Interview with James Aitcheson, author of Sworn Sword

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Publication Date: August 6, 2013

Order Links:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Author Bio: James Aitcheson was born in Wiltshire, England in 1985 and studied History at Cambridge. Sworn Sword is his first novel, praised by The Mail on Sunday, Historical Novels Review, Publishers Weekly, and bestselling author Ben Kane, among others. The second installment, The Splintered Kingdom, is forthcoming.

Interview: Please tell us about your current release.

Sworn Sword is my first novel, and the first in a series set during the Norman Conquest of England, telling the story of the rebellions that gripped the country in the years immediately after 1066, and how the kingdom was won and lost. The famous Battle of Hastings, in which the English were defeated and Harold Godwinson was killed, didn’t mark the end-point of the Conquest. In fact, it was only the beginning...

In early 1069, less than three years after Hastings, two thousand Normans march north to subdue the rebellious province of Northumbria. Tancred, a proud and ambitious knight, is among them, hungry for battle, for silver and for land. At Durham, however, the Normans are ambushed in the streets by English rebels. In the battle that ensues, their army is slaughtered almost to a man. Badly wounded, Tancred barely escapes with his life. His lord is among those slain.

Even as Tancred seeks vengeance for his lord’s murder, he finds himself caught up in a plot that harks back to the day of Hastings itself: a plot that, if allowed to succeed, threatens to destroy everything that the conquerors have fought so hard to gain. There’s intrigue, there are battles, and there’s also a touch of romance – something, I hope, for everyone!

How did writing this book affect you?

I learnt a lot while writing Sworn Sword, not least about life in eleventh-century England. My research led me to find out about all sorts of subjects that I didn't previously know much about: the design of Norman longships; the various stages in the production of parchment; musical instruments; food and drink; fashions in hairstyles in in clothing. I found that, if I was to understand the period and bring it to life effectively, I had to immerse myself in it completely as possible.

Over the course of the three years that it took me to write and edit the book, which was my first full-length work of fiction, I also learnt a tremendous amount about the process and craft of writing: everything from narrative voice and scene-setting, to pacing and structure.

Can you tell us about the journey that led you to writing?

I’ve always written stories since a very young age, and as long as I can remember I’ve harboured ambitions of being a professional writer, but it was only when I went to study History at Cambridge that I began to think about the potential of historical fiction as a genre. The idea for a novel set in the years after 1066 came to me while I was in my final year, putting the finishing touches to my dissertation on the Norman Conquest.

After graduating from Cambridge, I enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where I further developed the concept for the novel and honed my craft. I’ve often said that it would have taken me ten years to learn on my own what I learned in a single year on the course – it really was that beneficial. The in-depth feedback from tutors and fellow students was amazingly useful, while the focus on deconstructing texts and finding out what makes them work helped me to refine my prose and develop my narrative voice, and gave me the confidence to experiment with new forms.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Novel-writing is about as far from a nine-to-five job as it’s possible to get, and inevitably entails many ups and downs. Keeping disciplined is therefore very important, but also very difficult. I’ve learnt that I have to be a harsh taskmaster! I set myself a daily target of at least one thousand words, and I just keep going until I reach that target. Sometimes that will take only a few hours, which allows me time to add new material to my website or update my followers on Twitter and Facebook with my latest news, while other days I’ll still be writing late into the evening.

Do you have a musical playlist you listen to while writing? If so, what kind of music?

My tastes in music are fairly eclectic, ranging from folk to punk rock, baroque to jazz. High-energy bands like Green Day and Gogol Bordello are great for getting me started in the morning, while in the afternoon I might turn to other favourites such as Arcade Fire or The Polyphonic Spree. Soundtracks to films such as Gladiator and The Fellowship of the Ring help to put me in a historical-ish mood, as does the music of Thomas Tallis, a sixteenth-century composer whose choral works are an evolution of medieval Gregorian Chant.

What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Really, the whole business of writing novels is a bit quirky. I spend my working days living inside my own imagination, in the company of people who don’t exist except in my head, writing from the point of view, and in what I imagine to be the voice, of a Norman knight from nearly one thousand years ago. If that isn’t quirky, I don’t know what is!

Do you plan any subsequent books?

Yes, there are two more books in the series so far, continuing the story of the Conquest as the Normans attempt to consolidate their grip on England. The second novel, The Splintered Kingdom, has already been published in the UK and will be released in the US in the summer of 2014, and I’ve recently finished writing the third book, Knights of the Hawk. Both continue Tancred’s story, following his exploits through the period of rebellion against the Norman invaders, and I hope to keep chronicling his adventures for many years to come. The eleventh century was a period of immense change across Europe, and there are plenty of exciting events in the decades between the Conquest and the First Crusade in which he might potentially become involved.

What are you currently reading?

Like my musical tastes, my reading tastes are quite varied. I love historical fiction, but recently I’ve been devouring a lot of spy novels. I’m currently in the middle of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré. A wonderfully complex and involving book, it has a real ring of authenticity about it. I was inspired to read it after watching the recent film adaptation, but the original novel has so many more twists and turns. Highly recommended.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Margaret Atwood. I find her facility with language and metaphor quite incredible, while her breadth of vision never ceases to amaze me. The Handmaid’s Tale is without a doubt my favourite book. As well as being a harrowing dystopian tale with powerful messages about gender and society, it also probes big questions about the nature and value of historical sources, and about how histories are constructed – themes that I find very interesting.

Please tell us a fun-fact about yourself!

I love satsumas. A mid-afternoon satsuma break is a regular part of my writing day. I can’t seem to get enough of them!

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