I am delighted to bring to Jaffareadstoo this feature which showcases
the work of authors who have based their work in the North of England
✴ Here's Northern writer : Alex Marchant ✴
Hi, Alex, a very warm welcome to Jaffareadstoo. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an author.
I’ve written fiction for as long as I can remember, since I was a child in Surrey, on the very edge of the London suburbs. Any time when not at school was spent either with my nose in a book, oblivious to all around me, or scribbling in old exercise books about fantasy worlds, animal stories or whatever period of history had most recently grabbed my attention.
I rarely finished anything longer than a short story and didn’t settle to a style or genre until, in my early twenties, I realized I wanted to write for children. But by then life was getting in the way – university, careers in archaeology then publishing, partner, house renovation, kids… It took a big birthday to remind me what I’d always planned to do when I grew up – and then I finally embarked on and finished my first children’s novel – a timeslip story titled Time out of Time. Since then I’ve completed two more – The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man – both published in the past year, and finally I’ve come to think of myself as an author.
Your historical fiction is written in northern England. How have the people and the northern landscape shaped your stories?
I moved to Yorkshire to be with my partner some years ago, and I realized only recently that I’ve now lived more of my life in the north than the south. One of my favourite authors, Susan Cooper, whose The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s books have a very strong sense of place – in Cornwall, Wales, Buckinghamshire – said that she found it much easier to write about places when she no longer lived there, having moved to the USA before she began her novels. I initially thought much the same – with Time out of Time rooted firmly in my childhood in Surrey.
But then came the inspiration for The Order of the White Boar – the rediscovery of the grave of King Richard III in 2012, and my subsequent decision to write a book for children telling the story of the real man rather than the grotesque Shakespearian villain. Before he became king, Richard spent most of his adult life ruling the north of England on behalf of his brother Edward IV, so it was obvious that my novel would have to be set here – at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale where Richard’s wife had her household, where their son was born and lived most of his short life, and Richard himself was largely based.
While the dale itself is a relatively gentle pastoral landscape, it’s surrounded by moorland not unlike the moors of so-called Bronte country where I live. So it’s easy enough for me, out on my daily dog walk, to imagine myself back in the fifteenth-century landscape where my characters lived, rode, hawked and hunted – among the bracken and bogs, curlews and hawthorn, bilberry and larks, and hearing the unearthly whooping of the oystercatchers wheeling overhead.
Having lived in both the north and the south now, I’m acutely aware of the north–south divide – and also that it’s existed for centuries. Richard was effectively sent to ‘tame’ the unruly north and, having lived so long there, when he moved back to the capital in 1483 he and his loyal followers were viewed with some suspicion by southerners. He is still seen as England’s only ‘northern king’. My lead character, his 12-year-old page Matthew Wansford, himself a merchant’s son from York, also becomes aware of the divide as he accompanies Richard to London and is told by a companion, ‘Close your mouth, boy, don’t gawp. You mustn’t let these Londoners think we northern folk are overawed by their paltry town.’ And after he sings for King Edward IV, the royal choir master says, rather patronizingly, ‘That was well sung, boy, though your pronunciation could bear some correction. I’m told that you accompanied my lord of Gloucester down from the north country. I think it would be possible to train that out of you if you were to join my choir.’ Several readers have commented that little has changed over the years.
In your research for your books, did you visit any of the places you write about and which have made a lasting impression?
I’ve always made a point of spending time in locations where my characters live or where scenes play out, even though many may have changed a great deal over the centuries. Having been a Ricardian for many years (someone who believes the king was maligned after his death), I had already visited most of the main places in the story of Richard’s life – particularly those in the crucial last two years – from his birthplace at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, to Middleham and York, to the place of his death at Bosworth and burial in nearby Leicester. Middleham has long been a favourite – and probably the place with most associations for Ricardians, as it was central to so much of his life – along with York, which he referred to as ‘home’ in letters. I visit both fairly often as neither is far away.
Less obvious as part of his story (and also less northern!) are two places in Suffolk that are important locations in The King’s Man. One, Gipping, is now no more than a farm and a beautiful tiny church. The other I decided might be the town where the climactic scene occurs, and when I visited – although hardly any medieval parts remain – I was amazed at the strong reaction I had in one particular place. Not quite the feeling Philippa Langley had when she stood on the R in the carpark that proved to be exactly where King Richard’s grave was located! – but a vivid impression that this was the place where my characters met their final challenge…
In a couple of weeks’ time I’m heading off to Belgium for some more research for the third book in the sequence, and then to an undisclosed location on the north-west coast of England ...
If you were pitching the North as an ideal place to live, work and write – how would you sell it and what makes it so special?
I can only really comment on my own experience in a semi-rural area of West Yorkshire – which has proved an energizing, inspirational place for my writing in recent years. I love the isolation of the windswept moors for walks with (or sadly, more recently without) my dog, where I can escape from day-to-day life and chores, blow away the cobwebs, and immerse myself in the fifteenth-century lives of my characters. And yet, for all the ‘Wuthering Heights’ atmosphere of the local area, I’m also only a short hop from major cities such as Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, with all the amenities and (multi)cultural attractions they provide.
|A view across Wensleydale|
As a writer based in the North, does this present any problems in terms of marketing and promoting your books, and if so, how do you overcome them?
I think with technology as it is nowadays, there are probably fewer problems than there might once have been. Traditionally UK publishing has been largely based in London, but small presses have sprung up all over the country. I’m self-published, so have to do all the marketing and promotion myself – resources on the internet and on-demand publishing of paperbacks mean my reach is effectively worldwide.
Writing is a solitary business – how do you interact with other authors?
Social media has been both a blessing and a curse! I’m sure I’m not alone in often wondering where my time has gone after a visit to Facebook or Twitter, but I have also ‘met’ so many other fabulous authors through these sites who can be very generous with their time and advice, and are happy to share promotions, etc. – and of course offer guest blog spots! (Thank you, Jo!)
There’s also a perhaps surprising number of Ricardian authors around. We have our own Facebook group, and we are also very active on general Ricardian groups on the web. Not only have many of us met face to face and shared stalls at various medieval festivals, we also sell each other’s books at other events too. And in just the past few weeks I’ve been delighted that a dozen have generously contributed pieces of short fiction inspired by King Richard to an anthology I’m editing to be sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK) – a charity chosen because Richard himself suffered from scoliosis, as discovered when his skeleton was examined.
The title of the anthology is Grant Me the Carving of My Name – a line taken with her permission from the poem ‘Richard’ by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and read at Richard’s reburial by Benedict Cumberbatch. And I’ve just received today a Foreword kindly written for us by Philippa Gregory, author of The White Queen. It’s been a great thrill that such well-loved authors have been so generous.
|Cover Image Grant Me the Carving of my Name|
Courtesy of Riikka Katajisto
How supportive are local communities to your writing, and are there ever opportunities for book shops, local reading groups or libraries to be involved in promoting your work?
It’s only been a year since The Order was published and I’ve been amazed at just how much support I’ve received, even as a newbie indie author who hasn’t much idea about marketing and promotion. I was fortunate early on to discover the Promoting Yorkshire Authors group on Facebook, which sets out to do exactly what its name says. It’s grown since I joined, from a couple of dozen, mainly indie, authors who were either born or currently live in the county, to more than a hundred, including traditionally published writers, who are working together to explore as many promotional opportunities as possible. So far my involvement has included a book sale in York, an interview with a fellow author for a podcast in front of a library audience, various library events and an upcoming book sale at the Todmorden literary festival. One of the founding members also reads from members’ books on his ‘Grandpa Joe’ YouTube channel. I’d encourage any writers with links to the county to check the group out. [http://www.promotingyorkshireauthors.com/]
I’ve also been lucky enough to tap into King Richard’s great popularity across the north, with two particularly exciting events in the past few months. I was invited to cut Richard’s birthday cake on his behalf when Middleham Castle celebrated his recent 566th birthday with a party.
|Alex cutting King Richard’s cake at Middleham Castle, October 2018|
In July I was asked to speak at primary schools in Barnard Castle when a local community group, the Northern Dales Richard III Group, generously donated copies of The Order of the White Boar to every Year 6 primary school leaver to celebrate the king’s links with their town. I’m hoping to be able to expand that to visits to schools and libraries in other areas with Ricardian connections. All I need now is a local costume-maker to create my very own authentic page’s outfit for such events!
|Barnard Castle schools visit, Teesdale Mercury, July 2018|
You can discover more about Alex and her writing by following the links below: