Tuesday, 14 January 2014


Welcome to Paula's People, James, thanks so much for coming along today and for allowing me to interview you. First off...  

What influenced you to write from the invader’s point of view; was it a conscious decision? And what made you decide to write in the first person?

It was very much a conscious decision to write from the point of view of the invaders. There is a tendency nowadays in England to identify with the Anglo-Saxons, and to cast the Normans universally as villains. I wanted to show the Conquest in a new light and escape the traditional distinction that’s often drawn between the valorous English and the repressive Normans. In reality there was good and evil to be found on both sides of the conflict.
To begin with I experimented with writing in both the third and the first person, but the latter just felt right. The first person allowed me to get more completely inside the head of my narrator, Tancred. Once I saw the world through his eyes and inhabited his thought-world, a distinctive voice very quickly emerged. After that I didn’t look back.

Sworn Sword is your first novel in the series about the Breton knight Tancred.  What made you choose a Breton for your main protagonist?

I wanted a character who was seen as something of an outsider even among the invaders themselves. Bretons and Normans had historically not always got along with each other, and even though many of the former took part in the Norman-led invasion of England in 1066 and were generously rewarded by King William for their services, they were nevertheless viewed with suspicion in many quarters. So Tancred is always struggling to achieve the recognition and respect that he feels he deserves, and along the way he makes a number of enemies among the Normans as well as the English.

What preparations did you make in creating Sworn Sword? Did you do a lot of research and what type of research did you use? 

When I first started to work on the novel that later became Sworn Sword, I’d already completed a large amount of research. I’d just graduated from Cambridge where I studied history, and my final-year dissertation had been on the Norman Conquest, so I was already very familiar with the period. As I began to write, however, I quickly discovered there was lots more that I needed to know, about aspects of eleventh-century life that I hadn’t previously explored. And so over the course of the next few years, I read up on everything from the design of Norman longships to the practice of medieval medicine, and even mundane things such as food and drink.

Each new project now begins with a visit to the University Library in Cambridge, where I spend several days absorbing  the latest scholarship, making notes and laying the essential groundwork, in order to gain a firm grasp of the historical context. I also visit many of the locations that feature in my novels, such as the sites of the various battles, to get a feel for the lie of the land. But I also learn as I go along, investigating particular topics as and when they become important, and talking to re-enactors about specific topics. Research is very much a continual process.

William Malet is an interesting character in the book. I was intrigued by the little hints of his closeness to Harold Godwinson. I hope that we see his character develop further in the series. Can you tell us whether or not he appears again and in what role?

William Malet is one of my favourite characters in Sworn Sword, and does indeed reappear later in the series, although the focus shifts to the other principal members of his family, particularly his adult children Robert and Beatrice. Tancred’s fortunes in the first three books are closely tied with those of the Malet clan, and their rise and fall has a direct bearing on his own journey.

What are your earliest influences in historical fiction? Do you style yourself on any of them?

I wouldn’t say that I style myself on any authors in particular, although the historical novelists who particularly inspired me when I first started out include (in no particular order) Robert Harris, C. J. Sansom, Bernard Cornwell, Barry Unsworth and Kevin Crossley-Holland. They all write about different periods, and each has a unique style and voice, but they’re all equally effective at evoking a time and place very different to our own.

What is your favourite genre to read? Do you prefer historical fiction or are you not averse to other genres?

My reading tastes have always been very varied, and I wouldn’t say that I have a particular preference for any one genre. In the past year I’ve enjoyed historical, contemporary and science fiction, and have also been introduced for the first time to the works of John le Carré, which I’ve been reading voraciously.

Is there a book that has made a lasting impression on you and why? 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. A wonderfully complex novel, depicting a dystopian world that is both frightening and all too plausible. Its effect on me was such that, after finishing it, I couldn’t bear to leave it behind, but had to go back to the beginning and read it all over again. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that. Atwood does with the English language what few other writers can; her mastery of prose and her breadth of vision never ceases to amaze me. 

Do you have a favourite historical epic film?

The obvious choice (and I know it’s a favourite of many) is Gladiator (2000), which to my mind remains unsurpassed among recent historical epics, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it now. Other recent historical films that I rate very highly include Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Django Unchained (2012), as well as Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic A Field in England (2013), set during the English Civil War.

Even though it’s a TV series rather than a film, I also have to mention Band of Brothers (2000), the ten-part HBO miniseries charting the exploits of a company in the US Army, from D-Day to victory in  Europe. Epic in scope, and with real insight into the psychology of those who make it their business to fight, it’s a series that I keep returning to. A genuine classic.

The Splintered Kingdom is the follow up to Sworn Sword. Is there a third in the pipeline? 

The third book, Knights of the Hawk, is in fact already out in the UK, having been published in October last year. Set in the autumn of 1071, it opens during King William's campaign in the Fens against the outlaw Hereward and his band of rebels, who are holding out at Ely in a desperate last-ditch stand. As the campaign grinds to a halt and the king grows increasingly frustrated, he looks to Tancred to deliver him the victory that will bring an end to the rebellions once and for all.

How many books do you intend to have in the series?

To be honest, I’m not really sure! One thing I do know is that Tancred will be riding again in the not too distant future. Although Knights of the Hawk brings to a close one particular arc of his saga, it’s not the end of his story by any means, and I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels will take him in future. The Normans sought adventure all across Europe in this period, including in Italy and in the Byzantine Empire, so the next instalment could well see him seeking his fortune beyond the British Isles. In the long term I’d very much like to take Tancred on the First Crusade, although that’s still some way off yet. By that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting!

What’s next?

I’m currently working on my fourth novel – again historical, and set in the Middle Ages. It's still in its early stages, so I can't say too much about it yet, but the ideas are flowing and needless to say I'm very excited about it. I'll be revealing a little bit more about it over the course of 2014, so keep a look out for for further details in a few months' time. 

Now just for fun, what are your preferences

Tea? Coffee?

Savouries? Sweet?

Wine? Beer?

Meat? Veg?

Dogs Cats?

I for one will be looking forward to reading more from James. If you would like to read a sample of James Aithcheson's book Sworn Sword, you can download a chapter by going to his website



  1. Fabulous interview. I am at the moment almost finished reading Sworn Sword and have enjoyed it immensely. I will definitely be ordering books 2 and 3 and will look forward to more.

  2. What a fabulous interview!!! The questions are splendid and the author did such a grand job drawing me in! And, Paula, I love love love the "just for fun"!!!! I want to read this book, I *must* read this book!!!

  3. I agree with Marsha and Lisl, a truly fabulous interview Paula. Loved the questions. I really like to read what the thought processes are that authors go through. Yet another series going on my TBR list... I need to live a really long time to get through them all.

  4. Brilliant and James is an absolute delight. His books are superb. What a superb interview !

  5. Lovely interview. James' viewpoint is most intriguing and makes me want to order the book right away. Research is so important, including the mundane of food and drink. Everyday things ring true with a reader, and put the story on his/her level. Very nice.

  6. Sounds such a good book. Thanks for the great interview Paula