Wednesday 17 July 2013

Welcome Wednesday's brilliant interview with Mark Patton

On Welcome Wednesday I'm delighted to have a return visit from my Crooked Cat friend, Mark Patton. Mark has recently has a second historical novel -An Accidental King - published by Crooked Cat Publishing.

I've recently read Mark's excellent novel and thought it a really fine read. I asked him some general questions and some more specifically about An Accidental King. Here's what he answers...

Hello, Mark. Can you please tell the readers where you are from, and where you live now?
I was born and brought up in Jersey, and I have lived in France and the Netherlands, and in various parts of the UK, but I’ve been in London for the past fifteen years, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I have the stereotypical “writer’s garret” in Brockley, south-east London.

Which five general facts would the reader love to know about your life outside of writing fiction? 
1. I could swim as early as I could walk and, in my youth, I spent a great deal of time swimming in the sea (I later graduated to scuba-diving and sailing).
2. I’m an enthusiastic cook. There isn’t a place I’ve visited, or a time period I’ve studied or written about, for which I can’t also cook an authentic meal (I sometimes feature the recipes on my own blog once I’ve tried them out on my friends).
3. I have a life-long fascination with all aspects of the natural world.
4. Rarely does a week go by without a visit, with friends, to an exhibition at one of London’s museums or art galleries.
5. Apart from literature, film is my favourite art-form. The British Film Institute is another popular haunt – one of the few cinemas that caters for (and even expands) my eclectic range of tastes.

Historical cooking hasn't happened at home but I had a really great time cooking with my Primary classes; a Roman Banquet; Celtic fat hen (sort of ) soup; Victorian 'Please Sir, Can I have some more?' gruel; World War 2 British Government produced  -Wartime Recipes. But I digress. Back to the interview...

I’ve read ( and greatly enjoyed) both of your historical fiction titles which have been published by Crooked Cat Publishing, but wonder if you have published any other work? What else should the reader look out for?
I have published a biography of the Victorian banker, scientist, archaeologist and politician, Sir John Lubbock (Ashgate 2007). I’ve also written several works of archaeological non-fiction. Anyone who wants to know the detailed background to Undreamed Shores will find it in Statements in Stone (Routledge 1994). A couple of my short stories have been published by 

Do you believe your educational background/ profession has been helpful, or has it been a hindrance, in your desire to write fiction?
A bit of both. I didn’t have to do much additional research for Undreamed Shores. I’d written much of the relevant academic material myself. The problem was knowing what to leave out – my first draft included far too many factual details. An Accidental King was a different matter, as I hadn’t researched the Roman period academically, and had only taught it in the most general terms.

In my own writing, there has always been some sort of catalyst which has led to a vague plot for all of my novels. What gave you the impetus to write An Accidental King?
I’m sure that everybody of my generation remembers where we were on 11th September 2001. I was in my office as an academic dean at the University of Westminster. We had staff and students from all over the world, including a great many Muslims and quite a few Americans. People looked to me in helping them make sense of things and, in doing so, I kept coming back to the Boudiccan Revolt. It worked as an analogy because it happened a very long time ago. It also failed (which helped reassure people), but there were lessons to be learned from it and, in the novel that has grown from that seed, I show my characters learning those lessons.

That's a very interesting and almost unexpected reason, Mark. A pretty traumatic catalyst and I'm sure you are reliving those conversations, when prompted. On that September day I was with my Primary 7 class at a 'Joint Emergency Services Event' that was annually organised for 11-12year olds from Aberdeen City and Shire. While the kids were with the instructors doing their final 'debriefing session', the teachers etc (that year including my husband as an adult helper) were in the staff common room at Gordon Barracks (Then base of the Gordon Highlander Regiment) at approx 1.30/2pm. A little overhead TV was showing the footage and we mistakenly thought it was some kind of set up that we needed to react to, eg work with the 'Fire and Rescue' services - or something. The reality only came when the most senior Police Officer told us it was real and they were going to get the kids on the buses a bit sharper than usual. Around 1200 kids were in attendance, on the buses fast as a blink, since the personnel of all the services(Fire/Police/Ambulance/Coastguard) had been seconded for that day, and they immediately went on a 'Red Alert'.

Back to our interview! I really enjoyed reading your intermingling of already documented facts about important people during the era of approximately AD 43- AD 80, and what I believe is your fictional interpretation of how they interacted with each other. As a writer of historical fiction, I constantly have to check recorded facts if I want to include or write around them. Is constant checking something you need to do, too, or do you have a great retention of information you’ve read?
The further back in time one goes, the fewer facts there are to go on, but I was constantly checking facts, especially the dates of people’s births and deaths. I had to be particularly careful with characters such as Claudius and his freedman, Narcissus, who also appear as characters in Robert Graves’s novels. At times I had to check whether something I thought I knew really did come from Suetonius or Tacitus or whether it came from Graves.

Agricola -wikimedia commons
I'm so glad you've said that. I thought I might be the only one paranoid about fact checking! You made the relationships between the characters of Cartimandua and Cogidubnus so believable, and also those of Cogidubnus with historical figures like Agricola. How much of that was truly fiction and how much gleaned from recorded evidence?
These interactions are almost entirely fictional. We don’t know whether Cogidubnus ever met Cartimandua (I think it overwhelmingly likely that he did) or whether he knew Agricola (some scholars have suggested that he may well have died before Agricola became governor). I’d find it far more difficult to believe that he didn’t know Vespasian, but we actually know nothing about their interactions.

Would you say your profession, and your accessibility to main institutions like The British Library and The British Museum, has made it easier for you to sift through information to use in your fiction writing?
The British Library is a fantastic resource for writers, whatever we are writing about. It is one of the reasons I would not want to live anywhere but London. I draw a great deal of inspiration, however, from other cultural institutions in London, from all the exhibitions I go to and all the films and plays I watch. Some of these influences may be more obvious to the reader than others, but all of them are very clear to me.

Living in Aberdeenshire I'm definitely a bit remote from those sources!

I liked your use of first person narrative, which made me think of ‘I Claudius’ by Robert Graves. Did that earlier work have any influence on your choice of first, rather than third, person use?
I, Claudius and Claudius the God were very conscious influences, as was Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. I also had in mind Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and (in the latter stages of writing the book) Bring up the Bodies. Although Mantel does not use first person narration as Graves and Yourcenar do, she takes familiar figures and familiar events from history and reworks the story we think we know by looking at it from a different viewpoint. That was very much my aim here.

You inserted poems, and used particularly eloquent phrases like ‘sailed across the wine-dark sea, traversing the hidden highways of the fish' - at times, throughout the novel which I thought made a great impact. Which sources did you tend to use for these?
The line you quote is adapted from Homer, and there is a very specific reason why Vespasian quotes it in the way that he does. He is caught out, with no genuine stories of his own to tell, so he tells one that he knows, assuming (rightly) that his words and stories will be unfamiliar to Cogidubnus. There is a lot of subtle manipulation going on, but Cogidubnus, as I have imagined him, is also a genuine lover of Latin poetry. I have used John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Amores. The native British poetry (“Wennolina’s Lament,” for example) is my own fictional creation. 

At times, I had to work much harder during the reading to keep track of the time period Cogidubnus was relating about- especially when he was in storytelling mode with other characters. Are there ‘time-line’ techniques you can share with us which would be helpful if someone else was intending to employ that ‘flashbacks within related stories’ procedure?
My starting point, both for Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, was Homer’s Odyssey, to my mind one of the greatest stories ever told. It begins not at the beginning, but very near the end. It has a “narrative present,” in which the book both begins and ends, and all departures from this are clearly sign-posted. Much of it has Odysseus, as I have Cogidubnus, in storytelling mode. I can recommend it as a starting point, but that doesn’t make it easy to pull off. An Accidental King went through twelve iterations over four years, and much of that was devoted to getting the “continuity” right. The key, I think, was to have fewer flashbacks, and to make them longer, so that the timeframe changes only once or, at most, twice, in the course of a chapter.

It's quite awhile since I read an Odyssey translation but I'll try to remember that tip! In An Accidental King, I thought it very neat the way you managed to make an ancestral link back to your main character, Amzai, in Undreamed Shores. Did you have that in mind from the outset of writing an Accidental King?
Yes, that was always part of the plan. I was intrigued by the fact that we have a “collective memory” that goes back around two and a half thousand years (Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Jesus Christ and Socrates are all part of this narrative), and wondered what the “collective memory” of people living in the 1st Century AD might have been like. Of course we can’t necessarily take the “collective memory” of any society at face value. We know perfectly well that our present queen is not a direct lineal descendent of William the Conqueror, and need not assume that Cogidubnus is really a direct lineal descendent of Amzai – what matters is that Amzai is part of Cogidubnus’s narrative understanding of who he is.

When it comes to titles for you novels, was your final title a work in progress title? Or, was it something only made a reality after the book was accepted and editing processes had begun?
As far as I remember, “An Accidental King” was the title I always had for this novel. “Undreamed Shores” was another matter: it was originally called “Twilight of the Ancestors,” but the final title was in place before the book was accepted. One has to have an open mind, though. I know of one writer who was obliged to change her book’s title, not by her publisher (they published it first under its original title), but by a major supermarket chain, as a condition of stocking the book. Now there’s a dilemma for us all to look forward to!

Oh, indeed! I'm sure that would give pause for thought...

Mark - Thank you for coming to my ‘Welcome Wednesday’ slot. It's been a pleasure sharing your answers. Best wishes for great sales of An Accidental King. 


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