Hi Norsevember folks. Today I’m excited to share with you my interview with historical fiction author Giles Kristian!
Giles Kristian is an English novelist, known for his action adventure novels in the historical fiction genre. He is best known for his Raven series, about a young man’s coming of age amongst a band of Viking warriors. His first novel, the bestselling Raven: Blood Eye, was published to great acclaim.
Hi Giles, welcome to Norsevember and thanks for taking part! It’s a pleasure to have you join us for this interview.
For those who don’t know, you’ve written two Viking trilogies; ‘Raven’ and ‘The Rise of Sigurd.’ What is it about the Vikings or the time period that interests you in particular?
I blame two things for my interest in Vikings. The first being that I’m half Norwegian on my mother’s side, and so when boating around the fjords on Norway’s west coast I grew up imagining longships beating their oars, and smoke-wreathed houses along the shore, and children jumping across the rocks waving to adventurers heading out or coming home. It was all too easy to picture it in a landscape that has changed little in a thousand years. The second thing I blame is the epic 1958 movie ‘The Vikings’ directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I basically wanted to be Kirk Douglas/Ragnar Lodbrok from the moment I saw that film. These days, of course, I’m tempted to say that what drew me to Vikings was the technology of their war ships, the beauty of their craftsmanship, their ambition and their wanderlust and the legacy of their culture, and the daring that saw them take to their open boats to sail most of the North Atlantic, reach south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East. But mostly it was Kirk Douglas in ‘The Vikings’.
You’d already published the full ‘Raven’ Trilogy before the TV show Vikings premiered. Did you notice any extra interest in this trilogy after the popularity of the show?
I noticed a lot of people mailing me to say the show reminded them of my books, which was…interesting. Conversely, now and then I got annoyed when a review suggested I’d ripped off elements of the TV show, which would be impressive seeing as Raven: Blood Eye was published four years before the show premiered. Overall, I assume the phenomenal success of the show has had a positive effect on sales of my books, though I guess there’s no way of knowing. After all, are the people who watch the show also big readers? What’s the crossover? Still, I’m fairly certain the show has helped make the whole idea and supposed ethos of the Vikings more popular. It was definitely more niche when I started. When I actually wrote Blood Eye back in 2004, I recall my mum asking me why I didn’t just write about something that people actually wanted to read about. It worked out well in the end though. On a side note, you get a lot of hipster Vikings around these days.
Was the decision to write a second trilogy in The Rise of Sigurd motivated at all from how Vikings took off or was it always going to happen regardless?
I don’t recall the show being an influence on my decision to write another Viking trilogy, but I daresay I probably quoted its viewing figures when discussing my three-book proposal with my publisher. What I do remember is thinking the British Museum’s incredible 2014 exhibition, ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’, which took place the same years as God of Vengeance was published, was a marker for how Vikings were sailing back into the popular consciousness. A good omen perhaps. The Vikings were coming again and I wanted to play my part.
I really enjoyed how you capture that air of mystery, fear and suspicion amongst the English in Blood Eye, at a time when Viking raids were only just starting to become known about. Did choosing the 8th century, over say the 10th century, lend itself better to the story of the small raiding band you wanted to tell?
There was something exhilarating about setting Blood Eye at the dawn of the Viking Age. I wanted to try to capture the fear that these warbands must have inspired in those who witnessed their longships slewing up the shingle, disgorging wild-eyed, axe and spear-wielding warriors who feared neither death in battle nor the Christian God. Plus, the small numbers that made up warbands in the 800s made it easier to write about them. I could try to create that band of brothers feel, which I think helps immerse the reader so that he or she feels as if they are standing in the shieldwall as the blood flies, or rowing at the benches with the salt spray in their faces. The other advantage to writing about the earlier period is that there’s very little in terms of recorded history to get in the way of my imagination. I don’t want to have to read a ton of reference/history books before I begin a novel or follow a chain of well-known political events. I just want to tell a great story.
The reviews and average ratings of all your books are overwhelmingly positive. Do you have a recipe for success you follow in planning or writing your historical fiction?
I suspect most people are motivated to write a review if they’ve enjoyed a book, and that the majority of those who dislike a book don’t bother to review it. Thankfully. However, I am always grateful when someone goes to the trouble to say they’ve been entertained by one of mine. Sometimes a book really resonates with someone and that’s magical. I guess I spend a lot of time describing locations and creating atmosphere. I go to great trouble with small details such as the flora and fauna, the smells and other senses, on simile and metaphor, all of which can be employed to great effect, giving the reader an almost tangible impression of what it’s like to inhabit the scene. I can’t ‘just write.’ I wish I could, but I have to get it perfect in my own mind and I suppose that’s why I’m most thrilled when readers say: ‘I felt as though I was there.’
You obviously have a good grasp on the historical backdrop as well as the role religion played, both for the Christians and the Pagan Norsemen. How much research on the culture, history and religion did you do before and during your writing?
Research is such a big part of what I do, and I’ve been doing it for so long, that I’ve lost all perspective on how much I do, how much is simply knowledge (because I’ve done the research ages ago) and what constitutes a lot of research anyway. Rather than doing it all in advance of a book, I research as I go. I do whatever I can to avoid the whole writing thing feeling like an academic pursuit, because it can do when you’re sitting there alone, surrounded by reference books, and your brain is melting. The last thing I want is for my job to feel like homework or something intellectual or serious. The very thought of that makes me anxious. You’ll never find me giving a lecture on Viking history *shiver* but if I can make you feel like you’re on a raid with your fellow warriors, the pine tar smell of the ropes thick in your nose and the first stirrings of the battle thrill in your gut, I’ve done my job.
Do you have any favourite books inspired by or written about the Viking era you can recommend?
I love the Oathsworn series by the late, great Robert Low. What a writer Rob was. I miss him being in the world. I also loved The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone. I think Theodore Brun is brilliant (The Wanderer Chronicles), and you’ve even got Angus Donald taking on the Vikings with gusto, fire and general berserkerness, as well as Simon Turney, who made his name with his excellent Roman novels. It’s safe to say the Viking wave keeps rolling, and it makes me want to put a crew together and go raiding again.
Do you miss the Viking world since you moved on to the Arthurian legend with Lancelot and Camelot?
Yes! I’m working with a Norwegian game studio on a Viking videogame called ‘Norse’, doing all the narrative design including the story, characters and dialogue. It’s an enormous project but I’ve loved getting back into the Viking mindset. One thing I miss about writing the Viking novels is the humour, so I’m making sure there’s lots of that in ‘Norse’. The guys and girls working at Arctic Hazard are very keen to base the visuals (the village, ships etc) on archaeological records and research, and I must say it’s going to look incredible. I’m delighted to be a part of it and I look forward to introducing you all to the game in due course.
What’s next for you?
My next novel is something completely different. It’s a contemporary survival thriller set in Arctic Norway called Where Blood Runs Cold. But although it’s set in the present day, I think it has all the hallmarks of my historical novels, so I’m really hoping that my readers come with me on a different kind of journey.
Links to Giles Kristian’s short films, inspired by and based on his Viking writing:
I’ve always admired Harald Hardrada, a Viking warrior who lived an extraordinary life and earned his reputation as the greatest warrior of his time. This is a short film directed by Philip Stevens which we made based on a poem I’d written about the great Viking king.
The Last Viking
This is a short film called Odin’s Wolves, which we made from the prologue of Odin’s Wolves, the third book in my ‘Raven’ trilogy.