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Robyn Young is the author of the international bestseller, Brethren, published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. Brethren, the first book of a trilogy set on the eve of the last Crusade, became a Sunday Times bestseller in its first week of publication and was the highest selling hardcover fiction debut of 2006. Brethren has so far sold to sixteen countries. Robyn has a Masters in creative writing from the University of Sussex and lives in Brighton. She and I recently swapped our thoughts on experiences on writing novels set in the crusades.
ROBYN: Siege of Heaven was obviously meticulously researched. Did you study history before coming to write about it?
TOM: I’ve always loved history, mainly for the stories it tells and the lost worlds it allows you to re-enter. I did a History A-level, and then a degree in History at Oxford. All through my degree my tutors complimented me on my writing style, but kept on pulling me up for subordinating the nitty-gritty of complex historical argument to the broad narrative I wanted to put across in my essay. In a way, I suppose historical fiction was the logical extension of that. For the books, I certainly do more historical research than any undergraduate, and probably more than a lot of graduate students too. I just put it together differently.
TOM: My books show the crusade mainly from the western perspective. You’ve gone the opposite way and given a lot of time to the Muslim characters in your book. Did you find it harder to write from such a foreign point of view?
ROBYN: Oddly, I found it easier. I have two main protagonists in Brethren: Will Campbell on the Christian side and Baybars Bundukdari for the Muslims. Will is fictitious and is first introduced as a thirteen year old boy. By contrast, Baybars is a real figure from history and at the start of the narrative is a thirty-seven year old commander in the Mamluk army, about to lead his men into battle against the Mongols. Inevitably, this gives him something of an advantage in terms of charaterisation. Baybars came to me pretty rapidly, partly because I could draw his personality out of the details in history books, including reproductions of letters he had written. It was like having all the ingredients laid out before me; I just had to work to find the right mix. With Will there was nothing. I had to grow him from scratch and that took years, especially as he is so much younger. Another advantage I found when writing the Muslim perspective was that just prior to starting Brethren I had been travelling in Egypt and really immersed myself in the place and the culture. I was pretty awed by the whole experience and I think that lent itself to the writing quite a lot.
ROBYN: When you began writing these books did you always have a trilogy in mind, and did you encounter any difficulties creating a series that runs chronologically, following actual historical events, yet with each novel still being able to stand alone?
TOM: The original idea was for an indefinite series, rather than a trilogy, and with a very different focus. It was supposed to be a mystery series, very much in the vein of Lindsey Davis or Steven Saylor, with each book giving Demetrios a crime to solve in Byzantium. It happened, largely by chance, that the first mystery I came up with involved the crusaders coming to Constantinople. After that book, I found I’d actually become hooked on the crusade, and decided to follow it. Hopefully each book does stand reasonably well on its own. The idea is that you don’t need to have read the precursors to know what’s going on, but if you have then the later books will change your understanding of what you’ve already read.
TOM: Again unlike me, you’ve promised us a trilogy from the outset. Does that mean you’ve got a particular goal for the story in mind? How early on in the process did you know where you were going (assuming you do know where you’re going)?
ROBYN: Well, sort of from the outset. In truth, Brethren started off as a single novel, written in first-person, with Will as an old man looking back on his life during the Crusades. What first inspired me to write it was a desire to recreate the Temple’s dramatic downfall at the hands of the French King, Philippe IV, and I always knew this would form a large part of the narrative. But as soon as I changed the perspective to third-person and began telling the story from both the Christian and Muslim points of view the narrative stretched to encompass so much more than could be contained by one novel, and a trilogy was born. I guess I sort of worked backwards in that sense, knowing that I wanted to end with the downfall and then finding my beginning in the extraordinary rise of the slave warriors of Egypt: the Mamluks. I’ve now finished the second novel, Crusade, and I’m about to start the third and final part of the story, so I feel a little as if I’ve come full circle.
ROBYN: As I was unable to visit all of the locations that feature in Brethren, I read with envy your author's note where you mention that you spent time in some of the places described in the novel. What was it like to sit down and write the First Crusade's horrific capture of Jerusalem, having walked through those same streets yourself?
TOM: I find it very difficult to write about somewhere I haven’t been, even if it’s changed dramatically since the time I’m writing about – I don’t think I could do a Stef Penney (who just won the Costa Prize writing about Canada without ever going there). If I’ve been somewhere, it’s much easier to put my character into that landscape and look around through his eyes and know what he’ll see. The Middle East is such a volatile place that I couldn’t make it to all the places I wanted to – Lebanon and Syria were out of bounds while I was preparing the book – but I felt it was really important to see Jerusalem. In the end, it’s what the crusade’s all about: the first cause and the final destination. There’s also the fact that the idea of Jerusalem, its myth, is so enormous that you kind of have to go there to see what the reality actually is.
TOM: You write from quite a few different points of view, which I envy, as I’m limited to the one perspective of the first person narrator. Do you write all the scenes featuring one character at a go, and then chop up the narrative, or do you write them more or less in the order they appear in the book? How much do you play around with sequence and perspective during editing?
ROBYN: I write the novel chronologically, straight through from first word to last. I’m terribly rigid about this. If there’s a point of research I’m struggling with, I can’t push on and go back to it. I have to hold the writing until I find what I need. I’m astounded by novelists who can hop in and out of the narrative and end up fitting the whole thing together like a jigsaw puzzle. I’d be terrified that it wouldn’t fit. I think because I cover so much time and so many characters and events, half fact, half fiction, that I’d become hopelessly lost unless I followed an exact plan. For Crusade, I wrote an incredibly detailed chapter breakdown, which I used as a road map. Things did change as I wrote and I let them, so I didn’t feel constrained by it, I just altered the plan accordingly. Individual scenes can end up getting moved around, altered or deleted during the various editing stages, but generally the final book ends up pretty much in the same sequence I wrote it in, partly because, like you, I’m restricted by following a series of real events that occurred at specific times. With regards to perspective, it generally feels very clear what scene should be told from what character’s point of view, so I don’t play with that too much.
ROBYN: As the Brethren Trilogy is set during the final years of the Crusades, which is where most of my research has been focused, I found it fascinating to read a novel that detailed those early years. I was especially intrigued by your account of the self-styled Messiah, Peter Bartholomew, and his downfall, which for me was one of the most atmospheric and disturbing moments in the novel. How much of your account was based on fact and how much did you fictionalise?
TOM: Well, it’s hard to say what fact is in this period as the sources for the first crusade are patchy, heavily biased and often contradictory, but Siege of Heaven – like all the trilogy – is deeply rooted in the contemporary accounts of the crusade. I’m well aware that these events have become one of history’s flashpoints, and I think it’s only right to be as accurate as possible. That said, the incoherence of the sources leaves plenty of room for fiction to fill the gaps – and to try and explain events. Even when we know what happened, we hardly ever know why, and I think that sort of psychological insight is where novels come into their own. Historians these days are often very cautious about sticking their necks out; a novelist has more freedom to speculate, and I think that speculation can often enhance our understanding of the history.
I’m glad you liked the Peter Bartholomew sequence. Even doing my preliminary reading about the crusade I knew there were certain events that I really wanted to get in the book, that had the potential to make fantastic scenes, and Peter Bartholomew’s downfall was definitely one of them. That’s one of the scenes that’s heavily based on the history: we actually have an eyewitness account of the event, right down to the words he said, so it was just a question of rendering it and letting the extraordinary drama of the occasion speak for itself.
TOM: In the last five years, the Knights Templar have suddenly become the hottest property in showbiz. Was that a consideration when you started writing, or just a happy coincidence?
ROBYN: An extremely happy coincidence. I had the idea for Brethren way back in 1999 and had a very rough first draft by the summer of 2001. My agent and I used to joke that the last person to write about the Templars was Walter Scott. At the time, I was amazed that no one had really told their story, at least not in a big, commercially successful way. I had many sleepless nights working on the later drafts, thinking someone would pip me at the post. It was only a few months before Hodder & Stoughton bought the trilogy that the Da Vinci Code really started to appear on everyone’s radar. I think I was extraordinarily lucky in the end. Brethren hit the market when the Templars were at the peak of their popularity, particularly in America, following the huge successes of Dan Brown, Raymond Khoury and Steve Berry. But these were contemporary thrillers and after them readers were ready to know more about the history of the Order, which Brethren offered. I think if I had come much later, the book might have just been lost in the piles of Templar and Da Vinci style manuscripts flooding editors’ desks in the wake of the phenomenon. My editor still gets a lot of these and there’s only so much bookshelf space.
ROBYN: You have a very poetic quality to your writing, which brings your scenes vividly to life. Have you tried your hand at other forms of writing, or are novels solely where your interest lies?
TOM: Although I’ve dabbled in other forms, novels have always been where my heart is. I have huge admiration for people who can work on the small canvas of poems or short stories, but my own instincts definitely tend towards the wider stage and the bigger stories. The only other form that really interests me is screenwriting – I’ve written a few short films that I’ve made with friends, but nothing serious. Writing dialogue to be spoken is very distinct from writing dialogue to be read, and I don’t think I’ve mastered the difference. I also like having the control that comes with writing a novel. In a book, the written word is everything: character, story, costumes, scenery, lighting – the whole world. In a film, the script is really only the jumping-off point.
TOM: Your book takes place over a vast geographical swathe, and you’ve said you weren’t able to visit all the locations. Was that a problem for you?
ROBYN: For most of the years I spent writing Brethren, I simply couldn’t afford to go anywhere so I don’t think I even let that restriction become a factor. As I mentioned I went to Egypt just prior to starting and that was such a rich experience that it kept me going for most of the novel. I read an enormous amount about the locations that feature in Brethren, drew detailed maps, studied pictures and paintings, and really just used my imagination, or drew on experiences of places I had already been to. Yes, I would have loved to have travelled to Acre and I was planning to for Crusade, but there was a lot of upheaval in the Middle East at the point I wanted to go and it just didn’t seem a sensible idea. I’m hugely excited now though as I’m about to go to Paris on my first research trip for book three.
ROBYN: In your acknowledgements you say that Siege of Heaven was a difficult book to write. How different was the experience of each book of this trilogy?
TOM: Each book was harder than the last, though none of them was easy. There are various reasons why. I think each book is more ambitious than the last, both in terms of scope and themes. More prosaically, each book is longer than the last – the first draft of Siege was twice as long as the first book in the series. There’s an element of research creep: rather than diminishing with each book, I find the research actually increases as I get more of a sense of how much I don’t know. As the series progresses, there’s certainly a challenge in handling the characters you already have and adapting them to the new stories. You don’t have the same blank canvas you did with the first book. On top of all that, having bound myself so closely to the history, I found with Siege of Heaven that it was actually very hard to fit the history into a satisfying story. The crusaders indulge in endless delays, squabbles and dead-ends, which are hard to shape into a fast-paced novel. In the end, I think my take on it works, and even suggests a few new interpretations of the real events, but it took a while to get there.
TOM: In your author’s note you cite over one hundred sources you consulted in researching the book. How long did you spend researching the book? Did you struggle to know when you were ‘done’ with research?
ROBYN: Once I had the idea for Brethren, I spent quite a few months reading as many books as I could find on the Crusades. I hadn’t studied history since school and at first I had no clear methodology. The research was as much of a learning curve as the writing and a steep one at that. Once I’d found my rhythm I didn’t really want to stop, or rather I didn’t want to start the writing. Reading and compiling notes, learning, drawing maps, that was one thing, the writing was another; that was daunting. In the autumn of 2000, I enrolled on a writing course. I think by that point I’d become slightly addicted to the research, however I had no choice but to start putting pen to paper once I’d committed to the course. It didn’t stop there though. I totally understand that research creep factor, that and the sense that the more you learn, the more you discover what you don’t know, which is rather disconcerting. I feel I now have a pretty good foundation when it comes to the history, but I generally need to do a little bit of research each week to cover a new area in the book as I move forward.
ROBYN: Do you plan to return to the Crusades, or the Middle Ages in future books?
TOM: I hope so. As I’ve mentioned, Siege of Heaven concludes the First Crusade and – having taken Demetrios to Jerusalem – I don’ think there’s any other event in his lifetime that would be as dramatic, so any subsequent book about him would be an anticlimax. What I’m hoping to do is go forward to the end of the twelfth century and write about the events then – Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade. I haven’t quite figured out how I’d do it yet, but it’s definitely something I’d like to tackle.
Meanwhile, I’m taking a break from the crusades to do something completely different. After writing Siege of Heaven I wanted to do something lighter and easier, so I’m leaping forward to 1947 to write an Indiana Jones-style adventure novel featuring archaeologists, secret agents and desperadoes chasing around the post-war Mediterranean hunting lost artefacts from the Trojan war. It’s provisionally titled Lost Temple, and it’s due out in October.
TOM: What’s next? Can you give us any sneak preview of book two?
ROBYN: I’m about to crack on with the third book, which is called Requiem. Brethren has just come out in paperback and Crusade is being readied for publication in August, so I’m at a confluence of all three at the moment, which is an odd sensation, especially when you’re doing publicity events and can’t remember which book you’re supposed to be talking about.
rusade is set entirely in the Middle East and follows the final years of the Crusades. It’s 1274 and in Acre, the last major stronghold of the Crusaders in Palestine, a cabal of Western merchants who profit from war have devised a shocking plan to reignite hostilities in the Holy Land. Will finds himself caught up in their plot and the countdown to a catastrophic conflict begins.