Friday, September 23, 2011

Interview with Angus Donald author of Outlaw

Outlaw is the featured read at Fiction General Discussion at B& in October and Mr. Donald will be joining us for the conversation here is the interview we did.

Interview with Angus Donald

Debbie - Angus, welcome and thank you for agreeing to participate in our conversation about Outlaw.

Angus - Hello Debbie, it’s great to be part of this forum. Thank you for inviting me.

D -Okay the first thing I have to ask is why Robin Hood?

A -He just popped into my thoughts nearly a decade ago when I first started thinking about writing historical fiction for a living.  I was looking for an English medieval hero to write about and he turned up in one way or another in almost every history book on the period that I read. I think Robin himself is a fascinating character: he is human but doesn’t live in human society. He lives in the wild, beyond the constraints of morality, religion and law. He is an outlaw – an outcast, an outsider, living free by his own violent rules. And someone who is quite content that way: Robin doesn’t really want to rejoin society – he lives happily beyond it. For me, there is something terribly appealing about that.
But, of course, Robin is not actually the hero of my books. He is one of the most important characters, to be sure, but the real hero is Alan Dale. The books are about the relationship between Alan and Robin. In the first book, Outlaw, Alan is a young teenager and is totally in awe of Robin. Alan (who becomes a trouvere, which is a musician and poet, during the course of the series) believes in the romantic notions of chivalry that were taking shape at that time – the end of the 12th century: he hero-worships Robin and expects him to behave like a preux chevalier, a good and noble Christian knight. But Robin has his own darker, more selfish agenda. Alan is an idealist; Robin a pragmatist, and Alan becomes bitterly disappointed when Robin does not live up to the chivalric ideal. As Alan grows up, and becomes a hardened warrior himself, he realized that many issues in the world are not black-and-white and he loses a little of his idealism as he experiences the true horror of war; over time Robin, on the other hand, begins to lose some of his single-minded ruthlessness and comes to recognize that we all have a duty to humanity.

D -The next question I have to ask comes from reading about you on your website where you list your former occupations, they are a fruit picker in Greece, a waiter in New York and an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. The one I want to know about is the last one, can you tell us a little about that.

A -I have a Masters degree from the University of Edinburgh in Social Anthropology and in order to earn that I had to undertake six months’ field research in Indonesia and write a 20,000-word dissertation. I spent the time in a small, remote village in Bali – a place where no-one spoke English – and studied the local cultural traditions. I was particularly interested in their magical beliefs: the Balinese are a lovely people but behind their wide smiles lurk deep atavistic fears. Even today, most of them are convinced that the world is a very dangerous magical place inhabited by witches, demons and sorcerers (balian) who can cause ordinary mortals terrible harm. The only defence against these dark powers is to buy magical protection from a balian – a kind of shaman who claims he can communicate with the spirits and ancestors, cure diseases, exorcise demons, help businesses to perform well, make love potions, control the weather – among their many supernatural skills. I saw some extraordinary things while I was there, some of which I can’t easily explain in Western terms. For example, I saw a magical battle in between several balian, who took the form of coloured dots of light whizzing about the night sky. (They may have been some sort of fireflies – but they made an extraordinary spooky display.) I was visited at midnight by an apparition of Rangda – the terrifying Queen of the Dead, who did me no harm but left a putrid lingering smell in my bedroom. (A dead rat?) I saw a ball of fire – the manifestation of an evil witch in local belief – that followed me through the jungle. (Some sort of natural phenomenon? Marsh gas, perhaps.)
It was a fascinating time for me – if occasionally a little unnerving. When that ball of fiery light appeared, it coincided with the engine on my motorbike failing when I was alone on a path in thick jungle at night. All the electricity on the bike and the headlights died at the same time. I kept up my courage but telling myself I didn’t believe in evil witches and by singing a Christian hymn at the top of my lungs (it was Jerusalem, since you ask) until it went away and my motorbike mysteriously began to work again. My youthful experiences in Bali have influenced my books in various ways – particularly in King’s Man and Warlord (books three and four), which haven’t come out in the USA yet. A malevolent witch plays a big part in them.

D -You are working on the fourth book in the series, can you tell us how many books are planned for the series.

A -I have a contract with my UK publisher to write five books in this series: Outlaw, Holy Warrior, King’s Man, Warlord and a fifth one as yet untitled. I’m nearly done with Warlord. And after I’ve finished the fifth one, I’m going to take a break and write a trilogy set in Ancient Greece, but I do have plans for another three Robin Hood books after that, set in England around the time of Magna Carta (1215).

D -Was releasing them to the US readers a second thought and is it going to be available in other global markets as well, can you tell us about the process of a multi-national publication.

A- So far, only the first two books have been released in America, but I’m hoping that the rest of the series will make it over the Pond too. I think it depends on how well the first two sell to your countrymen. There is quite a cultural difference between the US and the UK when it comes to these kinds of books. In the UK, the genre “historical fiction” is well established and it tends to mean action-based books, often quite violent and usually with a soldier as the hero, which are aimed at men. I think of my books as fitting into this mold. In the US, I gather that “historical fiction” tends to mean more romantic books with beautiful heroines in elaborate gowns on the covers, which are aimed at women. Historical fiction is booming in the UK at the moment with authors such as Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane and Robyn Young regularly in the bestseller charts. This particular genre doesn’t seem to be quite so popular in the US just now – but who knows what the future holds.
My books have also been translated into Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. And for some reason they are particularly popular in Brazil.

D -I read on your FaceBook page that you spent a lot of last summer traveling to various Medieval festivals, did you go there strictly to sell your books or did you participate in any way.

A- Yes, this summer I went to medieval festivals in England at Colchester, Tewkesbury, Kelmarsh and Herstmonceaux. It was an experiment, really. I did dress up as a medieval monk (the writers of the middle ages) but I didn’t participate in the re-enactments of the famous battles that took place at these places. I wanted to sell a few more books, of course, but also mainly to meet some of my readers. Many of my fans had been asking when I was going to do a tour of the country and this seemed like a good way of getting about and giving readers a chance to come and meet me and to tell me which bits of the books they liked – and which bits they didn’t! It was a rewarding experience, in general, though pretty tiring. And it was nice to meet so many people who appreciate my work. Life as an author can be a bit lonely at times; you sit all day at a computer screen, on your own, week in, week out, and it was great to get out and about for a change.

D -I’m going to go back to your bio for a moment, it says you were a journalist in many different countries and some very dangerous. Where you a war correspondent, can you tell us who you wrote for, were you ever in grave danger while working.

A -I was a journalist for twenty years before I became a novelist. Much of that time I worked as an editor, which is not at all glamorous. I spent my days commissioning stories, re-writing other people’s terrible copy, checking spellings, grammar and so on and writing headlines and captions for the pieces. But I did spend five years in Hong Kong writing features for various magazines and travelling all over South-East Asia, which was fascinating. And I spent two years in India as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. I suppose the most dangerous part of my career was the few weeks I spent as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. It was just after 9/11 and I was one of the first journalists to get into the country. This was before journalists were being embedded with US or UK army units; I was on my own, with a local driver and two Afghan gunmen that I paid $10 a day to watch my back. I was shot at, mortared and saw first-hand the effects of the American daisy-cutter bombs on the landscape – man, you do NOT want to be under one of those, believe me. Even in a deep cave.
It was a scary, exhilarating time – and exhausting, too – but I was approaching the age of forty and I realized that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do with the second half of my life. So I came home and took a quiet editing job with The Times in London and started to plan my Robin Hood series in my spare time. Seven years later, I was able to quit my job and write novels full-time. I don’t regret the decision: I’m happily married now with a two-year-old daughter and a small house in the country, and if I had carried on as a war correspondent there is a very good chance that I’d be dead or maimed. The casualty rates for journalists in war zones are horrendous – much worse than for our soldiers. So I’m happy I got out when I did. But in a funny way, I kinda miss it, too.

D -Have you thought about what you’ll write about when this series is over.

A -Next up is a trilogy set in Ancient Greece. I’ve just got back from a trip to Athens to watch a re-enactment of the Battle of Marathon. I’m fascinated by that period, by the styles of ancient warfare and how the foundations of our modern democratic civilization were laid. And I’m looking forward to doing all the necessary research.

D -And finally, what is one thing you’ve wanted to do but haven’t done it yet.

A -I’d like one day to take a year off and go travelling in South America with my family. It’s a part of the world that I know very little about, but I think it would be wonderful to have the time to travel slowly, maybe by train, all the way across that continent staying for a few weeks in any place that took my fancy. Maybe one day.

Oh, actually, can I have one more? I’d really like to drive all the way across America: from New York to LA – taking my time, stopping in little towns, eating in diners – cruising along in a big old Cadillac convertible.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions Angus and I look forward to the discussion at B& in October here at Fiction General Discussion.

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