Interview: July 14, 2006
July 14, 2006
Robyn Young is the author of BRETHREN, the first book in an intended trilogy set during the Crusades and featuring the Knights Templar. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's contributing writer Stephen Hubbard, Young discusses the allure of this mysterious order and what initially caught her interest in the Holy Wars. She also describes the challenges of writing historical fiction, what she hopes to convey through her characters, and the path her career will take in the future.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write BRETHREN?
Robyn Young: BRETHREN was inspired by a name: Templar Knights. I first heard of these medieval warrior monks seven years ago, listening to a couple of friends of mine talking about them. A few months later, I discovered a book by a Cambridge historian that detailed the trial against the Templars, who were accused of heresy by the King of France. The trial, one of history's greatest conspiracies, saw the eventual dissolution of this powerful 200-year-old Order. It also saw the torture and execution of hundreds of men across Europe, the descriptions of which made for a harrowing read. By the end of the book, I knew I had to tell their story: the story of the men behind the myths.
BRC: In telling the story, you alternate between Will and the knights, and Baybars and the Mamluks, which gives the BRETHREN title more meaning. Was it always in your mind to actually tell two stories; to show the similarities, brotherhood and infighting of both sides as they maneuver on the path to confrontation?
RY: Not from the start, no. Initially, I was writing the novel in first person and concentrating solely on the story of the Templars. About six months into the writing, I changed the narrative to third person and began to focus on the major events of the period, namely the Crusades. Immediately, the opportunity to tell both sides of this story opened up and I realised that this was something I wanted to do. Also, by that point I had come across Baybars in my research and had been instantly captivated by him. From there, the narrative just naturally split in two.
BRC: How far back does your interest in the Crusades go? Why do you think there is such an intense fascination and passion for Crusades and Templar stories today?
RY: My interest in the Crusades only goes back as far as the idea for BRETHREN, so seven years. It wasn't a subject covered at school, and until I began researching for the novel, I knew absolutely nothing about the period.
Fascination in the Templars isn't something new, although interest in them has certainly reached a new peak in the past year, due to the recent publicity they've received in the form of popular novels. They have, however, been legends of Western culture for centuries. Dante speaks of the knights in his DIVINE COMEDY; Walter Scott was writing about them in the early 19th century; Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln's book, HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL, was a publishing phenomenon in the '80s. Although a fair amount of evidence about the Order has survived, we do not know everything there is to know about them, or indeed, this period. Perhaps because of this, various myths, mysteries and speculations have been gradually growing around them over the last few centuries, until they have now been connected with everything from the Holy Grail to UFOs.
We all love a good mystery and, if nothing else, the Templars give us that. But I believe their allure lies in their spectacular and ultimately tragic downfall. The image of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, calling the French king and the pope to account before God for their crimes against the Order whilst he was burning on the stake is a powerful one. That the king and pope were both dead within a year following Jacques's prophecy only adds to the popular belief in the Templars' mystical qualities. It is rather like the image of King Arthur sailing away to Avalon to one day return to us healed. We want our legends to be superhuman --- to defy death, or to control it; it is what makes them legends and us merely human.
BRC: In BRETHREN, there are historical facts and moments co-mingling within the fictional aspects of your story. While you try to remain true to the history, at what point do you have to say "enough" and focus on the story you want to tell?
RY: Whilst I was clear from the start that I wanted to be as accurate as possible when it came to the history, I also needed to make sure that readers would want to keep turning the pages. Occasionally, I found the actual sequence of events or actions of real characters simply didn't work within my plot, and had I adhered exactly to the history, the novel would have slowed down or ended up too complex or over-long. Ultimately, I'm a novelist, not a historian. It is my job to seek out what is most interesting within the facts --- to separate, so to speak, the meat from the bones.
BRC: When writing BRETHREN, how conscious were you of the current world climate while writing your Muslim characters, and did that ultimately affect how you portrayed them?
RY: When I first started writing BRETHREN, it seemed like ancient history, far removed from my world. On the day of 9/11, that changed. That day, I was writing a speech made by Baybars --- my Muslim protagonist --- in which he proclaims a new jihad against the West. In the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, with members of the British government calling for a Crusade, the world I was writing about and the world I lived in moved disturbingly closer. It was from that point that BRETHREN really began to live for me. It was the sudden, shocking relevancy of it that affected me; so, yes, what was happening in the world certainly had an impact on the novel as a whole and on my drive to write it. But as to whether it ultimately affected how I portrayed my characters, I'm not sure. If it did, then it wasn't a conscious process and it would have affected both sides of the story, Christian as well as Muslim. There wasn't a point where I thought of putting into the narrative something I had seen that night on the news, but there were many points where I would watch events in Iraq and elsewhere unfold and think how similar something I had written that day was.
BRC: Are you a reader of historical fiction? Are there any particular works that may have inspired you to take up the writing of BRETHREN?
RY: I've been a fan of historical fiction since my early 20s, both literary and commercial, but it isn't the only genre I read. The first contemporary historical fiction I came across was Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy, which I loved. I particularly enjoyed the way he wove a mystery through a historical story and setting, much the same as Matthew Pearl does in THE DANTE CLUB or Iain Pears in INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, which are two fantastic books. This is something I've tried to do with BRETHREN because that's the kind of book I enjoy reading; but it was a history textbook that inspired BRETHREN rather than a novel.
BRC: During a discussion with his friend Garin, Will says "If kin makes a man noble, then I'm only half high-born." Are you a believer in the statement that deeds make a man noble rather than blood, and is that a point you tried to make with Will?
RY: Yes, I would say I believe that. You can be high-born or have a title bestowed upon you and be noble in that sense, but to be noble in the sense that you are considered virtuous, or decent, can surely only come through your deeds. Will sees this when he realises that it isn't the white mantle or the title of knight that makes his father "noble in spirit; honourable in battle; generous in heart," but the man inside that embodies these qualities. As Will wishes to follow his father's example, then yes, by having him live up to this realisation, I suppose I am making this point.
BRC: I've heard that BRETHREN was initially told in the first-person perspective from Will's memory, and that you ultimately changed it. Why did you feel the change was necessary, and did that transition pose any problems for you?
RY: After six months of writing, part of my first draft of BRETHREN was read by an agent, who later signed me up. He loved the story, but felt that it lacked something in terms of the perspective. As soon as I received his comments, I knew he was right. Also, by that point, I had discovered Baybars in the course of my research and knew that I wanted to tell his story also. I wouldn't have been able to do him justice from the limited perspective of Will's point of view, and he deserved to be a character in his own right. As for problems with the transition from first to third person, I actually found it liberating. The story was crying out to be told in that way, and once I'd done it, I began to find my voice and the narrative began to flow.
BRC: You have listed some of your hundreds of sources for historical background in your author's note. How long did your research take before you began to actually put the story to paper?
RY: I read a fair few books on the subject in the year before I started writing. I think it must have been somewhere between six months and a year before I actually put pen to paper. The research didn't stop there, however. If anything it became more intense as the writing progressed, and the story branched out to encompass new events and characters. I'm writing the sequel at the moment, and I'm still learning and researching as I go. It's part of the real pleasure of writing historical fiction.
BRC: Have you had the opportunity to visit any of the actual places you write of in BRETHREN? If so, what was it like to be in those places and relive those historical events in your mind?
RY: Not as many as I would have liked. I've traveled in Egypt and visited some of the places that will be featured in the second book of the trilogy, but I haven't been to Syria or Palestine. I will, however, put a big YET after that as I'm really keen to visit Acre (now the Israeli city of Akko). I have been to the Temple church in London, which is featured in the novel. That was quite an experience --- to stand there in the silence and imagine my characters, the real ones at least, once having done the same. It's an evocative place.
BRC: BRETHREN is only the first chapter in a longer series. Do you have the continuing story underway, and can you give us any insight as to what we can expect from the next installment?
RY: I'm halfway through the second book in the Brethren Trilogy, which is called CRUSADE and will be out next summer. Each of the novels has its own plot, although the overall story and characters run sequentially throughout the three. Expect even more epic battles, big surprises, tragedies and triumphs, and the dramatic end of the Crusades.
BRC: You've written poetry, two unpublished fantasy works, and you've been interested in screenwriting. Do you have any plans to branch out into those areas in the near future or will you be solely focusing on the sequels to BRETHREN?
RY: For the next two years, I'll be concentrating on finishing the Brethren Trilogy. Novels are my passion and I intend to stick to historical fiction (although moving away from the Crusades for a time) for the foreseeable future. I expect I'll always write poetry sporadically, but I think that will only ever be for me. My fantasy novels were my training runs and were great fun to write, but I can't see them ever being published, nor can I see myself pursuing that genre. Screenwriting is a different matter. I would absolutely love to work on the script for a film or TV series. I guess I'll just have to wait and see if anyone offers me that opportunity!