In the first of a new series in which we interview debut authors, Victoria talked to Angus Watson, author of Age of Iron.
V: When did you first realise you wanted to be an author?
Angus: It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted. I reckon being an author is the best calling for someone like me who wants to show off but is too shy and self-aware to be an actor, who doesn’t like being bossed about and, although he can work hard, does enjoy working his own hours and taking a siesta most afternoons
V: What was your apprenticeship in writing like, and which experience was the most instructive for you?
Angus: I was a freelance writing features for national UK newspapers for ten years. Features are the articles that aren’t news – travel, interviews and so on. Having to cut massive subjects down to eight hundred or so words taught me how to leave out everything apart from the interesting and vital stuff. Having said that, the Iron Age Trilogy is 450,000 words long, just a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, so some might argue that I didn’t carry the economic writing lesson into novel writing.
V: What are the major preoccupations in your fiction writing? What fascinates and motivates you?
Angus: Key motivators are the vastness and unknown nature of history, and the fact that we’re prejudiced against our ancestors, for some reason seeing them as less than ourselves in pretty much every respect.
While I have massive respect for historians and don’t for a second claim to know more than them, they know only the tiniest amount about the people who came before us on Earth, yet we’re taught at school as if this is all that’s ever happened and that it’s all definitely true, when a lot of it is a big ‘I reckon’. Napoleon said “History is nothing but the lies that are no longer disputed”. That’s less true now – I think we can be fairly certain that World War II happened and the details in history books are broadly correct, for example, because there are so many corroborating sources – but the further we go back in time, the narrower and shakier the beam shone by history becomes.
Age of Iron is set in the Iron Age in Britain, which ran from roughly 800BC to 43AD. It’s not that long ago, it’s a very long period and there was a large population. So there must have been epic wars, massive disasters, huge love affairs etc etc, yet we know nothing about any of it. So I think we tend to assume that nothing happened – that everyone just sat about saying ‘ug’ at each other. This simply isn’t right. They were people just like us, just as full of wit, passion, inquisitiveness, jealousy and hatred and it drives me crazy wondering what they might have got up to.
So it’s a paradox, but I’d like it if more people were interested in knowing more about unknowable histories. And I’d like us to have more respect for our ancestors.
V: I understand an article on Roman hill forts sparked the idea for the Age of Iron trilogy. Would you like to tell us more about that?
Angus: Not Roman hillforts, it was British Iron Age hillforts which the Romans destroyed after their successful 43AD invasion. This ties in with the previous answer. There are thousands of remains of Celtic, pre Roman hillforts all over Europe. These would have been amazing constructions (see Age of Iron for a full description), yet we know next to nothing about them. I wrote two articles which inspired me to write the books. For one of them, which was actually about Stone Age tool making for the Daily Telegraph, I was standing on one Iron Age hillfort, looking across a valley at another Iron Age hillfort. It struck me that I’d always wondered about hillforts as single entities, whereas in fact they were each tiny cogs in a huge, teeming cultural machine. That inspired me to write about them. So I suggested another article about Maiden Castle, a huge, awesome hillfort near Dorchester in Dorset (which had subtly become ‘Maidun Castle’ in Age of Iron). As I walked up it with the historian Peter Woodward I asked him if the British Iron Age was like Conan the Barbarian books, with muscled heroes rescuing girls from snake temples. He said that it probably wasn’t far off. I decided at that very instant to write a novel set in the Iron Age.
V: A trilogy seems an enormous undertaking – do you ever regret signing up for three novels? How do you keep all your details straight?
Angus: As I write, I’m halfway through the third book. I’ve been on the same story for several years, there remains much work and there are times when do I regret signing up for the trilogy. But 99.99% of the time I’ve very pleased that I did. One, it’s great that Orbit had the confidence to commission – and pay an advance towards – three books, especially considering that they’re my first. Two, I love the Age of Iron world and the characters even more, so I enjoy immersing myself in it. If I ever feel slightly overwhelmed by complexity and trying to keep the story fresh, that feeling will be massively outweighed by the sadness I feel when I finally finish writing.
I keep all my details straight on several Excel spreadsheets. I have a sheet for characters, for example, where I record what they look like, what they wear, their history / character and so on. To help keep the book interesting, I think that every single character has to be ‘real’ – to have their own quirks and backstory – rather than just be a sounding board to the main characters. There are 192 people on this list so far, so the spreadsheet is vital to make sure I remember what people are like, and to make sure I don’t duplicate anyone.
V: What kind of research did you undertake and how important is historical accuracy to you (and not just in terms of material details, but attitudes towards gender, politics, religion and so on)?
Angus: I’ve stuck very closely to the accepted idea of the material details of the time. Although I have taken some liberties because so have historians. I went to a huge hillfort the other day that was operational for several hundred years. You can read that they were keen on wine there. That ‘fact’ is based on the finding of one ancient grape pip. One. That’s like basing a view on London from 1066 to the present day on the American chocolate bar wrapper that’s currently in my bin.
We’re even less certain about their culture. There’s no significant evidence on the attitudes to gender etc. of people in the British Iron Age, so I’ve made that up.
For the Romans, we have much more evidence and there are more history books than you can shake a library card at, so I’ve read a lot of them and been pretty accurate in describing them and their culture. However, since I still don’t think that the history books can claim to be totally accurate, I’ve made some stuff up too.
V: I’ve read you elsewhere on the web wondering about the amount of gore and violence in your books. Do you think we expect earlier times to be more brutal, thanks to programs like Game of Thrones (to which you’ve been compared)?
Angus: I do think we can now expect television programs about earlier times to be more brutal thanks to Game of Thrones. Books with this level of gore have been around for ages – try Sven Hassle’s World War II novels or James Herbert’s tales or even Shakespeare (“out vile jelly” says one guy in King Lear as he gouges out another’s eyes), and films have been full of gruesome killings since the seventies (Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, for example). However, Game of Thrones is the first time (I think?) that televised gore has been a huge global success and reached such a wide audience, so, given that success, we will see more and more of it.
V: How do you like to write – any particular conditions required?
Angus: I prefer the mornings for writing. I get too self critical after lunch. Other than that, I like to be at my desk, undisturbed and listening to unobtrusive but good music. As I write this, for example, I’m listening to Hooverphonic.
V: Which authors have had the biggest influence on you across your writing life?
Angus: In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’ characters, particularly Ford Prefect, approached life with humour, irreverence and a sense of adventure. That’s had a massive effect on my life, and, in turn, on my writing life. There are loads of others, but I should thank Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch for showing that fantasy could be written with the mix of intelligence and humour that had previously been restricted (as far as I know) to sci fi (by Iain M Banks, for example).
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Read Kathleen Holly Marsh’s review of Age of Iron here: ‘The best thing about this book however, is definitely the awe-inspiringly imaginative swearing’