry Sidebottom – reading his novels is always such an education, which obviously appeals to me! Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow is one of my favourites. For real meaty historical fiction, I love the classic works of Robert Graves, Count Belisarius in particular, even though he famously dismissed his own historical novels as ‘pot-boilers’. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is such a remarkable book that it transcends genre. The most ‘authentic-feeling’ historical novel I’ve ever read is Frederick Buechner’s Godric, where he does a wonderful job of recreating the thought and speech patterns of a twelfth-century hermit, rich with coarse, ironic humour. I only recently began reading Mary Renault, and I’m hooked already. The historical novelist I admire most of all, though, has to be Gore Vidal. If you’re looking for utterly convincing reconstructions of ancient worlds, his Julian and Creation are hard to beat.
JHC: No. I expect this is a matter of personal circumstance and inclination, but I’ve always seen writing as one of those rare crafts that you can learn by studying the masters for yourself. It also really helped me having a older brother who was willing to read my early attempts, and was utterly frank in his criticism. A tendency towards precise expression is probably also something I picked up through my years of academic training, where clarity and economy of language are crucial. In fact, my main stylistic inspirations have tended not to be historical novelists – they include Ian McEwan, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, J. M. Coetzee and Maeve Brennan, all of whom have the kind of lucid, unpretentious style that I most admire.
SC: Can you tell us about your path to publication?
JHC: At the start of 2010 I’d been trying to write the novel on and off for years, never getting more than a few chapters in. As my New Year’s resolution I decided to complete the book by the end of the year, or put it aside for good. I was living in Vienna at the time, and I think the unfamiliar setting inspired me to change my habits for the better. So I simply got into a routine of writing every morning and evening. If I found myself getting bored, I took that as a sign that the story needed to be made more exciting – if I didn’t enjoy writing it, why would anyone enjoy reading it?
Anyway, it worked (just about the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept!), and by December I’d almost completed my first draft. Although I wrote it basically for my own pleasure – an attitude I highly recommend – I had nothing to lose by trying to get it published, so I did my research, made a list of likely agents, and sent off the required material. I heard nothing back from the first, but the second asked to see the full manuscript. Going into it more or less blind, with no real idea about how the publishing industry worked, I feel very lucky to have been picked up so quickly; in part it was down to hitting the right agent with the right kind of work at the right moment for the market. I can now understand how so many authors might spend years shopping their novel around before being ‘discovered’. Even so, it was over a year before I had a contract signed, and a year again until publication. There was some pretty intense redrafting along the way, too, with the help of my agent and my editors. That in itself was incredibly educational.
SC: How do you fit your novel-writing into your academic schedule?
JHC: I have it easy in that the historical research for my novels happens to be part of my day job – but the actual writing I do in my own time, which means a lot of evenings and weekends sitting in front of the laptop!
SC: Did you visit the settings in your novel? Do you think it’s important for historical novelists to do that?
JHC: I’ve visited most of the important sites in the novel, though not all. I hiked the length of Hadrian’s Wall a couple of years ago, and I know the Cotswolds area well. I only recently went to the Roman fort at Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, which figures quite prominently in the novel. Incidentally, the fort was almost certainly not occupied in the fourth century – this was one of my historical liberties – but the site is incredibly dramatic, and I wanted to include it as a playful nod to the fortress in Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. I was very happy when I got there to find that it was pretty much as I’d imagined it through the aid of photographs and topographical maps, though my description would have been sharper, I’m sure, had I visited it before completing the novel. For instance, in the book I have the hero leading a sally straight out of the east gate of the fort – but when I got to the actual site, I saw that there was a big outcrop right outside the gate, which would make any such a sally rather awkward! I took that as a useful lesson. So I think a novelist can bluff it if he or she does enough research, but there’s no substitute for actually standing on the same ground as your characters.
SC: Do you have plans for more novels? A sequel to The Lion And The Lamb, maybe?
JHC: I’m currently working on my second novel. It’s also Roman, but unconnected to The Lion and the Lamb – it’s set in fifth-century Gaul, in the last days of the western Roman empire. I’m not short of ideas for future novels, including sequels to TLATL. I have well-defined futures for all of the major characters, and it would be great to continue their stories.
You can find out more about John Henry Clay on Facebook, Twitter or (soon) via his website. The Lion and the Lamb will be published on 4 July 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton. Dr. John-Henry Clay is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Durham University, specialising in the Anglo-Saxons and Franks.