Q&A with James Aitcheson
What inspired you to write a novel about the Norman Conquest?
I first studied the Norman Conquest in depth while I was studying History at Cambridge and researching for my final-year dissertation. It was a period which had long fascinated me, and the more I read through the sources and pored over the literature surrounding the subject, the richer it seemed to grow. Gradually the idea began to implant itself in my head of a series of novels set during the years around 1066.
Of course this was a time of immense change: of social, cultural and political upheaval on a scale that is very difficult to imagine today. That, then, was the challenge I set myself: to capture a sense of that change and explore what it must have been like to live through those turbulent years.
I had always written fiction from an early age, and suddenly I saw the perfect opportunity to combine my love of writing with my passion for this fascinating period of history. Naturally my concept for the novel changed a lot as I began to write and then to re-write, but I had the kernel of the story that would become Sworn Sword.
Why did you choose to set Sworn Sword in 1069, rather than in 1066?
The date 1066 is probably the best-known in English history, and most people are familiar with images of the Bayeux Tapestry and the arrow in the eye which is said to have killed King Harold at the fateful Battle of Hastings.
However, whereas the story of events leading up to the Norman invasion have been told many times, what happened in the years immediately after 1066 seemed to me to be less well known.
In fact it was the story of the aftermath of Hastings that most interested me, as the conquerors consolidated their victory and established themselves in their newly-won possessions, even as the threats of rebellion and invasion from overseas hung over them. I saw this as a subject ripe for exploration, and one that few authors had tackled before.
What made you decide to write from the Norman rather than the English perspective?
It’s said that it is the victors who write history, but in fiction set during the Conquest I found that the Norman voice was not often heard. Perhaps naturally, the focus tended to be on the valiant but doomed struggle of the native Anglo-Saxons against their foreign oppressors.
I wanted to show the Conquest in a different light and offer a fresh slant on it: one that was less familiar. By telling the novel from the invaders’ viewpoint, I hoped to blur the traditional distinction between the “good” English and the “bad” Normans, and in so doing challenge readers’ sympathies and preconceptions about the period.
For a more in-depth answer, take a look a this recent post on my blog.
Which other writers have inspired you?
Within the genre of historical fiction, the writers who have most influenced me include Bernard Cornwell, C. J. Sansom, Barry Unsworth, Tim Willocks and Robert Harris. Each is very different in terms of style and subject matter but all are equally effective at evoking worlds which are very different from our own. Beyond the genre, I’m a great admirer of the works of Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Adams and Margaret Atwood: authors whose breadth of vision never fails to amaze me.
As an author I feel it’s important to read as widely as possible, to absorb different styles and look at alternative ways of telling a story. It’s very easy when writing to become lost in your own words and ways of seeing the world. Exploring new ideas and exposing oneself to fresh perspectives is what writing and reading is all about.
If you have any more questions that you’d like to ask about myself, my books or the history and inspiration behind them, please feel free to get in touch with me via the Contact page, or come along to one of my many Events.