Thursday, August 18, 2016

Author Toby Venables

Today here at Modern Medievalist we have a new and interesting subject for our blog. We are speaking with Toby Venables, British writer, journalist, and screenwriter. He has a very interesting series of medieval books he has published, with what we consider a unique take on both medieval and familial history. -(He turns Robin Hood into a villain!)

Toby Venables' author's page at Amazon:

MM:Welcome Toby!

TV:Thank you sir for having me.

MM: Let's start off with a real basic question for our American readership who might not be familiar with your writing career shall we?

Where is Toby Venables from? Because I have a feeling your familial history influences your medieval fiction.

TV: Well, I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire in the UK, and then studied in Cambridge (at Anglia Ruskin University, not the other place) before spending most of my working life there - with quite a bit of traveling thrown in. But you're right about ancestry... I don't often congratulate people who question my heritage, but I'm glad you did! Going back to the first person who had the name Venables, named Gilbert, you find he was a son of the Count of Blois, and related to the Norman Dukes. He was a younger son, though, and inherited nothing.

His uncle Roger gave him a village in Normandy, though - called Venables - which seems to have involved some service to Duke William (later King William I of England) as this was a favorite hunting ground of his. From there, Gilbert de Venables, as he now was, served as a knight under William and after the Conquest was made Baron of Kinderton, in Cheshire. Hopefully, I will write his story one day...

There was also a later Venables in the area – Sir Thomas, whose dates are a bit vague – who slew a dragon. Apparently there's a medieval wooden screen in a local church commemorating this victory.

MM:Now that is something one doesn't get to say usually about an ancestor... Dragon Slayer! And it is also one of the aspects of the Modern Medievalist world as I call it, where there are still ties to the medieval world all around us, as there are extant and thriving Norman families alive and well in England today.

TV: Many in fact.

MM:Since you are in fact descended from Norman ancestors, did this impact your writing at an overt or subconscious level?

TV: I think that research fired my imagination and made me think about the realities of that time. Also, the gaps in the history - and there are more gaps than history when you go back that far - frustrated me, but the effect of that was positive. I realized some things could not be pinned down with any certainty, but as a novelist I can fill those gaps with stuff that makes sense, and is very likely true, if unverifiable. Some details from that research have snuck into the Gisburne stories. The hero's mentor is called Gilbert, and Gisburne's training takes place within a stone's throw of Venables (the village). But really the influence isn't about specifics so much as about inspiration, and a sense of connectedness.

MM: One of the hardest things for a writer of fiction to create is an understandable world. And I realize having to recreate a world which only exists in obscure library shelves and in museums had to be hard. Which was harder? Recreating the medieval world or making a likable protagonist out of Gisburne?

TV: I'm not even sure I can track the development of the character of Gisburne. It just kind of happened. With that, the key thing is that it grows out of his reality and makes sense within it, so setting those initial parameters is the crucial part – which really comes down to the world building. The two are – or should be – intimately connected. There was a kind of 'concept' stage with him at the very start, because a) he's a character who already exists and b) this was to be an inversion of the traditional dynamic, and that had to make sense. 

There had to be real reasons why Gisburne was 'good' and Hood was not, which also (I decided) had to be tied into the historical reality of the times. The 1190s, mainly. That actually made it easy; unlike the king in the film versions of the stories, Richard the Lionheart was a total bastard who cared not one jot for England or the English. But he knew how to win battles. Who would admire a man like that? Well, Hood would - if Hood was a similarly psychopathic bastard! So, then the world building began in earnest, and that was a whole different kettle of fish. Lots of research - some totally unnecessary, I expect! 

MM: As a personal note. I have long been what I think you would call a Ricardian, (An admirer of Richard III.) I believe a lot of history has been written by those who either worked for the winning side or wanted to make coin or connections favorable to them. Case in point William Shakespeare working for the Granddaughter of Henry VII, and his play Richard III which made him out to be one of the super villains of the high medieval period. As a result I like seeing another perspective on history, especially where a beloved character or historical personage is maybe treated differently than our beloved films and books have lead us to view them.

TV: This also means making Prince John 'good', which is more of a challenge - but when you look into it, he clearly was no worse than many medieval kings, and better than some. He was just hated in his own time and soon after, and the chroniclers really laid into him.

MM: On his (Richard the Lionheart) way back from the Holy Lands, he was forced to take the land route back home. Richard was captured by Leopold V Duke of Austria for slighting his standard at Jerusalem and for the possible murder of his brother-in-law Conrad of Montferrat. As a result, he was held for ransom (100,000lbs) of silver, for a staggering amount of money-roughly $24 million in today's market. This in essence left Prince John the bad guy for having to help his brother and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine raise the funds for his freedom. Which from many accounts absolutely beggared the English crown and her possessions. Which should help readers understand why Prince John was so hated. And why there was such poverty in England at the time. 

*It could also be argued Richard's lust for battle set up the conditions which brought about the Magna Carta, and subsequent First Baron's War.

TV: There's also the contrast with Richard, who won lots of battles but was never actually in England long enough for people to start hating him (as the people in his French domains did, and continually rebelled). What's funny is that those awful taxes that John imposes in the Robin Hood stories were actually Richard's doing. He sold everything he possibly could to finance his crusade, and once said he'd have sold London if he could find a buyer. That's how much he cared about it! 

MM: It didn't hurt Richard was also Eleanor's favorite son.

TV: True. She also makes a cameo appearance in the “Red Hand.” But basically the manuscript was too large and I had to cut her portion of the story away. However if readers would like to view it, I have that chapter on my blog where they can read the “deleted scenes.”

MM: How did this story come to life? Or rather a book is oftentimes created because of an author's vision and an editor (publisher) having faith and the ability to “see” what the story is trying to convey. Who is responsible for this?

TV: First of all, I must acknowledge the part played by Jason Kingsley - the reigning monarch of Rebellion - whose initial idea it was to have Gisburne as a hero. Also David Moore, my editor, who took that idea, shaped it, and brought it to me to see if I was interested in pitching for it. Without them, none of this would have been possible. It just so happened I had been thinking about new ways to tell the Robin Hood story - having been frustrated by Ridley Scott's backtracking - and jumped at the chance.

Right from the start, I saw it as a kind of proto superhero story, with Gisburne as a Dark Knight figure, determined to fight to keep order, and Hood as a kind of Joker figure, who really did just want to watch the world burn. Gisburne is also a tragic hero. We remember Hood as the hero, and I wanted that reality to be part of it – Hood is not a force for good, but somehow we remember him that way, and Gisburne becomes the bad guy in the legends. 

So, it became a story about history, and about legends, and about how these two things are made, and evolve. Initially, that was to be a series, as with many Abaddon books, but after the first book I felt I wanted a story arc, rather than an ongoing soapy 'story of the week' thing. It's big. It needs that. So we decided a trilogy was best. The last of these is being written right now, and is called simply 'Hood.' -And there will be blood spilled!

*Quick interjection-Jason Kingsley OBE is the owner of Rebellion. He and his brother own Abbadon publishing a fantasy/science fiction imprint, a video game production house and is also the owner of the 2000AD comics which owns the Judge Dredd franchise. Kingsley is also a dedicated medieval historian, researcher and long time jouster. He sits on the board of governance for the Royal Armouries, which is the United Kingdom's national museum of arms and armour.

MM:In addition to Jason Kingsley 'seeing' your vision, how else did he help you? And have you two actually met?

TV: Well, believe it or not, I have never actually met him! I had heard about Abaddon – an imprint out of Rebellion – and wrote a zombie novel for them set in the Viking period (once again, far more research than was strictly) necessary - The Viking Dead.Then the Gisburne idea came up, and as that developed I started to converse with Jason online about medieval matters.

Mostly I was hassling him with trivial questions about medieval life. And weapons. Lots of weapons. I know a lot more about these things than I did at the start, but the one area about which I knew nothing at all was horses. Clearly, without horses, there can be no knights, so I have bent his ear about equine matters on numerous occasions, and there is no better ear to bend on this subject! He keeps saying I should visit and see his horses in action, which I really must do...

Hunter of Sherwood Book #1 
MM: What do you attribute to the ever growing fascination with all things medieval?

TV: I think it also comes down to very practical concerns. The world becomes more electronic, more virtual. The moving parts are no longer physically accessible – in fact, there are no moving parts - and at the same time we are engaging more and more with places, people and events who we do not meet and which we often cannot influence. The world is literally slipping out of our grasp.

That sounds melodramatic, but what it inspires in us is a desire to return to a more tactile world, where things are in our hands. That is not necessarily a historical period, but there are historical period where this state was the norm. If you wanted something done, you did it. If you wanted it made, you made it, and if it broke, you could fix it. These days, we make so little that is material, so it doesn't surprise me that we crave this immediacy and contact.

The anxiety of this growing disconnectedness is, I think, behind our fascination with zombies - and the answer to the zombie apocalypse is always to get out of the city, become self-reliant - know how to grow food, light fires, build – give up consumer goods (or die in a shopping mall) and carry an edged weapon. In other words, to survive zombies, you need to become more medieval.

The Viking Dead

MM: How did your research into arms and armour influence your writing? Such as did you ever don an Aketon or a Haubergeon/Hauberk of mail?

TV: One of the research processes for me has been gathering bits of kit so I know what they look and feel like. This is Gisburne's kit, so it's partly me thinking 'What would he carry? What would he need?' and partly just understanding those objects and the people who used them. I took up the longbow, I have an entire scrip bag full of stuff. It's Gisburne's traveling bag, with eating utensils, fire making kit, sewing kit for ongoing repairs to clothing and body, everything. There's even a 12th C razor in there, which was made for me by the legendary Tod of Tod's Stuff. He also made me Gisburne's eating knife - and important part of the story!

I also have a sharp sword, a mace, a dagger, and am pulling together bits of armour as my bank account will allow. One is a Spangenhelm with a faceplate, of a style that Gisburne could have worn (and it's the unfussy, practical style he would choose). This helmet is entirely supported by the neck and weighs a bloody ton. I know that if I wore this for an hour, I would have the mother of all headaches. But it's better than losing your head altogether. I should also add there is a mail coif and arming cap which goes under the helm.

Tolerances were different then. That's what becomes immediately clear. And yes, I've worn a hauberk, though have yet to own one! Putting stuff like this on speaks volumes. It's instant learning. With the helm, for example, the adjustment of the straps dictates the position of the eye holes, which in turn may dictate whether you live or die. It's those kinds of details that come home to you and give you respect for the people who lived through those times.

MM: Who or what have been your biggest literary influences?

TV: That's a complicated one, because many of the biggest influences aren't literary... I have been involved with film in one way or another – writing screenplays, reviewing, interviewing, teaching film at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge – for some time, and many of my points of reference are cinematic. When I am writing, I visualize – think of it as a film, really. The Gisburne books draw on a whole variety of influences, including Indy, Bond, The Dark Knight... (I actually quoted The Italian Job in the first book, but that was just mischief, really.

Having said that the medium is words, which need a style, and a texture. This has been shaped by years of writing as a journalist - partly just in terms of getting it done - and is informed by more influences than I can really quantify, but writers whose styles I love include Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Bruce Chatwin and Stephen King. They're all quite pragmatic writers who mostly strive for simplicity. In the realms of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell is one of the few currently writing who really matters to me. Sometimes I encounter stuff that reads like 300 pages of research, but much as I love research I don’t really want that from a novel. Cornwell has that research in spades, but he knows it’s not really about that – that it’s about a great story, with great characters. And he just gets on with it, with that same pragmatism and simplicity. 

Pragmatism and simplicity are both qualities I greatly admire.And Beowulf. The Viking Dead was hugely influenced by my love for Beowulf - alliterative kenning and all...

MM:What does the future hold for Toby Venables?

TV: The next novel I want to write is a zombie saga set in late Victorian London and combines everything I love about that period. Starts out with a real, recognizable 1880s London, then gradually warps it, then destroys it. And goes all steampunk in the process. It's called Zombie & Son. I'm known for horror novels, but also (by quite a different audience) for historical adventure stuff. I hope this might draw those two together.

I would like to thank Toby Venables for taking the time to speak to Modern Medievalist today. We appreciate his willingness to give of his time, and share his work with us.

Each of the pictures in the article have a hypertext link which should take you to his various pages on Amazon. We will also include links to his personal blog, and his page at Abaddon Books.

Thank you Toby!

Toby Venables' Rebellion Profile

Toby Venables:

Venables' Blog-

Link to deleted scenes-

Hunter of Sherwood Novels on Facebook-

And the myth of the Moston Dragon, slain by Sir Thomas Venables-

Monday, August 15, 2016

Watch this space!


It has long been my stated goal to expand and reach a wider audience with the posts of this blog, and by way our Facebook page of the same name.

Events are now in motion where our ability to do just that are happening. I will refrain from giving details but a strategic partnership to use the common vernacular is soon to be a reality.

In the interim, I  will endeavor to keep providing interesting content of a modern medieval nature to you my friends.

All my very best!

DS Baker.