I reviewed The Serpent Sword, Matthew Harffy’s first book in his Bernicia Chronicles a couple weeks back, and am delighted to share with you this interview with him today!
Thanks for joining me here today, Matthew! First off, tell us how you got interested in writing in general and in the Dark Ages in particular.
I’ve always read a lot and enjoyed writing. I sometimes toyed with the idea of writing a story, but never got beyond a few pages.
I’ve had an interest in the medieval period for as long as I can remember, but had no special interest in the so-called Dark Ages, or what is now often called the early medieval period. The trigger to start writing about the seventh century, and Northumbria in particular came when I watched a documentary in 2001 about Bamburgh (Bebbanburg in the seventh century) and Ango-Saxon graves that were being excavated and researched. I lived near Bamburgh as a child for a few years and the documentary awoke something in me. I started to write that night and began researching the period once I decided to write a whole novel.
What was the hardest part about doing the research for this novel?
The fact that I knew nothing about the period at all! It was all new to me, but I think the fact it is a little-known period makes it easier in some ways for me now, as readers perhaps do not have preconceptions of what is “right” and “wrong”.
When I went about researching, I bought all the books I could find on the period and just took on as much info as I could and then fashioned a story into the known historical events. One of the hardest things is letting go of the research and realising that the story is much more important for the majority of readers than the dry facts.
Bernard Cornwall has a hugely popular series set in the same time and place as your own. Do you think the comparisons to his work helps you?
It has its pros and cons. I got turned down by some agents due to the similarities and I wonder if I’d chosen a different period, it might have made life easier. However, Cornwell has A LOT of fans, and that is a ready-made fan-base for me to tap into.
Incidentally, Cornwell’s Saxon books and mine are not set at the same time, mine are a couple of centuries earlier. That is like saying that the Elizabethan and Victorian periods are the same! However, it is interesting that such is the dearth of information of the early medieval period that it is easy to have it all fall into a several-centuries’-long homogeneous mishmash of facts and suppositions.
I wrote an in-depth guest blog post on Samantha Wilcoxson’s blog on the very subject of being compared to Bernard Cornwell just a few weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it all here.
Who is your favourite writer?
Funnily enough, Bernard Cornwell would be up there! I love David Gemmell, Larry McMurtry, Stephen King, Patrick O’Brian, many different writers.
The one writer whose work I never miss and always devour the fastest is Lee Child. I even pitched The Serpent Sword to agents as Jack Reacher in the Dark Ages. Not sure the description really works, but it got their attention!
Do you have any other genres you like to write in besides historical fiction?
I haven’t written in any other genre yet, but I would like to write a western one day. I can imagine writing fantasy too (historical fiction without having to worry about the history!).
What is the hardest part of being a writer? The easiest?
The hardest – finding the time to write, edit, think, promote the books, etc. Time is finite, the work of a writer is infinite!
The easiest – writing exciting action scenes!
And there are a lot of exciting action scenes in your book! Tell us about your road to publication. What’s been the hardest step along the way?
I suppose the hardest step was deciding what to do. I found an agent and he sent THE SERPENT SWORD round to all the major publishers, but none of them decided to make an offer on the book. I took the decision to self-publish after nearly a year of that book doing the rounds. At the time it felt like perhaps I was making a mistake and that maybe I should have held out for something to come through from the traditional publishing route. Now, I do not regret having taken that decision. The publishing industry is incredibly slow and I’m glad I took the plunge in the end, getting the book out there and finding readers.
What are you working on now?
I am now working on Book 3 of the Bernicia Chronicles – BY BLOOD AND BLADE. I am in the middle of edits and hope to have it ready for test readers soon. Book two, THE CROSS AND THE CURSE, is due for release on 22nd January 2016.
Once this series is finished, do you see yourself moving away from the Dark Ages to write about a different era or do you still have some stories left to tell us about this time and place?
I have ideas for stories around the events in Beobrand’s life for decades to come…by the end of book 3 he is only in his early 20s, so there is still a long way to go. I am not sure how many books there will be in the series… There are at least a couple more that I have concrete ideas for. And, of course, I need to tie up some loose ends before I can move on. I think the most likely thing would be to move onto something else for a book, and then return to carry on with the Bernicia Chronicles.
My wife and I have an idea for a thriller set in the 19th century, but I’m not sure we’ll ever find the time or energy to tackle it!
And now for some fun facts:
Tell us one thing about yourself that will surprise us.
I failed English Literature and History at school! I’m not proud of the fact, but I was a terrible student until I grew up a bit.
Who would you hire to score a soundtrack for your novel? Why?
Interesting question… Probably the great John Williams. His film scores are legendary and all of them are amazing!
If we were looking for a more modern take, Brian May, from Queen. In fact, Queen with Freddie Mercury still alive could do the songs like they did for Highlander. Now that would be cool!
Who do you want to play Beobrand in the movie adaptation of your novel?
This is something I’d not really thought about until recently, and I don’t have an actor in mind. However, when watching the Rugby World Cup this year I did think that the Wales Fly-Half, Dan Biggar, reminded me of my idea of Beobrand. He is intense, tall, physically strong, athletic, tough, but seems to have a certain sensitivity about him.
What’s the best thing another author has done for you? The worst? (no names! )
The best thing authors have done is to take a chance and read my work and then give me quotable endorsements. Some very prominent authors such as Manda Scott, Angus Donald, Justin Hill, Giles Kristian, Michael Jecks, and several others have all given me their support. I know how busy life is, so I really appreciate strangers making the effort to help a new and unknown writer.
The worst thing? There have been very few bad experiences from the author fraternity, and any issues I’ve had pale into insignificance when compared to the support from successful, established authors.
Thanks for your questions and the opportunity. It’s been fun and best of luck with your own writing endeavours.
If you want to see more of Matthew’s work and what he’s up to, here are some links:
Buy The Serpent Sword: http://getbook.at/TheSerpentSword
Buy The Cross and the Curse: http://getbook.at/CROSSandCURSE