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  • Tom Harper

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Tom Harper (real name Edwin Thomas) won the CWA debut award in 2001 for The Blighted Cliffs. He also wrote The Mosaic of Shadows and Knights of the Cross, published by Random House. He lives in York.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Siege of Heaven?

    Tom Harper: The events of Siege of Heaven are what I was heading for all along, and they actually drove the whole series. The capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade is the climax of one of the most extraordinary campaigns in history, a true triumph against the odds. But it’s also a bloody cataclysm, as the crusaders massacre every man, woman and child in the city – leaving a legacy of hatred that persists to this day. The combination of such dramatic material and so much modern relevance gave me plenty to work with.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    TH: It took about 18 months, which is twice as long as it usually takes me to do a book. Part of the reason for that was simply length – the first draft was literally twice as long as the other novels, though it’s been pared back a bit in the final edit. But a big part of the delay was that it’s a very confused piece of history to make sense of and incorporate into a well-paced story. After the siege of Antioch (the end of Knights of the Cross), the crusaders had routed their enemies and were only a couple of weeks away from Jerusalem. They could have wrapped up the whole business in a month or two. Instead, they sat around bickering, going nowhere, for the best part of a year. Finding a way to understand why they did that, and then tell that story in a way that’s clear and dramatically satisfying, was the major challenge for this book.

    MT: How much research do you do for Siege?

    TH: Several months’ worth – on top of all the research I’d already done for the previous two books. I had this fond idea that each successive novel would involve less research than its predecessor, but in fact the opposite’s true. It’s definitely a case of the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Then there’s the scale of the novel: whereas Mosaic of Shadows all took place in Constantinople, and Knights of the Cross entirely at Antioch, Siege goes from Turkey to Egypt, then back via modern Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Walking the ground is very important to me, so a big part of the research for this book was visiting Jerusalem and travelling through Israel.

    MT: Was writing Siege of Heaven a very different experience to writing your naval fiction?

    TH: It’s very different in a number of ways. The early nineteenth century that I write about is a period of history that’s very close to us: there are buildings and furniture from that period that are still in use, and there’s an almost infinite supply of written and physical records of that society. In comparison, the 11th century seems an awfully long way away. Europe was just emerging from the dark ages, so the surviving material is very thin on the ground. To give one example: if you want to see a sword used in the later middle ages, you can find any number of them in castles and museums, as shiny and sharp as the day they left the forge. If you want to see a sword from the era of the crusades, you have to travel a long way to see a fragile piece of rusted iron that’s been dragged out of a river. It requires you to use much more historical imagination to fill in the pieces – which often means looking beyond the obvious.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    TH: Most of the time I write straight onto a computer, though sometimes if I’m stuck I find it helpful to go out to a local café with pen and paper and do it the old-fashioned way. Getting the words out is hard enough that I hate having to throw them away, so I plan the novel as completely as possible before I start writing, so as to minimise the rewriting afterwards. That said, a novel’s too huge to keep the whole thing in your brain (at least my brain), so there’s inevitably a good bit of editing to be done afterwards. I’m very lucky with Siege to have a terrific editor who can really cut through what I’ve written to see where things need to be clarified or tightened.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    TH: Week to week, I try and balance the long days in the house on my own by spending as many evenings as possible out of the house with friends. Being based in York is great for getting out on weekends to do some walking in the dales or on the moors, and I’m lucky to have the flexibility to travel further afield too.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    TH: Like most writers, I set out to write the sort of thing that I would want to read, so I guess my ideal reader is actually me. I write what I like, and hope that it’ll appeal to other people as well. Obviously there’s a danger of self-indulgence there: I think the key is to focus on what you would want to read, not just what you want to write. The only other imaginary reader I worry about is an hypothetical historian who’s the world’s biggest expert on the subject and a pedant to boot, who’s always peering over my shoulder pulling me up on any factual mistakes.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    TH: I’m taking a short break from the middle ages to leap forward to the 20th century, with an Indiana Jones-esque archaeological adventure. It’s set in the post-war Mediterranean, and involves an assortment of spies, adventurers, archaeologists and ex-Nazis chasing around after lost treasures of antiquity. After all the effort of the last book, I wanted to do something different that would be pure fun; hopefully this’ll fit the bill.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    TH: I’m in awe of Neal Stephenson. To have written a novel that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of the internet (Snow Crash) would be enough of an achievement for most writers; to then jump into historical fiction and write such complex, intelligent, dazzlingly vast novels (e.g. Cryptonomicon) is nothing short of extraordinary. He’s totally irreverent to history, and yet ends up with something that feels more authentic than any number of self-consciously ‘historically accurate’ novels. I love John Le Carre and Donna Tartt, while historically I’ve been heavily influenced by George MacDonald Fraser and Bernard Cornwell.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    TH: Always remember the reader. This doesn’t mean cynically chasing audiences – you’ve got to tell the story you want to tell – but you should always focus on telling it in a way that grips the reader. Novels require more engagement from the audience than just about any other form of art or entertainment; if you don’t give your readers a good reason to keep going, they’ll stop.

    Aspiring writers with a criminal bent (in their fiction rather than their personal habits) should check out the CWA’s Debut Dagger competition, which I’ve organised for the last two years. It asks unpublished writers to send in the first chapter and synopsis of a potential crime novel, and it’s launched the careers of over a dozen authors, including me (before I organised it).

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