This is the first in a series of Historia interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown awards. Giles Kristian’s Lancelot, in the Gold Crown category, is a masterful retelling of the Arthurian legends.
Lancelot’s a bit of a departure from your previous books. How did the idea of retelling the Arthurian legends come about?
It started in 2012 with the title: Lancelot. To me it seemed as though I’d struck gold in the eternal quest to come up with an original yet commercial idea. Even though at that point I only had the title and clung to it without knowing really what it was, I felt I was on to something. King Arthur had been done – possibly to death – in so many ways over the years, but in Lancelot I had a character with brand name recognition whose story hadn’t been told before in popular fiction. Or maybe it had, but I’d never read it.
Here was a chance to subvert the received mythology, to reinvent it for our time, to tell the story of Arthur’s greatest knight and to really get under his skin. And to try to understand that most famous love triangle in western literature. Of course, it was several years later that I got the chance to do something with the title I’d come up with.
Research: is it a pleasure or a chore?
A chore. That’s not to say I don’t do it. I’ll spend two hours researching 5th-century woodturning for the sake of four lines which the reader will skip along without any thought. One mention of forest flora may have taken me through pages and pages of books about British wildflowers, just to find the right thorny briar which grows in that part of the world, in that soil, at that time of year, but which also sounds like the right lyric in the ‘music’ of the line.
For me, writing is about rhythm and pace and the feel of the words on the page, in the mind and in the mouth. It gives me a thrill when the prose is lyrical. But the details have to feel right for the time and place. ‘Feel’ being the important word there, because sometimes with stories set many hundreds of years ago, who really knows? Make the small details feel right and the reader will trust you. Once they trust you, they’ll wade deeper and deeper into your story until they’re fully immersed. Then you have them. Mwahahaha!
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
At first, I intended to draw deeply on the traditional stories which make up the canon of the Arthurian myth. I thought I’d use some of them as a basis for a more realistic interpretation. But the traditional stories are so completely bonkers that it’s hard just to get your head around them. Like the one in which Arthur’s men are tasked with collecting a razor, comb, and shears lodged in between the ears of a giant boar which had been the sinful King Trwyth before he was magically transformed along with all his sons, who became piglets. I mean, where do you even start with that?
The existing myths are so contradictory. Take Gawain, one of Arthur’s most famous knights. Early French romance considered him the pearl of worldly knighthood. The epitome of the chivalrous warrior. But in the Vulgate and post-Vulgate cycles, Gawain is a brash bully who murders other knights during the Grail quest.
Or, for example, Morgan le Fay (Morgana in Lancelot), who is so inconsistent throughout the Arthurian saga. In some versions she is evil, in others benevolent. In some, beautiful, in others ugly. Sometimes a real woman, other times a fairy or enchantress, and even, on occasion, a metaphorical or mythical figure.
At first these contradictions in the existing stories made things somewhat confusing. But then I realized that it was a blessing, because there is no one version of the Arthurian myth, meaning I don’t get purists telling me I’ve got it wrong, which is nice. I had free rein to interpret the tales as I wanted. And so I did. I indulged myself in a journey of reimagining.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing the book?
About halfway in, I was struck with the sudden fear that someone, somewhere, might proclaim that Lancelot is, of course, a novel about Brexit. That here is a story about the yearning of native Britons for a bygone, golden age. A tale about the fear of foreign invaders and the struggle for power between warring factions. A brexitstential novel, if you like. It isn’t, of course. Is it?
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Get on telly or on YouTube, or build a massive social media following. Then you’ll get a book deal without even trying. You probably won’t even have to write the book yourself. However, if this isn’t an option, work your arse off. Write hundreds of thousands of words until you sort of know what you’re doing. Don’t submit your work until you’ve left it to marinate, because when you return to it, you’ll see loads you want to change. Try to get a good agent (the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has all the info you need for this) because life’s too short to learn the meaning of every clause in a twenty-page contract, and a good agent is invaluable in all sorts of situations.
Don’t expect to get rich. Don’t expect a fanfare from the heavens when your book is published. Do expect to become self-absorbed, antisocial, and to put on weight. Do celebrate all the little milestones along the way.
Writing a novel is hard, lonely, relentless work, so take any opportunity to mark big moments, such as when you get over the 40,000 word soufflé moment (as a friend calls it – will it rise, or not?), and the first time you write The End, and the first time you print it out, and the moment when you send it to your agent/editor, etc. You can find those champagne moments if you try, and they’ll help keep you excited over the course of the seemingly never-ending project.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Probably a lot. But personally, I don’t try to add to the study of the past. My aim is to entertain my readers, to immerse them in a vivid and compelling story. To make them ‘feel’ the story. That’s hard enough and I don’t try to do anything more than that.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing Camelot, a sequel to Lancelot. Although Lancelot was written as a big, fat, standalone novel, the way it ends does rather prepare the ground for a follow-up. If Lancelot had tanked, I’d have moved on and done something new, but seeing as it didn’t, and Hollywood producer types are trying to get the TV series off the ground, it seemed a good idea to continue the story. I’m glad I did.
I’m very excited about Camelot. It’s set in a Britain which is a brutish hellhole of cutthroat anarchy, slaughter, filth and darkness, where famine and pestilence rule. If you can’t have fun writing that, when can you? And Galahad, whose tale this is, is a very different young man to Lancelot. I can’t wait to see what people think of Camelot, which will be published in May 2020.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
A slice of my soul.
Portrait of Giles Kristian: author’s own
Mainland courtyard of Tintagel castle, Cornwall, by Rawac: via Wikipedia
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: via Wikipedia
St Michael’s Mount (where young Lancelot trains) from the shore at Marazion in Cornwall, by Jim Champion: via Wikimedia