Robyn Young is the author of the highly successful "Brethren" trilogy. Her current project is the telling of the story of Robert the Bruce. The first instalment, "Insurrection" was, once again, an instant best seller and the second book, "Renegade" is launched on 30th August 2012. I have been lucky enough to read an advanced copy and my review can be found here.
Robyn very kindly found time in her busy schedule to talk to me and gives an interesting insight into the world of a best-selling author of historical fiction.
- Your debut novel “Brethren” was an instant success and all your books have become best-sellers. Who first inspired you to write and when did you realise you wanted to make a living from writing?
· My grandfather was probably the first person to inspire me, with a love of storytelling. I have fond memories of holidays at my grandparents’, where my cousins and me would gather in the evenings and my grandfather would tell adventure stories where we were the main characters. I continued this tradition, inventing my own narratives, and at school an enthusiastic English teacher encouraged me to set them to paper. In my early teens, I began writing poetry and won several competitions, including one that saw one of my poems published in a national anthology. I remember seeing my work in print for the first time. I think that’s the point I knew I wanted to write for a living.
- The publishing world is very tough and with the advent of P.O.D, Amazon and other easy ways to publish novels electronically, how difficult was it to get an agent and a traditional publishing contract?
· It was a long, rocky road, as it is for most authors, although we all have different stories of how we got there in the end. It took two years, several major rewrites and thirteen rejections before a literary agent signed me up for my first novel, BRETHREN. After that I thought I’d made it – I had an agent and a Masters in Creative Writing from a top university. Why wouldn’t I get a book deal? Of course, reality kicked in and it would be another two years and more rejections before we struck gold and BRETHREN ended up in an auction with two publishing houses bidding for it. All in all, from concept to final draft, that first novel was seven years in the making.
- You did an MA in Creative Writing; is this something you felt you needed to do or was it something you wanted to do? Would you recommend this route to most writers?
· It was a bit of both. I’d done a foundation course at Sussex University, where I’d begun writing BRETHREN, and the structured support offered by a weekly class in those early years of writing was so beneficial I decided to continue with a Masters. There is a sort of stigma attached to creative writing courses – a tendency to believe that it cannot, or should not be taught. But writing is a craft as much as an art and one of the most valuable aspects of both courses for me was feedback from my peers. One of the hardest, most vital things to learn is how to edit your own work. Working with others, deconstructing one another’s writing, asking the questions you constantly need to ask yourself – why this point of view, what does this dialogue offer, what about pace here, exposition there – teaches you to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Hemmingway called it having a built-in shit detector. You don’t need to do a course to become a successful author certainly, although I know plenty who have (C.J. Sansom was in the year before me on the foundation course writing the first of his Shardlake novels). It’s all down to the individual and where they are in the writing process and, even then, not every course will be beneficial – it’s often down to group dynamics. I was fortunate to be in a group that worked well together, but not every class will lend itself to that.
- How did you become interested in the medieval world and what inspired you to write the Brethren trilogy?
· Back in 1999 I was in a pub with two friends, who were talking about the Knights Templar. I’d not heard of these so-called warrior monks before, but my interest was piqued. Some time later I came across a book called The Trial of the Templars, by historian Malcolm Barber, a harrowing account of the dramatic downfall of this powerful medieval organisation. I read it in an afternoon and by the end I knew I wanted to tell their story. This was long before The Da Vinci Code hit the shelves and catapulted the Templars into the zeitgeist.
- Your current project tells the story of Robert the Bruce. What made you decide to write about him?
· The INSURRECTION TRILOGY was born out of a research trip to Scotland, where I was working on REQUIEM, the final novel in the Templar series. I’d spent three weeks on the road, travelling from battlegrounds and ivy-clad ruins, during which time one figure came striding out of the wild landscape and rich history – Robert Bruce. He swept me off my feet and carried me into an epic story of bitter family feuds, two civil wars and the struggle for a crown. There is none of the black and whiteness of William Wallace about Robert – he is a complex, enigmatic character, who offered a real challenge in the writing of his story.
- How do you research your subject matter? What are your favourite sources?
· I start by reading as many books as possible, during which time I write an enormous amount of notes, trying to piece the historical world together. These will be a mixture of texts – ones that cover the broad era, biographies of my characters and then those that deal with the finer period details, such as food, travel, clothing, weapons and armour. It’s about building up a picture. Even if you don’t use half the things you research, it will come across in your writing as confidence and authenticity. Web-based research is getting better, but I still only use the Internet when I have a good enough grounding myself to know which sites are good. I also try to visit as many of the locations as possible. I speak to historians and re-enactors about specific events or equipment and I like to try my hand at the physical aspects of my novels. For INSURRECTION, I was taught to ride by a skill-at-arms tutor. I’ve tried sword fighting, used crossbows and done extensive work with birds of prey, which have, I believe, added colour beyond the book-based details.
- Your Twitter profile says you are a “newbie screenwriter”. Does this mean your novels are making their way onto the silver screen?
· We’ve certainly had a few nibbles on the line, so to speak, but no firm plans yet. My “newbie screenwriter” tag refers to a project I’ve been working on with two fellow writers over the past year – a WWII screenplay. It’s been quite a departure, and not just in terms of period. Having colleagues after twelve years working alone has been a breath of fresh air. We’ll have to see what happens, but if things go well I hope we’ll continue to work together.
- What advice would you give to someone like me, an unpublished writer working hard to finish their manuscript who wishes to turn their dream of winning a publishing contract into a reality?
· My agent always said, in this regard, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I think he’s right. There aren’t many hard and fast rules when it comes to trying to get a traditional contract – as I said, authors have many different stories of how they got there. I know one writer, for instance, who snared a contract on first try on a partial manuscript and another who made it after sixty rejections. That said, there are undoubtedly a few things you can do to help your chances, or at least not shoot yourself in the foot, most of which are covered in a few excellent books. The best I read was Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication. Also, the Writer’s Handbook and Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are well worth getting – they include useful tips as well as listing all agencies in the UK, including details of what to send. When you do send work out, make sure you’re sending it to the right person, that you’ve included everything the agent requires, no more no less, and that it’s the absolute best it can be. You can be sure if an agent isn’t hooked in the first page or so, your manuscript has had it. Covering letters and synopses are just as important to get right. For some great tips on these, and a damn good laugh, check out the brilliant - http://www.kitwhitfield.com/publisherdating.html
- Fun Question – which three characters would you invite to dinner and why?
· Edward I, because he’d have a decent supply of Gascony wine. Robert Bruce could bring the venison and answer a few questions I have, and William Wallace could make a daring raid on the local shops for anything we’d forgotten. I’d probably have to up my house insurance though, with those three in the same room.
- Fun Question – at which event in history would you like to be a fly on the wall and why?
· I’d like to have witnessed Edward I’s coronation in Westminster Abbey, for the grand spectacle of it and the feast that would have followed. It is said wine flowed through the conduit in Cheapside for the people to drink.
Find out more about Robyn Young atwww.robynyoung.com