Saturday, 6 January 2018

Diana talks to Matthew Lewis, author of 'The Survival of the Princes in the Tower.'

Hi Matt. It's lovely to talk with you. Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions for me. Let us start straight away...

What is the genre you are best known for?
I started off writing a couple of historical fiction novels but appear to somehow have ended up writing non-fiction medieval history books. I guess if I’m anywhere near well-known, it’s probably for the non-fiction now.

If your latest book TheSurvival of the Princes in the Tower was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
It would have to be one of those part-dramatised documentaries I guess, but this would be an excuse to talk about casting Richard III, who is the subject of my first novel, Loyalty, too. Eddie Redmayne might be my top pick. He’s an incredibly versatile actor and I think he could bring a real emotional depth to a figure often viewed as one dimensional.

What made you choose this genre?
Historical fiction was a combination of interests I’ve always had. The non-fiction was a result of my inability to refuse real offers from real publishers. I could claim a noble compulsion to spread knowledge and appreciation of the histories that have fascinated me for years, but it’s probably more like vanity!

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
One of the benefits of writing historical fiction about well-known figures is that I don’t need to invent too much. That could hardly be less true. Even where records are good, particularly during the medieval period, they weren’t great, so we have no idea what people were really thinking. Empathy is the key for me. Fact can provide a framework to operate within, but there is still plenty of wiggle room with character’s emotions, thoughts and words. I get to look at what happened and try to get beneath the skin to look for a plot, motives and other people at work. The freedom is simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Favourite picture or work of art?
Hans Holbein fascinates me. Jack Leslau’s theory about Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family has made that painting a long-standing favourite of mine (if you don’t know why, please look it up!).
Sir Thomas More and Family is a lost painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, painted circa 1527 and known from a number of surviving copies. The original was destroyed in 1752 in a fire at Schloss Kremsier (Kroměříž Castle), the Moravian residence of Carl von Liechtenstein, archbishop of Olmutz.

Holbein’s Henry VIII is one of the most instantly recognisable images in all of history and a testament to his ability to weave meaning into his paintings. From the aggressive, confrontational stance to the prominent codpiece and the glare, it tells as much of a story about Henry’s desire to project an image of himself as it does about what he may have really looked like. Holbein opened a real window into the Tudor court and made characters from history into real people you can almost touch for the first time. The guy was a genius.

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
I’d love to have a go at some children or young adult fiction. I’ve got a couple of ideas rattling around in my brain but they’re currently caged by commitments to non-fiction books.

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
I had been writing for years just for fun and although I might have hoped to become a writer one day, it was never something I really considered as a serious option. I self-published my first novel in 2012, expecting nothing to really come of it. A few months later, Richard III’s remains were discovered and as interest peaked, my novel started to sell. I was 36 then and wrote a sequel to try and make the most of what I assumed would be a passing fascination with the subject of the novel rather than anything else. Some of the nonsense doing the rounds after Richard III’s remains were found caused me to start a blog to try and get more accurate information out there. All of a sudden, a publisher got in touch through the blog to ask me to write a non-fiction account of the Wars of the Roses for them. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. I write for three publishers now and have books due for the next few years, which is mind-blowing to me. If anyone asks me, I still can’t bring myself to claim that I’m a writer or an historian. It makes me smile when I see others describe me as either. It feels like I’m getting away 
with something naughty.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?
I fall into some kind of freakish middle ground here. I don’t mind it, but I can’t remember the last time I chose to ate any. It’s okay spread thinly on toast. If this is too weird, put me down as a hater. That’s probably the safest bet.

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
I try to create routines to convince myself that I should be writing, but I have’t really found one that sticks. I’m a procrastinator of the highest order, but I get it done in the end, on time too. It’s a family trait that has made trying to convince the children to do their homework when they get it instead of leaving it to the last second more difficult. Apparently, they’re genetically predisposed to leaving it late and it’s my fault.

I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
I can honestly say my family. They’re always the most important thing because without them, I would never be able to write a word. They’ve put up with this flight of fancy for years now, spending time with them is my favourite form of procrastination and they’re always my main source of inspiration.
So that’s the paragraph to put in the version I’ll show them. Now…. (I actually laughed out loud!! Diana)
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I’ve never had the same job twice in a row or anything much like a career. I’ve had jobs I’ve loved though, as well as a few I’ve not enjoyed. If I could pick any job, it would either be manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers or Prime Minister. I’ve done both for years from the comfort of my armchair. I’d love to get into politics if I’m honest. I avoid it on social media because I try to keep it to the history, but it’s an interest that runs parallel and isn’t unrelated.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Tea. Preferably intravenous by drip. Strong, milky and no sugar. I can’t drink coffee, which is often an awkward social problem. I get proper dirty looks when I try to explain that I don’t like coffee. I really like camomile tea and decaf green tea too. That may not be very cool, but I’m not known for being cool.
I like red and white wine. When I want to be pretentious I’ll talk about drinking Chilean red wine before it became popular. When I’m not, a bit of Black Tower in front of the TV suits me just fine. 😸

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I’ve never planned a book so far. They’re organic things, both the fiction and the non-fiction. I have some themes in my head and threads I might like to follow sometimes, but generally I sit down with no clue what’s going to happen and hope I don’t want to delete it by the end of the day. I admire writers with a huge plan. It shows a foresight I don’t possess.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Calibri is my go-to font. I’m aware how desperately sad it is to have a go-to font, but I’m going to hold my head up high for this sans-serif champ. Microsoft has adopted it as the default font for Office now, so I’ll probably have to change it now to something obscure. Angelic War is cool, but maybe not suitable for everyday use.

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
Whatever evidence was produced to convince the powers that be in London to declare the sons of Edward IV illegitimate in June 1483 would be my choice. It hasn’t survived, but something was obviously shown around. Did they accept something that was obviously a sham and a hatchet job, or has it failed to survive precisely because it was compelling? To be able to sift through it and try to work that out would be incredible. More than anything else, it could answer a lot of questions about 1483 and Richard III.

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head? If so how did you cope with that!?
As I don’t really plan, my only plan is to let characters roam around with free will and see where they chose to go. I have to check them a little to keep within the framework of the facts, but within my flimsy, cardboard box of rules, they’re free to do as they please. It saves me having to think about it too much.

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I try and do loads of research. I read out of interest as much as anything else, which helps. I’m amazed by how different a story can be if you go right back to the original, contemporary source material. So much mythology springs up around many of these issues and becomes accepted as real history that it can be hard to break down the barriers, even with original material on your side. I referred to a clause Edward IV placed on his brother Richard’s title to his wife’s Neville inheritance in my novel. It’s in the Parliament Rolls, yet one reviewer took issue with that particular aspect because they had read a lot on the subject and never come across it before. Therefore, they believed, it was untrue and I’d made it up. (Sigh. There's always one... Diana.)

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
Facts are often inconvenient, especially when a character is at full pelt in a direction they can’t take, or want to do something they simply can’t. As a Ricardian, there are a few select characters I might have wished had kept their noses out of things. Rather than killing off an unwanted character, I’d rather have been able to keep Richard III alive after Bosworth to carry on his story and to see where it might have gone. Maybe alternative history will call one day.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
Nope. For a number of reasons. Readers of fiction can be disproportionately influenced by the fiction they read, especially if non-fiction isn’t their bag. Some might be inspired to pick up factual books to find out more, but for many, the fiction they read shapes their view of people and events from the past. The main reason, for me, is simply that the facts are so incredibly fascinating that I can’t imagine plots more worthy of reading. When writers change a real story into something less interesting, I’m left wondering what the point is. We already have the honour of putting words into these peoples’ mouths and thoughts into their minds. Changing what happened to them is a step too far for me.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
The line has to be blurred when you start providing thoughts and words to real people that are never more than educated guesses. I think a writer has a duty to respect the facts of the history they write about as a kind of recompense and balance for the honour of filling their minds, hearts and mouths with what the author wants to put there.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I like John, one of the few fictional characters in my novels. He represents all of that stuff we don’t know about, that even the most ordinary people are never really ordinary. Everyone has a story. I hated my Bishop Morton because I knew what he was up to. No matter how loud I screamed, no one else would listen though. They seemed to think he was a harmless old man. Fools. 

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I don’t get as much time to read anything but medieval chronicles and parliament rolls as I’d like. Non-fiction histories have always been a favourite to feed my interest. I’ve always enjoyed stories that take something from the past that no one has ever really explained and build a story around that.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
The Survival of the Princes in the Tower returns to the contemporary source material to investigate one of the most enduring mysteries in history. As the title suggests, there is a heavy focus on the notion that they did not die at all in 1483. The reader needs to go into it with an open mind and I hope there is lots there to think about. Maybe it suggests a wing-backed armchair, an open fire and a smoking jacket (a dressing gown might suffice). A nice 40-year-old  port might make a nice companion, or a brandy rolling around a large glass as you mull it over.

Last but not least... favourite author?
Dan Brown. Is that unfashionable now? I haven’t enjoyed his most recent books so much, but Angels and Demons, The DaVinci Code, Deception Point and Digital Fortress set a new standard in fast paced fiction that leant heavily on unexplained histories. There was always just enough to make you wonder, to leave it tantilisingly possible. He has a knack for writing such technical and intelligent-sounding detail that I always felt more clever for being able to follow it. And when I couldn’t, I could always pretend that I did.    (😸 Yep. Me too!! Diana)

About the author:

Matthew Lewis was born and grew up in the West Midlands. Having obtained a law degree, he currently lives in the beautiful Shropshire countryside with his wife and children. History and writing have always been a passion of Matthew's, with particular interest in the Wars of the Roses period. His first novel, Loyalty, was born of the joining of those passions.

About the book:

The murder of the Princes in the Tower is the most famous cold case in British history. Traditionally considered victims of a ruthless uncle, there are other suspects too often and too easily discounted. There may be no definitive answer, but by delving into the context of their disappearance and the characters of the suspects Matthew Lewis examines the motives and opportunities afresh as well as asking a crucial but often overlooked question: what if there was no murder? What if Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York survived their uncle’s reign and even that of their brother-in-law Henry VII? There are glimpses of their possible survival and compelling evidence to give weight to those glimpses, which is considered alongside the possibility of their deaths to provide a rounded and complete assessment of the most fascinating mystery in history.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Matt Lewis December 2017


  1. Great interview Diana and Matt. Looking forward to having a chance to read this. (As a Ricardian...)

  2. Awesome interview, Diana and Matt. I've already read a couple of Matt's books, and they are very impressive. Next on my to-read list is his "Henry III". This blogpost provides a great insight into the writer's thoughts.