The Cross and the Curse, Cornwell and other things…
Matthew Harffy exploded onto the writing scene last year with The Serpent Sword, Book One of the Bernicia Chronicles. His books have had vast accolades and he has been compared with the iconic Bernard Cornwell, a tag he wears with humility. He writes about a violent and oft-misunderstood time in British history and I wanted to get behind the man and perhaps even a little behind the timeframe as Matthew sees it…
I sent him a list of questions, just as publicity for the second in the Bernicia Chronicles, The Cross and The Curse, hit the airwaves. He kindly agreed to speak with me and so we met over a virtual drink in a virtual pub somewhere in the virtual-sphere that is our life as authors.
1. Northumberland – how much of your writing draws right back into your childhood memories of the region?
I think lots of it does. Some memories are vague, barely formed shadows in my mind, but others are quite vivid. We lived in a small village called Norham on the river Tweed, which is the border between England and Scotland. It was the late 70s and early 80s, before computers and mobile phones and the internet. I spent a lot of my time outdoors, playing in the countryside, clambering on the ruins of the Norman castle that overlooked the village, running around with our dog, generally having a great time. In the books, the environment and the weather act almost like another character at times, and I try to recall the sensations from my childhood.
2. Can you tell us one memory that brought Northumberland alive for you?
Standing at the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle (a few miles south of Bamburgh) with the wind whipping off of the North Sea, countless seabirds wheeling and diving from the cliffs.
3. You have commented in author’s notes about the lack of available research in certain areas of Dark Age Britain? As a writer, does this worry you or excite you?
A bit of both! But it excites me more than worries me. It gives me more leeway than authors writing about other periods might have. Having said that, there are some real experts out there who know a lot more than I do about the 7th century and you can be sure they’ll spot many inaccuracies in my research.
(I totally agree with this. My own twelfth century research finds great gaps and much academic dispute. I love the word ‘leeway’).
4. Did Beobrand arrive in your mind fully formed or as a shadow of an idea?
He certainly wasn’t fully-formed, but the first scene of The Serpent Sword, with Beobrand helping to pull a ship up onto the beach at Bebbanburg, did just pop into my head after seeing a documentary about 7th century graves that had been excavated there. Once I started researching and creating the story, I wanted Beobrand to be a very flawed individual. I wanted him to face things and make mistakes. And to hopefully, eventually, discover who he will be as a man.
5. Did you always want to tell the story from Beobrand’s POV?
Good question. In the original idea of the book, I was going to alternate between the ecclesiastical character, who turned into Coenred, and the warrior, Beobrand. They would be joint protagonists and complement each other. In the end, Beobrand took over and Coenred became an important, but secondary, character.
6. One of your skills is revealing the emotive ‘soul’ of your characters in the narrative. Many ‘action’ writers avoid going down that path so why are you different?
When I finished the first draft of The Serpent Sword, I gave it to my wife to read. She is a voracious reader and also a librarian, so she knows books! She said that there was not enough inner monologue and emotion behind the characters. I argued with her about it. Warriors in the 7th century probably didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about their emotions, I said, but in the end I went back and added more depth throughout, also creating a deeper and richer backstory for Beobrand in the process. I think she was right and it made it a much better book.
It is a fine line to tread though and I’ve had a couple of reviewers mention that Beobrand is a bit too introspective. There seems to be quite a clear split by gender of those who like the emotions to shine through and those who would prefer more action and less navel-gazing. You will have to guess which gender falls into each camp!
(Ah, but then the words ‘richer’, ‘deeper’ and ‘much better book’ wouldn’t have been said, would they, if the gender in favour of soul-searching hadn’t spoken?)
6. You also manage to shape a woman’s role in the era with great skill. Sometimes in action novels written by men, they become a pastiche. Was this hard for you?
It can be hard. The stories focus predominately on Beobrand and his adventures and the reality of that situation is that most women of the time would be at home looking after the children, weaving, cooking, cleaning, brewing ale, making cheese, spinning wool, and the like. Such things are not always the most exciting to write about.
However, I am married and have two daughters. I also have an older sister and a mother. All of them have strong characters and I know from experience that they definitely exert power over the men in their lives. I see no reason to believe that women were any less strong-willed and forceful of character than they are today.
7. In The Cross and The Curse, spiritual beliefs almost play a character role. How hard is it for any writer to present the case for each belief system honestly and remain neutral? I ask this question because we have the benefit of hindsight and the Britons and early Christians didn’t.
I really don’t know if I’m neutral in my presentation of the different religions that were vying for supremacy at the time. I am certainly not trying to present a case for any of them, but I think the trick is to try to understand how the people of the time would have made the case for their religion. One of the best sources of information about the period is Bede’s History of the English Church and People. It is clearly biased towards Christianity, but it gives some great insights into the older religion and its priests.
We know that Christianity won the day relatively quickly, so I ask myself why. And was the conversion of the people as rapid and total as the monks and priests would have us believe?
Beobrand is a traditionalist, worshiping the old gods of Woden, Thunor, Tyw and Frige, but even he begins to question whether this new Christ is not a stronger and better god when He apparently brings victory to kings who pray to him. And the offer of everlasting life and an end to sacrifices must have been a real draw for the average person in the early medieval period.
9. You have a professional background in IT and I find it hard to imagine the Dark Ages and IT together – it’s rather an interesting combination. What do you think Beobrand would make of IT?
Beobrand cannot write and doesn’t really see the benefit of scratching shapes onto vellum, so what he would think about IT, I have no idea. He does like things of beauty, such as the illuminated letters the monks produce in their books, so I think he would like to see all the beautiful images that can be found on computers. I also think he’d like to play action games with his friends!
10. Even more interesting, to be writing about Beobrand and then dashing off to play with Rock Dog? How well do the two creative sides sit with each other?
Singing is probably my first passion. It is something I’ve done for most of my life. For the last eight years I sang in a rock band called Rock Dog and it was great fun. The two creative sides sat together very well. The writing is slow and you don’t get any feedback for months or years after you start a project, whilst the singing is immediate with instant response from the audience.
However, time is finite and I found it increasingly difficult to balance, work, family, writing and the band, especially as the writing got more serious and took up more of my time. So, sadly, last October, Rock Dog played its last gig. At least for a while. Who knows if we’ll do a reunion gig as some point in the future?
11. Your characters have many experiences – swordplay, life on horseback, trekking, sailing – how have you managed to give these activities a fresh reality in your novels?
I’m not sure I do make them “a fresh reality”, but it’s nice to think they seem real and fresh. The truth is I just pull on my limited experiences, throw in a dollop of what I’ve seen in movies and read, maybe a little bit of research and then a whole lot of imagination.
I have done a little bit of fencing, which partly informs my descriptions of swordplay, though I know the style Beobrand would use is nothing like fencing! I have ridden a few times, but not for many years and never seriously or for more than a couple of hours on holiday. I’ve done some walking in the countryside, though I am not a frequent hiker. I have never sailed, but I have always loved the sea and boats and have been on a few boats here and there (whenever I get the chance!). My dad commented on how many of my descriptions in the books are based on the sea. Something I hadn’t noticed, but it’s true.
I once met the great historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff. I was seventeen or eighteen and our English teacher took us to meet her at the author’s house. She wrote amazing stories of the Dark Ages. Warriors in shieldwalls, battling Vikings. She wrote stories of Romans north of Hadrian’s Wall in The Eagle of the Ninth. She was prolific and was probably to a previous generation what Bernard Cornwell is today in terms of the impact of her novels. The thing that impressed me most, probably later, maybe even when I started to write and I thought about it as an adult, was that she was severely disabled and wheelchair-bound and yet managed to create epic worlds that were believable. I don’t think she was able to travel to any of the places she described and certainly wouldn’t have been able to use a sword, or ride a horse, and yet her writing transports us and we believe the characters are doing those things. This is the magic and power of writing and the imagination. She was an inspiration.
12. If you could write about any other era, which one? Why?
It would have to be the American West. 19th century America captivated my imagination a long time ago and still has a hold. I love great Western movies and have read many novels, from Louis L’Amour to Larry McMurtry. The first novel I started was a western, but I wrote about 3 pages before giving up. One day perhaps! One of the best books I have read recently was in fact a western: Robert Lautner’s “Road to Reckoning”. Amazing writing and I devoured the book!
13. Christian Cameron once mooted the idea of a historical fiction anthology about Venice (we must keep him up to that!), tease us a little with a smidge of what your idea of fictional Venice might be.
Yes, the idea was an interesting one! I have visited Venice, but don’t know much of its history. If I was to write about it, I think the Venice in my imagination is full of intrigue and duplicity. Beautiful women woo and are wooed by equally beautiful men. At night the narrow streets are dangerous, and as the brilliant sun glints off the Adriatic in the morning, many a body has been found floating just beneath the surface of the blue-green waters of the canals. Others merely disappear on their way to or from a Palazzo, and they are never seen again.
(for me, Venice is exactly that. Verging on dark fantasy…)
14. What are your feelings about indie writing? Do you think it has reached a place of acceptance and maturity yet?
I don’t really like the term “indie writing”. It implies that there is a difference in the writing of an independent author and a traditionally published one. I think there is just good writing and bad writing. The difference between independent authors and traditionally published authors is the support, the marketing, the distribution and probably the money! There is no reason why independently published books shouldn’t be just as good as, or better than, those published by traditional publishing houses.
I think readers honestly do not care who has published any given book. They just care about the story and the overall package. If a book has a good cover, is well-written and edited, and formatted in a way they expect, a reader will be happy. The Serpent Sword is long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s 2016 Indie Award, and I am over the moon about that. But really, there should be no reason why it could not be compared with all the books released in the year. Many of the authors on the long list for the award have been traditionally published too, so why the separation? I don’t want my books to be cut any slack, I want them to be able to stand up on their own merits.
15. And finally, you are about to release The Cross and the Curse, Book Two of the Bernicia Chronicles, how many novels do you see in the series and can we please have a link for purchase?
I have already written book three, By Blood and Blade, which is now in the editing phase, and I’m sure there will be more in the series after that, as long as people keep buying them! When I started The Serpent Sword, I mapped out a synopsis that I naively thought would fit in one novel. It covered Beobrand’s life for about 40 years. So far, each novel has covered about one year of his life, so I think it safe to say I could keep going for a while yet!
Click on this link for The Cross and the Curse on Amazon.
Matthew, thank you for your time and here’s to the success of The Cross and The Curse.
Thank you for the thought-provoking questions! It’s been a real pleasure to answer them. You seem to have tapped into something, as I have rambled on and on!