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C J Sansom
Diamond Dagger Interview by Andrew Taylor (Diamond Dagger winner 2009).
- What was your first childhood encounter with crime and/or historical fiction?
The Sherlock Holmes short stories, collected in one volume and taken from the local library. From the beginning it was Holmes’s deductive insights which fascinated me, though when I read the long novels straight afterwards I can still remember the sheer thrill of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
- What led you to write your very first novel?
I had wanted to write a novel for a good many years, but realised I didn’t have the energy to work full-time as a litigation solicitor and also write a novel in my spare time – though some people, like my friend the late PD James, do have the energy to work full-time and write as well. I think it’s a matter of individual physiology. However, when a legacy enabled me to take a year off work in 2000 I grabbed at the chance. Among the various plot ideas I had been playing with in my head was a murder mystery set in 1537, around the Dissolution of the Monasteries. And so, I did the research and off I went. I had a History PhD, which was a great help.
- Did you set out to write a crime novel or historical novel?
Unquestionably, both. I wanted to write a crime novel which also reflected the world of the Dissolution.
- And when was the moment you knew that writing fiction was going to be more than a hobby for you?
I would say as long ago as my thirties, in the 1980s. And while I didn’t have the energy to work on a novel while working full-time, I did attend a lot of book groups and writing groups where I learned a lot and enjoyed the exercises in writing short stories. I thought an attempt to write a novel would have to wait until retirement, but chance allowed me to start earlier.
- How has your own life experience affected the novels you write?
Graham Greene said that “childhood is the writer’s bank balance.” I think that is true for me to a large extent. I had a horrible childhood at an Edinburgh private school. It may sound pretty overwrought to say so – it was of course nothing like the truly terrible and desperate experiences that children and adults suffer under authoritarian political regimes. But a child is conscious only of its own limited world, and a common theme in all my books is outsiders struggling in an environment where you dare not take a step out of line, or the wolves will be on you. On the other hand, being bullied and isolated, coupled with the fact that I belonged to the first generation of children who watched TV, meant that I lived to a great extent in my own imagination, making up stories in my head, and reading fiction voraciously.
- Why Shardlake? Why did you choose to set the series in this period of Tudor history?
I am very interested in the period of the “mid-Tudor crisis”, the tumultuous later years of Henry VIII, the short reigns of his two children Edward VI and Mary I, and finally the religious, political and economic “Elizabethan settlement”. Some historians argue that there was a series of separate unconnected crises, noting that four different monarchs, (five if you count Jane Grey), occupied the English throne between 1542 and 1560. However I think that during this period the economic impoverishment and inflation caused by Henry VIII’s expensive and failed wars of the early 1540s was a continuing theme, along with religious differences. I would extend the period back to 1536, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries which caused massive social upheaval – and the period also saw two massive rebellions of the common people against the economic, political and religious elites, in 1536 and 1549. Either way, this is a very rich seam of historical change.
As for Shardlake, I had decided to make my investigator a lawyer like myself and I also wanted him to be an outsider, questioning of both sides in the Catholic versus Protestant debate and conscious the depth of social injustice (in Tudor terms, a “Commonwealth man”.) And giving him a disability against which there was much prejudice at the time gave him personal reasons to be an outsider. And then, somehow, he came fully formed from the mists of my subconscious into my conscious mind – literally overnight.
- How do you write? Do you aim to do all the research first? Are you a planner, and do you set yourself daily/weekly targets? Do you work to a set routine?
When I started this strange new life in 2000, I decided to make it as similar as possible to my old solicitor’s life, in the sense of starting work early (I am a “morning person” in terms of my body clock) working solidly for at least 5 hours a day. I do feel this is essential if you are going to get the job – no easy task – done. In recent years, though, ill health has limited the time I have to spend on my writing. I always do the bulk of the research first, having prepared an outline plan, and definitely feel that as I do so the story germinates in my subconscious. I am one of nature’s planners, although the plan should be a guideline, not a straitjacket, and among other things having a plan helps prevent individual characters from muscling their way to the front of the story, which some seem inclined to do.
- Which is your own favourite among your novels, and why?
My non-Shardlake, Dominion, because I got a tremendous feel for all the main characters. Being an “alternate history” made it I think the most ambitious novel, because I had to create a believable world of a Nazi– dominated Britain in 1952. At first I thought it was just too ambitious, and yet in the end it worked. My favourite Shardlake is my previous one, Tombland, because I was able to get to grips with the details of the 1549 rebellion in Norfolk, and it was fascinating to try and recreate the vast rebel camp outside Norwich from the limited facts we know.
- Two of your novels, Winter in Madrid and Dominion, are standalones, one set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the other in an alternative, Nazi-run Britain in 1952. What drew you to write them, and are you planning to write more standalones?
When I was writing my first Shardlake, I had of course no idea that it would be accepted for publication, let alone be a success. I still had some time and money left before I had to go back to the law, and I thought, in case it failed, I would start a completely different book. The Spanish Civil War was my Special Subject while a history undergraduate, and I was always interested in what happened in Spain in the years following Franco’s victory. So I began Winter in Madrid. Then, sometime later, the idea developed of writing a novel in the “Nazis won the war” alternative history genre. I’ve always been very interested in the period around the Second World War, and planned a very loose “World War II trilogy” to conclude with a third stand-alone set in the wartime Soviet Union under Stalin. However, I don’t think that will come to pass – my health now would prevent travel to Russia – I always like to walk the ground on which my novels are set – and well before the present dreadful war against Ukraine I feared Vladimir Putin deeply and thought him the most dangerous man in the world. Even without this war, there is no way that I would set foot in a country run by him.
- Your novels are underpinned by the depth of the research. Are you using fiction as an alternative way to engage in your academic work as a historian?
No, insofar as my main aim is to write good, readable fiction. But yes, I love the research and particularly when I turn up new facts. I’d say rather that I’m fortunate enough to get the best of both worlds.
- What are you writing now? What would you like to write next?
I’m writing the next Shardlake, which will be set in the latter days of the reign of Edward VI. I would like then to complete the series with two more novels, one set during the short reign of Mary I, and the second around the coming to power, after many travails, of Elizabeth I. Various people have suggested that I should write a comedy, and who knows, one day I might try it.
- With the benefit of experience, if you could advise your younger self while he was writing his first crime novel, Dissolution, what would you say?
I think I was lucky in that I pressed a lot of the right buttons – reading books about creative writing, marketing, showing sections to friends whom I respected – it’s important in a first-time writer to be able to accept constructive criticism, which I was fortunate to get. In retrospect, all the cards fell right for me.
- If you were asked to advise someone who was starting out as a historical crime writer now, what would you say?
First, make sure that you know the setting, “the world of the piece” intimately, always remembering that while the different human emotions are a constant, how they are expressed and the belief systems within which they operate, vary enormously. Second, for a crime novel you have to make a plan – who the characters are, what their motivations are, the things they show and the things they keep hidden. Second, don’t take any of the main characters in an autobiographical direction, a temptation for any first-time novelist, and in my opinion often the kiss of death.
Third, BOS – bum on seat. Keep at it, rewrite and revise. In other words, to borrow a phrase from Churchill – KBO, keep buggering on. If you can’t do that, writing may not be for you. It isn’t for everybody. Best to make the effort, and if you find you can’t sustain it, never mind, at least you tried, and nobody can expect more of themselves than that.
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