Q&A with Andrew Latham, author

 

Today I’m joined by Professor Andrew Latham. He’s written a few non-fiction books already and is what I’d call a true scholar, but now he’s turned his hand to fiction and his excellent new novel The Holy Lance is just about to be published. I posted my review for that already, but now you can learn a bit more about it in my Q&A with the author.

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Hi Andrew, I’m glad to have you here today! This isn’t your first book, since you’ve previously published non-fiction, correct? How does it feel to be publishing a novel rather than a history book? How do the two compare?

I have to say, it feels great! Any time I have published an academic piece (whether book, article, or book chapter), I have felt a real sense of accomplishment and professional pride. This kind of writing matters – to a small number of people, at least – and a job well done is a job well done. But this is different. In some sense, I have been training my whole life to write academic works. I know how to do it, understand the business, and feel at home in the world of academic publishing. Writing academic works seems natural and, well, work-a-day. Writing this novel, on the other hand, has been something entirely new. Nothing has really prepared me for it. At the outset, I knew next to nothing about writing fiction, did not understand the business, and felt totally at sea in the world of fiction publishing (don’t get me started on the whole agent thing). So, at a minimum, the sense of accomplishment is greater. But I think there’s more to it than that. I really haven’t thought about this until you asked the question, but I think that writing a novel – even if no one actually reads it – is intrinsically more rewarding in that it allows one to create and inhabit a world in ways that the kind of scholarship I do simply cannot. I love my protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan; I like (or loathe) the other historical and fictional characters that populate my novel; I feel deeply invested in the battles that punctuate the narrative; I feel the rhythms of the day as laid out in the Templar Rule; I can taste the watered wine the Templars were allowed a couple of times a day. And I can feel the enchantment of a world governed by cultural matrix of faith rather than science, of God rather than Man (which is not to say I always want to inhabit this world, just visit now and then). These are the sorts of reactions I have to The Holy Lance that I have never had to any of my non-fiction works. So, when you ask how it feels, I say it feels great. Now, don’t get me wrong – I hope it’s a best-seller, receives critical acclaim and wins lots of awards. But even if this is not to be, it feels great to have written it.

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What inspired you to write The Holy Lance? Why this story, in this time period?

Essentially, it was born out of nothing more ambitious than a desire to tell the truth about what Saint Bernard of Clairvaux called the “New Knighthood”, the Knights Templar. In the popular culture, of course, there are three basic narratives about the Templars: they are either odious religious fanatics; cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly real motives; or mystical (and often heretical) keepers of some terrible secret. Turns out, though, that not only are these narratives ultimately silly (although they can be grist for some great entertainment), they are actually far less interesting that the reality of Templar life. Think about it for a moment. On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers. On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity. How was that possible? How did they reconcile these two personas? And how did they do so in a way that made them the most effective military force in the Latin East? Answering these questions – that is, trying to make sense of the actual reality of Templar life – was what really what inspired me to write the novel.

And what better way to get at these questions than to approach them via one of the oldest stories in human culture – the quest. Basically, The Holy Lance tries to illuminate the reality of the Templar life by chronicling the transformation – through a series of challenges encountered while trying to recover a potent religious relic – of one vicious-if-repentant “worldly knight” into a vicious-but-reformed “New Knight. The story really begins when the protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan, is charged with recovering the long lost Spear of Longinus, a religious relic widely believed to be responsible for the near-miraculous success of the First Crusade. As the narrative unfolds, Fitz Alan must overcome a number of obstacles – you know, the terrain, enemy fighters, treasonous companions, his own shortcomings, that sort of thing. As he attempts to deal with these challenges he often screws up, sometimes erring on the side of being too much the brutal warrior; other times, on the side of being too much the pious monk. Whenever he does fail these tests, however, first of all he puts things right. That is what makes him an archetypal hero. But he also learns from his mistakes. Like all heroes in these quest-type stories, during the course of his journey he has to learn an important lesson – in this case, how to reconcile the two warring elements of his personality, the brutal warrior and the pious monk. In other words, though the trials he faces on his quest, Fitz Alan is transformed into the ultimate Templar knight, a lethal blend of Christian piety and marital prowess.

I should note at this point that none of this is to imply that Fitz Alan’s a saint – like all great military adventure heroes, he most assuredly isn’t. It is, however, to place him in his proper historical context. Fitz Alan isn’t simply a twenty-first century (presumably secular-humanist hero) parachuted into a story set in the twelfth century. Rather, he’s my very best educated guess about what a twelfth century hero would actually look like. As such, like almost all people in medieval Christendom, Fitz Alan understands the world in terms of Christian religious categories and concepts. For the people of Medieval Latin Christendom, these beliefs were neither a symptom of mental illness nor a cynical ideological smokescreen concealing their true motives (power, wealth, glory, pleasure, what have you). Instead, rather like the laws of physics are for us, Christian religious categories and concepts provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which medieval people made sense of – and thus acted in – the world around them. As I see it, not taking the medieval religious worldview seriously would simply be to get Fitz Alan – and his world — entirely wrong.

Why the quest for a religious relic? A couple of reasons, I suppose. First, the Templars were obsessed with such relics. They truly believed them to be both significant holy objects in their own right and as “force multipliers” that would help them in their battles with the Saracens. Second, after the Holy Grail (which does in fact make a brief appearance in the novel) the Lance was probably the most important relic in all of Christendom. In my judgement, however, every possible permutation of the Grail story has now been done (Monty Python, Dan Brown, Bernard Cornwell, Umberto Eco… the list goes on). This being the case, I thought to myself why not use the next best thing – the Holy Lance? Perhaps if I were a literary theorist, I might also say that I like the way the Lance – the weapon that pierced the side of Christ as he hung of the Cross – symbolically embodies the intermingling of the martial and the religious. But I am merely a humble political scientist and will leave such advanced theorizing to others.

Finally, why the Third Crusade? Again, a couple of reasons. To begin with, the Third Crusade resonates in the popular culture more than any other (with the possible exception of the First). Some combination of the Richard-Saladin relationship and the so-near-yet-so-far nature of the campaign has made this particular campaign remarkably appealing down through the ages. In other words, people just seem to enjoy reading about this crusade. Perhaps more importantly, though, I really wanted a setting that would allow me to draw a sharp contrast between the worldly knight and Saint Bernard’s New Knight. Having the story set in the Third Crusade allowed me to contrast King Richard (the ultimate “worldly knight”) with Michael Fitz Alan (the ultimate “New Knight”) in what I hope are revealing and interesting ways.

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What research did you have to do for the book? I expect, given your background, this was much easier for you than for most people!

You might think so, but I actually did have to do quite a bit. Having just completed an academic book on war in medieval Europe, of course, I was pretty well-versed in the “big picture” of the crusades. But as I started thinking seriously about writing a novel, I realized that there were some pretty big gaps in my knowledge base. First, I didn’t really know all that much about the Templars. I had no idea, for example, how they were organized, or what they wore, or what they ate, or what the rhythms of their day looked like. Nor did I have any sense of how they were recruited, what the Templar Rule entailed or how it was enforced. Nor, finally, did I have a well-developed understanding of the Templars battle tactics, weapons or other aspects of what in the army we used to call “fieldcraft”. In other words, I had to research all of those fine-grained details of daily life that were utterly irrelevant to the big political issues I had tackled in my recent scholarly book.

Second, after deciding that the Third Crusade was going to be the setting for my novel (for the reasons described above), I realized that I actually knew very little about the details of that particular crusade. Again, I had the strategic big picture nailed down. Richard, Saladin, the crusaders’ multiple unsuccessful bids to take Jerusalem – these sorts of “big picture” things I understood pretty well. But I had only a very shaky grasp of the operational details of what quickly became Richard’s campaign against Saladin. I was almost completely ignorant, for example, of the political and strategic realities that shaped Richard’s actual campaign plan. Similarly, I did not have a firm grasp of the operational ebb and flow of the crusade – the key manoeuvres and decisive battles that ultimately determined its fate. Developing a clear campaign-level picture of the Third Crusade took a surprising amount of time and energy.

Third, I had to do a fair bit of research on King Richard. As I said above, I liked the idea of contrasting Richard with my protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan. Once again, however, as I moved from thinking about writing a novel to actually writing one, I realized that I did not really know enough about King Richard to carry on. And so I had to tackle the literature on one of England’s most written about monarchs. No easy task, let me tell you, as there are many, many good (and even more not-so-good) non-fiction books and documentaries on the Lionheart. And then there are the fictional treatments of him, both in print and on film. I don’t pretend to have covered all the sources, but I certainly covered a lot of them.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, I had to do considerable amount of research on how to write a novel. As I’m fond of telling people, although a voracious consumer of fiction, I’m sure the last time I actually produced any was way back in elementary school. I’ve never taken a course in creative writing, nor attended a writers’ workshop nor done anything else that would have prepared me for the serious work of writing a novel. I can write academic non-fiction, of course, but as any scholar-turned-novelist will tell you, that is a completely different craft. So, having decided that I wanted to write a novel, I quickly realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea about how to do so – and that that was likely be a bit of a problem going forward. Given the nature of my day job, of course, my instinct was to hit the books. And so I spent almost a year reading up on things like plot, characterization, pacing, dialogue, setting, how to write a battle scene – you know, the sorts of things one needs to know how to do if there is to be any hope of writing something people might actually want to read. Probably more helpfully, I also spent a lot of time re-reading several of my favourite authors with a more writerly eye, reverse engineering them as much as possible to see how the masters handled the various elements of historical-fiction writing. The readers will have to decide for themselves if any of this research paid off, but rest assured I did my homework.

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You have more books planned in the series, right? Any word on what they might be about or when they’ll be published? Do you have any plans to write other novels set in a different period, or even in a different genre?

Yes indeed. This past January I was able to sketch out a pretty detailed outline for the next instalment of what is currently conceived as a trilogy but which may evolve into a longer series. And, once it’s officially summer break, I will begin drafting. The goal is to complete the sequel to The Holy Lance before September and write the final instalment in January/summer of 2016. Whatever happens, I promise Michael Fitz Alan will definitely see the Third Crusade through to its bitter end.

After that, and providing the punters approve, I’ll continue writing historical fiction (can’t see myself venturing beyond that genre, but one never knows). I may keep on with the English Templars – I already have many, many more stories half-developed for this “band of brothers” ready to go – but I may also branch out a bit. The Hundred Years War appeals a very great deal, as does the First World War (I’ve written or taught about both in recent years). We’ll just have to wait and see.

The cover image is striking and should catch the eye but I’m curious – being an indie author I have total control over my covers from the art to the blurb. Did you have any input into any of this with Knox Robinson?

Yes. Here’s how it worked. Knox Robinson (isn’t that a good Scottish name for a publishing firm?) asked me for a few ideas. I gave them three. First, I provided a few pictures of Templar knights from the late 12th century. I was very specific about the period and the order – didn’t want the cover to feature some totally wrong, tin-pot-helmeted late 13th-century Hospitaller. Then I provided a few pics of the Templar battle flag. Again, very careful to get the basics correct (black on top, white on bottom, red cross straddling – that sort of thing). Finally, I gave them a few battle scenes involving Templars. I didn’t really fancy this, but I thought it best to give a wide range of options. The result: a cover that I’m really, really happy with. Simple, striking and symbolic! Couldn’t be more chuffed with how it turned out.

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What promo stuff will you be doing to get the book out there?

The usual kinds of things, I suppose. My publisher will be doing some promotional things, though I’m not entirely sure what those are. Seems to me that these days even those who go the traditional publishing route are well advised to act as if they were self-published and do everything possible on their own to get the word out. So I’ll be doing book giveaways on Goodreads, guest posts on respected blogs, soliciting good reviews on Amazon, etc. Fortunately for me, the college PR department is arranging some local publicity – so that sort of thing is taken care of. And, if all else fails, I suppose I could simply make it mandatory reading for all of my students.

I like to listen to music when I write, it helps me focus and block out the outside world. Do you listen to music or have anything that helps you get “in the zone”?

Usually, when I write I’m in monastic mode — complete silence, no sensual distractions (coffee, food, etc.). I’m not really very monastic in most of my life, but on reflection, I guess I am when it comes to writing. Total quiet. That’s what I need. Writing this novel, however, I found myself listening now and then to various pieces of medieval and Templar music. There are some great groups out there doing this kind of thing. Personally, I’ve come to love Ensemble Organum. If you want to get in the medieval/Templar mindset, you should to check them out on Youtube.

Click here to hear them

What books do you read yourself to unwind?

So I’m a bit of a freak. When I’m not reading historical fiction, I read… wait for it… history. Medieval political thought, medieval political history, medieval military history. But not just medieval history. I like the history of the two world wars as well. I teach in all these areas, so maybe that’s all there is to it, but I can’t get enough of this stuff – really helps me stay centered.

Any Templar movie recommendations?

This is one of those questions that is best answered in what our medieval forebears called the via negativa (in the opposite way) – that is, by telling you what movies I would not recommend. First, I loathed Kingdom of Heaven, Night of the Temple and The da Vinci Code – all three on the grounds that I found them either totally historically inaccurate in their treatment of the Templars (and/or the crusades) or because they were just plain bad. There are many more, but you get the point. Second, beyond movies, I have detested a variety of Templar-related novels. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was pretty good, though not terribly accurate. Beyond that, though, there’s not much. Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is just plain wrong, as is Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar (also a movie). And I’m afraid it’s downhill from there. There are some notable exceptions, of course. Robyn Young’s Bretheren Trilogy comes to mind (fantastical in its treatment of the Templars, but I like the way she writes). But generally speaking, there are few works of fiction that really capture the realities of Templar life.

On the positive side, there really is only one piece of popular culture that I have found (mostly) accurate and (largely) compelling – Arn! In movie form, this is a beautifully filmed, truly compelling Templar story. One of the few downsides is the portrayal of Saladin (again, just plain wrong – at least according to Muslim contemporaries). Otherwise, though, I highly recommend it.

But wait, Steven, there’s a little bit extra just for you. Two Templar-related metal bands I have found. The first is Grave Digger, a German band that has produced a Templar concept album entitled Knights of the Cross. The second is Hammer Fall, a Swedish Power Metal Band who refer to themselves as “The Templars of Heavy Metal”. If you haven’t yet encountered these, I hope you find them as enjoyable as I have doing this interview.

Cheers, mate!

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Cheers, Andrew, and thank you for your time. I have to say, I was surprised to find myself enjoying The DaVinci Code movie, perhaps because I already knew all about the back-story before Dan Brown turned it into such a mega-selling novel. Arn, I have to agree, is fantastic – I own it on Bluray, the only movie I’ve ever watched with subtitles I think!

 

You can find out more about The Holy Lance at the Knox Robinson website which also has links to buy this fantastic book. Don’t miss out, it’s a cracking read!

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