The third and final novel in Giles Kristian’s epic Rise of Sigurd series, Wings of the Storm, is published on 1st December. Matthew Harffy chats to Giles about Vikings, the English Civil War, working with a living legend and his past life as a globe-trotting pop star.
Wings of the Storm is the concluding novel in the Rise of Sigurd series. Can you tell us about the inception of this series? I believe the first novel, God of Vengeance, was written in place of the third novel in your Bleeding Land series set in the English Civil War. How did that switch in eras come about?
Boom! Straight in there with the tough questions. You’re absolutely right, I wrote God of Vengeance in place of another novel in The Bleeding Land series. The reason for this was because, truth be told, the Civil War books were not as popular as my Raven saga Viking books. Considering the enormity of the English Civil Wars and their impact on these islands, it remains a notoriously hard sell. I suspect readers can be put off by the subject, perhaps intimidated by the social, religious and political complexities of the Civil War. I think this is a great shame (well, I would, wouldn’t I?) because it’s such a rich backdrop to a great story. My own Civil War story, as told in The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, doesn’t get bogged down in politics or religion. My story is about a divided family and its struggle to survive as the country tears itself apart around them. Hopefully, it asks the reader questions such as, what would you do if you looked across the battlefield and saw your own brother among the enemy ranks? What would you do if you were heavily pregnant and your home was under siege? Surrender and live, or pick up a musket and fight alongside the men? Anyway, the sales weren’t quite where we wanted and so I pitched the idea of doing another Viking book; this time a prequel to the Raven saga. Sigurd is a favourite character of mine and I thought it would be great fun to discover how he became a jarl and a man others would follow. Furthermore, because it was set some seventeen years prior to Raven: Blood Eye, I got to resurrect old friends and sword-brothers from the dead!
God of Vengeance was pure joy to write and we knew we had a new series on our hands. Nevertheless, I have started another Bleeding Land novel because I do love those books and I’ve not finished with the Rivers family yet.
The protagonist of the novels is Sigurd Haraldarson. I was struck by the similarity of the name to the famous king of Norway, Harald Sigurdson. I presume this was intentional?
Well spotted! Six books and no one has ever mentioned that before. But yes, I’m a fan of Harald Sigurdsson, by-named Hardrada, and I thought it’d be fun to play on the name. Interestingly, the name Harald (Haraldr) derives from the Old Norse her-valdr, meaning ruler of warriors. I like to slip the occasional in-joke or cheeky reference into my books. For example, Captain Stryker, the hero of Micheal Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles, is namechecked in Brother’s Fury. I *may* have slipped one of my Civil War characters into Golden Lion, which I co-wrote with Wilbur Smith. I think there’s a dog called Arsebiter in more than one of my books. The red-haired Irish soldier in my Bleeding Land books is a descendent of Svein the Red from my Viking books. Silly stuff really.
You have also written a poem about Harald Hardrada, which now features in a short film, The Last Viking, directed by and starring Philip Stevens. Have you considered writing a novel about Harald Hardrada?
‘So much taller and stronger than most men, and so shrewd that he won the victory wherever he fought, and so rich in gold that no one had ever seen the like of it.’ That’s what Snorri Sturluson said of Harald Hardrada and if that’s not a great resume for a historical fiction hero I don’t know what is. There’s no doubt that Hardrada and his extraordinary life and adventures have influenced my Viking books. Born into a culture that was soaked to the bone in the heroic warrior ethos, Hardrada knew that the most important thing a man can leave behind after his death is his reputation. This perhaps explains his love of poetry. It is said he was even composing poetry on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge on that fateful day that journeying, warfare-filled life came to an end. This theme of reputation and of seeking fame runs deep through my Viking novels. So too, I hope, does the idea that violence and war, and creativity, craftsmanship and beauty, were not incompatible or mutually exclusive in the Viking age. A sword is deadly and used for a pretty horrific purpose, yet it can be beautiful. That most iconic Viking terror weapon, the longship, can be decorated with the most intricate and marvellous carvings. I think this intertwining of violence and beauty is one of the most alluring things about the Vikings. And dare I say, I try to reflect some of this idea in the writing itself. Yes, the books can be violent and rather gory. But perhaps the prose can sing with poetry. Perhaps, at times, the story can be told ‘with the lift and lilt of the waves beneath every sentence,’ as the wonderful Manda Scott so kindly (and beautifully) put it.
As for a novel about Hardrada, I have no plans as yet. Besides which, Justin Hill has beaten me to it and he is a brilliant writer. Nevertheless, I like to think I’ve honoured Harald Hardrada in our short film, The Last Viking.
Bernard Cornwell talks about all historical fiction having a big story (the politics and wars of the time, the backdrop) and a little story (the characters whose story the readers want to know). I think you like to focus more on the little story, though your characters are often larger than life! Would you agree?
I most definitely agree. The Bleeding Land is about Mun and Tom and Bess Rivers, and their struggles in the face of war, not about the religious and political causes of the conflict. Same with the Viking books; they are about fellowships of warriors out for adventure, and are almost completely fictitious, never trying to give any history lessons. I like to drop you right in the thick of the action and let you make your own way. I want you to feel and smell and taste everything around you. I want your muscles to ache from rowing, your flesh to shiver with cold, your guts to churn from fear.
In the Rise of Sigurd series, how much research did you do into the big story? The plot features jarls and kings; are these real people from history?
To be honest, I did very little research into the big story because there isn’t really a big story. I did spend a few days on the island of Karmøy on the west coast of Norway, where God of Vengeance is set, and it was immediately obvious why Avaldsnes, on the northeast of the island, became a seat of the early Viking chieftains and kings such as Harald Fairhair in around 870. Below the hill there, the the inner-archipelago shipping lane is forced into a narrow passage and it’s easy to imagine that whoever controlled that strait would get very rich on taxes from anyone sailing north. So I stuck Sigurd’s enemy King Gorm on that hill where the real Viking kings would later live. Interestingly, this Karmsund Strait was first called “Nordvegen” – the way to the north – and gave its name to Norway.
There are no real historical figures in this series. By setting the books about a hundred years before the history of the Norwegian kings, I get to make it all up. Compare that to the research I had to do for The Bleeding Land and, well, I did say God of Vengeance was a joy to write.
What research did you do when it comes to the smaller elements of the story, the details of weapons, daily life, clothing etc.?
Well, I rowed the largest replica Viking ship ever built, Draken Harald Hårfagre, which was an unforgettable experience. And, like many historical writers I have thought it necessary to own swords and helmets and axes, all for research purposes of course. And yes, wearing the Viking shoes and itchy tunics and all that stuff really does help with the tactile side of the research. But I’ve been interested in Vikings for so long that I think over the years I’ve accumulated a decent feel for the period. Of course there are bound to be gaps in our knowledge where an illiterate society is concerned. My job is to make it all ‘feel’ authentic to the reader. Historical fiction is, after all, an illusion. Sitting in my comfortable writing hideaway, tapping away on a keyboard – how can I possibly know what it feels like to stand in a shieldwall hacking fellow humans apart with a bloody great axe? But yes, back to the details. If it feels right, the reader will go wherever you take them. Get those little details wrong and you’ll lose them.
As mentioned before, you have produced short films and book trailers with filmmaker Philip Stevens, and your writing is extremely visceral and cinematic. Is there a full motion picture in the works?
I am a huge movie fan and can’t get enough of the kind of TV being made by the likes of HBO, AMC, Netflix and Amazon. Creatively, I’m delving ever deeper into this world too, because I feel it’s a medium I understand and, in short, it turns me on. I’ve had so much fun producing the book trailers and short films with Philip Stevens. He and I set up World Serpent Productions and together we have written a number of feature and TV scripts and have ideas coming out of our ears. It’s only a matter of time.
Now, from a purely nerdy writer perspective, I am always interested in how each author deals with the arduous process of writing thousands of words day after day until there is a full novel. What is your writing routine like?
I write full-time but when I’m not writing I’m a full-time dad and husband. What I mean by that is I try not to let the writing take anything away from our family life. I write 9-5 and I’ll often do the PR/publicity side of the job in the evenings in front of the TV. As for word count, my minimum is 1000 words per day. I’m happy with that because although it’s a very modest daily amount, those 1000 words are keepers. I rarely, if ever, cut words from a final draft.
If I’m up against a deadline, I’ll write six days a week but I hardly ever write in the evenings. By the time I’ve done bath, bed and story with the kids (Freyja 7, Aksel 4), I’m done in and just want to collapse on the sofa. I don’t even read then because my eyes won’t have it. It’s time for The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, or whatever. A couple of years ago I was working my arse off and wrote three novels plus an outline for a fourth in 19 months. But that was too much and I’ve since eased back slightly because I was on the verge of burnout.
As you well know, there’s much more to this job than writing stories. Even though I’m fortunate to be published by Transworld, I nevertheless do most of my own publicity and PR, and between Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and my website, it’s a full-time job. I’m running a business and if I want to sell a lot of books (which I do), I need to create awareness of those books. I must look after my existing readers, and raise my profile in a crowded marketplace. Would I prefer it if I wasn’t a slave to social media? Without a doubt. But unless you’re Bernard Cornwell or George RR Martin, you’ve got to get involved.
You co-wrote Golden Lion with one of the all-time greats of historical fiction, Wilbur Smith. How did that process work?
What I loved most about co-writing Golden Lion was getting the chance to write what was almost a pirate novel, with the added fun of it being set in the Indian Ocean. It’s full of cutlasses, wild animals, strange spices, heroes and villains. And it was a great challenge taking on a hugely popular literary character such as Henry (Hal) Courtney and trying my best to do him justice. It was an extraordinary experience to work with a legend of the craft and a man who has been a worldwide bestselling novelist for fifty years.
Even so, I’m not sure writing novels lends itself to collaboration. When we write, we painstakingly choose every word. Collaborating can be challenging and rewarding and even fun, but I can’t help but think that we are novelists because we like working alone.
In the 90s, you famously sang in the boy band Upside Down. Like you, I am a singer who has turned historical fiction writer. What do you think links the two professions? One is seemingly extrovert, the other introvert. What is it about your character that lends itself to singer/performer, and writer/storyteller?
You should ask my therapist. I’m aware that my path has been an unusual one, and I must admit I still miss certain aspects of the old days. Crowds at record signings used to queue around the block and the atmosphere was electric. I can’t help but reminisce nowadays when I’m doing a book signing and there’s maybe a dozen people and for half the time you sit there resisting the urge to shout, ‘Please buy my book’ to random shoppers. The nineties were an extraordinary time. I was flying all over the world making pop videos and doing TV and radio every other day. I was doing Top of the Pops or concerts everywhere from Wembley Arena to the Royal Albert Hall. Now, it’s Waterstones or the occasional literary festival. The fan mail is rather different now too (no underwear, thank the gods!) and I haven’t been asked to sign a lady’s breasts in years. All in all, things are much quieter, which is probably for the best.
I abandoned a degree in English Language and Literature in the first year to become a singer, and I sometimes wonder if I’d have ended up writing for a living if I had stayed at university. Because if the extraordinary and surreal pop days did one thing for me it was to make me believe that anything is possible. I got the lead singer gig ahead of some 7,500 applicants/auditionees. So when I finally put my efforts into hunting for a literary agent and a publishing deal, I ignored rejection after rejection and ploughed on, never doubting I’d one day be published. Even though I had neither a degree or any worthwhile writing experience.
Another useful hangover from those days is my musical ear. For me writing is all rhythm and tempo, and when it works it really excites me. I think in particular the Rise of Sigurd books really lend themselves to that idea of a skald performing a saga to a wide-eyed audience. Which brings me to another thing that the music and the books have in common: the purpose of both is to entertain. That’s why I write: to entertain. I’m not educating or preaching. I just want the reader to enjoy the book and feel immersed in it.
You have announced that your next book is about Lancelot and the Arthurian myths. Can you tell us a bit about that project? Why Lancelot? Are you sticking to a grounded historical setting? Or is there an element of the fantastic about the story you are telling?
I’ve been sitting on the idea of Lancelot for nearly five years. The Arthurian myth, in its many forms, is an enduring and world-famous story, and because of this there are countless King Arthur novels out there. But I don’t think we’ve heard much, if anything, about Lancelot. So there’s my angle. Lancelot, the best of Arthur’s warriors. Lancelot, the great lover. Lancelot, the man whose affair with his best friend’s wife brought down a kingdom.
Twenty years ago the first in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles was published. To this day those books remain my favourite-ever trilogy. And yet as much as I loved them, my story has almost nothing in common. That’s the great thing about the Arthurian myth – it’s so varied and contradictory, with myriad strands heading off in all directions, that you can pretty much do your own thing. Although, like Cornwell’s trilogy, Lancelot is set in a Dark Ages Britain and there is no overt magic in the sense of dragons or goblins or whatever. There is a kind of magic in my book, but you’ll have to wait and see what that’s all about. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a story of friendship, love and war. And it’ll be unlike anything I’ve written before. Oh, and it’ll be one volume, one big-arse book, rather than a trilogy.
And after Lancelot? Any plans?
Lancelot won’t be published until 2018 and I don’t know what will come after. At some point there’s another Bleeding Land book to write. I’d also love to write another Raven novel. I’ve got several new ideas and so I’ll talk them all through with my agent and publisher and take it from there. Mind you, my publisher has already signed it up, so I’d better come up with something good!
Matthew Harffy is author of the Bernicia Chronicles series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The latest in the series, Blood and Blade, shares a publication day with Wings of the Storm and is available from 1st December 2016.