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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Martin Stephen is High Master of St Paul's School, London, and ex-High Master of The Manchester Grammar School. Martin is the author of 16 academic titles and four highly-acclaimed Henry Gresham crime thrillers.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Rebel Heart?
Martin Stephen: Madonna, Princess Diana and David Bowie. I was fascinated by the idea of celebrity. The Earl of Essex was very like a cross between the three names above and Boris Johnson. He was a hugely charismatic, popular figure with a cult following, but also a deeply flawed personality who carried within him the source of his own downfall. I wanted to know why such a man was so powerful, and why someone so powerful could end up on the block.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
MS: I do all the research and the planning between 11.00pm and 3.00am. The actual writing is crammed in to six weeks -- a week at Christmas, a week at Easter, and four weeks in the summer, when I work 12 or 12 hour days and insist of 5,000 words a day.
MT: How much research do you have to do for such a historic novel? And how do you make sure your research doesn't bog down the novel's narrative?
MS: Good question. My first degree was in English and History, and I suppose you could say that with the research for my teaching, and the fact that I always chose by preference to teach Shakespeare, Donne and other writers from the period of the novels I've been researching the background for 40 years. There was also a massive amount of reading for the first novel, The Desperate Remedy, but it is cumulative. I now know how a person in 1600 cleaned their teeth, and how they cleaned the bit at the other end. I found out for the first novel how they dressed, what they ate, when they went to bed and when they got up. You've only got to acquire this knowledge once. And the key thing is having spent hours and years acquiring the actual historical knowledge of what happened and the social background you desperately want to show off to the reader how much you know. Well, these books are crime thrillers which just happen to be set 400 years ago, not history text books! The worst one was The Galleons' Grave, about the Spanish Armada. The first draft virtually charted every shot fired by every ship. Then I realised that not only did the reader not want or need to know all this guff, but the characters in the book wouldn't have known it either. Indeed, the fear and tension comes so often from how little the actual protagonists know. I chucked away over 10,000 words, and it's far more exciting book as a result.
MT: Do you think novels can help us understand history better?
MS: Definitely. I'm not kidding in these four novels. I describe as a historian with a PhD exactly how I think four major events in history -- the Gunpowder Plot, the writing of Shakespeare's plays, the Spanish Armada and the Essex rebellion--happened. It's essential for me that I stick exactly to the known historical facts, but the freedom to write fiction releases you into a fascinating world where you can also tell a version of the truth.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MS: I learnt to write completing a horrendously complex PhD thesis between 10.00pm and 3.00am. I can only use a keyboard -- how I'd love to a romantic and say I wrote all my books with a dog-eared pencil from the newsagent into a cheap exercise book! I write straight off, and then when I've got the end go in for very, stringent editing.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
MS: Wish I was writing. And I've got this day job as High Master of St Paul's School, which unfortunately is also an evening, night and weekend job. I actually love sailing and scuba diving. Most of all (cue for violins) I like being with my family.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
MS: I'd rather die than have a vision of an 'ideal' reader! The ideal reader is the person who likes the books, and I don't care if they're 5 or 50. Mind you, The Sun newspaper once threatened to do an expose on me. They said that my books used 'offensive language', and that as a result of this and my being a Headmaster/role model or young people I was corrupting the young. I was praying they'd run the story, because it would have done wonders for sales, but they chickened out.
MT: What are you working on now?
MS: I'm doing a proposal for the fifth Henry Gresham novel, and working on a new series of crime thrillers based on the 1930's. It's a fascinating time, full of fear and foreboding and threat, and a time of huge contrasts, with class differences in the UK probably their most marked ever.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MS: I think it's a bit like acting. It's not necessarily the best who succeed, but it's always the most determined. After 15 academic books and four novels I'm don't feel sufficient authority to tell anyone how to do it. I certainly wouldn't like to try and get fiction published without an agent, and I'm sure people wouldn't be reading this article were it not for the remarkable Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates who must have seen something salvageable in what with hindsight I now see was a truly dire and awful Proposal for a novel.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MS: Please buy the books -- and thank you to all those who have done so and made the fourth one possible!
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