Outlaw! Robin Hood sits in the Big Red Chair…

It seems odd to have  a Red Chair feature so soon after that brilliant last, but I could not ignore the chance of talking to a favourite and highly successful author as he prepares to release his new book.

I came to Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles indirectly via a mutual friend who knew I was writing a series set in the same timeframe and indeed about a character that may have been an adversary within Angus’s own novels.

At the initial confrontation with violence in that first brilliant book of the Outlaw Chronicles, I ran to hide behind the cushions, but Alan a Dale, the narrator, is such a seductive teller of tales that I crept back, becoming a staunch fan of the series and earning a couple of Golden Arrows  in the process.

Angus was born in China, the child of British diplomats posted there, and grew up all over the world. He subsequently become a journalist and spent twenty years reporting on aspects of life in Hong Kong, South-East Asia, India, Afghanistan and London, but eventually he gave up the nomadic life to settle in England and to write a fictional series on one of the most legendary ‘good guys’ in history.

But was this fellow a ‘good guy’?

Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles might just blast that theory apart.

Angus, welcome to the Big Red Chair

Hi Prue, thanks very much for inviting me on to your blog…

1.     First question, very obvious. Why Robin Hood?

When I started researching the high medieval era, I kept stumbling over Robin Hood’s name in the texts. I was very interested in what is known as the 12th century renaissance – the flowering of culture that gave rise to chivalry and the poetry of the troubadors, and a different and more respectful way of seeing women. But in practically every book I read, Robin Hood was mentioned somewhere. And I began to be intrigued by his character, and to a certain extent beguiled. You might say he forced his way into my books.

I began to wonder what would Robin Hood have really been like? Would he have been, as you put it, a “good guy”. Actually, no, I concluded. I didn’t and don’t think the real Robin, if he ever existed, would have been a “good guy”. A medieval outlaw living in the wilderness outside society would have been a very tough customer indeed, and to be the boss of an outlaw band of murderers and thieves would have taken an extraordinarily hard, even brutal man. Indeed, in the very earliest tales of Robin, he is quite comfortable with murder and mutilation. In one story (Robin Hood and the Monk) his fellow outlaws kill a small child because the boy witnessed them murdering a monk and they don’t want him to tell the authorities.

So my Robin is no Errol Flynn. He is more of a gangster-like figure. Of course, to make him likeable in my books, I have taken some of the rough edges off: he has a definite code of honour; but you really don’t want to cross him. Think Don Corleone in the Godfather movies. But younger.

 2.     Reading the novels, Robin seems a secondary character. I can tell you there are legions of fans who followed the BBC series who indeed felt Robin was secondary to the Sheriff and to Gisborne and that those individuals defined his character, and they loved the series because of it. What was it about your Robin that prevented you allowing him to tell his own story?

Because Robin is not the “good guy” in my books – I think of him as morally grey – I needed a protagonist who was a decent person so that the audience could get behind him: enter Alan Dale, musician, poet, swordsman, a young man who always tries to do the right thing – though he often fails. Alan is the hero of the books. But I think the books work because of the chemistry between Robin and Alan. In the first book, Outlaw, Alan is a young thief forced to steal to feed his family, but to escape the clutches of the Sheriff, he joins Robin’s band. Initially, Alan thinks that Robin must be a shining hero, a man of justice and honour, and he is bitterly disappointed when he learns Robin’s true nature.

In a way, Alan and Robin are opposites: Alan yearns for universal justice and a fair society; Robin wants only to protect his family and friends, his circle, nobody outside this group has any relevance at all. Put simply, they are prey. As the series progresses, Alan becomes a bit harder and more cynical, and loses his black-and-white morality, Robin comes to realise that you must look beyond your immediate family and pay your dues to society as well.

I’m afraid I didn’t watch much of the BBC series – I watched one or two episodes. There were several battles in those episodes in which nobody was killed or seriously injured and I thought: “This isn’t for me!” I’m not so interested in Robin Hood for kids. I’m interested in Robin Hood – the realistic medieval man.

3.     Why tell the story from Alan a Dale’s point of view? What was it about him that designated him as The Voice?

 I tell the story from Alan’s point of view because I like that particular narrative structure: you might call it “first-person remembrance”. It’s been used by many other writers before me, but I don’t think that matters. Basically, Alan is an old man recalling the deeds of his youth and his adventures with Robin Hood. I have a “top story” or a “meta story” which is taking place in the present (about 1240) involving Old Man Alan and his household at the manor of Westbury. This often has echoes in the “bottom story” or “main story” which takes place in the past (1188-1200). For example, in Holy Warrior one of the big themes of the main story is loyalty. Loyalty to your lord, and your friends, and how important this is. The “top story” echoed and reinforced this message with a story about some pigs stolen from the manor.

I like this device because it allows me to write the book as a play in three acts – with a “top story” between each act – this helps me to structure the book satisfactorily. I know when I have to have a big narrative bang (end of acts 1 and 2), and when I need to start beginning to build to a crescendo (middle of act 3), which usually takes the form of a big and hopefully historically accurate battle at the end of the book.

4.     If you could have chosen anyone other than Alan to tell the story, who would it have been and why?

I’m not sure I can answer that. If Alan had not been the hero and narrator, it would have been a totally different series of books. However, I am considering writing my next series in the third person. First person narratives, while they have power and immediacy, can be a bit limiting. For example, my hero Alan can only describe events he has personally witnessed – and we only find out what he looks like when he happens to glance in a mirror or a pond.

 5.     Violence. You’re not shy of it, are you? What provokes such a gritty depiction?

Like many men, I enjoy reading about a great, big bloody battle. It is a guilt-free adrenaline rush in which nobody real gets hurt. I used to love reading about warfare in books by Bernard Cornwell and others and now I enjoy writing about it. When I’m writing a battle, I type twice as fast, my heart is banging and I often find that I’m sweaty and breathless. (I don’t get that when I’m writing a love scene – which is probably why I don’t write many of those.) Inside the majority of men, I believe, there lurks the soul of an ancient warrior. Thousands of years of evolution have made us this way, and our modern civilisation is only skin deep – the evidence for that is in the appalling atrocities that are committed in every war, and in the eagerness with which men will flock to the colours when the trumpets sound.

A lot of men secretly love the idea of battle, even in the 21st century, and I don’t think we will change any time soon. I’m not saying that’s a good thing; it’s just how we are. On the whole, though, I don’t think this is something that women share with the other half of the human race. And I guess that’s why my books are so much more popular with men than with women.

6. Do you believe that such a thing as PTSD existed in the time of the twelfth century?  

Yes, I do believe PTSD or some equivalent would have existed in the 12th century. It would have been interpreted in the terms of the day, of course, as a punishment sent by God or as a demon possessing the sufferer or unbalanced humours in the body or something like that, but I’m sure that some people must have been traumatised by violence and that they would have exhibited some of the symptoms on PTSD that we see in ex-servicemen today. In fact, Alan Dale has a bout of something similar to PTSD in Warlord, my fourth book in the Outlaw Chronicles series. He describes it as a “strange melancholy” and is tormented by nightmares and bloody visions of battle – he “medicates himself” by drinking a lot, which actually makes everything worse.
However, I should add that medieval people were much more inured to violence than we soft 21st-century folk. Violence would have been all around them from birth – even if their lives were not touched by war, children were beaten regularly, adults often killed in brawls, justice was savage and sanguinary. But I am sure that sustained violence does have a traumatic impact on human minds whether in the 12th century or today. We are still the same human beings as we were then.
 7.     How have you dealt with the academic contradiction over the minutiae of medieval life? For example there is alternative opinion about bathing and cleanliness, about fabrics that may or may not have been available, as well as food and spices, to name just three.

Whenever I come across a contradiction in the history books, I try to go with the most generally agreed option. And while we know a good deal about the 12th century there is still a lot that we just don’t know. I have built up a library of some very good books on the subject, and I do extensive research at the locations where my books take place, plus the internet is a real godsend, but when all else fails, if I really can’t find something specific out, I use my imagination. This is, after all, fiction that I’m writing; it’s not a history book, it’s just a story.

 8.     What did you experience yourself, to give you the taste and tenor of your era?

I was a freelance war correspondent in Afghanistan for a while in 2001/2002, just after 9/11. This was before the Allied troops came in. I was alone with a couple of dodgy Afghan guys with AKs to look after me. I didn’t trust them in the slightest; I was only paying them $20 a day – so what did they care if I got dropped? I was shot at, mortared, and I saw a lot of ugly things at first hand. Scary, exhausting, exhilarating stuff. I enjoyed it, for a while – but I’m glad I came back in one piece; many journalists didn’t. Actually, the casualty rate for journalists in war zones is far higher than for our troops.

I’ve had a few other dangerous encounters over the years in Asia – but, of course, it’s nothing compared to what Alan and Robin have to face in a full pitched battle. But it does perhaps give me an inkling of what medieval combat might have been like. Apart from that, I like to visit (money permitting) all the battlefields in my books and walk the ground and imagine what it must have been like to charge on the back of a battle-maddened warhorse over that ridge, or see an army of Saracens screaming for blood and coming straight for you out of that wood over there.

9.     Women assume quite a secondary position in your novels in terms of propelling the narrative forward. What is the reason for that?

The books are primarily aimed at young men – hence all the battles and fighting (see above). And, to be honest, I’m not very good at writing credible women. I never had any sisters and I went to an all-boys’ boarding school – so, even though I’m now happily married with a couple of kids, women remain a bit of mystery to me. I think this is the greatest weakness of my books – and it’s something I’m working on as the series progresses. In fact, in Book 5, a very unfortunate young woman named Nur plays a very large, even pivotal role in the story, but she has had a really tough time in previous books, and I feel that I owe her a little recompense. Having said that, there are some pretty cool women in my books – Goody, daughter of a Sherwood outlaw, plays a prominent role; as does Eleanor of Aquitaine. I probably haven’t done as much as I could with Maid Marion (Marie-Anne). And I regret that a little. But these are boy’s books, really, not romances.

 10.     You have lived a life steeped in the Far East. If you decided to write a novel based on that exotic history, who would you write about and why?

I’d like to write a novel set in the Hong Kong underworld one day. I lived there for five years as a young man and had an extraordinary time. But that would require some serious research and I don’t know how popular it would be.

11.  Tell us a little about the new release?

My fourth book in the Outlaw Chronicles series is called Warlord, and it is being published in the UK (and Australia and New Zealand) on July 19th, 2012. In this one, Robin and Alan are fighting alongside Richard the Lionheart in a bloody, five-year struggle as he tries to drive the King of France and his army out of Normandy. However, while the battle rages and the bodies pile up, Robin seems only intent of making a profit from the chaos of war; and Alan is preoccupied with tracking down the man who ordered his father’s death ten years earlier. And the trail leads to Paris, deep in the heart of enemy territory . . .

12.  Do you read your reviews? If not why not?

Of course I read reviews of my books, any author who tells you differently is lying. I loathe people who say nasty things about the books – if they were in the room with me, I’d probably get all medieval on their asses. And like all artists, I love praise – even insincere praise, the more praise the better. All writers are insecure, I guess: you hang your raw soul out there, and if somebody, even some low-life Amazon critic, pisses all over it, it really stings.

This next question Angus, is a given I’m afraid, and I would be remiss not to ask it:

13.  Do you believe Robin Hood ever existed?

Erm, no, I don’t. I don’t think there was anyone who once lived who was like the Robin Hood that we imagine today – a do-gooding, green-tight-wearing, thigh-slapping, wrong-righting, all-English hero. There may well have been a famous outlaw called Robert or Robin, a very common name in the 12th/13th centuries, and he may well have lived and operated in Sherwood or another of the royal forests, defying the sheriff for a period of time. But I don’t think we will ever identify him, and I don’t think we would recognise him as the Robin we know today (I’m thinking Errol Flynn) even if we could pin this elusive outlaw down thorough the legal records or by other means. He would have been a hard-faced, murderous thief – perhaps even worse than my Robin. It’s sad to say, but our Robin Hood of film and book and BBC series is a myth, a delightful myth that seems to serve some essential cultural purpose in our pantheon of folk heroes. But I don’t think there was ever a real man of that ilk.

14. And finally, the Red Chair Closer: ‘If music be the food of love’, what is literature?

Literature is the flow of soul.

Angus, with that most perfect answer, thank you so much for the time you’ve taken to sit with Robin in the Red Chair, I think there are many fans who will soak up what you’ve had to say!

Thanks very much, Prue, for allowing me to talk to you and the readers of your blog…

Angus Donald