This is the first author interview I’ve done on my blog and who better to begin with than fellow Darkling, Matthew Harffy (and it was Matthew who came up with ‘Darkling’ in the first place). Matthew’s novels are also set in 7th-century Northumbria. His hero, Beobrand, fights for and against the historical figures of the time, the same kings who feature in my novels. But Beobrand is the early-medieval Sharpe and Matthew shares Bernard Cornwell’s ability to tell fast-paced, thrilling stories set in and around the events of the time.
We both write about 7th-century Northumbria. What decided you to write about this period?
I’ve always loved the area since living there as a child. We moved to Northumberland when I was about eight or nine years old and we lived in a small village on the River Tweed near Berwick-upon-Tweed. I remember the wide river, the rugged coastline and the amazing sight of the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle perched on its clifftop overlooking the slate grey North Sea. I was born in Sussex and the coastline was so different. I was used to shallow shingle and sand beaches, where in the summer I could wade out until the water reached my neck. In Northumberland there was rough freezing water and so many seabirds: gulls, gannets, guillemots and puffins. And it was even common to see the bobbing heads of seals in the dark sea water. This was a windswept, wild land, teeming with nature and with the evidence of history all around in the form of ruins and old buildings. Castles, churches Hadrian’s Wall, everywhere there were signs of the past.
It was years later, in 2001 that I watched a documentary on television about the archaeology of Bamburgh Castle. I discovered that the castle had been the seat of great kings of the Northumbrian kingdom called Bernicia and that Northumbria had been the most powerful kingdom in Britain for centuries. Something sparked inside me that night and I could see in my mind’s eye a young man arriving on the beach beneath Bamburgh Castle, helping to pull the longship on to the sand. I was alone in the house, so I went upstairs to the desktop and started to write. I had no idea I would write a novel then, but over the coming months and years the story kept speaking to me and would not let me go.
You’ve had an incredibly varied career. Why did you decide to turn to writing?
I’ve always liked the creative process, which is why I was drawn to singing, drawing and painting, and writing. I’ve always written bits and pieces here and there, often starting stories but never finishing them. I always thought the writing was easy, it was the ideas and the plot that were incredibly difficult. And I still feel that way now, after having written four books. Once I know where the story is going, putting the words on paper is not that difficult. Coming up with the plot is.
After seeing the documentary and starting to write, I don’t think I had a real choice but to complete the novel. I suppose I had always hoped I would be successful, but to be perfectly honest I never really expected to sell any books or even to complete the story. I think the things that link all the creative processes for me is that I like to entertain, whether it is singing in a rock band, or telling jokes to friends in the pub, or writing a series of historical fiction, the aim has always been to entertain.
Speaking of your varied career, which of your previous jobs was your favourite and why?
Without a doubt I would love to be a singer. I love the immediacy of performance, and the joy of letting the music take control. Performing music to an audience provides instant entertainment. It is in many ways the antithesis of writing. In the same way as with writing, you need to prepare in advance with lots of rehearsals, but when you perform after a three-minute song you hear the applause and you know you’ve done a good job. When writing, you spend a year on your own slogging away, to then hand over the book to other people to wait for another few weeks for them to read it and to let you know whether it was a good job or not. It is quite the opposite of immediate, and anyone who knows me is, I think, surprised that I can put up with the stress of waiting for things to happen.
What was your reaction when you learned there was another bloke also writing about the kings of Northumbria?
I had just got an agent for The Serpent Sword, which seemed like the biggest milestone in a writer’s career, at least that is what all the blogs and articles would have you believe. My agent, Robin Wade, was at The London Book Fair presenting my book and trying to sell it so, for the first time ever, I took an interest in the London Book Fair, checking its website each day and looking for updates on Twitter. So it was with dismay that I saw one Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones series announced at the same London Book Fair, with a great big poster giving the title of the first in the trilogy, Edwin.
To start with I was horrified. I knew there were other people writing in the same period as me, On Twitter, I had been following Nicola Griffith, who wrote the wonderful Hild. But her book seemed to be focusing on other aspects of the time. However, The Serpent Sword started with the main character, Beobrand, meeting King Edwin. And from the title of your series I knew instantly that the trilogy would be about Edwin, then Oswald, then Oswiu, all of whom were set to appear in my own novels. I said a few choice words at your expense, for a while believing, quite stupidly, that you having found a publisher would limit my chances.
After some reflection, I decided that actually the reverse was true. If you could find a publisher, then there must be an appetite in the market for books set in this period. Judging from the Nicola Griffith’s success with Hild, and the fact that you and I are still selling books, I think I was right.
Your writing career path has been the opposite of mine. You first pitched for and found an agent, then independently published the first two volumes of your Bernicia Chronicles, before deciding to go with a mainstream publisher, Aria Fiction, which is now busy republishing your books. Can you tell us why you did things this way round, why you went the indie route and why you have now switched to a mainstream publisher?
I went the route of finding an agent because everything I had read, and I had read a lot about it, led me to believe that you needed an agent to be traditionally published. I know now that is not strictly true, as you yourself have proven. However, it is still the easiest, and most tried and tested route into the big mainstream publishers. Naively I thought that once I got an agent the rest would be easy. I would get a six-figure advance, the book would be published to great acclaim, I would become an instant success, then I would retire to an island of my choice in the Caribbean. In reality, things didn’t work out quite that way! My agent asked me to write the sequel, The Cross and the Curse, while he went about selling The Serpent Sword. So for several months I was busy writing, but every few weeks another rejection letter would arrive until all of the publishers Robin had approached had said no.
I was then left in a difficult position. I had two books finished but no publisher. My agent continued trying to sell the series, but I made a decision not to just sit waiting any longer. In my day job I work in a team of technical writers, so I have the skills and knowledge to be able to produce a quality product in terms of the formatting, cover design, and so on. This allowed me to do all the work myself to release the book in both electronic book form and as a Print On Demand paperback. I did this for The Serpent Sword back in April 2015, and it sold better than I had expected. More rejections came in for The Cross and the Curse so my path seemed set, I would continue to self-publish.
I released The Cross and the Curse in January 2016 and shortly after Robin finally got a bite from a new publisher, Aria, an imprint of the successful independent publisher Head of Zeus. The decision to go with Aria was not easy, I was doing well as a self-published writer and things only seemed to be getting better. I was not sure what Aria could offer me that I couldn’t provide myself. However, after a lot of soul searching and discussion with Robin, and anyone else who would give me time to waffle on about the pros and cons of different publishing deals, I decided that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I would always ask myself what could have been. The main reason I chose to go with Aria in the end was that I thought they would be able to reach a wider audience than I would be able to do alone. It’s only been a few months since the re-publication of the first two books, but I can now say I think I made the right decision. Sales have been excellent and having a team of talented professionals working to not only promote my work, but also to polish what I’ve already done, has been, and is still proving to be, a wonderful and rewarding experience.
Do you think you will stay in mainstream publishing?
Who knows what the future will bring? I’m actually going through the process of thinking about this right now. I have completed my first contract with Aria and I need to decide with them and my agent what the future has in store. I definitely would not shy away from self-publishing again in future. The level of control, the agility, the ability to react quickly to any issue, and of course, a larger proportion of royalties per book sold, are all great incentives. However, as I said before, it’s great to not have to take on all the marketing, and all the publicity, and all of the editing, alone. I think it is very possible that I will continue with a mainstream publisher, but I can see the possibility of publishing some works myself in the future too, making me what is termed a hybrid author.
How important has your agent been for you (speaking as a writer who has publishers but no agent for fiction, I’m particularly interested in knowing the answer to this).
I think each agent works differently and you need to find the agent that suits how you wish to work. Robin is quite hands-off, we talk regularly but he doesn’t give me detailed notes on each chapter as I write, which I believe some agents do. Perhaps if I asked him to, he would, but I don’t think either of us feel the need to be attached at the hip in that way. One of the best things about having an agent is knowing that somebody in the industry believes in you. It is so easy, especially when faced with rejection upon rejection, to think that your work is terrible and that it is not worth pursuing. Having somebody who has read hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and has best-selling authors on their list recognise the quality of your work does wonders for your morale. Also of course Robin has worked tirelessly to try to find a publisher. He is able to speak to editors in big publishing houses directly in a way that I would never be able to. Without an agent I would not have the publishing deal with Aria that I have. Lastly, Robin knows the industry and can answer questions that I have, clarifying contractual issues, and generally providing me with a knowledgeable ally as I navigate through the often-confusing publishing industry.
I and, I’m sure, many other writers look with awe at the number of reviews you have received on Amazon. How on earth have you managed this?
Well the obvious quip is that I have sold lots of books!
But really there is no trick here. All I do is ask people to leave a review when they have read the book. I put this request in the acknowledgements of every book, and if anybody contacts me on social media to say they have enjoyed a book, or if they sent me an e-mail commenting on one of my books, I always respond with a request for them to leave a short review on Amazon or Goodreads, or their online retailer of choice. It really is as simple as that! Oh, and selling shed loads of books helps too, of course!
Of the three books you have written so far, do you have a favourite?
Well that is a pretty impossible question to answer!
I have actually now written four novels in the Bernicia Chronicles and a novella too. Blood and Blade is out in December 2016, Kin of Cain, the novella, is out in April 2017, and Killer of Kings, book four in the series, is out in June 2017.
People who have read all of the books say that my writing has improved with each one. I myself never feel that way, instead I often feel that each book is worse than the one before! Hopefully they are right and I am wrong! I like each book for different reasons, but I think I would have to say The Cross and the Curse is my favourite so far. I’d love to hear from readers what they think once they’ve read them all!
Do you intend to keep writing about Beobrand or will you branch into other areas and times?
There are definitely more stories of Beobrand to tell. I am not sure how many Bernicia Chronicles there will be, but I have story ideas already for another four or five at least. Having said that I would love to tell tales based in other time periods. I have written the opening paragraphs of a Western, a genre I have always loved but which I am told is not marketable. And I already have the outline for a plot set a couple of hundred years later after Beobrand’s story.
Time will tell which stories get told and in what order.
Now, some quickfire questions.
This is tough and in a few instances, I’m sure I would give a different answer on a different day. I took this in the spirit of quick-fire and wrote the first answer that came to mind.
Persiflage [I had to look this up. It means ‘Light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter’.]
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Somebody to Love by Queen
Writing – silence or music?
Either, but music with no words.
Favourite historical figure
Sir Richard Francis Burton – my all-time hero. I’d love to write about him one day!
A great cheeseburger
A good real ale
Thank you, Matthew. It was a great pleasure to interview Matthew and to get to know a little more about him. I’ve read The Serpent Sword and Blood and Blade and highly recommend them (and I’m going to read The Cross and the Curse as soon as I’ve finished a couple of books I’ve promised to review). Many of the characters who appear in my books, such as Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, also feature in Matthew’s books; it’s fascinating to read his take on these historical figures.
To find out more about him, visit him at his website or blog, or connect with him online. Details below.
Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, is due for publication in December 2016.