An Interview with C R May

Today for Norsevember we have C. R. May, author of a number of highly rated historical fiction novels, including his Erik Haraldsson (Bloodaxe) and Beowulf series.

It’s a pleasure to welcome you to the blog, Cliff! What is it that inspired you to write about Erik Haraldsson specifically? Were there other people you were considering within the time period or was it always Bloodaxe?

One of the things which drew me to Erik was not just his name and bad lad reputation, but the fact that his story is usually told from the viewpoint of his enemies. 

Very few people have no redeeming features at all and I was keen to discover more about the man behind the Bloodaxe sobriquet and see if it was fully justified — a nickname incidentally which was never used during his lifetime. Erik Haraldsson was the favoured son of Harald Fairhair, the first king to unite the petty kingdoms and jarldoms which comprised Norway in the ninth century, and regarded by the king as his successor. Unfortunately for Erik, Fairhair had not only sired at least twenty other sons on various women over the course of his long lifetime, but rewarded a number of them with provinces of their own to rule as sub-kings. It was a situation which could only lead to war when the king finally died, so it is no surprise that Erik, who initially emerged victorious from the struggle, ended up with the reputation as a brother killer.

Most of what we know of the time comes from the various histories which comprise Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway written in the early thirteenth century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson.It is almost certain that Snorri also wrote the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson, which to a large extent deals with the main character’s struggles against both Erik and his wife Gunnhild. In this the pair, and especially Gunnhild who is portrayed as a practicing witch, are the archetypal ‘bad guys’ — ruthless, cruel and of course heathen— but it should be remembered that Snorri was not only writing in Christian Iceland hundreds of years after the events, but was also a descendant of Egil on his mother’s side; hardly an unbiased source.

Similarly as a present-day Englishman it is natural for me to side with the southern English kings — men like Alfred and Athelstan — in their quest to unite the English diaspora into a single kingdom. They did of course finally succeed, Erik becoming the last king of an independent Northumbria, and it was an interesting project for myself to turn my usual prejudices on their head and fight the war from the ‘enemy’ side. 

Your historical fiction mostly centres on the middle ages. What do you love about the period? For me, I like that it’s a period of transition between an old world and a new one – Pagan culture meets Christianity, diplomacy threatens to replace the old blood feuds, Kingdoms begin to take hold over regional chieftains and jarls. Is this ‘old world’ part of the allure for you?

I am originally from central London, and although I was always interested in history, what I saw all around me was the grander type: the Tower of London; Greenwich Palace; St Paul’s Cathedral — which were all a short ride away. When I was 9 years old we moved to a place called Ockendon in Essex, which although only twenty miles from central London seemed like the depths of the countryside to me then.

One of my new friends told me that the name meant Wocca’s Hill, and although I scoffed then I later found out it was true. In the central library in nearby Grays was a small local museum which contained an area devoted to the Anglo-Saxons, and suddenly a whole new world opened up: spear heads and funeral urns from the excavations at nearby Mucking and other places; maps giving the original names of the nearby towns and villages which were almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon. In those pre-internet days information was very hard to come by, and for the first time I discovered that there was a history, not of castles, knights and the aristocracy, but of the English people themselves; my own family, friends and neighbours. Everywhere I looked now I saw the Anglo-Saxon bedrock of England: Essex — the land of the East Saxons; my borough (also an A/S word) Thurrock, was the Saxon name for the bilge of a ship. My aunt lived in Epping — Eappa’s folk; an uncle in Harrow — Heargh — a heathen temple. My love for the period was cemented, like many of my generation, by Michael Wood’s TV series and accompanying book, In Search of the Dark Ages. Suddenly we had our own kings with names like Athelstan and Edgar; Alfred had done far more than burn a few cakes. It felt like I had discovered a past which had been suppressed by a ruling class which considers the natives not only beneath them but not of them, which of course is true; even today, almost a millennium after the Norman Conquest of 1066, half of the land in England is owned by less than 1% of the population.   

You first published Sorrow Hill in 2013 – the first of your Beowulf series. Since then you’ve published 11 historical fiction books across 4 series; the most recent being the 3rd book in your Bloodaxe series, The Day of the Wolf. That’s some good going! Do you have any discarded stories you used to learn your trade before then?

No, none! When I decided to write I was unsure at first whether I would prefer to write historical fiction or pure fantasy. I already knew a fair amount about Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon history in general, so a retelling of the Beowulf tale would be a way to include both, a kind of genre-mix which made sense. I sat down, wrote the opening scene and just kept going.

Although I am a full time author I am also a single parent, and the proceeds from my writing is my only source of income. It tends to focus the mind on producing sellable work, so there is no time for dawdling and no unpublished stories, gems or otherwise, lying around on various hard drives!

What’s next for you; any new series lined up or do you have any plans to revisit any of your others?

After spending a couple of years in the tenth century with Erik Haraldsson and his hird, I have moved back to the Migration Age for my latest series. It was a time of many larger than life and semi-mythological characters like Atilla the Hun and Arthur Pendragon, but also the last vestiges of Roman rule in the West and the birth pangs of the European nations we know today. I am about halfway through the first draft of book one which I aim to publish early next summer. I also have a few other ideas which I am keen to write centred on Scandinavia and Iceland at various points throughout the middle ages. 

Your books are highly rated by fans of the genre. What’s the secret to making historical fiction a success?

Never let your research drive the tale. By that I mean, don’t try and cram all the things you discovered about the period into the book to show readers how much preparation went into it or the depth of your knowledge. It is very easy to do, but it will put them off faster than almost anything else. Luckily for me, primary sources for the early medieval period are notoriously thin on the ground — it was formerly known as the Dark Ages with good reason — so there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge within which an author can weave a tale.

The ‘show don’t tell’ maxim really works: If your character is sailing — yes, research the different types of vessels in use, the rigging and how to work the ship, but incorporate it into the narrative rather than describe every rope and pully and what it is they do — and remember that essentially people in the past were the same as today with the same strengths and weaknesses, only technology has changed. 

You also wrote Spear Havoc – 1066, a collection of short stories looking at an alternative history of 1066 and the outcome we are so familiar with. This sounds really interesting; I’ve always thought for example what if Harold hadn’t had to fight at Stamford Bridge against the Vikings led by Hardrada? – history often feels like a set of what ifs and fine margins. If you were to do a Viking version, is there any event or period that immediately stands out?

I suppose the most obvious one to me, is Charlemagne’s conquest of Frisia and Saxony at the end of the ninth century. The final thirty years or so of this period experienced a savage war between the Christian Frankish kingdom and the Saxon federation which was then still heathen. Unlike the Moslem conquest which was occurring in the Middle East and North Africa at around the same time, there was no place in the lands ruled by the Christian Franks for followers of any other religion but their own. After a decade of invasion and counter invasion the Franks had largely subdued the Saxons, but when they rose again their retribution was swift.

Four thousand five-hundred Saxon prisoners were beheaded on a single day, and tens of thousands forcibly resettled in distant parts of Francia. The defeat and removal of the Saxon people brought the Franks into direct contact with the heathen Danes, and although they found them militarily difficult to conquer, Frankish subterfuge played a large part in the weakening of Danish royal authority which characterised the ninth century and allowed viking bands based there to grow in number and size. So… what if the nature of the Frankish conquest had been different or not occurred at all? What if they had followed the Moslem model rather than genocide and expulsion? It is generally accepted that the Viking Age began with the raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast in 793 — could that have been a reaction to what can only be described as a Crusade in Frisia and Saxony at the same time?

Of course we can never know, but it is a possibility that but for the religious and conquering zeal of Charlemagne, the endemic warfare of the eighth and ninth centuries in the lands bordering the North Sea would have been reduced to small scale piracy. 

When you read, which authors do you enjoy? Do you read a lot of history books to help with your writing?

I read very little historical fiction set during my time period, for the simple reason that it is so easy to pick up on other author’s ideas and phrases and unwittingly reuse them in my own work. I like to read firsthand accounts on just about any subject from any age, and travel writers are always a good source to polish my own descriptions of topography and weather. All historical fiction authors read history books for research purposes, but it quickly becomes more like homework than pleasure — however much you have always been fascinated by the subject.

Fiction-wise I do read books written by Harry Sidebottom and Justin Hill because they are both such fine and entertaining writers, and I recently enjoyed both the First Law and Shattered Sea series’ by Joe Abercrombie. At the moment I am halfway through the Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris, which is excellent.  

Finally, do you have a Viking fact you can share with us that readers might not know?

Were you aware that the word Viking – in its English form at least — is recorded several centuries before the time regarded as the Viking Age? At least the majority of the poem we know as Widsith, Wide-Farer, is thought to have been written down during the sixth century.

Largely dealing with events which took place during the previous century, alongside the lists of kings and people the Wide Farer had visited on his travels — people like Atilla the Hun and Eormanric, king of the Goths, is the following verse:

Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest
sibbe ætsomne suhtorfædran,
siþþan hy forwræcon Wicinga cynn
ond Ingeldes ord forbigdan,
forheowan aet Heorote Heaðobeardna þrym.

Hroðulf and Hroðgar held the longest

peace together, uncle and nephew,

since they repulsed the Viking-kin

And Ingeld to the spear-point made bow,

hewn at Heorot Heatðobards’ army.

The characters here are those mentioned in the poem we know simply as ‘Beowulf’ today, and the Heorot (Hart) referred to above is none other than the hall of the Danish king which is attacked by Grendel and his monstrous mother in the tale. If the word Viking was written down as early as this, presumably we can be fairly certain that its use goes back much further still. 

Thanks for taking part in Norsevember, it’s been great to have you!

Readers can check out C R May’s historical fiction series with books based on The Vikings, early Britannia, The Romans and a retelling of Beowulf in his Sword of Woden series.

About the Author

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 he 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 Erikson’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.




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