Today it is a distinct pleasure, at History … the Interesting Bits, welcome Matthew Harffy, best-selling author of the Bernicia Chronicles. Matthew’s latest book, Fortress of Fury has just hit the shops. Book no. 7 in the series, Fortress of Fury is that rare book that is – literally – impossible to put down. It is spellbinding!
I last chatted to Matthew about his writing 3 years ago, after the release of Killer of Kings, book no. 4 in the series. In that time, an awful lot has happened. So, without further ado…
Hi Matthew, thanks for agreeing to do an interview. And congratulations on the release of Fortress of Fury, book no. 7 in the Bernicia Chronicles. And you’re currently writing book no.8, I believe (thankfully, because I really need the next book, now!)
1. So, first question, have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not at all. I have always wanted to do something creative. When I left school I auditioned for drama school and wanted to be an actor. My acting never really amounted to anything, so, after getting a real job I pursued my second creative passion, which is music. I sang in bands on and off until my mid-forties when the writing had started to take off and I was running out of hours in the day to have a full-time job, sing with the band, write and promote my novels, and find any time to spend with my family!
2. Who are your writing influences?
When I was a teenager I read a huge amount of fantasy and my writing is heavily influenced by writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, David Gemmell, Robert Holdstock and Stephen Donaldson.
Later I became slightly obsessed with Westerns and read every Louis l’Amour book I could find. I later discovered that Gemmell was also huge l’Amour fan, so that makes sense! Another Western writer I love and one that veers into the literary genre is Larry McMurtry. His Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favourite books.
And then, of course, you have the influence of historical fiction giants such as Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden (another fan of Gemmell).
3. What do you love about writing?
I love the freedom of being able to tell a story that I would like to read. I love the moments when a story takes a turn I hadn’t expected and a character makes a decision that sends the plot in a different direction than my original plan. These are often the moments that bring something truly special to a story.
4. What do you hate about writing?
Hate is a very strong word, but I dislike the feeling of pressure that I have to always be working on the next story. Someone once said (Lawrence Kasdan, I think) that being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life! That is so true.
5. What advice would you give to someone starting out on their writing career?
The most important difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer is that the professional finishes what they start. So my advice to anyone wanting a career in writing would be to finish every project and then move onto the next.
6. Social media – do you love it or hate it?
Both! I love the fact that I can connect with other writers and readers from all over the world. It is a real leveller and helps to alleviate the loneliness inherent in the job of being a writer.
However, I also hate the shallowness of social media. With the ability to reach out to the world there should also be a responsibility. It is all too easy for people to spread rumours and lies, which by virtue of a huge platform can take on a life of their own and manipulate public discourse in a way that has never been possible before. This has been clearly evidenced in recent elections and referendum results with devastating effects.
7. What attracted you to setting your stories in the 7th century?
I saw a documentary about Bamburgh Castle and the Anglo-Saxon graves that were being excavated there. I knew the castle and the area, as I had lived near there as a child for a few years. But I knew nothing of Northumberland’s rich past and the fact that in the seventh century it had been probably the most powerful kingdom in Britain. When I started to research the period I quickly saw that the amount of conflict between the small kingdoms of the island, the different people and tribes, and the rise of Christianity, all provided the conflict that is necessary for good storytelling.
8. Did you ever expect to be still writing about Beobrand 8 books later?
Not really! When I first started the Serpent Sword nearly 20 years ago I naïvely thought I would tell Beobrand’s story in one novel! I believed that I would be able to cover his life from the age of seventeen until he was an old man in a single book. When The Serpent Sword reached novel length, I had only covered
about six months! At that point I knew I had a series on my hands, but I never really anticipated I would write anything longer than a trilogy. Now I can imagine there might be 12 books in the finished series, perhaps more!
9. I’ve just this weekend seen The Serpent Sword proof of concept trailer; what was it like, seeing your imagination brought to life on camera?
It is a truly amazing experience. I was on set for most of the filming and there were several moments when I had to pinch myself. These were characters I had dreamt up!
I am extremely proud of what the team has put together. We have worked for about a year behind the scenes to get to this point, so it is difficult to see the final product with “fresh eyes”. You get so into the details, and see each part of the creative process from so many angles, that in the end you can’t really see the wood for the trees. In many ways that’s the same as writing a book. By the end of the writing process you have been over and over it so many times that you cannot tell whether it’s actually any good or not and it’s only through other people’s response to it that you receive validation.
Luckily, the vast majority of the people (over 70,000 at the time of writing) who have seen the trailer have loved it, which makes it all worthwhile and makes us realise that we have produced something quite special. I hope we get funding for a full series. I think the results would be incredible and I think there is a real appetite for this type of series. To watch THE SERPENT SWORD TRAILER: and With Audio Description.
10. What comes first, the research or the story?
The research comes first for the main historical thread of the story. I choose one or two historical events to act as the tent poles of the plot and then create the individual characters’ stories around those main points.
11. How do you decide where Beobrand goes next?
To some extent the history guides me. As Beobrand tends to follow historical events, where they happen, you can usually find him nearby.
12. There seems to be a lot more at stake for Beobrand in Fortress of Fury, than in previous books. Without giving too much away, there’s forbidden love, tests of his loyalty and that of his men, and a momentous decision – or maybe a realisation – at the end of the book. It really does seem like it’s a pivotal point in Beobrand’s story, was that deliberate with this book, or am I reading too much into it?
I don’t think it was a deliberate decision on my part, more a logical progression of Beobrand getting older and his relationships becoming more complex. As he grows closer to the power of the throne, so the intrigues around him become deadlier and more momentous. Beobrand also has a lot more enemies by this point in his life and so danger lurks wherever he turns. And as any loyal reader of the series will know, he’s often his own worst enemy and in Fortress of Fury that is no different, so it will come as no surprise that Beobrand himself has created some of the difficulties he faces by the end of the novel.
13. With Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series we’ve known, almost from the beginning, that the books will end at the famous Battle of Brunanburh, does Beobrand similarly have a final battle that will be his swansong?
From the very beginning, I thought I knew how Beobrand would end his days (as I said, I thought the first book would include his whole life story). However, I am not so sure now that I do know how the series will end. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell you!
14. You have also written a standalone novel, Wolf of Wessex, with an aged warrior named Dunston as the lead character. He became quite a hit. Are we going to see more of Dunston, or was it really a one-off?
I loved writing about Dunston and I can certainly imagine returning to his character in the future for a sequel or even a prequel to Wolf of Wessex. But at this moment I am focusing on book 8 of the Bernicia Chronicles and the first in a new series, A Time For Swords.
15. Was it hard to create a whole new range of characters for Wolf of Wessex? Were you conscious of differentiating the story from that of Beobrand?
It was no more difficult than writing a new Beobrand story really. In each new story I tend to create new characters, and in some ways having a completely blank canvas to start with made it easier, rather than more difficult. When writing a Bernicia Chronicles novel I have to maintain the storylines of many characters who have appeared in past stories. Their motivations need to make sense and I need to remember all of their previous interactions. In Wolf of Wessex I was able to create whatever back story I needed for the characters to help the plot.
Fabulous talking to you, Matthew. Thank you so much for being so candid.
Thank you for having me on your blog, Sharon. It has been a pleasure as always!
Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD.
Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
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Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
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