Thursday, October 29, 2009

An interview with Helen Hollick
And a book review: Pendragon’s Banner

(Listen to a podcast interview with Helen Hollick at Voices of Living Creatively)

It turns out Helen Hollick and I share a love of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian fantasy novels, Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills. Both of us remember enjoying these wonderful stories about Merlin and the young Arthur. But for Helen Hollick, it was something in the back of Stewart’s book that brought another sort of magic into her life. “The thing that intrigued me was her author’s notes which said if Arthur had been real, he would have lived around post Roman times. Now that really got me interested. Because I had never liked the stories that had placed him around Medieval times. When I read that, I thought, oh, I’ll check into that.”

That started Helen on a path leading her to write a trilogy of books about Arthur before and after he becomes king.

The first book, The Kingmaking, I reviewed here last year and loved for its detailed down to earth portrayal of Arthur as the supposed bastard son of Uthr who takes the throne and becomes king. The second book, Pendragon’s Banner covers the years between 459-465 A.D. and tells the tale of Arthurs struggle with the power, politics and family strife.

What I like about these books are the many, many wonderful details about the daily life of Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, their three children, servants and soldiers. The fighting among the family for control of the throne is just as believable as the battle scenes.

I wondered, how did author, Helen Hollick write so richly of a past that may or may not have happened. Some of it comes from Hollick’s extensive research and diploma in Early Medieval History. Helen explains, “I looked into what facts we do know of that period, really researched post roman and early saxon, so in weaving in the real facts, that can make what we don’t know for sure to be more real. I looked into daily life. I looked into what kind of horses they would have had, harnesses, armor, and the buildings.”

Helen’s research includes personal experiences as well. “I’ve actually been to all those places in the books, Glastonbury, visited Summerset, been to Scotland,” says Helen. “It makes a great excuse for a holiday.”

Some of the plot details, like the scene where Arthur’s young son falls into the river, come from her feelings and experiences as a mother. “We were actually on vacation camping by that very river,” Helen explains. “My own little girl was about 5. It had been raining, and we went down to look at the river. It was in flood, flowing very fast exactly as in that scene. I held my Cathy’s hand so very tight, because I had a vision of a child falling into the water. I pulled her back from the bank, told her to be careful and picked her up and held her. Then I went back to the camp and just wrote the scene down. It was very hard to write. I was in tears the whole time.”

That wasn’t the only scene that was hard for Helen to write. “I have to say I don’t know how I manage to write the battle scenes,” says Helen. “It really helps to be in a bad mood. It’s a really good way to get rid of angst, to write a battle scene.”

The battle scenes details aren’t the only thing that grabbed me as a reader but the depth of Arthur’s feelings about the work a soldier must do. Helen agrees, “Yes, when you read a story of battle it’s always made out to be a glorious thing, propaganda, of course, to get people to go out and fight. But you don’t think about the other side, people get killed, horses get hurt. This is the reality.”

The battle scene that begins Pendragon’s Banner came after a long period of writer’s block. “I got to the point where I thought, if I don’t do something about this writer’s block, I’m not going to get this book finished,” explains Helen. “And I was determined to write the words, ‘the end’, even if I never got published. So I went along to a writer’s course and the teacher said, I want you to write down your feelings. I just wrote down the first word that came into my head. Before I knew it, I wrote the word, sword, then the word battle. And all of a sudden the whole battle scene just came into my head and I just sat and wrote. It was really funny because then the teacher said, ok, you can stop now and I said no way, I haven’t written for 6 months and if you think I’m going to stop now, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Even though Helen’s extensive historical research gives the scenes detail, it’s not what got her started writing. “I hated history when I was at school, absolutely hated it,” says Helen. “When I was 13 I was writing pony stories, because I really wanted a pony of my own and we couldn’t afford one. So I made one up.”

From then on, writing has been a life long passion. Even when her original publisher stopped printing her books, she got the copyright back and self-published them in the U.K. Then found a new home for her trilogy here in the United States with Sourcebooks. In addition to her Arthur trilogy, Helen Hollick has written a fantasy adventure series about pirates for fun and most recently, a movie script about the battle of Hastings called 1066. “We hope to shoot in the UK but it will be on release in American as well,” Helen says. “We’re talking big blockbuster here. Fingers crossed, I’ve even got my dress.”

Whether or not her books or movies about Arthur, pirates or a battle are a success, Helen would never stop writing. “I’m always scribbling something down, even if I’m not working on a book. That short time when I heard that they weren’t going to publish my books, I was devastated,” says Helen. “I sobbed for 2 weeks. Then I pulled myself up and thought come on, it doesn’t mean you can’t publish your books.”

And she advises everyone to follow their dreams, too. Helen’s advice, “Do it. Don’t think about it, go out and do it. At least try, I feel that at least I tried and I’ve managed it. Ok, if my books don’t sell it doesn’t matter, at least I’ve done it. Rather than looking back in a few years time and thinking oh, I wish I’d done that. At least have a go, give it your best shot.”

In my opinion, Helen Hollick’s given it more than her best shot. Whether it’s The Kingmaking or Pendragon’s Banner, it’s an enjoyable, fascinating read into the past that feels like you’re there, too.

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