Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Rob Interviews Book of the Month Award Winner C.R. May

Winner of The Review's May 2015 Book of the Month Award

You have a chance to win a FREE COPY of Sorrow Hill. Simply comment at Rob's review, located here OR at the Facebook thread for the contest, located here
Drawing May 30, 2015

Being a West Countryman, my drink of choice is usually cider. However, today I’m having a chat with Cliff May, the talented author of Sorrow Hill, the first in his trilogy of Beowulf: Sword of Woden series. Therefore it only seems right and proper to tap a cask of mead and imbibe a horn or three. Is a horn the equivalent of a pint? Will mead really colour my teeth green, as happened to one of Beowulf‘s companions? Oh well, I don’t know the answers but it will be fun finding out, ah, here’s the man himself!

Waes Hael, Cliff, you’ll need this to wet your whistle (hands over a full horn of mead). Firstly congratulations on receiving The Review's Book of the Month award for Sorrow Hill. Could you tell me a little about yourself and how you became a writer?

Thanks, Rob, I was very pleased to be chosen, it was completely unexpected. I have been writing now since the end of 2012 and, as you know Sorrow Hill was my first-ever novel. In fact it was about the first thing longer than a shopping list that I had written for about forty years! The bomb sites of the blitz in east London were my playground as a child and later the family moved to south Essex. Nearby was the Battle of Britain Spitfire airfield at Hornchurch where I could explore the hangars and old revetments known as E pens where the aircraft sheltered from attack. I stumbled across an old paperback called Nine Lives by a New Zealander called Alan Deere who was based there during the battle, and I read and re-read the book until it fell apart. It was a thrill to be able to visit the scene of the action, and I think that a lifelong love of reading and history probably started there. Following 15 grim years working in the City, my then-wife was unhappy at home and wanted to return to work so I became the prototype house husband, taking over the care of our children who were then three and one years old. I combined the role with renovating two tatty old wrecks which we moved to during that time, a Victorian town house followed by a 14th century hall house. I taught myself some of the old medieval skills like timber frame carpentry and lime plastering. It was hard physical work repairing centuries of wear and neglect, removing and taking literally tons of concrete and rubble to the local tip in the family car, but the end results were immensely satisfying. I used to treat myself to a short break every year during this time, always with an eye on history. One year I visited Iceland and searched out the locations mentioned in the sagas, another I crewed on the full size replica of Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour, sleeping in hammocks and watching the sun rise over the North Sea while sweating in a sail aloft. Two further children followed a decade later, one of which we were assured was autistic. Caring for him and looking after a baby (and two teens) in the middle of extensive building work taught me the patience and self-discipline a writer needs. My son is fine now, but I still have a daughter at primary school and writing offered me a kind of 'virtual existence' outside the home, plus a welcome source of income, which would still enable me to care for the family full time. One evening I sat at the laptop and wrote 'The boy stood at the base of the tree...' and I haven't stopped since!

Ha! I understand that ‘virtual existence’ bit. Hmm, this mead is nice, I could get used to this. If I recall a previous conversation we had, you told me you galloped through the writing of Sorrow Hill and the sequel Wraecca. Are you a regimented author, do you set aside writing time in your day?

I am very fussy I am afraid. I need peace and solitude to write because I never really plan very much at all. I have a vague idea of the start and end of the book plus a few highlights, but even those few supposedly fixed points rarely survive the actual writing process. The story comes into my head as I write it, almost like the pictures which flash into your mind when you read a good description in a book, and I write what I see. If someone comes into the room and speaks to me I have no idea what they are saying for a while as I return to the world! I write mostly during the day alongside running the home and luckily, now that the youngest children are older, 13 and 11, I can write at the weekends and during the school holidays. Basically, now that I am a single parent, I write when I can.

I’m with you on that one. The more I write, the more the ideas flow… Talking of which, our horns are both empty; here, have a top up. Your love of the period and of Beowulf is obvious; but to wrest three novels from one poem is no mean feat. Have you always known you would write this series?

Originally I had the idea that I would write either a stand alone novel (sensible for a first timer) or a series (stupidly, I took this option) set in the drowned land beneath the present North Sea. Oil and gas companies have mapped the seabed and produced detailed maps of the area known to scientists as Doggerland after the Dogger Bank, then a hilly region on a grassy plain. The rivers Thames, Rhine, Seine etc. all flowed into one huge watercourse which flowed to the Atlantic via a great waterfall at a time when the chalk cliffs near Dover and Calais were still one continuous ridge; it's a fantastic setting. Our ancestors hunted great herds and fought off prides of lions there; it has great potential for a story, but I went with Beowulf in the end because most people think they know it. For quite a short tale there is an incredible amount hidden within the narrative: wars between the Geats, Swedes and Danes, family feuds, even a battle on the frozen surface of Lake Vanern. Add Hygelac's raid which I wrote about in my novella, Dayraven, and there is actually a mind-boggling amount that an author can wring from the bare bones which has come down to us.

Well I hope you write of Doggerland sometime soon, I’d like to see that waterfall in my mind’s eye.  But further to the last question: your descriptions of equipment, landscapes and even fighting style is very detailed; how much research did you do before beginning your story?

I have always loved the period which we used to call the Dark Ages. Western Europe became a sort of 'wild west' where anyone with the will to rise above the restrictions of their birth could, with luck, rise as high as the norns would allow them. Wealth in the form of land, gold and silver was there for the taking in the period between the fall of Rome and the emergence of the new centralised kingdoms and the Christian church in the 6th and 7th centuries, which combined together to hoover up all that wealth again. I have always read everything I could find about the period so I had a pretty deep background knowledge to begin with, but Paul Mortimer's book, Woden's Warriors is a cracker for equipment, weapons and tactics, plus he was kind enough to send me a file from a yet to be published book, so a special thanks to him. There are several sagas which complement the Beowulf poem, Ynglinga Saga and especially The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki are the best; the Penguin classics of the latter is a great read, in many ways almost a parallel of the Beowulf tale. Sam Newton's book on the origins of Beowulf helped to disentangle the many threads in the poem as did the verse translation edition of Seamus Heaney's recent book. For the descriptions of the locations I used Google Earth a lot. It's a fantastic resource for historical novelists; you can travel the same roads as your characters (sadly now lined by different coloured wheelie bins, even in rural Sweden) and describe a place as it actually is on the ground. 

This is thirsty work; I'll just have a drop more. How would you describe your character Beowulf?

The starting point for all my characters is my belief that people have always been essentially the same, with the same strengths and faults as today but surrounded by less technology. I wanted Beowulf to be a far more complex character than he was portrayed in the computer-generated (CGI) film, for example. Sorrow Hill covers the years of his childhood to late teens so I introduced some of the insecurities which we all feel during that time. He is desperate to please his father but Ecgtheow seems aloof. His infatuation with Kaija and his bumbling attempts at speaking to her. Later, in Wraecca, he suffers from what we would all recognise now as head trauma but he thinks that he is losing his mind, and of course he rescues one young girl from abuse and avenges the murder of another. I wanted him to have what we would call now a social conscience, rather than be the muscle-bound bore portrayed in the film. I think that it makes him a more rounded character, someone people would like and respect as a man as well as a hero.

Yes I agree, and in my opinion you have more than succeeded. I found the CGI film a grand spectacle but I didn’t find its portrayal of Beowulf inspiring. You have rooted the story of Sorrow Hill with an actual recorded battle. When you embarked on the series did you have a mind to write historical fiction or fantasy?

That's a great question, Rob. My original intention was to write as little fantasy as possible but as the writing progressed, I found that it took so much away from the tale that the essence of the story was lost. It was a bit like Lord of the Rings without Gandalf or Orcs. So Beowulf was attacked by conger eels during the swimming race with Breca instead of a sea monster and the nest of trolls which he boasts about killing before the fight with Grendel became remnants of the Neanderthal population surviving in the backwoods of Sweden, etc. Luckily I quickly realised my error. How could you explain the fact that Beowulf swam down through the mere to attack Grendel's mother for 'the best part of a day'? Although I kept most of the rationalizations like those mentioned above, I decided to increase Woden's involvement to help account for some of the more supernatural/superhuman episodes in the books. I think that the mix helped to isolate the fight with Grendel, in Monsters, and made the passage all the more powerful by being more than just another fantastic episode among a string of others.

What struck me was how you brought the religious belief system of your characters' culture alive. I found it believable. The figure of Woden - the All Father- and the echoes of him in our folk memory and culture has always fascinated me; has he you?

The more that you study the figure of Woden the more you realise what a complex character he has. Public perception is based on the later Norse figure of Odin, by which time he had become more of a god of war and the nobility. Before that, the more warlike qualities were largely the domain of Tiw/Tyr and Woden was far more shamanistic. His connection to poetry, healing, magic, runelore, and even ecstasy indicate that he was a far more fascinating character in earlier times. Of all the old gods, Woden represented the qualities of the human mind and emotions, good and not so good, as opposed to, say, the more practical concerns of crop fertility and weather of Yngvi-Frey and Thunor. Cunning, shifty and vindictive at times, but also willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others, it is this multi-faceted character which I think makes him so appealing to us still.

Well I’ll drink to that. Thank you for your time, Cliff; it’s been fascinating and an absolute pleasure. Just one last question… do my teeth look green to you?


About the Author:

C.R. May was born in Bow, East London before his family moved to South Ockendon, Essex. After hearing that Ockendon translated as Wocca's Hill in Saxon, a lifelong passion in history was kindled, which has taken him from Berlin to the site of the battle of Little Big Horn (via Erik the Red's Icelandic hall!). The influx of Germanic adventurers was recorded in the place names around him and, inspired one day, he decided to weave his own stories into this history. You can read and discover more information at his blog and the author may be found at Facebook.


Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.

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