Julian Stockwin Sets Sail for Uncharted Historical Territory
The names Kydd and Julian Stockwin are now synonymous for lovers of naval historical fiction. Stockwin joined the sea-training school at Indefatigable when he was 14 and the Royal Navy at 15, but it was only after he retired from the Navy that he began his career as a novelist. Since 2001, he has published 14 novels in the Kydd series.
In November his novel The Silk Tree (Allison & Busby) will be published. Based on historical fact, this new work is a historical action novel set in 549 AD in Central Asia, Imperial Constantinople, Sinae and Rome. Stockwin’s interest in unusual geographical settings is clear from the titles of his works, including Caribee and the forthcoming Pasha (October 2014). However, this does not explain why he has decided to focus on a different historical period and to write a historical action-adventure largely set on dry land, although the adventure does culminate in a sea voyage.
Stockwin explained what motivated his new historical venture: “This book is a new departure for me, a stand-alone historical adventure fiction that is not maritime at its heart. Its genesis was my wife Kathy’s discovery of a rather lovely silk scarf in the ancient Kapali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar, in Istanbul during a recent location research trip to Turkey for my Kydd series. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk had been brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some research and the creative juices started flowing. Then I came across this quote from the Byzantine chronicler, Procopius:
‘At about the same time there came certain monks. They vowed to Emperor Justinian Augustus that they would provide the means for making silk from Sinae where they learned the art. After they had announced these tidings they returned thither and brought back eggs of a worm that feeds on the leave of the mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk in the Roman Empire.’
“One of the attractions to me of writing historical fiction is the licence to be able to recreate scenarios that certainly could have happened. Historians are limited to having to find proof of events, and if there are gaps in the historical record they cannot join up the dots. A novelist can.
“I also wanted to see if I could write something completely different from my other work. Not that I feel stuck in a rut with Kydd, not at all, but it was a personal challenge I was happy to take on.”
Another factor which it would appear impelled him to write this novel was that it spans a vast geographical canvas – the Roman Empire and ancient China and that he has “long had an interest in the confluence of East and West. My attraction to the Roman Empire dates back to my study of ancient civilisations at university and where I learned Latin. When living in the Far East I became taken with the history of Chinese civilisation and the art of calligraphy. Researching The Silk Tree was certainly quite a change from the Georgian period and the Great Age of Fighting Sail of my previous books, but immensely rewarding. I think I enjoyed the research as much as the writing.”
Stockwin went on to point out that at the moment he isn’t planning any more novels about The Silk Tree’s main characters Nicander and Marius. “The Silk Tree is a standalone, the first in a series of books, each based on pivotal points in history. I’m aiming to bring out another one in 2016 and will write them in conjunction with the Kydd books, which will continue to be published annually. That being said, who knows – Nicander and Marius could return for a sequel someday.”
Having almost “grown up” as a novelist with Kydd, did Stockwin think that there were any similarities between Marius and Kydd, I was curious to discover. “An interesting question! Marius is a legionary, fierce and brave, and loyal to the values of Old Rome. Physically, he is more thickset than Kydd, but they are both warriors and would fight to the death for the right cause. One of the advantages of writing a series is that you can have real character development and I have seen Kydd as a young wig-maker from Guildford transform into a post captain in the Royal Navy. Marius as a character does not change a great deal in The Silk Tree but elements of his character do come to the fore in terms of leadership and true friendship. Marius also has a fairly basic attitude to the female of the species whereas Kydd is really a romantic at heart.”
Having set foot on “dry land” and in a different period, did Stockwin intended to retire Kydd?
“Good heavens, no! He still has some way to go in his naval career before he makes admiral. When I started writing these books I ambitiously set myself a target of 12 titles. That has been passed several books ago and I now think there will be 20 or more in total. Some people think the Battle of Trafalgar is the endpoint for Age of Fighting Sail stories. Nothing could be further from the truth – the historical record may not have so many huge set-piece battles but it’s very rich in opportunities for the novelist in terms of global stakes. After Trafalgar came the quest for Empire and this has already taken Kydd to South Africa, South America and the Caribbean. My next book, Pasha, is set in the Dardanelles and deals with Napoleon’s ambitions there to secure an overland route to the riches of India.”
Stockwin may have circumnavigated a new historical period, but the followers of his maritime novels will undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief that Kydd still has many sea battles and nautical challenges ahead of him.
For further information, visit Stockwin’s website.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is one of the HNR Features Editors and designs and runs workshops on historical and creative writing.