Saturday, 31 October 2015

Serendipity, Bernard Cornwell, and ‘Warrior King’ – by Sue Purkiss

I’m very fond of my book about Alfred the Great (and his daughter, Aethelflaed). There, I’ve admitted it. I always feel a bit guilty when children (or grown-ups, for that matter) ask which of my books is my favourite. As if you shouldn’t have favourites among your books, just as you shouldn’t have favourites among your children. But I think if I did have a favourite, Warrior King would be it.

Why? I think it’s partly because I became so very intrigued by the character and achievements of this Dark Age king, who believed so strongly in the value of education and the arts; who had a vision of how to unite his people and make them safe; who, although he was, by all accounts, a sensitive soul who was not always in the best of health, still managed to defeat the Viking leader, Guthrum, against all the odds. And when he had Guthrum at his mercy, instead of simply killing him, he instead had him christened and made him his godson. Interesting, eh? Unlike a certain permatanned recent Labour leader, he knew that what happened after the battle would be as important as winning it; he had a plan for the aftermath; he had a plan for the peace.

When I began researching Alfred, all I really knew was the story of how he burnt the cakes. I was planning to write a light-hearted little number for children involving a time-travelling dog, and I just wanted to find out a little more detail about Alfred and his times. But I quickly became fascinated. And serendipitous things happened. It turned out that Athelney, where the cake-burning took place, was only a stone’s throw (well, if you’re a giant and very good at throwing stones) from where I live. Then I discovered that only a few weeks later, Somerset archaeologists and the Time Team were going to make a ten year anniversary programme about Athelney and Alfred. Next, I was on a school trip with my daughter, and I overheard the history teacher telling someone else that there was to be an open day at the dig the following weekend – I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. I went to the talk and learnt that a knife had been discovered on the site, made using materials and techniques that could only have been employed by a high-ranking Saxon nobleman, probably of royal rank. AND – that they had found smoke charred stones: evidence that there had been a smithy here (not a bakery), where weapons could have been forged for use in the climactic Battle of Ethandun (Eddington), where Alfred defeated Guthrum. Suddenly, Alfred felt very close. I was treading in his footsteps.

Then disaster struck. As far as I knew, no-one else had written about Alfred in a very long time. I was going to get in first. But then I read that someone else had beaten me to it. And not just any old someone, but someone who was guaranteed a prominent place in bookshops and shedloads of sales – Bernard Cornwell, creator of the Sharpe books. And he was way ahead of me – I found out about his new series when I read a review of the first book.

A bit like Alfred when he was moping in Athelney and burning cakes, I was cast into a cloud of gloom. What was the point, I asked myself and anyone else who would listen? Who would ever want to read my book now?

Then serendipity intervened again. We went away for a few days, to one of those nice B&Bs where you stay in a lovely house owned by interesting people. The interesting person in this case was a woman who had a relative who was an editor. We got talking about my prospective book, and I told her about Cornwell’s book and my doubts about whether it was worth going on.

“But,” she said, “your book, from what you say, will be different. I think you should write it.” Moreover, she said, she had just been reading a book sent her by her editor relative; it was to go with a forthcoming David Starkey TV series called Monarchy, and there was some very interesting stuff in it about Alfred.  I was encouraged and intrigued, and that was it – I was off again.

Well, I wrote my book, and it was published by Walker Books. It’s the usual story: it had some nice reviews, and Kevin Crossley Holland sent me a lovely postcard saying he’d enjoyed it, and the people who read it seemed to like it – but there weren’t enough of them. So the book went out of print, I got back the rights, and now it’s my second ebook and my first Createspace book. I decided this time to market it as a book for anyone, not specifically for children. For the cover I’ve used a photograph I took almost two years ago of the floods on the Somerset Levels. It’s very close to Athelney, and I think it suggests the magic and the mystery of that lonely landscape – and, I hope, of my book.

I have never read Cornwell’s books – though I shall certainly be watching the forthcoming TV series, The Last Kingdom, which will have begun by the time this post appears. He was interviewed in connection with this in a recent Radio Times, and he shared his formula for success: ‘Kick off with a battle – gets the book off to a nice, fast start. Lots of dead Frenchies. Introduce the plot, right? Plot begins to sag? Wheel on 40,000 Frenchies and start slaughtering them. Keep it moving. More plot. Finish with a set-piece battle that ties up all the plot ends and kills off the four villains. Works every time.’

This refers particularly to the Sharpe books, but you get the idea. And his formula clearly works.

But, if by any chance you like the idea of a rather different take from Cornwell’s: a hint of myth and mystery; a variety of characters from all walks of Anglo-Saxon life, with at their centre the relationship between Alfred and his daughter; a magical landscape; and an exploration of what Alfred was all about and how he came to be the exceptional king that he was – then maybe you might like to give my newly available book a try. I’d really love it if you did.

And don’t worry, there is some slaughter too. Just probably not as much as in Cornwell’s books.


7 comments:

Lydia Bennet said...

How fascinating, I'm very interested in Anglo Saxon history as well as other periods, I do wonder why Aethelflaed hasn't come back into vogue as a girl's name... ;) Interesting too how all these threads seem to be tugging us in a particular direction. However there's no need to be put off by someone getting in first, the Tudors have been done to death and beyond imo and there seems no end to books about them. I wonder how well Bernard C's books sell in France! Good luck with your createspace venture. I shall look up your ebook.

Nicky said...

I've committed Alfred too, way back in 2009 in 'Warriors of Ethandun' Fascinating period.
My book may well be out of print too, though its still available digitally. I hope the relaunch goes well - the timing is definitely right for all things Saxon.

madwippitt said...

I'm looking forward to reading this! Alfred has always had a fascination since I read about him in my primary school history book, and reawakened when we visited Winchester some years back. When you have a great story to tell, it will cope with multiple retellings by different authors - everyone will have a different take on it :-)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thank-you for explaining to me why I'm not so keen on Bernard Cornwell's books. His own description says it all, really. But yours sounds much more interesting! I did Mediaeval Studies at university including Old and Middle English and Old Norse, so long ago that when I wanted to write fiction and plays about that time I was told nobody would ever be interested. I moved on to eighteenth century Scotland, although I still have a hankering to do something with the Icelandic Sagas from time to time. Maybe one of these years ... Meanwhile, good luck with your relaunch and let us know how it all goes.

Katherine Roberts said...

I'm enjoying The Last Kingdom - unexpected, but more entertaining than all those endless reality TV shows! Not as good as Sharpe, at least not so far (I keep getting a bit confused between Danes and English), but the branch up the naked sorcerer's backside was interesting...

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you for your comments, everyone! Catherine - I did Anglo-Saxon at university as part of my English degree, and there was one particular image that a lecturer mentioned that has always haunted me; I don't know now where it came from, but it was that life is like a swallow , flying into a lighted hall: it flies in from the darkness, it's there for a little while, then it goes out once more into the darkness. Cheerful it's not, but something about the bleak reality of it grips me!

Dennis Hamley said...

I shall buy it, Sue. Absolutely fascinating man.