A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with David Ebsworth
A LITERARY WORLD
Author Interview with David Ebsworth
Today I am delighted to have as my guest, author David Ebsworth, whose debut novel The Jacobites’ Apprentice, set in England and Scotland during 1744-45, was a finalist in the H.N.S.Award, Sept 2014. In January 2015, the blog-site The Review, listed it as its Book of the Month. Since then, David has gone on to make a name for himself with three other novels: The Assassin’s Mark, The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War, and more recently, The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour. David is an author who knows how to bring dramatic events to the written word. His books are full of action and intrigue and his research meticulous. Welcome to A Literary World, David.
1. Where do you live?
We have a house in Wrexham, North Wales, and Wrexham’s where you’ll find most of our family. But we also bought a small apartment, not far from Alicante in south-eastern Spain about 17 years ago. So, since Ann and myself both retired in 2008, we’ve been dividing our time fairly evenly between Wrexham and Alicante. But I’m from Liverpool originally, and still think of that as home too.
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about and what inspired you to write them?
The first (published in 2012) was The Jacobites’ Apprentice, and I was inspired to write it because I came across the factual tale of the mostly Catholic English merchants in Manchester who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in 1745. I’d spent ages looking for a novel on the subject and was astonished that there wasn’t one – so decided to have a go myself.
I never thought I’d finish even one book but, as I was getting close to the end of Jacobites, I came across another previously untold story – this one on a favourite subject of mine, the Spanish Civil War. It’s a little-known fact that, while the outcome of the conflict was still very much in the balance, in mid-1938, the right-wing rebel General Franco opened up the north of Spain to international tourism, as a propaganda tool. Too good an opportunity to miss, so this formed the background to my second novel (2013), The Assassin’s Mark.
A life-long obsession with the Zulu War caused me to use that as background for the third (2014), The Kraals of Ulundi. But another unique angle, this time because I realised that all the novels about this subject only deal with the first few weeks of the war – typically the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. But that dreadful war went on for another six months, packed with events and disasters almost as traumatic. A gap to be filled, therefore.
And fourth? It was coming up to 2015 and the bicentenary celebrations for the Battle of Waterloo. I wanted to tell the story from a different perspective, rather than just another Anglo-centric “boys’ own adventure” tale. So The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour shows us how things looked, not just from the French side but the viewpoint of two French women, based on the exploits of real-life women who fought within Napoleon’s army.
3. How did you come up with the titles?
Hmmm, that’s a difficult one. The first book was always going to be The Jacobites’ Apprentice. I think I had the title almost before I’d written the first chapter. But the second one stumped me and, in the end, I let some of my readers decide. Fans of the first book read the synopsis for the second, along with a list of possible options for the title. The Assassin’s Mark was by far the most popular choice, and it stuck. My writing process for the third book was a bit strange, since it really sprang from what were originally short stories, one of which was called Sobhuza’s Kraal. It sounded (to me at least) like a real South African tale and, therefore, The Kraals of Ulundi just morphed from there – since, of course, the final great battle of the war was fought at the Zulu capital, Ulundi. The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour is really a “what’s written on the tin” title, since the heroine is a woman called Marianne Tambour, and the plot is about her determination to quit the army life and settle down with her young and already battle-hardened daughter, Florisette – after they’ve managed to survive this one last campaign for the Emperor, in June 1815, naturally.
4. You have a belief that an author should never write about a place without checking out the location. With the settings in your books, were these the result of having an idea in mind OR the result of a visit that fired your imagination?
No, all the stories were there first, and the visits came later. But I’ve always tried to see the locations for myself before, at the latest, writing the second drafts. And, to be honest, Kathryn, I’ve never failed to make substantial changes as a result of the visits themselves. There’s always some sense of a place – a sight, sound, smell or taste, for example – that’s taken for granted even by folk who live there. If it’s missing, however, people notice straight away. And if you capture it, those local folk always write and say, “Ah, so you’ve been to KwaZulu-Natal, then!” or something similar. And it was especially true in northern Spain.
5. The setting for your thriller, The Assassin’s Mark, is on a battlefield bus tour towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. Can you tell us more about this route and the importance of some of the places in your novel?
Well, the route is real. From mid-1938, Franco’s 14-seater tour buses carried international passengers – thousands of them each year until 1945, all the way through the Second World War – from the Spanish border at Irún, and then westwards along the north coast to places like San Sebastián, Guernica, Bilbao, Santander and Gijón. You can still follow the old roads and visit most of the book’s locations. Many of the hotels used by the tour groups, for example, are still open for business. But the importance of the locations, for me, is that they allowed me to tell the often-neglected story of the Spanish Civil War in the North. Besides, they’re incredibly beautiful.
6. Many of us are familiar with the destruction of Guernica through Picasso’s painting “Guernica”. Why was Guernica so important in the Civil War?
Basically, the Spanish Civil War was a prelude to the Second World War itself. It began with an attempted military coup by Franco and other generals in July 1936. They expected an easy victory, little resistance, but soon found themselves facing tough opposition from people’s militias and troops who remained loyal to the democratically elected Popular Front Republican government. So Franco sought help from other fascist dictators in Europe – Hitler and Mussolini. Shamefully, Britain’s own government turned a blind eye as Italy and Nazi Germany poured soldiers, tanks and planes into Spain on Franco’s behalf. And Spain therefore provided a training ground for the Axis forces in preparation for the wider global conflict, which was already looming. The threat became clear when, early in 1937, the German Condor Legion (Luftwaffe) began to carry out terror bombing raids against civilian targets in towns like Durango and then, most horrifically, with the obliteration of Guernica. The town’s martyrdom became a clarion call for all those who wanted the Spanish Republican Government to be given proper international support, protection against such barbarism. But, sadly, most of the world’s leaders chose to ignore the evidence. Spain was left to die at the hands of Franco’s fascists and Hitler was rewarded by being granted mineral rights all along Spain’s north coast which, effectively, allowed him to complete his re-armament programme and draw us all into the Second World War.
7. A large part of the battlefield tour is in the Basque region. How did the Civil War impact on this region and what is the legacy of the war there now?
The Basque region has always been virtually autonomous, and their right to autonomy recognised, first, by the Kings and Queens of Spain and, then, by the Popular Front Republican government. As you’ll know, the Basque language is unique and the ethnic background of the Basque people is quite distinct from the rest of Spain. Of course, the Basque region isn’t alone in claiming its individuality, so Republican Spain also devolved powers to other areas, such at Cataluña. But Franco’s forces were rabidly Nationalist – believed only in one single, united Catholic Spain. And, since most of the largely Catholic Basque region sided with the Republicans, rather than his own Nationalists, Franco saw the Basques as a special brand of traitor to his Crusade. The War in the North was therefore a means for Franco to both punish the Basques in particular, and to separate them from the rest of the Republic, allowing him to divide and eventually conquer the opposition. The Basque region continued to smoulder under this loss of its ancient rights, therefore, all the way through the rest of Franco’s dictatorship, until 1976, and led directly to the rise of terrorist Basque independence groups like ETA, still active until very recently. But, with the return to democracy after Franco’s death, successive governments have gradually restored devolved regional government to the territories now known, in their own language, as Euskadi.
8. In The Jacobites’ Apprentice, you mention Manchester supporters using any means to raise support and finance for the Jacobite cause. What importance did Manchester play in the Stuarts’ attempt to recover the throne?
You’ll remember that Bonnie Prince Charlie returned clandestinely from exile and landed in Scotland, raising the Highland Clans to his Stuart Royal Standard. But this is largely mythology. More of the Clans opposed him than supported and, on the other hand, he gained an unexpected amount of support from Lowland Scots. This enabled him to take Edinburgh and other centres of power in Scotland, and also to defeat the Hanoverian armies of George the Second quite easily. It is possible that, if he had been content with simply claiming the throne of Scotland, he might have been more successful. But his counsellors advised him that England was also rife with discontent, its northern cities and Wales ready to rise up on his behalf. So he made the catastrophic blunder of marching on London. And, of course, one by one, those English and Welsh places which had promised to come out simply failed to do so. Only Manchester provided any meaningful help – raising a regiment of 300 volunteers. But Manchester merchants may also have provided other assistance to the Jacobite Cause – using tea-smuggling (1745’s equivalent to today’s drug trafficking) on a huge scale to raise revenue. All to no avail, of course. Within a few weeks, the Jacobite army had been tricked into heading back to Scotland and the Manchester lads were abandoned to their fate by that same “Bonnie Prince” who, following his avoidable defeat at Culloden, returned to a life of luxury on the Continent while the Highland Clans paid a terrible price for their part in the rebellion.
9. The Zulu Wars played an important role in the psyche of the British Empire and its colonies at the time. What was the immediate impact on the aftermath of those wars and do they still resonate within South African society today?
The independent Kingdom of Zululand had been a strong society before the unjustified and unlawful British invasion in January 1879. But the war destroyed Zululand’s cattle-based economy (the British army stole or killed their herds) and left many Zulu men with no option but to leave their lands for the distant gold and diamond mines – one of the British objectives in the first place. At the same time, the Zulu King, Cetshwayo, was sent into exile and left a power vacuum. Civil war broke out among the Zulus, and the neighbouring Dutch-Boers took advantage to grab land and increase their own power. The Zulus and related peoples (Xhosas, etc) now found themselves as little more than slaves in their own land so that, when the Dutch-Boer Afrikaaners eventually established their own independent Union of South Africa in 1909, the role of those once proud but now disempowered black races was defined entirely by the outrageous laws of Apartheid. And so it remained until the rise of the ANC and Nelson Mandela. To some extent, it remains so to this day, as the black majority struggles to re-assert its place in the world once more. Given that it was British action, therefore, which inflicted a hundred years of misery on them, you might expect some animosity towards us. But, in practice, the Anglo-Zulu War resulted in a strange mutual respect between the “warriors” on each side that still exists, and very strongly. It is a very specific Zulu-British relationship and most British travellers who’ve spent time in KwaZulu-Natal can tell you fabulous stories to illustrate the point.
10. With Historical Fiction, one of the most difficult things to get right is the voice. How important do you think this is to a novel?
Crucial. If you’re telling stories from a particular perspective, you’ve got to get ‘the voice’ right in many different ways. First, there’s the style of language in which you tell the story. For me, it needs to reflect the way folk talked at the time but without making this so authentic that the story becomes unreadable. So, for example, a story about Chaucer wouldn’t be viable if too heavily laced with 13th Century English. Second, there’s the issue of anachronisms – checking carefully to make sure a particular word or phrase was actually in use at the time in which the story’s set. And, third, the ‘voice’ has to be consistent with the character(s) from whose viewpoint the story’s being told – so, most obviously, not allowing characters to have moral standards or views that could not have existed in that historical period. When I was writing Kraals, for instance, I had to spend a lot of time immersing myself in Zulu culture, language and belief systems before I felt confident about those sections (a third of the book) which are told from the viewpoint of the Zulu protagonist, Shaba kaNdabuko.
11. How long did it take you to write each book?
A year, more or less.
12. What are you working on now?
It’s called The Song-Sayer’s Lament, and it’s set in Sixth Century Britain. It’s a period about which much has been invented because, in truth, there is absolutely no contemporary and reliable primary source to guide us. That’s pretty unique. An entire century of British history about which there is no real evidence. Not for the names, places, events. Nothing. (For anybody who believes all that nonsense from “Gildas” and sources written centuries later, by the way, I’m happy to have the argument!) So I’ve set all that false research aside (and no, there WAS no such person as Arthur of the Britons, king or otherwise) and, as folk like Carla Nayland have done, tried to imagine the REAL geo-political scene and view that world from the viewpoint of folk simply struggling to survive the daily trauma of plague, famine and typically British in-fighting, rather than some mythical invasion by the dreaded Saxons. Believe me, the Dark Ages in Britain were entirely self-inflicted. We can blame the poor, hard-working Anglo-Saxon immigrants all we like, but the truth is… Oh, does that sound a bit familiar?
13. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
The previously untold tales of relatively familiar settings, I guess. Or the different angle. But, generally, I’m looking for the story which I wish somebody else had already written for me to read – but doesn’t yet exist.
14. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
It’s the small details, I think. What does an everyday meal look like in 1745? How did folk entertain themselves, and what songs did they sing? What brands of cigarettes were available for sale in Spain during 1938, and how were they packaged? What stories did Zulu mothers tell their children? Did Napoleonic soldiers have left and right shoes? How did they treat battlefield wounds? Would children in 6th Century Britain have received any formal education? And so on. Without those small things, the story won’t come alive.
15. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
The main whispering voices belong to Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut. I keep a list of Ten Commandmants from them, usually close at hand when I’m writing. Simple, basic stuff. They change from time to time, but these are the current ones: Always avoid the passive tense – so never say The ball was thrown when you can say He threw the ball. The adverb is not your friend – so never say ‘What do you call that?’ she said, smilingly when you can say ‘What do you call that?’ she smiled. Always avoid the use of which when you can use that – so, not the gun which he fired but the gun that he fired or, better still, the gun he fired. Never use the fact that. – just get rid of it. Always say Thomas’s bike and never Thomas’ bike. Use the ellipse sparingly – those three little full-stops that appear whenever a sentence is left up in the… Always end chapters on a cliff-hanger, always start them with a jolt (using a quotation, one of your own aphorisms, a shock line, etc). Make every chapter’s first and last sentence the best ones in the book (you know what I mean!) Leave them guessing – so, try not to start the next chapter at exactly the point where you left the previous one. It adds to the tension, I think, if readers have to turn at least the following few pages before finding out what happens next! Use some form of spell check and use it regularly – whether you put ink on paper or text on a screen, you can never check spellings often enough (well, I can’t anyway!!!!)
16. Do you write longhand and what are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
Most of my writing is longhand, always in the same sort of notebook and always scribbled with red gel pens (not that I’m obsessive or anything, you’ll understand!) But the last work I write each day, regardless of the hour, MUST be longhand. That’s because my working routine always begins, around 7.00am, either in my small office at home in Wrexham (spare bedroom crammed with book shelves), or on the balcony of the apartment in Spain, with typing up those hand-written notes from the previous day. That gets my writing juices flowing and, by the time I’ve finished, I’m normally sufficiently engrossed in the story again to keep going. So I carry on word-processing until around 9.30am, when I print out all the latest stuff and trot off to the local swimming pool (ten minutes walk away, both in the UK and in Spain) for an hour’s hard exercise. Swimming helps me mull over the work and, often, to realise all the mistakes I’ve made in the plot. It also gives me an excuse to head for my favourite coffee/beach bar afterwards (Caffé Nero in the UK; Monge or the Valentí in Spain) and eat cake, but also to read through the typed-up pages. By the time I’ve finished, I’m engrossed once more and carry on writing longhand until around 1.00pm. The only exceptions to all this routine are the afternoons, in Spain, when I go to the beach. There’s something quite magical about that and, to be honest, in that setting, under a parasol, the words just keep pouring out of me. One of these days I’ll sort out the routine to take more advantage of the beach. Maybe for the next book, eh?
17. Do you listen to music when you write?
Definitely not! Or, rather, only to the musical chatter in whichever coffee/beach bar I happen to be using as an office. And, naturally, the orchestral magnificence of waves breaking on the shore.
18. What kind of child were you?
Fairly quiet but independent. Mostly phlegmatic and easy-going but, at times, stubborn to the point of stupidity. Adventurous, but only within reasonably safe limits. An incurable giggler.
19. Were you an avid reader?
Not an avid reader, but a regular one. Buffalo Bill Wild West annuals. Arthur Ransome. Rosemary Sutcliff. Classics Illustrated.
20. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
Swimming; eating cake; Spanish food and drink; family dinner tables; sailing; travelling with Ann
21. Do you have a philosophy on life?
Not really. I try (but don’t always succeed in this) to treat others as I’d like to be treated if I were in their shoes. I try (but don’t always succeed in this) to not hold inflexible views – mainly because our understanding of the world changes as we experience more of it. I try (but don’t always succeed in this) to enjoy each precious moment of my life because, through some simple twist of fate, an accident of cosmological chemistry, I seem to have been blessed with a happy one.
And a few quick questions:
22. Who are your favourite authors?
Apart from you, Kathryn, of course? Dickens; Rosemary Sutcliff; Patricia Highsmith; Michael Moorcock; Anne McCaffrey; Frank Herbert; Patrick O’Brian; Hilary Mantel; Robert Harris
23. We both share a fondness for a Stephen King quote: “If you don’t read – you can’t be a writer” So what are some of your favourite books?
Great Expectations and Bleak House; Sword at Sunset; the Dragons of Pern series; Stormbringer; the Tom Ripley novels; Master and Commander; A Place of Greater Safety; An Officer and a Spy
24. Favourite type of music to relax to?
Puccini operas; James Taylor; Dixie Chicks; Ladysmith Black Mambazo; Ella Fitgerald; vintage Bob Dylan
25. Favourite films?
Casablanca; High Noon; Doctor Zhivago; Zulu; Lawrence of Arabia
26. Favourite painting?
Anything by Rembrandt or Sorolla
27. Favourite holiday destination?
Guardamar del Segura, Valencia Region (a cheat, because we live there, but…)
28. Favourite drink?
Espresso macchiato; horchata; sorbete de limón; verdejo and albariño wines; orujo de hierba
29. Where can we buy the book?
Buying links from website???
Thank you for being a guest, David. It’s been a great pleasure to have you with us and we wish you continued success.
And for those who are now tempted to know more about David, he sends out a short but entertaining e-mail newsletter each month (perfectly safe and no spam) to keep readers informed about relevant book and author events, and the occasional update on his travels too! There’s a contact form on the website.