An Interview with JACK WHYTE

WhyteJ-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Jack Whyte?

Jack Whyte is probably one of Canada’s most prolific and popular authors of historical fiction, and his books have been translated into numerous languages, including all the major languages of Europe. In 2009, in recognition of his sales record in Canada alone, the Globe and Mail published a two-page tribute to him under the title, “One Pen, One Sword, One Million Copies Sold.” He is the progenitor and creator of seventeen historical novels that fall into three subcategories. Ten of them, known collectively as A Dream of Eagles in Canada, The Camulod Chronicles in the USA and Legends of Camelot in the U.K., are set in post-Roman Britain around the turn of the fifth century. All three editions comprise the same ten books — the text is unchanged and unchangeable — but the titles are different in each incarnation, since individual publishing houses, historically, have always had complete rights to govern everything else about the books within their own jurisdictions.

Amazon.com has changed all that today, however. Jurisdictional integrity is now a thing of the past, thanks to the ease of acquisition offered by Internet sales, and anyone may now buy any version of each of the books, though that, in turn, reflects badly — and mistakenly — upon the bewildered authors involuntarily involved. No one thinks to blame the publishers or, God forbid, Amazon.com when they find themselves in possession of a book they have previously read under another name and published by a another publishing house using different artwork. They blame the author for being greedy and unscrupulous, because they are unaware that once the jurisdictional publication rights have been sold, the author has no control of what the various publishers choose to do with the resultant books inside their territories.

In addition to the Arthurian Cycle of novels, Whyte has also published two trilogies, one dealing with the rise and fall of the Knights Templar in medieval France, and the other dealing with the Scots heroes of the 14th-century Wars of Scottish Independence, in which champions of the stature of Wallace the Braveheart and King Robert the Bruce challenged and defied King Edward of England and his invading armies, forging a peace that would endure between the two nations for more than a hundred years.

The seventeenth book penned by Whyte and issued in 2007 by the Heritage Publishing Group of Victoria, BC, is a memoir entitled “Forty Years In Canada”,  that is a collection of distinctively Canadian poems and the events that inspired him to write them over the course of the forty years since he arrived in Canada from Scotland in Centennial Year, 1967.

Now a Canadian citizen, Whyte was a founding member of the Calgary Burns Club in Calgary in 1975, and was also honoured recently as Regimental Guest of Honour in acknowledgment of his services to the Calgary Highlanders Regiment in the years when he served as Honourary Regimental Bard. He was also awarded an Honourary Ph.D. in Letters, several years earlier, by UBC University College for his literary contributions to Canadian popular culture.

WhyteJ-BurningStoneCA

Your newest novel, The Burning Stone, was published by Viking Canada on September 25. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?

The Burning Stone is a prequel to my first novel, The Skystone, which was published in 1992. In that book the protagonist, Publius Varrus, is decommissioned from his legionary duties after being wounded in action, sand travels back to his home in Colchester, the oldest Roman town in Britain and the site of his grandfather Quintus Varrus’s old smithy. There, greatly to his surprise, he discovers that the old man’s legacy — along with his unsuspected wealth — is still safe and hidden, awaiting his eventual return.

WhyteJ-CC1-SkystoneUSPart of that legacy is a collection of old weapons, and among those Publius finds an amazingly sharp and shiny-bladed dagger, purportedly smelted and fashioned from the metal in a stone that his grandfather believed had fallen from the skies. The old man, a blacksmith, armourer and amateur metallurgist, believed that the hardness of metals depended upon the heat required to forge them, and he had been convinced that the metal of his supposed “skystone” contained another, newer mineral — an element that made it much more durable than simple iron, since it was impervious to the normal degrees of heat used to smelt metal from ore. According to his grandfather’s carefully-written notes, the smelting process for that particular stone had taken seven years of study and experimentation in the development of a furnace strong enough to generate the heat required to liquefy whatever metal the skystone contained, and the end result, which Varrus called his Skystone Knife, was impressive enough to inspire his grandson Publius to go searching for another skystone like his grandfather’s, despite his pragmatic Roman conviction that nothing could fall from the heavens unless someone threw it up there first.

I first talked about that as part of the background to the original novel, not really daring to believe that anyone other than myself would ever actually read what I was writing. Since shortly after the release of that first book, though, my readers (and I had no clue that I would ever have such a following) have been clamouring for me to tell the tale of Publius’s grandfather Quintus and how he came to find the original meteorite that would precipitate the creation of the sword now known to the world as Excalibur.

Of course, by the time those requests began filtering back to me, I had been writing these books for more than a decade and was already deeply involved in the fourth novel, The Saxon Shore, so I never really had time to go back and apply myself to that precursory element of my main theme, which was the portrayal of how a young boy called Arthur ever managed to pull a sword out of a stone and establish himself beyond doubt as the first High King of Britain prior to the Anglo-Saxon Conquest… Now, more than 25 years later, I’ve finally had the time to sit down and tell Quintus Varrus’s story — or at least the major part of it — and how he had been influenced during his own youth by his paternal grandfather, Titanius Varrus, the lifelong friend and trusted confidant of Diocletian, Emperor of Rome.

What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

I drew most of my inspiration originally from the teachings of a magnificently unpredictable and wildly enthusiastic pair of high school teachers who loved the subjects they chose to teach and who had no idea of the influences they were unleashing to shape the future of a single and sometimes solitary student.

One of them taught English (which in those ancient days included both Language and Literature) and the other, as was proper in a school that specialized in Classics, taught Latin and Greek.

The teacher of English showed me how magnificently rich our English language is, in all its glory and complexity, while demonstrating precisely how and why linguistic simplicity is more important than any other attribute in determining how successful and approachable the craft of storytelling can be in the hands of a gifted writer.

His colleague in the Latin classes, faced with the curricular requirement to deal with the history of the Roman Empire, chose to teach us the imperial history of the Roman military occupation of Britain (which was modern England, but not modern Scotland, Wales or Ireland). He it was who led me on one cold, rainy afternoon in southern Scotland, surrounded by the plaintive bleating and complaints of my friends and classmates, to a place where we ripped away a covering of briars and brambles to expose a longish expanse of solid stone masonry that turned out to be a section of Hadrian’s Wall. There in the stone were chiseled the names and ranks of the 8-man squad, or contubernium, of ordinary soldiers from the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix who had built that particular section with their own hands in approximately 125 AD, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian.

That afternoon, standing there in front of an ancient, weed-covered wall — the era of archeological rebuilding of the Wall lay decades in the future — spluttering under the fury of a Scottish moorland downpour and miles from the nearest village, I realized that those people had been real, that their story was equally real, and that the world I lived in had many more things to show me.

But it taught me, too, indelibly, that nothing ordinary men can do is really new: the priorities of life, the driving criteria governing all of us, remain largely unchanged from what they were since Hadrian’s Wall was built, and even then they were ancient and unchanging. Every man has the same tasks and the same priorities: he must provide a roof of some kind for his family, then feed them and maintain their health and welfare, and protect them at all times from the vagaries and whims, the threats and menaces, of the common, callous and impersonal dangers of everyday existence. The technology around them, from one century to the next, might — and does — change significantly, but the basic urgencies of family life, irrespective or rank or station, race or circumstances, hold true for everyone, everywhere. And that single, simple fact is the wellspring of everything that inspires me to do what I do and to write what I write.

Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

The short answer to this question is really short: I write every single day, about something. The subject matter and the content, even the length and substance of the writing, may be sublimely unimportant, but I write despite that. The object there is to keep the creative impulses loose and limber, just as you would with any other set of skills or muscles that could atrophy and become useless to you. I had a frightening example of that earlier this year, though the upheaval was caused by conflicting medications rather than by anything else. For almost five months, though, I was literally incapable of focusing on anything creative for more than a few minutes at a time, and there was no connectivity between those sessions. I had to start afresh, right from the start, every time I tried  to write something.

As for research, I love the process, but I’ve found, over the years, that for me there is no hard and fast method of approaching my research. It might be because of my familiarity with what I write about and/or speculate upon, but generally speaking I do research only to answer my own questions.

I begin by sitting down to write, with a new or existing character in my mind, a situation for development, and a course of action for the character to follow… Sometimes the characters I create are docile, accepting my manipulations, but all too often they rebel against whatever it might be that I want them to do. When that happens, I welcome it because it shows me that I’ve done my job properly: I’ve created a character — a person — that refuses to kowtow to my demands and insists upon controlling his or her own life and destiny.

And so I write happily, giving my imagination free reign until I hear a wee, internal voice telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about… it might be the minute details of a suit of hand-worked armour worn by one of Saladin’s knights during the Third Crusade. Then again, it might be something as simple as fastening the leggings of a pair of leather breeches so that they won’t work loose and fall apart, or as esoteric and arcane as the recipe for mixing the ingredients of the mixture used as a medium in medieval smelting furnaces.

When something like that arises, I start researching all the sources I can find dealing with that particular requirement, and I don’t stop until I consider myself capable of speaking knowledgably and with confidence on that particular part of whatever process it might be that I’m attempting to deal with on a sane, understandable basis that will educate my readers without confusing them.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I don’t think I was ever consciously aware of wanting to be an author. In the world in which I grew up, authors were regarded as awe-inspiring figures who had beaten all the odds and achieved success and celebrity for themselves against great odds in a field (publishing) where  there were very limited opportunities. At the end of the 1980s, the common, accepted wisdom among those who talked about it at all was that out of every 30,000 manuscripts submitted to bona fide publishers (and that included everything from scholastic textbooks to religious tracts and pamphlets), 99.999% were not merely badly written to the point of ineptitude, but were effectively unsalvageable, and only one might ever see the light of publication. And that was before the Internet made self-publishing available to everyone… Nowadays, when anyone can publish anything, the proportional odds against any individual piece being read (as opposed to being published) are probably greater than ever, comparable at best and abysmally worse on the lower end. Because much of what would have been unpublishable thirty or forty years ago is now floating aimlessly and fruitlessly out there in the no-man’s-land of mediocrity.

I became an author almost by accident, because one day I became convinced that I had solved the answer to a riddle that had grown into a legend over the course of centuries: the mystery of the sword in the stone.

I’ve never believed in supernatural magic and I refuse to believe it ever existed in this world. On the other hand, though, I had always believed, at some deep, visceral level, that there must be some kind of historical basis, somewhere, for the emergence of the legendary figure known today as King Arthur, and that entails, by association, some kind of understanding of the sword mystery, since that fundamental element is so central to the entire legend, in all its many variants.

And then one day, idly philosophizing with a now-dead friend on how people almost invariably see what they expect to see, rather than what is really there to be seen, I recalled a seminal incident from my early boyhood — I had been six years old at the time it happened — and experienced one of those “Eureka” moments when, in a flash of intuitive conviction, I saw precisely how the original story might have been created, prompting a “Did you see that?” response from thousands of witnesses who were so impressed by what had happened that they refused to let it go, thus ensuring that we would still be talking and wondering about it now, sixteen centuries later.

So I set out to write a story… not a book, originally, but a short story that would illuminate the solution in such a way that people, reading it, would nod sagely and acknowledge that it was obvious, and that they couldn’t understand why no one had ever come up with the explanation before…

Well, with hindsight’s proclivity to be 20/20, the obvious is always obvious once someone has pointed it out originally. Until then, though, it has usually been anything but obvious.

WhyteJ-CC6-SorcererMetamorphosisUSThat was in 1975 and I had the ending of my story, but I did not yet have a starting point, and had anyone assured me that it would take me twenty-two years and five large novels in six volumes, not to mention four generations of characters, to usher me to what I then believed would be that final, climactic scene in The Sorceror; Metamorphosis, I might never have started to write at all. But no one told me what a long and enjoyable grind lay ahead of me, and I have never regretted the blissful ignorance that led me to start what has been an exultant career in writing.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

Smile time… I’m basically uncomfortable with the term “genre,” though I think I’m fully aware that “genre fiction” is a widely accepted buzzword in today’s publishing circles. Trouble is, for me, that I think of the term as being accompanied by a dismissive sneer that is, in reality, a fairly egregious insult in that it gives a not-so-tacit Benediction to “Literary” novels and consigns every other kind of novel to the sub-genre of “other entries and also-rans.” And I won’t even get into the matter of which kind of publications keep the industry going, or wonder about the efficacy of character-driven vs. plot-driven mechanics and/or dynamics.

When you ask me about “the genre” today, I have to stop and wonder which genre you’re talking about, because as I see it, there are two possibilities, neither of which please me, though one offends me less than the other… In Canada, we still have a genre known as Historical Fiction, and there even bookstores out there who will betray an awareness of what you’re talking about, should you ever think to mention such a thing. In America, however, the Powers That Be have decreed that no such category of books exists. There’s no such thing as Historical Fiction in American Bookstores — and I believe there are still a few of that dying breed known as non-Amazon Booksellers left in the country.

I write Historical Fiction and, as a genre, I believe it’s continuing to survive quite well here in Canada, despite the surging tides of Fantasy publications. In America, though, I’m regarded as a Fantasy writer despite the fact the High Fantasy (to give it its proper due) has less than nothing to do with what I write or how I write. My first books were — and still are — a deconstruction of the Arthurian legend and a speculative search for the historic origins of an Arthurian figure predicated upon the consideration that if such a figure existed at all, there is, at most, a 75- to 100-year window within which he could have lived and ruled without being detected or recorded by historians. That period is the era known as the Dark Ages when, as a result of the Roman withdrawals from Britain and the collapse of the Western Empire, a period of almost two centuries occurred when no written records of any description were made in Britain. The Romans took their literacy with them (along with everything else that might be useful) when they went home, and they left no one behind in Britain who was either literate enough to teach or skilful enough to make ink and paper. When they left Britain, circa 410 AD, they left no record of the existence of anyone who might resemble the champion who would come to be known as King Arthur, but when the Christian priests returned, approximately 160 years later, bringing the light of learning back with them, they found such a legend in place—the tale of a Celtic/Roman warlord who struggled to unite his peoples against the incoming hordes of Angles and Saxons who would change the name of the Island forever from Britannia to Angle-land and eventually England.

Unfortunately, though, the Arthurian legend has historically been considered the stuff of fantasy, since there is no empirical evidence (i.e. proof) that an Arthur figure ever lived, and over the intervening centuries the legend of Arthur has accumulated magical, supernatural attributes. And that means, in the eyes of the bookselling world that since I wrote about Arthur, I must be a fantasy writer. I’ve also written novels about the rise and fall of the medieval Knights Templar, and the 14th-century patriots of the Scottish Wars of Independence — William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Andrew Murray — and despite exhaustive research and historical authenticity, they have all been categorically defined in North America as Fantasy. So I stopped trying to deal with ill-educated, computer-assisted, block-headed obstinacy long ago. As long as my stories continue to sell, I don’t care what categories they assign to me and I will continue to be unimpressed by the efforts of most so-called Marketers.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’ve been reading more than usual in recent months, for one reason or another, and for a while there I was delving back into my all-time favourite non-fiction books from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, including William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, and Peter C. Newman’s brilliant analytical trilogy of the Canadian Power Structure in The Old Order, The Acquisitors, and The Titans. I also re-read a few biographies: Peter Manso on Marlon Brando, Kevin Brownlow on Peter Lean, and Norman Sherry on Graham Greene.

KerrP-BG1-MarchVioletsUKRecently, though, I’ve returned to fiction, re-reading (and catching up with) Philip Kerr, one of my favourite authors, and his finest character, ex-cop Bernie Gunther. These are what used to be known as old-style, hardboiled police procedurals, with one singular, unprecedented difference: the unlikely hero is a dedicated and conscientious German homicide detective with a deprecating, off-kilter and densely black sense of humour. He needs it because he finds it increasingly difficult to do his job — which he sees as the pursuit and conviction of murderers — in the Berlin Kriminalpolitzei of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s, beginning in the Weimar Republic and then continuing through the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich, and even later under the menacing totalitarianism of the East Berlin Stazi, whose exploits routinely beggared the imagination and made ordinary, human murderers and criminals look like heavenly cherubs.

As we follow Bernie’s saga, we become familiar with some of the greatest villains of all time — Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels, Goering and a broad range of other Nazi organizers and criminals, all of whom find themselves, at one time or another, in need of Bernie Gunther’s admirable talents, which they seek to bend to their own uses. But Gunther, who despises politicians in general and Nazis  in particular, simply forges ahead and does his job in spite of all of them.

If you like that kind of tongue-in-cheek, elegant and excellent fiction mixed with historical accuracy, you’ll love the Bernie Gunther series.

If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?

Ballantyne-CoralIslandThis is a hugely difficult question for me because I’ve managed to read an awful lot of books since I first became literate around the age of four or five. (I know, because I was told a thousand and more times during my childhood and boyhood, that I could read by the time I was four, but I can’t remember much of what I actually read until I was almost seven, when I discovered a wonderful novel called The Coral Island, published in 1858 by a Scots author called R.M. Ballantyne.) I loved that book, but I wouldn’t think of recommending it to anyone today.

As a result of my advanced age, I tend now to think of favourite novels in terms of eras in my life, and sometimes even in terms of the different moods that prompt me to revisit wildly different and widely unconnected old friends and favourites. There is, nevertheless, one novel that I would recommend without hesitation to any student of history, despite the fact that it deals in hagiography (the study of the lives of saints) rather than pure historical fiction. It’s an old book now, and I suspect it might have been out of print for a long time, since its author, a woman called Taylor Caldwell, died in 1985 at the age of 84. But what a great story it contains, and what memories it holds for me…

I can’t state with certainty that it was the first book to make me fall in love with historical fiction, but it was certainly one of four, including Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz (whose granddaughter I dated serendipitously in 1961, while I was reading the book for the third time, and who stunned me by picking it up and smiling as she said, “My granpa Henryk wrote this.” It never would have occurred to me then that I would one day have granddaughters of my own who would say the same kind of thing about my books.) The two remaining novels in that initial quartet were Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur.

But Caldwell’s book, Dear and Glorious Physiciancontains one particular passage that brings me to tears every time I read it—and I still read it today. The book is the fictional story of Saint Luke the Evangelist, and at its heart is the lifelong rage he felt against the Christian God who could permit plagues and scourges like leprosy to afflict humanity. Such things flew in the face of Luke’s Hippocratic training and he railed at God in fury for years. I am not a believer, in the sense of belonging to a particular creed or sect. I was raised in a priest-ridden, Scots/Irish Catholic society in which the dominant influences were wielded by largely ignorant, poorly educated, unhygienic Irish priests (and nuns) who had never known, or been required to learn, anything beyond the narrow, constricted and anti-feminist bigotry of parochial disapproval of everything that fell short of doctrinal orthodoxy. I quickly ceased to believe in anything they told me I needed to acknowledge, and I have never been even vaguely interested in participating in, or contributing to, organized religion since those days. A bishop who attended one of my discussion groups once asked me why I had such a problem with God. My response, which sprang immediately to my lips, was that I don’t have a problem with God; I simply lidlike and distrust most of the people who work for Him.

Having said that, though, the scene in this book that never fails to move me, is one of pure religious love, in which Luke comforts and consoles a beggar in the most advanced stages of leprosy, all the while condemning God for His indifference, only to discover that, through his passionate conviction, he has cured the man of his leprosy. Powerful stuff, with a lesson for even the most hard-bitten among us… The fact that I’ve read that scene on multiple occasions and still find myself moved by it is enough, I believe, to justify my recommending it to practically anyone.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

There’s an old saying that most successful people have made their name pursuing the thing — the career, the ability, the gift — that they have always privately considered to be their secondary talent. In my case, that has been writing, but my first, true love has always been performing, and particularly singing. At one point, back in the late Seventies, I was offered a solid contract to undergo high-level training as a professional, cabaret-style singer and A-list entertainer. The decision to turn down that offer was one of the most difficult choices I have ever had to make. But the contract was for five years of study in Chicago and New York, involving an entire range of subjects, including dance lessons, stagecraft, comportment and a huge number of other things that most people would never dream of. I would receive a minimum (but incrementally increasing) salary, but my five-year apprenticeship would involve making and promoting records for my backers — which really amounted to a five-year commitment to one-night stands on a North American theatre circuit, and at the end of it I might — or might not — emerge as a recognizable, celebrity performer, sharing concerts and billings with the likes of Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Junior, my own heroes Frankie Laine and Tennessee Ernie Ford, and lesser celebrities like Jack Jones, Al Martino, and Mel Tormé.

At that time, though, I had started working on what would become the first novel in my Arthurian series, and I knew that if I went to Chicago I could effectively say goodbye to any chance of writing my story. I also knew that my marriage would probably not be able to withstand the rigors of a non-stop cycle of one-night stands; and I was genuinely terrified that I might lose five years of my life down a sinkhole in which my future would rest in the hands of faceless and uncaring Agency functionaries. And so I decided to stay in Canada (and in my marriage!) and to write the book that was inside me, clamouring to get out.

I now believe that besides being the most difficult decision I ever made, it was the soundest and most satisfying one.

*

Jack Whyte’s The Burning Stone is out now, published by Viking.

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