With King Richard III reburied today in Leicester with all honours, I thought it was an appropriate time to let you all know a little secret about me. I am—if research is correct—a great grandson some 17 times removed, of King Edward IV, older brother of Richard III. OK, I know I had little to do with it but I still think it’s cool particularly as I’m a writer of historical fiction and fancy myself a bit of an historian. Being Yankee born and of a certain age, we New Englanders as children had ancestry drummed into us the way other kids collect Top Trumps, particularly if your family is old pilgrim stock. I lucked out on having on a lot of the family history already researched although I filled in some gaps myself despite the Luftwaffe bollocking things up by fire bombing the Devon public records office in 1942. But it was thanks to some distant relatives that I recently learned of the Plantagenet connection. It seems I’m descended on my father’s side from one of King Edward’s illegitimate children (of which he had several). “Princess” Elizabeth was formally recognized by the king as his bastard and was allowed to be named Plantagenet. She eventually married Sir Thomas de Lumley, baronet, in Northumberland. As one does.
My other ancestor
That said, just doing the genealogical maths, which sort of progress geometrically as the generations ensue, there have to be a hell of a lot of other Plantagenets running around the world today. Millions, in fact. Including, apparently, Benedict Cumberbatch. So really it ain’t that big a deal. The difference is I know about it and most Plantagenet descendants are blissfully unaware they had ancestors in the real Game of Thrones. Am I a “Ricardian”, one of those defenders of the much-maligned monarch? Well, I don’t know if my “great uncle” murdered my forebear’s brothers in the Tower or not. But hey, he’s family right? Gotta love the guy. I point the finger at those upstart Tudors who had just as much motive to see Edward’s line snuffed out. Right, enough said. I’m off to have the white rose of York added to my coat-of-arms over the mantle.
The call for more diverse authors is laudable—but excluding others is not
A lot of commotion in the last few weeks on social media about book publishing and
authors. Specifically, there has been a rising call for more diversity in publishing, an initiative to encourage more books being published by authors other than straight white males who apparently account for the lion’s share of book deals. That is, more books that represent the views of people of colour, varied ethnicity, women, and the LGBT community. And why not? The literary world can only be enriched by encouraging and fostering those voices. But some proponents are going further. Some are calling specifically for readers to stop buying or reading books by white male authors in an effort to force publishers to listen to their demands for diversity. That privileged elite has been at the top long enough so the logic goes. Time to sweep them aside. That, my friends, is where I must part company.
I’ll admit, my situation is akin to the chicken and pig’s involvement in a ham & eggs breakfast: the chicken has an interest but the pig is committed. Yes, I’m a straight white male and published author. I’m all for more diversity but according to these folks I have to be the one for the chop.
I think I get the reasoning. It’s about changing the publishing world by grabbing it by the balls. Change what is moving off those bookshop shelves and they’ll have to commission more of it, right? Maybe. I don’t know for sure. But it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. The big publishing houses are out to make money. If they see an audience for something they will publish it—no matter who the author is or what they look like. I do realize that a small handful of writers (probably white male) eat up the majority of major advances in the literary world (Disclaimer: I am not one of them). But publishing itself has shifted now as book economics continue to change and morph. The ever-burgeoning world of indie publishing has provided alternate paths for authors, putting new books and new voices in front of readers. Surely there are more ways to broaden diversity in books without consigning others to reader oblivion. I’m sure the arguments are heartfelt. And I agree with the goal of broadening the chorus of voices that reflect our society.
But. No one has the right to tell you to stop reading an author based on gender, skin colour or ethnicity.
Just read. As much and as widely as you possibly can.
The team over at Solaris Books very kindly asked me to guest blog for them on their website this week, specifically, to take the chair for their bi-weekly column “Throwback Thursdays”. It’s a nice idea: get Solaris authors to talk about what led to the creation of some of their earlier works. After a bit of head-scratching I launched into how Gideon’s Angel, released in 2013, came to be born. I made the startling (or bone-headed) revelation that in its earliest days it was not a fantasy novel at all. You can find out how and why that literary 180-degree course change happened by just clicking here: www.solarisbooks.com
Courtesy of the British Fantasy Society, I’ve posted a short story of mine that appeared in the BFS Journal last month. The genesis of this one came about after we moved house a couple of years ago and bought a place that has a massive bread oven from the 1850s in the cellar. Turns out the house was the village bakery in Victorian times so the choice was clear: open a pizzeria or write a story about this wondrous bit of engineering from the past. I chose the latter and you can read the story, Cast Iron, right here.
Rather belatedly, I’ve added a page on the blog for short stories, fragments, and unfinished projects that are still flying in a holding pattern and waiting for ground clearance.
The first bit I’ve posted is chapter one of Camera Obscura, a melodramatic tale set in America in 1864 as the civil war grinds on. Good military intelligence is in short supply and Lincoln’s war cabinet is looking to new sources, even if they’re from beyond the grave.
Check back soon for a complete short story of contemporary weird fiction, Cast Iron, which recently appeared in the Journal of the British Fantasy Society. I’ll be posting that here in another week or two.
Oliver Cromwell may have outlawed Christmas but Rebellion Publishing is giving it back. Get your fix of 17th century historical fiction and fantasy at practically a giveaway price. Beginning on 11 November, you can pick up Gideon’s Angel and The Raven’s Banquet for Kindle over at Amazon and make some substantial savings–better than half price on each title. It’s only until Friday, mind you, so grab your device or head over to the Amazon US or UK websites.
I’ve got a very good friend who is an ace photographer and now the official “war correspondent” for the Viking Varangian Guard. When she sent me these group photos I was blown away by their intensity. These are so beautifully composed that I felt that I just had to share them with the wider world. I’ve done some historical reenactment in the past myself, medieval and 17th century, but these guys are the real deal. The Jomsborg Ulflag “Amateur Sports Team” are one of the largest Viking-era reenactment groups in the world.
They take part in competitive steel combat which has been held in London for over twenty five years, with most of their members based in London and in the home counties surrounding London. They’ve grown to such a point now that they also have members throughout the UK and internationally within “The Ulflag”.
Check out more of Gesine’s incredible work over at:
And to find out more about the Ulflag, grab your axe and head over to:
American Horror Story’s latest series, Freak Show, got off to a rip-roaring start on Fox TV (FX network in the US), invoking the 1930s screen memory of Todd Browning’s Freaks (banned for years) and adding more contemporary (and very adult) elements of modern horror. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates lead an excellent cast and combined with high production values, the show delivers some gruesome thrills. Twisty the Clown will have you reaching for the tranquilizers or a stiff drink. Freak Show is set in 1952 in Florida and the first episode combined campiness, suspense, and even some pathos. I’m hoping that future scripts deliver on character development and the terrible challenges of being “different” in a conformist judgemental world, far worse in fifties America than today. But empathy might be a challenge for the writers given that a few major characters are already portrayed as murderers (and that’s just the first episode).
Watching the show reminded me of my own childhood experience of seeing one of the last American travelling sideshows back in 1968. Long before the political correctness movement had entered society, carnival freak shows had been a summer rite of American life across the country. I had been shopping at the local department store with my mother and was in the checkout lines when I saw a man with two faces. He wasn’t wearing a mask and had just popped in to buy some things but the effect on other patrons was disturbing. It was a horrific deformity, an extreme cleft palate that had divided his face. I do remember noticing that his third eye looked painted-on. Mother hustled me out fairly quickly but a few days later I ended up seeing him again when we went to the sideshow one evening.
These are hazy memories so long ago but I remember the gasps of the punters as the two-faced man pulled off his burlap mask. The “talker” for the show also performed: he was the Human Blockhead who nailed spikes through his nose and then pulled them out, swallowed swords and fire, and who could suck in his guts so you could practically see his backbone. Amazing and somewhat terrifying for a ten-year old and I’m still at a loss how I was allowed in. Other “exhibits” included a woman suffering from elephantiasis, a bearded lady, and well, the rest have taken root in some forgotten corner of my memory.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve now identified some of those I saw. They were part of the James E Straits sideshow which travelled the US for decades and had come to Rhode Island that summer in 1968. The “Man with Two Faces” was a gentleman named Bill Durks who worked the carny circuit from his early forties until he died (even finding love and marriage there). The Human Blockhead was Melvin Burkhart who died at the age of 94 in 2001, performing right up until a few weeks before he passed away. Reading about their lives now, all these years on, one is impressed with their humanity and the obstacles they overcame. Freak shows still exist in the US, but are no longer the same as they were in the 20th century. The ethics of such entertainment are debatable and we live in a different age now. And thankfully, many of the debilitating conditions that led to sideshow freaks are medically treatable. But I’m glad a little online research transformed these people into individual human beings from the “monsters and freaks” of my childhood.
This year’s British Fantasy Con at York was a veritable cavalcade of good clean fun: great panels, old friends, new friends, and evening sophistication (carousing), all necessitating several additional days of recuperation afterwards. I had the pleasure of being on a panel that took a critical look at swordplay in fantasy and film. This led afterwards to a very impromptu demo of sword skills and myth-busting in the bar next door featuring fellow scribes Adrian Tchaikovsky, Juliet McKenna, Fran Terminiello, and David Moore. Thanks to Annie Catling we’ve got a video. (I’m assured no bar-flies were harmed in the making of this film)
Very much looking forward to York this weekend and seeing everyone again at this year’s Fantasy Con.
I’ll be participating on a panel session Saturday 6 October that’s bound to have some sparring (and possibly with steel) and will also be doing a reading from the incredible hair-raising memoirs of Colonel Treadwell (Gideon’s Angel to be exact).
Here’s the skinny from the official website over at www.fantasycon2014.org
11.00am – The Pen vs the Sword
Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!
Marc Aplin (m), Fran Terminiello, Juliet E McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Clifford Beale
Readings from authors commence on the Friday evening and I’ll be doing mine on Saturday at 10:20 am (hopefully after the double lattes have kicked in).
Hope to see you there! Check out the latest on the twitter feed: @FantasyCon2014