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Historical Mystery Writer MARTIN STEPHEN Interview

Written by Ayo Onatade

 

Martin Stephen is an academic, an author of over a dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is an experienced broadcaster and journalist who regularly writes for the newspapers.

Ayo:     For those readers that do not know much about you, would you like to give us a bit of background information about yourself? Martin:     A very boring story! I am High Master (&061; Headmaster in English) of St Paul’s School in London; author of fifteen or sixteen books on English Literature, poetry of the First World War and modern naval history, with some quirky other things such as an essay in a book entitled ‘Machiavelli and Modern Management Techniques’. I have just published the third novel in the Henry Gresham series and I am contracted for at least one more. I hated school when I was at it; my father sacked Alf Ramsay as England team manager; father was from Aberdeen and mother from Yorkshire, which is why I’m so broad-minded, flexible and, above all, generous.
Ayo:     You are a professional historian as well as being High Master of Manchester Grammar School, how do you manage to juggle all of this as well as writing? Martin:     I was High Master of MGS but moved to St Paul’s in September; glutton for punishment … I have always had teaching jobs that were a 16-hour day (I spent 16 years working in boarding schools) and always either done academic research or written books as my hobby, usually starting any work after 11.00pm and staying up late. It is how I relax, oddly.
Book Jacket, Galleons Grave Ayo:     How were you introduced to the genre of crime fiction? Martin:     I introduced me to it, I think, rather than the other way round. My wife said she was fed up with me writing academic books that sold a total of three copies and two of those to people who thought they had bought a Delia Smith book and only realised their dreadful mistake when they got home! She ordered a novel, and I desperately wanted to write a series of crime/espionage thrillers set in the late Elizabethan, early Jacobean period. It’s got huge unexplained historical mysteries - the Gunpowder Plot, the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the Spanish Armada’s defeat, and the death of Mary Queen of Scots - and it’s a time of extraordinary stark contrasts. Excremental filth on the same streets that contain some of the most beautiful buildings built in England, the fragile beauty of a Byrd mass alongside the unspeakable cruelty of hanging, drawing and quartering someone. I wanted to write Inspector Morse: Tudor Bethan Detective...
Ayo:     Who were your influences when you first started writing and which authors continue to influence you today? Martin:     From as long as I can remember I have read literally anything that came my way including everything that shouldn’t. If anything, I suppose I go back a long, long way to Harrison Ainsworth and Walter Scott as regards the crucial importance of trying to tell a good story. For the rest of it, I was consciously trying to do something quite new, which was to write what I hoped was a genuine thriller based on high profile historical events where the history was absolutely correct and the fictional version of events could actually have been the one that happened in history. Oddly enough, the nearest things I can think of are the brilliant Flashman books, though my primary intention isn’t comic.
Ayo:     How do your stories normally come about? Do you already have an outline or, in this case, a historical incident or do you just have an idea at the back of your mind and see where it takes you? Martin:     The stories suggest themselves in one sense. The only thing we can be certain of about the Gunpowder Plot is that it didn’t happen as history tells us it did. Similarly, we can be absolutely certain that the conventional account of how Shakespeare’s plays were written and whom they were written by is not the truth. Why did the Armada fail to rendezvous with the most powerful army in Europe? Was Mary Queen of Scots really stupid enough to write incriminating letters and try and hide them in a beer barrel? You don’t need to invent the stories: they’re waiting for you in droves. The fun is to make them as exciting as a story that is purely fictional.
Ayo:     The Desperate Remedy is about the Gunpowder Plot and introduces readers to Henry Gresham, his faithful retainer Mannion and of course Jane. Where did the idea for the characters come from? Martin:     Henry Gresham is based on how Hamlet might have turned out if he’d lived, two real historical figures from the time and bits of my sons. The more unpleasant aspects of his character are based on me. Mannion is based on a composite of two people who behaved to me when I was a child very much as Mannion behaves to Gresham, and who performed the same service. Jane is based on my wife. The character of Cecil is based on someone I know and dislike intensely (the only such person, actually!), and when one or other of us dies I’ll happily let the cat out of the bag.
Ayo:     Henry Gresham is not only a courtier but also a “gentleman” spy, at that period in history it was quite a dangerous time and most people had to live on their wits. Was it your intention to make Gresham such a complex person? Martin:     Yes. It was an extraordinarily complex time. Gresham has little or no faith in anything, or so he tells himself, wants ties to no one and his only belief is in survival. In fact, though he fiercely denies it, he has this infuriating thing called a sense of honour and a capacity to be human that he actually dislikes. He’s also an adrenalin-junkie with something of a death wish. I feel I know him as well as I know myself.
Book Jacket, The Desperate Remedy Ayo:     Your first book The Desperate Remedy was short-listed for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award in 2002, were you surprised? Martin:     Yes, and really pleased. Don’t let any author tell you that these things are anything other than a huge boost to one’s self-confidence. I was also livid that Sarah Waters wrote Fingersmith at the same time (the winner of the prize), because it’s (dragging this out through clenched teeth) a brilliant book. What was even more annoying (even more clenched teeth, sounds of ivory snapping) was that she was a delight to meet at the awards ceremony, so I couldn’t even find grounds to hate her for winning.
Ayo:     Do you believe that it put added pressure on you when it came to writing The Conscience of the King? Martin:     Not that I was aware of. Strangely enough, the real pressure point is the time between the finished manuscript going off the editor and waiting to hear her response to it. The relationship with the editor is crucial, and if it is to work, it has to be a very honest one. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky (forgive the sycophancy, but it’s genuine) first of all with Tara Lawrence and now with Jo Cohen, but the more you respect and enjoy working with the editor the more their opinion matters. I envy authors who don’t care what people think about their books.
Ayo:     The Conscience of the King involves not only Shakespeare but also Marlowe, and covers the well-known issue of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and Marlowe’s alleged career as a spy. Do you enjoy Shakespeare yourself and what was the impetus for the story? Martin:     Shakespeare started the whole Henry Gresham series. I was at a superb performance of As You Like It at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and looked round and saw four or five hundred people of all ages utterly entranced by something written 400 years ago. It’s got to be magic, I thought, and the time he wrote in must have a huge amount to tell us. In addition, the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is the greatest detective story of all time. I hope people don’t just enjoy my version of it; I hope they believe it.
Ayo:     In the latest novel, The Galleon’s Grave, you go back in time to a period before Jane comes into his life. What made you decide to write about his earlier life? Martin:     I really miss Jane, but the crucial relationship with her can only come about because of what Gresham went through earlier in his life and the other women he met. I’d done the ‘mature’ Gresham; I really wanted to write about him when he was much younger. Moreover, Jane is a very, very prominent figure in the next, fourth book, provisionally called Icarus Falling: Henry Gresham and the Essex Rebellion; this book is the one that really defines their relationship. Just as, I hope, The Galleons’ Grave helps define and explain the relationship with Mannion.
Ayo:     What is the most important element for you when you are writing? Martin:     Quite simply, it is what I love doing. The time when I am writing is the best time of all; beaten only by the special moments we all have with family. In addition, I owe them, and my wife in particular, a huge debt for understanding and putting up with my craving to write books.
Book Jacket, The Conscience Of The King Ayo:     What do you enjoy the most when you are writing? Martin:     In thrillers, the challenge of plotting and the creation of atmosphere, and the hope that what you write might move someone. Ayo:     What is your biggest distraction when you are writing? Martin:     My family will tell you that nothing distracts me when I’m writing. I don’t even hear the phone.
Ayo:     What made you decide to write a series and not a stand-alone novel? Do you think that historical novels are easier to write as a series? Martin:     Fancy answer or the honest answer? Oh, go on then: honest answer: my agent said we had a far better chance of selling a series than a stand-alone. Moreover, why go to all the bother of inventing three characters that to you are completely real and then leave them to grow up on their own after one book?
Ayo:     What do you think of the state of historical crime fiction today? Martin:     I think it’s never been stronger, with some immensely strong talent coming along to add to the veteran names. There’s also some worrying thin stuff around, which sometimes thinks you light up a book by placing it in a historical period rather than by making you feel you’re in that historical period, living, eating, sleeping, breathing and smelling it.
Ayo:     If you could invite five historical characters and five authors to dinner who would they be and why? Martin:     Jesus; Shakespeare, for obvious reasons. Nelson Mandela (is he historical?) because he could have used power for vengeance but used it instead for econciliation and forgiveness; Charles Hamilton Sorley, the absolutely brilliant First World War poet; King Harold, of Battle of Hastings fame, because he had such a raw deal and because England would have been a better place if he had won. Authors? Shakespeare again, and Sorley. Val McDermid (she’s actually been!) because she’s brilliant. Tolkien, for the same reason. Also Jane Austen, because her books are unique but so is the apparent clash between what she was and what she wrote.
Books by Martin Stephen:
The Galleon’s Grave: Henry Gresham and the Spanish Armada
The Conscience of the King: Henry Gresham and the Shakespeare Conspiracy
Desperate Remedy: Henry Gresham and the Gunpowder Plot
© Ayo Onatade


 

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