Skip to main content

Interview: November 4, 2021

THE BLOODLESS BOY, Robert J. Lloyd’s debut novel, is a powerfully atmospheric recreation of the darkest corners of Restoration London, where the Court and the underworld seem to merge, even as the light of scientific inquiry is starting to emerge. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Lloyd talks about the books he read as a child that fueled his desire to become an author and the work of fiction that inspired him to write THE BLOODLESS BOY; which historical figure from the novel became an unexpected favorite of his; why he included an 11-page bibliography at the end of the book; and how this version of the novel differs from the one he self-published several years ago.

Question: The amount of historical detail in THE BLOODLESS BOY is quite impressive. Was there a historical novel you read in your younger days that set you on the path of wanting someday to write one of your own?

Robert J. Lloyd: I read all of Ronald Welch’s historical novels as a boy, which followed various generations of the Carey family, especially sons going off to war. I learned about the Third Crusade in KNIGHT CRUSADER, the Battle of Crécy in BOWMAN OF CRÉCY, Elizabeth I’s wars against Spain in THE HAWK and THE GALLLEON, the British Civil Wars in FOR THE KING, the Battle of Blenheim in CAPTAIN OF DRAGOONS, the French and Indian War in MOHAWK VALLEY, the French Revolution in ESCAPE FROM FRANCE, the Peninsular War in CAPTAIN OF FOOT, the Crimean War in NICHOLAS CAREY, the Indian Mutiny in ENSIGN CAREY, the Zulu War in ZULU WARRIOR (not a Carey novel), and World War I in TANK COMMANDER. All together, they taught me that a) the British love to be at war, and b) history interests me. (Although my BA degree was in Fine Art, I switched to history for my MA degree.)

I read various other historical novels as a child --- Rosemary Sutcliffe comes to mind and Sven Hassel (I read far too young) --- but it’s the Welch books that stand out in my mind. I’ve reread a few of them recently, including the one most pertinent to my writing now, FOR THE KING. They stand the test of time and are still a joy to read.

One novel I’d like to mention --- although I wasn’t that young when I read it --- is the book that spurred me into writing THE BLOODLESS BOY. Finishing LEMPRIÈRE’S DICTIONARY by Lawrence Norfolk inspired me to sit down and open Microsoft Word on that first, fateful day.

Q: In your Author’s Note, you explain that a number of areas in the book adhere to history, while certain incidents sprung from your own imagination. Is there one incident in the story that you feel was an especially creative use of history on your part?

RJL: The unexplained death (whether murder or suicide is open to debate) of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate whose death was taken as proof of the existence of Titus Oates’ “Popish Plot,” was definitely the starting point. I decided I would have him investigating a fictional murder in his last days. My book offers a fictional and fanciful explanation for his death. To step aside slightly from the historical version, I’ve called him Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, a variant spelling of the time. I also moved the scene of where his body is found.

Being a historical fiction author is slightly odd, especially as to where you choose to draw your lines. I remember spending a day researching whether the faucet on Shaftesbury’s silver pipe, which drained matter from a cyst above his liver, was made of brass or copper, as I had two conflicting sources. In the end, it’s just described as a “tap.” Yet I’m quite happy to conflate or reorder events, and invent characters as it suits me.

Q: If “Revivifying” real people was your mission in THE BLOODLESS BOY, can you choose one of the book’s historical figures who unexpectedly became a favorite of yours by the time you had completed the writing?

RJL: Hortense Mancini! I liked her so much that I decided to make her a main character in the sequel.

Having fled from a very unhappy marriage, Hortense rekindled her relationship with Charles II --- she had turned him down when he proposed marriage to her before his restoration, as he was too poor --- but then proceeded to behave outrageously in London, cross-dressing, sword fighting, gambling and taking lovers of both sexes, including the King’s daughter. Even after she died, she continued to have adventures; her husband kept her body and took it with him on his travels.

Q: Your co-protagonist Robert Hooke, the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, made enough of an impact to warrant no fewer than 15 books cited in your bibliography. What about his intrepid assistant, young Harry Hunt?

RJL: Harry Hunt was Robert Hooke’s apprentice, and then he became an Operator of the Royal Society, the Keeper of its library and eventually Curator. He was Hooke’s lifelong friend. Yet little is known of him. A few of his drawings and paintings (he was a skilled illustrator) survive in the Royal Society’s archives.

This lack of information has allowed me to create a rather full life for Harry. I hope I have turned him into a sympathetic main character: slightly unsuited to the life of an Operator, being too squeamish, and desperate to impress Hooke and other Fellows of the Royal Society. He’s anxious to better himself, in his own eyes as well as in Grace Hooke’s, as he moves from youthfulness to becoming “his own man.”

Harry has certainly changed considerably by the end of THE BLOODLESS BOY from who he is at the start.

Q: Speaking of bibliographies, this book features an 11-page one at the end --- rather unusual for a historical novel. What motivated you to feature these citations?

RJL: Historical fiction writers rely on the work of historians. The bibliography is a thanks and acknowledgement to them. Twenty years of research went into writing THE BLOODLESS BOY. Once I had a structure, and events were clearer in my mind, I knew what I needed to find out.

This led me to buying a lot of books! I needed information on Robert Hooke and the early Royal Society, on 17th-century London and its inhabitants’ everyday lives, on the Civil Wars, and on the politics of the time. I enjoy finding gaps in the historical record and when historians contradict each other, as I’m always looking to insert some fiction. I couldn't really justify to myself leaving some books out when I had referred to them as much as any other. Hence the rather long bibliography.

Q: You seem to be particularly fond of His Royal Highness, King Charles II. What was one of the most rib-tickling facts you discovered about him while doing your research?

RJL: Although I knew that Charles II approved of the Royal Society of London --- the clue is in the name --- I didn’t know, until further research, that he was a keen experimental philosopher himself. He even had his own “elaboratory” in Whitehall Palace. He also attended anatomy demonstrations and enjoyed ideas and debate around the “new science.”

But Charles’ enthusiasm didn’t stop him from teasing the Fellows. In his diary, Pepys reports, “Gresham College he mightily laughed at for spending time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.”

Charles was a very clever and shrewd man, I think --- as proven by his political canniness --- as well as a personally brave one. But I’ve taken advantage particularly of his philosophical interests to further the plot of THE BLOODLESS BOY.

Q: This version of the novel contains some new material not present in your self-published edition from several years back. Which elements of the original story were you particularly glad could be expanded in this new version?

RJL: The version I originally approached literary agents with was 150,000 words. After various publishers expressed interest but wanted it edited down, that became around 100,000. Encouraged by Melville House Publishing, I’ve been able to restore and add new detail on my “baddies,” who had become a little cardboardy. The Earl of Shaftesbury and his secretary John Locke (the book is set before the publication of any of Locke’s philosophy) were both fascinating characters, and deeply involved in the political controversies of the times, as King Charles II sought to take away many of the powers that Parliament had gained during and after the Civil Wars.

They also campaigned vigorously for “Exclusion,” wanting to keep the King’s Catholic brother from inheriting the throne after Charles’ death. How far they were involved in instigating or promoting the “Popish Plot” is difficult to judge. I suspect a lot of evidence was destroyed. Certainly, letters by both of these men become very sparse during this time.

I was also able to bring back some description --- hopefully not enough to slow the story down --- of London being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Robert Hooke, a close friend and colleague of Sir Christopher Wren, was at the center of this rebuilding. I deliberately include scenes at various buildings of his, including a fight scene at the top of his Monument to the Fire.