Interview with Cliff May
Please welcome Cliff May to Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature spot. As you can see by the premise of this blog, I’m very interested in the period once called the Dark Ages, but now called the early Middle Ages. Cliff is an author I’ve known for sometime and we have a shared interest in the post Romano period and the later Anglo-Saxon era.
Cliff, I’ve had your books on my TBR list for what seems like an eternity, but getting closer! To help me decide which one to read, I thought I’d ask you some questions about your books as I know you have written quite a number. Firstly, tell me how long you’ve been writing, and a bit about the series you have published.
Hello Paula, thanks for inviting me here! I began writing full-time at the end of 2012, so I
am now in my seventh year as a full-time writer.
At the beginning I was unsure whether to write historical fiction or fantasy, but I read an
article which advised aspiring authors to begin with a subject they already knew a fair bit about to cut down on the research needed, stop procrastinating, and actually get some words down. I am a long term fan of the Beowulf poem and it combined elements of history and the fantastic, so this seemed a good place to start. My original idea was to tell Beowulf’s story from childhood through to glorious death in old age fighting the dragon, but once I reached the Grendel episode I found that I wanted to spread my writing wings; so I ended it with the death of Grendel’s mother and it became the trilogy known as Sword of Woden.
Next I moved back a thousand years in time for my Conqueror of Rome duo, drifting south geographically to tell the story of the migration of a Gallic tribe from what is now
Northern France. Known as the Senones, they crossed the Alps to settle in Northern Italy
around the year 390BC. Naturally the peoples already living there were a bit put out
having eighty-thousand hairy barbarians turn up out of the blue, and in the fighting which followed both the Etruscans and Romans were comprehensively defeated. They sacked and occupied Rome itself for the good part of a year; it was a pivotal moment in the growth of the then small city state, in many ways the shock which led to the creation of the Roman Empire.
I really enjoyed my research and writing about the ancient Celts but I missed the Anglo-Saxons which have always been my first love, so it was back to the sixth Century for my
following trilogy, King’s Bane. The main character, Eofer, had earned the sobriquet by
killing the Swedish king Ongentheow in battle. An Angle, he had featured as a minor
character in the Beowulf books, so this gave me the opportunity to continue the timeline
from my Sword of Woden series and shift the focus of the tale from Scandinavia to the
migration of the Angles from Jutland to what is now East Anglia in England where I live.
The final book, The Scathing, sees Eofer and his war band helping to found the kingdom of Mercia in the Trent Valley.
One of the advantages of being a truly independent author is the fact that you can write
about any subject which appeals to you, so I jumped forward four centuries for my current Erik Haraldsson series. Better known to history as Erik Bloodaxe, he was the favourite son of Harald Fairhair, the first warlord to unite the scattered provinces of Norway into one centralised kingdom. At the end of the first book, Bloodaxe, a hostile political act by the English king Athelstan undermines Erik’s position at home forcing him to give up the kingdom and go Viking. I am writing the final book of the trilogy now which will see him become the last king of an independent Northumbria.
Well, that gives me quite a bit to go on I reckon! Definitely a man after my own heart, especially where the Anglo-Saxons are concerned. So, where did you get the inspiration for your books? Do you have an author who has influenced you in your writing?
My ideas all come from my love of history in general and the Anglo-Saxon period in
particular. We are surrounded by history in this country. Within a short walk or bike ride as a child I could visit a Battle of Britain spitfire airdrome, a Palaeolithic watering hole where the bones of mammoth, lions and hippopotamuses were discovered and one of the very earliest Saxon settlements at Mucking. I believe that people in the past were the same we are today with all our strengths and weaknesses, only technology has changed, so for anyone with imagination it is easy to repopulate the landscape with those who have gone before us, be they pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, children watching Luftwaffe air fleets filling the skies or Viking raiders on the nearby River Thames. As for author influences I read very little fiction; I have too many stories in my own head and I am always afraid that I will unwittingly plagiarise.
Who are the main characters in your books and tell me and my readers a bit about them?
Beowulf, I am sure, needs little introduction. A Dark Age monster killer, I wanted to delve beneath the superhero image and discover what made him tick, the influences and
experiences in his childhood and youth which made him the man in the poem. That
Beowulf can appear to be a bit of a braggart to modern ears, a bit one dimensional, so I
introduced compassion; he rescues a young girl from sexual abuse and finds her a home in a loving family, supporting her financially until she reaches adulthood. I also added a
psychological condition due to a head wound gained in battle to make him appear less
invincible. This worsened as the tale developed until… Well you will have to read the
series to find out who cures the hero, but the title Sword of Woden may offer a clue!
The Conqueror of Rome duo really contains three main characters: a female druid, a boy
destined to be a great British warrior and a young Gaul at foster who will become
chieftain of his clan. The boys become part of the warlord Brennus’s Gallic migration to
Italy, while the druid is driven by vivid dreams to discover the destiny the gods have in
mind for her. It is a story of journeying – physically, mentally and emotionally as the trio
grow from childhood to adulthood and go out to make their names in a violent world.
Eofer Wonreding is the hero of the King’s Bane trilogy, the man made famous by killing the king of Swedes in the Beowulf tale. He is highly regarded by his king and people, the go-to warrior if a difficult job needs doing and doing well. However his undoubted abilities cause problems for our man. The king and leading men of the Angles wish to elevate him from thegn to ealdorman. Following the death of King Hygelac of Geats in battle against the Franks and Frisians (which you can read about in my short novel Dayraven, which loosely links the Sword of Woden and King’s Bane series’) Eofer’s wife is now the sister of the new king of Geatland and no longer content to be the wife of a lowly thegn. Eofer resists both entreaties for as long as he can as he clings to the freedom to raid and generally come and go as he pleases without the added responsibility which would come with the advancement. Eofer is the last of the Angles to leave Jutland for the new home across the North Sea, but as Jutes, Danes and finally the Britons of Powys fall beneath his sword and the Angles become established in their new home the situation smoulders until a final tragedy strikes.
Unlike my other main characters, Erik Haraldsson is the son of a king and born to rule.
Unfortunately his father, Harald Fairhair, appears to have sired at least twenty sons, most of whom felt they too deserved to be high king on Harald’s death. A brother war followed which Erik won, only for a dimly remembered half-brother who had been fostered with King Athelstan to return with English help. But Erik is nothing if not a fighter, and along with those who remain loyal to him and his royal Danish wife Gunnhild he wins new kingdoms to rule in, first the Orkneys and Hebrides, and then the kingdom of York and Northumbria itself.
Tell us who is your favourite main character and your favourite supporting character and why you enjoy them so much?
It always surprises people when I say that Catumanda, the female druid in the Conqueror of Rome series is without doubt my favourite main character. She actually started out as a he, but when I did my first rewrites it just became more and more obvious as I read the story that the character was crying out to be changed to female. She is a very strong young woman, and deadly if you get on the wrong side of her; confident, cheery and outgoing, I am a little besotted with her to tell the truth!
My favourite supporting character is Thrush Hemming, Eofer king’s bane’s senior hearth
warrior. Steadfast could be his middle name, so much so that he earns himself a war band of his own by the end of the series. There is a period in book two, Gods of War, where Hemming has to take command of the hearth troop in desperate circumstances and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Loyal and capable, he is the perfect second in command.
When starting a new book, how do you structure it? Do you set an outline for yourself, or do you write freely and let the story come? Or do you use any other method?
Once I have researched the subject I have a pretty good general outline of the whole story from start to finish in my mind, down to the closing scene and even the last line. I roughly sketch out the story arc for each volume so that they work both as stand-alone tales and as part of a series, and after that the details tend to take care of themselves. I use a series of sketch books for each volume in which I jot down lineages, the names of ships and other details which need to remain constant throughout the books and then just start writing. I liken it to a long motorway journey; you know the start point and destination, and you have a pretty good idea of what will happen en-route, but the smaller details are unknowable until they occur.
I like that comparison! Is there anything of you in your writing, your experiences, characteristics etc?
I think that there must be for all writers. I do believe that my own work draws on my life
experiences, and that some of the tougher times have been the most valuable. I have
crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, renovated a medieval hall and
suffered the joys of childcare; it all goes in there. Writing full time can be a tough gig
when you are the only source of income for the family, but there is no place to hide and I
am sure that the determination to fight against the odds is reflected in quite a few of my
characters. Historical fiction, like history itself, tends to be written through the eyes of
the upper echelons of society (it is more interesting than a life tilling soil after all) but I
like to think that I manage to give the common folk if not an equal voice, at least visibility in my tales.
Do you have a favourite author at the moment?
As I said above, and I know this goes against perceived wisdom, I read very little fiction.One author I do follow is Harry Sidebottom. One of his main characters, Ballista, is an Angle fighting in the service of Rome so I can get my Anglo-Saxon fix without worrying about inadvertently duplicating his ideas. It also helps that he is a terrific writer ofcourse!
What books are you reading?
Just one at the moment, The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby. He is a retired travel writer
and journalist who as a young man in 1938 crewed a tall ship to Australia and back – the
grain race of the title. I am a bit of a people watcher so enjoy reading first-hand accounts
of travel and action. Being a travel writer his descriptions of mountainous seas and broody skies are breathtaking and useful for my own work.
What are you working on currently and what are your future writing plans?
I am a third of the way into the final book of the Erik Haraldsson trilogy which will be
available this autumn. At the same time I am writing a series of short stories which will
present alternative outcomes for the various invasions of 1066 to be published this
summer. Early next year I have a book to write which will tidy up a few loose threads left hanging at the end of the king’s bane trio, in a similar way that the short novel Dayraven straddles the earlier series’.
I have it in mind to tell the story of the Angles from the time of their involvement in the Beowulf poem, through the migration to Britain and culminating with the death of their first Bretwalda, the high king Raedwald of Sutton Hoo fame. There is still a fair way to go, so the new main character for the following Anglian trilogy will come to the fore there. To give myself a little variety I may well expand on the Erik Haraldsson books by writing a string of Scandinavian/Viking trilogies at the same time.
Is there anything else we should know about you or your books – let us know of any
significant appearances or events.
As I said above, I am a single parent and have been for five years now. My youngest was still in primary school at that time so I had to get my head down and make this writing lark work. That of course meant that giving book talks and attending book fairs etc were out of the question without bringing the whole tribe along with me so I learned to get by without such things. The upside was that I could concentrate my efforts on producing new material; every book written brought in new readers, and I gradually built up what can only be described as a worldwide fanbase. Very few people successfully combine the skills of authorship and marketing and I know that I am not one of them, so I concentrate on what I do best which is writing new stories. The majority of my books have been Amazon bestsellers, so thankfully most readers appear to enjoy them.
Cliff May is a writer of historical fiction, working primarily in the early Middle Ages. He has always had a love of history which led to an early career in conservation work. Using the knowledge and expertise gained Cliff moved with his family through a succession of dilapidated houses which he single-handedly renovated. These ranged from a Victorian townhouse to a Fourteenth Century hall, and he added childcare to his knowledge of medieval oak frame repair, wattle and daub and lime plastering. Cliff crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour, sleeping in a hammock and sweating in the sails and travelled the world, visiting such historic sites as the Little Big Horn, Leif Eriksson’s Icelandic birthplace and the bullet-scarred walls of Berlin’s Reichstag.
Now he writes, only a stone’s throw from the Anglian ship burial site at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, England.
Well, that was fabulous talking to you Cliff, you sure have had some exciting adventures and this is obviously reflected in your writing. I was particularly intrigued by your admission that you have been to the site of the Little Big Horn, I can’t imagine how moving that must have been. I would definitely find that very emotional and also the Endeavour, which growing up in Australia as a kid I had learned so much about. The awful conditions that must have been faced by those transportees must have been horrific. The medieval hall experience must have also been very poignant, being able to touch the walls intimately and walk on the same floorboards that have been walked on over hundreds of years is just amazing. Thank you for guesting on my blog Cliff, it has been a great honour and here at 1066: The Road to Hastings we wish you the very best.