Back in April I reviewed Matthew Lewis’s historical novel Loyalty – a story of Richard III. I discovered Matthew on Twitter and after enjoying his historical tweets decided to read his book. If you have seen my review you will know how much I enjoyed this version of Richard III’s story. I think good historical fiction has a hugely important role in introducing people to history – it can bring a particular period of time and the people in it to life in a way factual books do not, as the author is able to completely commit to their own interpretation of the characters and the situation. And I think Matthew Lewis writes good historical fiction. I was, therefore, really excited when Matthew agreed to speak with me and share his own experiences.
Karen Kilrow – Firstly, Matthew how did you become interested in Royal history?
Matthew Lewis – I studied the Wars of the Roses for the first time at school and it gripped me instantly. The period looks like a big bee hive from the outside with a convenient, over-arching name, but open the hive and the little honeycombs you can get all sticky in are endless. It tends to be eclipsed by the Tudors but almost anything they did, the Plantagenets had already done bigger, better and dirtier!
KK – I know I first became interested in Richard III as a teenager when I read The Daughter of Time, and felt how unfairly he had been treated. I don’t think it would be giving too much away to say that you share this opinion. When did you start to question his historical reputation?
ML – My interest in Richard III was ignited at school too. As you found with The Daughter of Time, it takes very little study to shake the foundations of what we, as a collective consciousness think we know about Richard III and it is hard to see Shakespeare’s caricature in the man revealed by just a little digging. But then it becomes hard to stop digging. Always just a little bit deeper. Then you find yourself presented with a beleaguered underdog and who can resist that cause? And so the raging inferno of an obsession was born.
KK – You have written a blog on Shakespeare’s representation of Richard III - do you think Richard III has become a convenient villain for us? I remember hearing the story of the princes in the tower from quite a young age.
ML – I think Richard III has become a convenient, perhaps even accidental, villain. What if Thomas More wrote allegory directed at Henry VIII about the pursuit of absolute power without scruple? What if Shakespeare wanted to write a subtle message for Elizabeth I about the dangers of failing to secure the succession in her lifetime? What if his real villain was Robert Cecil, the hunchbacked advisor to Elizabeth who plotted behind the scenes for the Stuart succession? Richard was an easy target. The Tudors could not be criticised directly, at least not without the loss of your head. Edward IV and his ancestors were protected by the blood of Elizabeth of York. Richard stood alone in the middle with no-one to save him, crushed between the colours of the Tudor Rose.
KK – That’s a really interesting interpretation – I hadn’t thought about it in that way - following from that, in your opinion would Richard have been a good king?
ML – Given time and support, possibly. I see a committed social reformer in his Parliament, but not as a gimmick once he was king, because it can be traced back to his time in the north too. Yet the fact that Richard didn’t have that time perhaps exposes his failings as a king. He inspired ferocious devotion in those close to him but could not translate that to the national stage. His social reforms were perhaps too much for some. The blunt, intractable yet fiercely loyal nature that attracted the few probably cost him the love of the many. Failing to secure time cost him his life and his family the throne. Ultimately, there is no greater failing for a medieval monarch. The obsession is fueled by trying to understand why he wasn’t the successful king he could have been.
KK - So how did you begin to write about Richard III?
ML – I began to write Loyalty many years ago as an indulgence. I believed that there was a fantastic story to be told. My Richard is no evil demon, but neither is he a saint. It is in the grey areas in between that I hoped to find the ‘real’ man. It is easy to forget that historical caricatures like Richard were real people, with real hopes, fears, dreams and disasters that shaped them. I wanted Richard to be a person that people could believe, firmly planted within the political realities of his time. I think my portrayal is definitely sympathetic, but hopefully reasonably so. I hope I did him justice.
KK – One of my favourite parts of your book was the authenticity of the relationship between the three brothers - was this hard to achieve?
ML – I wanted the relationships to be as natural as possible. If I read something that opens a hole in the story or which seems to be an unnatural response it brings me up short, so I did try hard to make this aspect work. I think it came fairly easily as I wrote. I put myself in the room with them, listening to the conversation that I was writing and ensuring that it was natural. Much of the novel deals with the more domestic side of the characters’ lives, when they are more relaxed and informal yet dealing with huge issues.
KK – I understand that you are writing a sequel to Loyalty, can you tell me a bit more about this ?
ML – The sequel to Loyalty moves both threads forward. The beginning of the Tudor regime was not as smooth nor as widely embraced as they would later try to convince everyone. Yorkists and Lancastrians were thrust together and men loyal to Richard – and there were plenty of them – tried to make their way in a world that hunted them. I am fascinated by the Tudors too and the book also follows events at the court of King Henry VIII as he finally makes the break with Rome. It’s all very heady stuff and all of it relies heavily on the interpretation of the people involved that you select.
KK – How important do you think fact is to historical fiction and to what extent do you think fact may be altered to create a good story? I noticed that you had notes at the end of Loyalty explaining where you had altered facts – something I personally, really appreciated.
ML – In my opinion, the historical fact is the skeleton of the story. If I hang the skin and clothes on top of something that isn’t right, it will never look right and the story element can be perceived too clearly. In this case the facts are so dramatic and fascinating that I didn’t find I had to make things up, just present them in a way that hung well on the skeleton. Having said that I think licence can be taken with the presentation of some events to add to the drama without detracting from the accuracy. The notes at the end of Loyalty were a risk, because you tell the reader a story and then tell them it wasn’t all true, but I believed it would add to the credibility of Richard’s story (not mine) to acknowledge and explain these. In the case of the incident in France, I think that the effect of what Richard did on those who were there would have been similar to the effect upon a modern audience of what I wrote. That was the crux of the process behind altering any events for me; is this change all about presentation rather than substance? If so, I think it is fine. I tried to avoid radically altering real people or changing the meaning or outcome of events substantively. To me, it should be history presented as fiction not fiction presented as history.
I try to thoroughly research what I write. I want accuracy to enhance the story, make it more believable because it really does fit the known facts. I frequently get lost in reading because I enjoy the research and there is just so much to uncover that informs my view of events and how I wish to present what happened and the people involved. I claim it is to improve my story, but sometimes that’s just a cover for following the white rabbits that catch my eye.
KK – I first discovered you on Twitter and have noticed you use this media a lot along with having your own blog. How important do you think social media is for new authors?
ML – Social media such as Twitter and blogging is the most invaluable tool available to the self-published author. I don’t have an agent or a publishing house pushing my book or arranging publicity. I have me and a computer, so I have to make the most of those things. Making the most of myself is a tricky one – I’m far too English to pop up everywhere shouting ‘Read my fantastic book!’ The Greyfriars dig was the best publicity I could have hoped for and kick-started sales for me. I haven’t been to the Leicester exhibition yet, but did manage to visit the Greyfriars dig open day in September. I couldn’t resist strolling round the site, hoping that I might have been on the scene of King Richard’s burial. Blogging and tweeting allow me to show people my take on history, my way of interpreting and writing it. If someone likes it, brilliant. If they buy my book, fantastic. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine too; it’s a very personal thing and not everyone will. Taking criticism is a steep learning curve when people can offer their views on your precious work on the internet for all to see, including me! But without Twitter, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we.
I very much enjoyed this opportunity to put questions to Matthew after really enjoying his book and I would highly recommend Loyalty to anyone interested in this period of history. I will definitely be looking out for the sequel! I am also pleased that Matthew has agreed to produce a guest blog for us which will be posted in the coming weeks.