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Thanks very much for having me! Well, I think I’d describe this novel as a coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of murder and political intrigue in late 15th century Scotland. The story unfolds in the turbulent period which followed the death of King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488; his eldest son who succeeded him – James IV – is famed as Scotland’s Renaissance king, but his early reign was less than promising. I wanted to explore this period from the perspective of someone who found himself at a severe disadvantage following the regime change, and to follow the way in which Sempill re-established himself in the king’s favour through ingenuity and sheer determination.
John Sempill was unfamiliar to me prior to reading your work. Tell us, how did you come upon his story and what inspired you to adapt it to fiction?
John Sempill (future 1st Lord Sempill) is a well-known figure as far as the local history of Renfrewshire is concerned, perhaps best remembered for his architectural legacy: he built a Collegiate Church, now ruined, which still stands a short distance from my home with John’s tomb still visible within it.
When I first sought inspiration for a historical novel, I followed that familiar maxim, “Always write about what you know.’ I scoured the local history sources for a potential story, and found one in a historical account which noted very briefly that, following the death of Sir Thomas Sempill defending the King (i.e. James III) at Sauchieburn, Thomas’s son John was made a Lord of Parliament the following year. While that statement wasn’t entirely correct, John’s changes in fortune were sufficiently dramatic to pique my interest, and the more I delved into his story, the more intriguing he became.
History can only tell us so much about a man. How did you approach characterizing John for your novel and what sort of impression do you hope he leaves on your readers?
Very little is known about the ‘real’ John – we know he died at Flodden along with King James IV, but most of the detail about his life is unknown and has had to be inferred. What we do know about him comes from his legal and financial transactions: the ‘real’ John was a builder and a patron of the arts, founding a ‘sang school’ (for choristers) and supporting a harper amongst his retinue.
He appears to have been the only surviving son in a family of five, and he appears to have been either the nephew or the cousin of a prominent politician at the time - John Ross of Montgrennan - who was charged with treason in the aftermath of Sauchieburn. We know that Sempill was Hereditary Sheriff of Renfrew, and what is also clearly evident is that throughout his lifetime, the shire of Renfrew was a comparatively stable and peaceful place. This was unusual in a country which was still being torn apart by violence and feuding on a regular basis. In this respect, he was clearly a man ahead of his time.
Though this is very much John’s story, there are three prominent feminine figures within your narrative. Can you tell us a bit about Mary, Margaret, and Helen and their role in Fire and Sword?
Women are notoriously silent in the historical record, and I relished an opportunity to explore what it was to be a woman during a time which comes across as relentlessly misogynistic. I was inspired by Henrietta Leyser’s book Medieval Women, a book which demonstrates clearly how women at all levels in society weren’t the weak, downtrodden figures that we expect them to be. Instead, they were expected to play a vital and often valued role in running their households and supporting their husbands in their trades or political careers.
All three women are powerful in their own way, striving to shift circumstances in their favour even when the world works against them. Mary is a tenant of the Sempills who is widowed early in the book and must do whatever she can to support herself and her family.
Margaret, by contrast, comes from a privileged background, but finds herself in a situation where her original expectations are dashed. She was promised a man who was supposed to be a knight and Sheriff and she finds herself instead married to a traitor. While there’s nothing she can do to escape her fate, she makes sure that life is far from easy from a husband who disappoints her in many ways.
In Helen Campbell, we find a woman of noble birth who is politically astute and a trusted confidante of her husband, Hugh 2nd Lord Montgomerie. Her steady patient character forms an ideal counterweight to a volatile man who loves her dearly and would never do anything to hurt her, but – at his worst - could ruin everything they’ve strived for through rash actions committed in haste.
Nearly six hundred years separate us from the battle at Sauchieburn and the events that set John’s journey in motion. Where did you start in terms of recreating 15th century Scotland and the society in which his story unfolds?
I started with the music and the literature of the time – we know John Sempill was a patron of the arts, so it seemed a logical way of connecting with him as a human being. Some of the popular literary works that were created in the late 15th and early 16th centuries still survive – Blind Harry’s Wallace (the source for Braveheart) and Barbour’s The Brus spring immediately to mind, along with the works of poets such as Dunbar and Lindsay. We’re also blessed with the magnificent polyphonic music of Robert Carver, which thankfully survived the predations of the Reformation zealots!
Listening to live performances of Robert Carver by the Scottish early music group ‘Capella Nova’ provided the inspiration – the rest of the world-building was down to a combination of various sources: there was some primary written evidence available in the form of the Scots Court records, as well as a wide range of secondary sources which cover all aspects of Scottish history as well as the medieval world, not to mention the numerous archaeological burgh surveys and excavation reports which have been published through the years.
My only difficult was that my chosen time period lay on the cusp of the medieval and the modern worlds, so it was tricky to get the balance right. I opted for a world where humanism is just taking off, where the old medieval sense of worthlessness and self-loathing is tempered with new optimism brought about through renaissance ideas and ideals, a mindset which James IV himself was to embrace enthusiastically in later life.
You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Oh, that is such a hard question, and one I’ve had to think long and hard about, too…
I think one of my all-time favourite scenes has to be one situated quite far into the book, where we’re in the town of Paisley, watching the arrival of King James IV through Mary’s eyes. She’s suffered so much at the hands of the king’s men throughout the course of the novel – the loss of her husband, the loss of her livelihood, the loss of her dignity through having to take a lover who can support her through the hard times – and yet she can still find it within herself to believe in James and to hope that their future will be brighter with him at the helm. As a writer, it was a great opportunity to explore late medieval pomp and pageantry from a modest perspective, to imagine what it would be like to witness the passage of the knights and the king himself in full array as they process through the town.
What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
There were a lot of scenes that were grueling to write, both mentally and emotionally, but they weren’t hard to do, because the characters, in that old clichéd way, tended to just get on with things. It was only afterwards that I’d sit back, blinking, and go, “Wow! What happened there?!?”
Technically, I’d say it was the fight scene in Renfrew between John’s drunken retainers and the Stewart/Lyle drunken retainers that was most difficult to pull off successfully. There’s just so much going on: we’re looking on from John’s POV, and he’s dazed himself, struggling to take it all in and react to everything that’s going on. Yeah, that kind of melee is always a bit tricky to bring to life in a way that fits in all the action, without sacrificing the pace, because in such circumstances pace is everything…
Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I think I ended up completely satisfied with the balance of the novel and exactly how much time was spent with each character. But right from the beginning, Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie – who’s very much the antihero– was demanding an ever-increasing role.
The first few drafts were written entirely from John’s perspective and it just wasn’t working out, because there were great big swathes that ran along the lines of, ‘Woke up, brushed the dog. OMG! The garderobe’ s blocked and there’s water coming into the guest range, we need to get it rethatched NOW!!!!’ while the narrative was treading water waiting for something monumental to happen in Edinburgh. I realised then that it would be necessary to look further afield to see things in a broader perspective. That way, we could fully understand the difficulty of John’s situation.
By slipping into Hugh’s point-of-view, I was granted an insight into the affairs of court, as well as discovering that the supposedly ‘evil’, borderline-psychotic Hugh was in fact great fun to write and a fantastic character to hang out with, quite unlike John, who can be quite reserved and reticent and serious. Hugh had to be firmly reined in throughout Fire & Sword because this was after all John’s story – but he steps forward in the follow-up to take centre stage. So I’ve now had ample opportunity to find out lots more about him!
Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Fire and Sword and if so, what did you alter and why?
I was writing about an individual about whom precious little is known, who frequented a period which can be quite sketchy in terms of its historical record, too. But I did stumble across one major hurdle during the writing process and that involved contradictory information regarding the marriage of John Sempill’s sister Marion to Robert Crawfurd of Kilbirnie. Most of the 19th century antiquarian genealogical accounts state this as a fact, so it has become pretty much gospel in many of the sources. But I stumbled across a document which suggested that it was in fact John’s daughter Isabel who was contracted to marry Robert Crawfurd. The contract, however, was later annulled for some reason and the marriage did not take place.
I do not know for sure what the facts of this matter actually were, but I suspect the established belief (which I used) is incorrect, and that the generations may instead be completely out. This would suggest that Robert Crawfurd wasn’t John’s contemporary, but was instead part of the succeeding generation. By the time I’d ferreted out this discrepancy in the sources, my plot was pretty much established and the Robert Crawfurd/Marion Sempill subplot woven deep into the fabric of the book. So I closed my ears to the advice of my inner historian, and ran with the established and as yet pretty much unchallenged view – though not without much angst and gnashing of teeth on my part.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Oh, I must concede to the whims of my inner historian on this one! It has to be Hugh Montgomerie. He’s virtually the only male character of his generation who made it past Flodden - just about everyone else who features in the novel (John, Matthew Stewart, Archibald Campbell, Robert Crawfurd, Robert Colville, William Colville) died with James on the battlefield.
I do not know how Hugh dodged that particular bullet. I don’t know whether he fought there but survived, whether he was keeping Ford or Etal Castle in the king’s name, whether as one of the country’s elder statesmen he was holding the fort in Edinburgh, or whether he was posted at Dumbarton or Leith waiting for French reinforcements that never came. Four Scots monarchs were on the throne during his lifetime (James II-V, plus the early years of Mary), he retired from politics at the grand old age of 78 and the changes he witnessed through the years must have been breath-taking, without even taking into account the fracture in the fabric of Scots society that was Flodden which itself would have left its mark on him mentally, without a doubt…
What do you hope readers take from John’s story? Is there a particular theme you that hope resonates your audience?
That no matter how desperate things may seem, and however much the odds are stacked against you, you must never give up. That violence isn’t the answer to everything, and that often it can instead be counter-productive. I hope I’ve also demonstrated that even in late medieval Scotland some enlightened souls like John were well aware of this fact and were determined to do what they could to make their world a safer and more prosperous place.
Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
I can only work on one project at a time, and I find it virtually impossible to write in silence. I need music, and I need exactly the right music to suit the scene – Robert Carver’s late medieval polyphony provided the inspiration to Fire & Sword, but I wrote the actual novel to a modern Indie rock soundtrack, with some Dead Can Dance tracks thrown in for good measure! I also have to redraft my MS countless times, often going right back to the beginning and rewriting several times before I finally reach the end so that I can spot the subplots as they emerge and weave them retrospectively into place as necessary. The finished manuscript is then usually way too long so I have to edit, with brutal efficiency.
In terms of each individual project, I usually have an initial period of research which leads rapidly into the writing of a very tentative first draft, with research/writing taking place simultaneously. The two processes seem to feed off one another nicely, firing my enthusiasm both to learn more and to write more.
Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it?
I treat it as a natural part of life. I’m not one of these people who can sit down and write day in, day out, 1000 words a day or whatever. It takes me a while to get into a project, but when I get the bit between my teeth, it takes me over completely, and I enter this phase of manic productivity where I can think of nothing else. I can only take so much of this intensity before I quite literally burn out, and by then I’m too exhausted to be much good for anything. I used to find the terror of this non-productive period incredibly stressful, but it’s happened so often now that I’ve learned to shrug my shoulders and ignore it. I go for a walk, hang out in the garden, do some blogging, focus on the day job, whatever. The muse will return when it’s good and ready.
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh, this is going to sound so predictable, I know, but… I’m a big fan of Hilary Mantel. My favourite work of hers– and the one which has influenced me most in my own writing – isn’t the obvious one. I like the Thomas Cromwell novels, but it’s her earlier account of the French Revolution - A Place of Greater Safety - which I consider an absolute masterpiece. The outcomes never seem pre-determined; instead, earth-shattering events are unleashed by a bunch of individuals muddling along trying to change things without ever really knowing what the outcome will be. And Mantel writes the most horrific scenes in a dry, objective manner which makes what you’re reading all the more shocking. The death of Marie Antoninette is a scene that haunts me even now…
I suppose I didn’t really read much historical fiction until I was struggling to find a ‘voice’ through which to write Fire & Sword. My background was in science fiction and fantasy, and this has coloured my reading tastes through the years. I’m particularly fond of the science fiction writing of C J Cherryh, and in particular her Union-Alliance universe, and I also love the short stories of Ray Bradbury as well as J RR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I’m catching up fast in terms of my historical fiction reading: amongst the writers I’ve particularly enjoyed reading are Dorothy Dunnett, Robert Harris, Mary Renault and Reay Tannahill (whose novel about Mary Queen of Scots, Fatal Majesty, is a masterpiece).
What are you currently reading?
The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault.
What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
Between the writing and the day job (I’m an archaeologist) I don’t have much time for hobbies these days! But I do enjoy walking, particularly fell-walking in Cumbria (I find the Scottish ‘Munros’ just too extreme!), cycling and horse-riding. I’m also a keen gardener, and of course I don’t need any excuse to go exploring ancient monuments and medieval buildings, particularly cathedrals!
Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Coffee. Absolutely. No doubt about that whatsoever.
And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
At present, I’m enjoying a bit of a hiatus between projects. My second novel (Working Title: The Gryphon At Bay) is now finished and ready for submission – it’s set immediately after Fire & Sword but turns the focus very much on Hugh Montgomerie, chronicling his very spectacular fall-from-grace in the early 1490s.
I’m currently working on two short pieces of fiction set in the Fire & Sword ‘universe’ for my publisher, Hadley Rille Books (one down, one to go) and after that I’ll be polishing off my third novel (Working Title: A Black Ship Into Hades) which will involve a brief sabbatical away from late 15th century Scotland. Hades is a time-slip/portal novel which tells the story of a young man from Ancient Sparta who finds himself stranded in modern Wiltshire, it’s part romance, part-thriller and part speculative fiction, and so far it has proved great fun to write. Though because it leaps around chronologically, it’s a devil of a job to get it structured satisfactorily and that’s what will take all the hard work over the coming months and years!
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Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Writing has always been a major aspect of her life and in 1988, she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday. Louise lives with her husband in west Renfrewshire.
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Format: Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: September 19, 2013
Released by: Hadley Rille Books
Length: 454 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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