Monday, 5 November 2012

Robyn Young on Robert the Bruce and Scottish independence from England

I really enjoyed my recent interview with Robyn Young.

There's a lot to admire about an author who stuck with it, for so long, in order to get her first book published. Seven years, and as she put it, countless re-writes.

Eventually she found an agent and eventually she and that agent were able to get a small huddle of publishers interested. Her recent book, Renegade, part two in her second trilogy -- this one is about Robert the Bruce -- was a top ten hardback bestseller. Her books also sell round the world. So it makes you wonder what the problem was -- why did it take so long to get one publisher to back her with her first book, Brethren?

Well, sometimes it just does that's all. I know from personal experience how many times you can redraft a book, how you can take a manuscript that you thought was done and improve it in ways you never thought possible. Interestingly, Robyn changed the narrative point of view -- I think twice -- taking an MS that was at one point told in the first person into the third person.

These technical things make a huge difference to the reader's experience and to the kind of market you can reach. Young's books are "mainstream historical fiction". they appeal to Bernard Cornwell fans. I actually prefer her writing to Cornwell's.

Here's the interview that appeared recently in Big Issue:

The best historical fiction doesn’t just recreate the past, it speaks to the present. Robyn Young has the knack of finding subjects that resonate. Her debut trilogy – Brethren, Crusade and Requiem –told the story of a young Templar knight while offering a startlingly fresh view of Christian-Islam relations in the 13th and 14th centuries – just as 9/11 threatened our own 21st century safety.

Young is currently deep into her second trilogy – and this time her concerns are closer to home. The action is centred not on Accra and the Middle East but on Scotland and its wars for independence, just as talk builds of a referendum north of the border.

Insurrection and the just released Renegade follow the controversial career of Robert the Bruce: King, warrior, turncoat and/or murderer, depending on your point of view.

“I was in Scotland doing research for Requiem, in which I thought Bruce and William Wallace would have their part to play,” Young explains. “But the moment I started looking in-depth into Robert’s story, I realised a sub-plot in a story about the Templars and their downfall would not do it justice.”

Young has since retraced Bruce’s steps from the remotest parts of the Highlands and Islands, to battle sites like Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries in the south.

“Wallace’s story is simpler, more black and white,” she notes. “But Bruce’s is so complex, convoluted and shifting in terms of his allegiances -- I couldn’t have conveyed all of that in the earlier book.”

So compared to the hero Wallace, lionised by Mel Gibson, does Bruce gets a bad press? “He gets really short-changed in the film Braveheart,” Young says. “It narrows his story down to a very simplistic role. But he was far more complex than a Hollywood film can portray. I don’t know how you’d even begin to fit Robert into a movie.”

Part of the Bruce appeal was undoubtedly the novelty. Born and educated in England Young admits she was completely unaware of his part in British history – it wasn’t on the syllabus at school when she sat her History GCSE, and she isn’t a formally “trained” historian. As she conducted her research, she quickly found herself transfixed.

“I got the sense not just of how important it was for Scotland but for Britain as a whole,” she says. “And I wanted to convey the many crossovers and similarities there were between the kingdoms – as well as the differences. There were marriages and relationships that crossed the border. On the ground, the armies weren’t Scots v English, it was more mixed up.”

So are their parallels with the current debate about Scottish nationalism? “Doing the research makes me understand why there is such a strength of feeling behind Scottish nationalism. But my own family goes back to Scotland, Ireland and Wales more than England. I’m English but I think of myself as British and I would like to see us stay together.”

The thrust of Renegade is the English King Edward I’s attempts to gather together the Scottish Stone of Scone, the English Sword Curtana, the Crown of Arthur from Wales, and from Ireland, the Staff of Malachy. This is a delightful McGuffin, which not only drives the action but is placed on sound historical evidence.

“At a point in 1307 just before Edward I’s death, there is an odd little reference in history that the Prophecies of Merlin were being re-told throughout the land so that when the covetous old king dies, Britain will live together in harmony,” Young explains.

“We know Edward definitely owned a copy of Prophecies of Merlin, and then you look at what he did – in taking the crown of Arthur from Wales and the Stone of Scone from Scotland. I read about this early on in my research and just went with it. But whether he believed in it himself or whether it was all clever propaganda I don’t know.”

The Stone of Scone of course was returned to Edinburgh in 1996, a year before a referendum gave the Scots their own parliament. But who believes in Merlin nowadays?

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