Steven A McKay talks Robin Hood and how his debut novel Wolf’s Head is storming the Kindle charts
SM: Wolf’s Head is set in 1321, in Yorkshire. I wanted to go back to the earliest ballads and find out where a “real” Robin Hood might have originated. The ballads pointed to Robin being from Wakefield, and operating in Barnsdale forest, rather than Sherwood. I was really happy about that, because pretty much every book, TV show or movie about Robin is set in a much earlier time, and in Nottingham/Sherwood, so straight away I realized I had something fresh.
It’s very much a historical fiction, rather than fantasy novel. Originally, I had a mystical old wise-woman who appeared to Robin at points in the story, but my editor – who I hired myself on Ben Kane’s kind advice – suggested it didn’t work very well, and I knew deep down she was right. So, the wise-woman was replaced with more historical/political detail, and the book is much better off for it.
SM: Yes, all the well-loved characters are pretty much intact, although they have new aspects to them. Tuck, for example, is still an overweight, cheery guy, but I came up with a fresh back-story for him. Same with Will Scarlet who is the rage-filled figure we expect, but the reasons for his anger are explained in an entirely new way. The main “new” character I added is Adam Bell – he doesn’t really feature in the Robin legend, being an almost mythical outlaw in his own right (fans of Robin of Sherwood will recognise the name). Adam plays a big part in Wolf’s Head.
RL: Robin is usually a classic adventure hero, with romance thrown in. Is that your Robin? Does he have flaws?
SM: For Robin himself, I wanted to make him almost like a David Gemmell-style hero. A one man killing machine! But, since I wanted the book to be historical fiction rather than fantasy, I knew I had to round Robin out a bit more. So, yes, my Robin has flaws and self-doubts – ultimately, he’s a regular young man thrown into a harsh, unforgiving life, but being blessed with the natural ability to cope better than most.
There is some romance, but I hope I made Robin’s relationship with his girlfriend realistic, rather than idealized. I’ve been with my wife for eighteen years – half my life! – so I have a decent idea of how a strong bond develops from a young age. I wanted to share that with my Robin, rather than making him some Mills and Boon type figure (which is fine, but didn’t fit the theme of my novel!).
RL: Do you get political in the book? Do lambs become lions and initiate Magna Carta??!
SM: Well, 1321 was a time of political turmoil in England. Many of the wealthy and powerful men, like the Earl of Lancaster, were fed up with King Edward II’s rule for a variety of reasons and things were close to exploding. I explore some of that in Wolf’s Head, but I tried to do it as entertaining asides, with lots of rousing dialogue and big characters rather than just “info-dumping” a load of probably quite boring historical facts onto the reader.
RL: Wolf’s Head is the first in a series – how many others do you plan? Where is Robin going next?
SM: I only plan on making this a trilogy. As I said, I wanted to base things on the earliest ballads and, to be honest, there’s not a massive amount of material in those. I’m sure I could string it out and come up with half a dozen books, and they might even be great. There are a lot of things I could do with the characters in this time period but…as a Robin Hood series based on the early legends, I think three books is enough.
However, one of my characters in particular, Sir Richard-at-Lee – a Knight Hospitaller in Wolf’s Head – has become a BIG favourite of mine and I would like to explore his story more, so perhaps there will be a spin off novel or even a series set around him and his sergeant-at-arms…
RL: I’m just watching the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood with my kids: great fun to revisit it. Do you have any favourite versions of the story in print or on film?
SM: Oh yes – Robin of Sherwood! I have all of them as DVD boxsets and I watch them all the time. The sense of camaraderie and loyalty to each other really helped me shape my own characters. The actors in RoS were brilliant – Nicholas Grace as the sheriff was magnetic (and often hilarious), while both Michael Praed and Jason Connery were fine Robins. I don’t really like any of the other TV versions or movies much though, and I haven’t read much of the fiction, purely because I didn’t want my own book to be coloured by another author’s ideas.
RL: I gather life is pretty full on – you work full time, have young family, play in a band, write AND self publish/promote. How does that all work?
SM: The most important person is my five-year old daughter, Freya. If she wants to do something – go a walk, or to the park or the library or whatever – that’s what we do. Writing doesn’t come into it until she’s in bed. THEN I can do the promo-type stuff for Wolf’s Head or work on the sequel.
My wife is pregnant again though, so I expect there’ll be even less time to write soon, but I’ll manage somehow!
The band was fairly serious a year or two ago, gigging and writing our own heavy metal songs, but we’ve all moved on a bit now. It’s mostly just me and my big mate Bill Moore, and we’ve been doing mainly acoustic/folk/Led Zeppelin-type stuff for the past year or so. It’s just a bit of fun – another outlet for my creative side!
RL: What sorts of books do you like to read (historical or otherwise, fact or fiction)?
SM: Historical fiction is almost all I read now, in terms of fiction. I’ve just finished Douglas Jackson’s brilliant Avenger of Rome and am really looking forward to Uhtred regaining his fortress in Bernard Cornwell’s next one (Pagan Lord). I used to read loads of sci-fi like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but not so much these days – I think I read all those golden age of SF books already!
Other than that, I’ve been a subscriber to Fortean Times magazine for probably 20 years – I love reading about the paranormal, ghosts, UFOs, alternative archaeology and stuff like that, although I take it all with a pinch of salt.
RL: How are you finding the Indie process? It seems that from decision taken to pressing the button to launch on Kindle took no time at all. Any tips?
SM: The book is selling very well – I can’t help checking the chart position on Amazon almost every hour just now! The highest it’s been is number 2 in the Kindle “War” chart, which is, I think, fantastic for a debut novel by an Indie writer.
I can’t really offer any tips yet, since Wolf’s Head has only been out for just over a month, but to me, interacting with readers is a big thing. As a reader, I’ve sent messages to authors I like via social media sites and some will reply while others just ignore you. Guess who’s books I’ll bother to post a good review on Amazon or Goodreads for?
When someone like Bernard Cornwell – who is pretty much a superstar in historical fiction – can reply to his readers, I feel there’s no excuse for others not to do the same. I always reply to everyone that contacts me.