A Light in the Dark Ages: An Interview with Helen Hollick

Towse Harrison

My first experience of Helen Hollick’s Arthurian trilogy was as a reviewer for this Society. Despite my own passion for the Dark Ages I had not encountered her work before. Not since reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset had I found an Arthur that I really believed in and cared so much about that at the end, despite how I knew it must be, I shed a tear.

But having finished Shadow Of The King, again I cried and immediately arranged to read the first titles in the trilogy, The Kingmaking and Pendragon’s Banner. I leapt at the opportunity to meet this woman who had sharpened a jaded appetite for fiction with such energy and verve.

Passion is a good word to use about Helen Hollick’s attitude to life and her writing. In fact she says that the opportunity to meet so many wonderful friends and people who share that passion has been an unexpected bonus – one that even sometimes puts the pleasure and excitement of her writing achievement into the shade. For Helen never expected to become a “real writer” – it wasn’t quite the done thing for a girl from a secondary modern in East London. “I thought writers were clever people who’d been to university and college,” she says. “So I thought, well maybe I could be a journalist but my careers teacher said, don’t be silly you can’t type. It was assumed that we weren’t clever because we hadn’t passed our 11+ so would end up working in a shop or being housewives.” Helen’s still a two finger typist, but when at sixteen she started working in a local library it opened the door to her discovery of fiction and her own talent.

She actually started writing as a girl when, passionate about ponies, but unable to have one of her own, she decided to invent one. So started a series about the kind of champion pony that is every young girl’s dream. In the 70’s she wrote science fiction and fantasy.

Then one day in the library she picked up Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave because “it looked a bit different”. “In the author’s notes is mentioned that Arthur might have been a real person, which, never having much liked the traditional stories, had not really dawned on me before.

“Then I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s stories and absolutely anything else I could find to follow up on them. Most of the stories didn’t seem quite real. Arthur was too much of a goody goody and I just wanted to strangle Gwenhwyfar. So I just felt I had to write my own version, how I thought it really might have been.”

So started a ten year journey that gave Helen a really good grounding in historical research and ended with a three book publishing contract in the year she was forty. “So life does begin at forty,” she says with a broad smile, “And now I’m doing something I really want to do – it’s wonderful!”

Helen had encountered some previous success with a children’s book called Come And Tell Me which is about what used to be called “stranger danger” and is still used by the Home Office and the Police. But it was the growth of a penpal style relationship with the novelist Sharon Penman that gave her the opportunity to have her work taken on by the much respected agent, Mic Cheetham. “I count myself very lucky to have such a wonderful woman as Mic as my agent. What I sent her was Kingmaking and half of what became Banner, which I assumed would be one book. She invited me to come up and have a chat and said, you do realise you’ve got a trilogy here. It’s too much and too good for one book. I’ll sell this as a trilogy. I had to re-write a lot of the first half of Kingmaking with Mic’s help but that was written out of love. Shadow was by far the hardest to write because by then I was contracted. The first hundred pages were really difficult but then it started to flow.”

So how then has this woman, described by the press when she achieved her publishing contract as “Dinner lady a legend in her own lunchtime” developed and nurtured her talent despite the knock backs of her early years? The truth is that Helen is still constantly surprised by her success finding it often hard to believe her work anything other than “twaddle” and amazed when reviewers comment on the quality of her prose. She frequently has to ask herself, “Did I really write that? It sounds really good!”

She visualises the scenes like watching a film, particularly the battle scenes, seeing the people moving about and talking to each other. Then she writes down what she is seeing and hearing on paper. “They are real to me. Perhaps that is why my characters come over as so real on the page. Arthur is my friend. That’s why writing the end of Shadow was so hard. It was like planning an assassination of this person that you’ve had such a deep relationship with.”

“I do believe that Arthur did exist, the legend is too strong for him not to have done, but he was not necessarily as I have portrayed him. Perhaps he was some small, backyard warrior. But my story is about what could have happened because we can never get back to how things really were. I am certain that he was a charismatic, very special person that had something that flared briefly for a few years and that is why the legend has been maintained. Through history you get these sudden brilliant people who for whatever reason shine brightly for a little while and then never quite go away; people like Arthur, The Duke of Wellington, Churchill, Eleanor of Aquitaine, maybe.”

But Helen also possesses, quite intuitively, the creative imagination of the natural storyteller having the ability to see beyond the modern accretions of a place to what it might have been like when her characters were living out their lives.

She describes a day trip to Battle Abbey in the pouring rain whilst researching her current novel. She was alone on the battlefield walking where the Norman lines would have been when she felt overcome with a distinct sense of presence. “I just knew that if I turned round I would see the Saxons up on the hill. It was a bit scary. I didn’t turn round. But I knew right then that Harold Godwinson would definitely be my next story.” This talent for creating imaginative reality is one rightly envied by writers and storytellers alike.

But good writing is also about hard work and hours of dedicated research. Helen was keen that her characters felt true to their Romano-British setting so she chose to struggle with difficult British (Welsh) name forms and authentic sounding dialogue. “Dialogue in historical based novels can be particularly difficult. If I was totally accurate I should have been writing dialogue in Latin or British. But it can’t be written how it should be. So I would make it clear by description and style that formal conversations were in Latin and for the rest I would do my best to make it sound right – sometimes deliberately turning words and phrases around – speaking it out aloud to be sure. I remember one copy editor then turned it all back into grammatical modern English, and I made them change it back. After all it’s not a copy editor’s job to change your style, and I’m a storyteller not an English teacher after all. My dialogue may not be ‘correct’ English, but people seldom speak ‘correct’ English in everyday conversation, and I have been pleased to receive many compliments on my dialogue style.”

Helen made a conscious decision, unlike Bernard Cornwell in his much more fantasy-based trilogy, to strip away all suggestion of magic and later mythical additions from her story. Cornwell seems to have believed that it would have diminished his story not to have used Lancelot and the traditional elements of the magical tales. Helen believed that their inclusion would diminish the realistic historical setting of her story. An opinion in which I find myself in strong agreement. But this meant looking at some of the legends, the sword in the stone and the loathly lady to offer just two examples, and to consider their possible origins. Her interpretation of the sword in the stone was to my mind particularly inspired and one which could be objectively backed up through historical evidence. To create an Arthur without Lancelot, without magic, was a bold move and a huge challenge, but one which she has successfully managed.

Research too can be a challenge. Helen would not be the first writer to have got caught up in her research, finding it more fascinating than the idea of writing the story and struggling with the fear that you’ve never quite done enough and that the errors will be starkly obvious. Again Helen is pragmatic acknowledging the possibility of errors – but after all, she is not a historian, and a historian is not necessarily a good storyteller.

But research can only take you so far, and this is where a good story moves into the realism of writing about what you know. “I know what it feels like to sit on a horse, the creak of leather, how it sounds, how it moves, how to caress a horse and the animal’s natural responses. I know how it feels to fall off a horse, have experience of sliding down a bank fearing that the horse would fall on top of me.” So it becomes easy to marry that experience with research on the training of warhorses, say, and create situations which are not imagination but reality put into a different context with different characters. “Perhaps part of being a good author is being able to see the potential of a situation and interpreting it in a way that it will connect emotionally with the reader. This is part of learning the craft of the job.”

Helen would love to see the trilogy taken up for film or TV, but acknowledges this to be unlikely in the current climate when such honours all too often go only to the biggest, most well known authors. This can be galling in an environment where it is already hard to get good review coverage, even adequate publicity for fiction and when fiction perceived as generic, like historicals, are all too often seen as all romance and clog and shawl.
Helen is not a great believer in the labelling of the genre, feeling it limiting and restrictive to the reading public. The interest expressed in her work by fantasy stockists is a prime example of this. To her a novel is a story about people and it should make no difference if those people happen to live in the past. “It shouldn’t be about categories,” she says with feeling.

So what’s Helen’s current passion? Well, she’s working on a new series based on Harold Godwinson and the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After all he is a bit of a “local hero” as she puts it, to a girl who has grown up not far from Waltham Abbey. Again she is hugely excited at the results of her research, already chipping away at the slant on history presented by the sources written by the Norman conquerors. She has discovered some fascinating, charismatic characters, both men and women, who with her tremendous talent for getting to the heart of human relationships and motivations are already living their turbulent lives in Helen’s head and the hard disk of her PC.

An afternoon with Helen Hollick, and the true Celtic hospitality of both herself and her family, was like a tonic. I later described it as feeling like a bottle of still water shot through with bubbles. I value hugely our new forged friendship and her warm and supportive attitude to her fellow writers. Helen Hollick is a writer of enormous talent and well deserving of every future success.

(c) Towse Harrison, 1998

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 3, Spring 1998.

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