Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Bard of the Windy City - an interview with David Blixt

David Blixt is relatively unknown in the UK but recent reviews of his books, one by myself and another by the Historical Novel Society have thrust him into the limelight.  His unique, unpretentious humour is a refreshing change to the genre of historical fiction and I have to say I cannot understand why he has not got a mainstream publishing deal!  He was awarded "Editor's Choice" in the last quarterly edition of the HNS Review Magazine for "Fortune's Fool" and I awarded him my highest accolade, The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield, for "Her Majesty's Will".  

David kindly took sometime out to answer some questions on his writing and has kindly given a copy of "Her Majesty's Will" as a giveaway prize!  Please comment on this interview, share the link on Facebook and Twitter to enter.  Full details can be found on my Giveaway Page!

1 - Can you tell us about your writing life?  How did you start?
When I was 11, I had a teacher who made us write fiction every Friday. Mr. Melby was his name. 200 word stories on a chosen theme. Then he started letting us choose the topics ourselves. I did a Tolkien/Starlin knock-off that spilled from page to page. I still remember it – terribly derivative, but lots of fun. After that, I never stopped writing. For my senior project in high school I wrote a comedic sci-fi novel (that will never see the light of day).

I didn’t discover Historical Fiction until I was 17, on a car trip with my father. He was listening to an audiobook of Colleen McCullough’s The First Man In Rome. I rolled my eyes and stared out the window, expecting to doze off. Instead I was entranced. In the following years, I was introduced to Bernard Cornwell, Raphael Sabatini, Sharon Kay Penman, Mary Renault, and Patrick O’Brian.  At 19, I was working on a novel when a woman I fancied said my writing reminded her of Jonathan Carroll. Seeing what he does in his books, his dark freedom and brutal honesty, I tried to capture that. But I’m not him. So I stopped writing for a bit, and focused on theatre instead. Which led me deeper into Shakespeare, already a passion.

Then the woman I would one day marry handed me Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game Of Kings and I found my home. I had never considered writing Historical Fiction before that moment. But seeing what she’s able to do with her world, her characters, her stories – she is the monarch of the genre, absolutely unparalleled – I suddenly had a framework for so many stories that lived inside my head. That was in the year 2000. I’ve been writing ever since.

2 - Do you have a favourite author and genre?
Apart from Historical Fiction and the authors named above, I’m a huge Dashiell Hammett fan (and by extension, the novels of Robert B. Parker, who modelled himself after Hammett and Chandler). I also feel the need this week to give a shout-out to the late Tom Clancy. He taught me how to write action sequences across a vast canvas.

In terms of Her Majesty’s Will, the biggest debt I owe is to a hometown friend, Robert Asprin. His Myth Adventures series is one of my favourites, and growing up in Ann Arbor, I got to meet and know him. His sense of the absurd and how to turn a story on its head served me very well in this ridiculous flight of fancy.

3 - Shakespeare is a huge passion of yours and your novel, Her Majesty's Will is a very light-hearted romp with the famous playwright as a central character.  How did you come to imagine him in such a role?
I’m drawn to gaps, holes in stories we all know. What caused the Capulet-Montague feud? What did Caesar and Brutus discuss at dinner the night before the Ides? So naturally I was intrigued by Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’, the time between his departure from Stratford until his first recorded mention in London. Where was he? What was he doing?  It was tempting to write a serious tome. But there have been too many of them, all too self-important. That was a trap I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to give a ‘fictional biography’, as they’re called. I wanted to tell a story. I looked at the events of those years and noticed the Babington Plot. The mental conversation that followed went like this:

‘Shakespeare as a spy? That’s absurd!’
‘But wait – wasn’t Marlowe a spy at this time?’
‘So they say.’
‘What if Shakespeare and Marlowe team up to foil the Babington Plot? A buddy comedy, like the Hope/Crosby Road movies.’
‘That’s totally ridiculous!’
‘Right-o. Get to work.’
‘Okay. I’ll need some tequila.’

I wrote the first several chapters, and had a ball. Then I took a break for a year, doing shows and working on another series. Then I came back and in the space of about a month finished the whole thing. In the process, I utterly debased Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful Will In The World. But I made a deal with myself. Accepting my utterly ridiculous premise, I had to stick to historical facts.

I’m also rather fatigued by Tudor novels, because they’re always about the court. I wanted Will and Kit to rub elbows with the scum of society – thieves, pimps, whores, and actors. A view of Tudor society from the bottom up. But I made sure to use real people. And I have to say, I was smiling as I wrote that whole book. I’m smiling now, thinking about it.

4 - You are a prolific writer, what else have you written?
One series is set in 14th century Verona, exploring all the characters of Shakespeare’s Italian plays, combined with the actual people of Dante’s time. I started with an odd inspiration from the end of Romeo & Juliet about the origin of the feud, but the research took me to fantastic heights. Three novels are out now – The Master Of Verona, Voice Of The Falconer, and Fortune’s Fool (Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice last August!). The fourth novel, The Prince’s Doom, is coming in January.

I’ve also got a series set in first century Rome and Judea, about the destruction of Jerusalem, the building of the Colosseum, and the birth of the Roman Church. Those are the Colossus books. The third will be out next summer.

There’s also a play called Eve Of Ides, which will be published in November. Plutarch tells us that the night before his assassination, Caesar went to a dinner party at Lepidus’ house. Brutus, Antony, Cassius, and Trebonius were all there. My biggest problem with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is that Caesar and Brutus never have a conversation. We never see how Brutus gets to the point of saying, ‘It must be by his death.’ So my play does that.
I have some short stories as well, some historical, some not. My Pinocchio-inspired story Remember Me will be published by Grey Matter Press in November.  At this moment, I’m about 5 years behind my brain. There are at least three stand-alone novels I desperately want to write, as well as continuing the series. I have a sequel in mind for Will & Kit, with the worst title in the history of the world: Will’s Will Will. It’s a riff on Love’s Labour’s Lost, and pits Will and Kit against the Spanish Armada.

5 - How do you research your books?  Are there any specific resources that you return to time and time again?

Each series has its touchstones. I already mentioned Greenblatt. There’s also Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. Shakespeare’s Songbook I use constantly. I read a lot of Ian Mortimer. Will and Ariel Durant are priceless. And I learn a lot from my fellow writers, constantly. But the best is to walk in the places I’m writing about. London, Verona, Rome – these are cities I know well, and love. I try to include in-jokes for locals, whenever possible.

But clearly my biggest influence is Shakespeare himself. I’ve been fortunate, as an actor, to do perform in two-thirds of the canon so far, and many of them repeatedly (over 30 R&Js at this point – yikes!) Familiarity has not bred contempt – far from it. I didn’t want to be too tongue-in-cheek about the plays, but I did want to plant the seeds for some scenes and characters. His love of the common man is so clear, even as he fears mobs and hypocrisy. I wanted to root that in some reality.

6 - What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Kill your darlings.
If you’re bored by what you’re writing, make something unexpected happen. If you’re not interested, your reader won’t be either.
Characters dictate the action, and their motives matter.
Always flout the reader’s expectations.
And write.

7 - Which three historical figures, either real or imaginary, would you invite to a dinner party?

Caesar, Shakespeare, and FDR.

8 - At which event in history would you have liked to been a fly on the wall?

Oh, the assassination of Caesar. But even more, I would have loved to be present at the moment the first Brutus threw out the Tarquin and refused the crown, setting up the Roman Republic. So much of Western history stems from that moment. I would love to see that first hand.
Thanks for having me! Let’s get together when I’m in London next fall. I’ll buy.

Now go to my Giveaway Page to enter my latest competition to win one of David's books!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Review - Her Majesty's Will by David Blixt

Before he found fame as a playwright and poet, Will Shakespeare was a schoolmaster.....and not a very successful one.  He barely got through each day until one night he saw a woman being assaulted.  Except the woman looked rather tall and powerful for a tavern wench.  He blunders into the fracas, saving the woman from her attacker only to discover that the woman is, in fact, a man.  The disguised fellow is on a secret mission and the fate of the Queen, and England itself, in jeopardy.

The spy is Kit Marlowe and he cajoles his new friend into helping him secure the realm.  What follows is a jaunt of one haphazard calamity to another, good humour and derring-do of "Shakespearian" proportions!


As a keen reader of historical fiction, I sometimes wonder if the genre takes itself too seriously.  The books are always serious, deathly plots and treachery abound yet David Blixt's "Her Majesty's Will" is most definitely a shot in the arm.

I found myself smiling on every page as Shakespeare and Marlowe became a parody of themselves, akin to a Tudoresque Morecombe and Wise as they inadvertently muddle their way through various escapades and scrapes with death.  Blixt has a talent for light hearted prose that is rich in detail, with inventive plotting and vibrant, colourful characters.  

Blixt is a very talented author who deservedly won the "Editor's Choice" award in the Historical Novel Society's Independent Review for his book "Fortune's Fool" and whilst I haven't read that particular tome, if it is as exciting and well written as "Her Majesty's Will", then I will be buying it shortly.

Take a chance and read something that is well researched, historical and - yes - funny.  You will not be disappointed.

I give "Her Majesty's Will" 5 Crosses and award David Blixt "The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield" for writing an original novel which will have you laughing out loud.

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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Review - The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

The year is 1193 and Lord Robin of Locksley returns home after years of fighting in the Holy Land.  He has changed from the headstrong, hedonistic boy that committed a crime and was sent away as punishment.  Where there was once a boy, a man now stands.

However, in the time he has been away his father has died and his lands have been usurped.  The county is in turmoil as the Vipont family and their supporters squeeze the local villeins and serfs for every penny in tax and fine them heavily for any transgression - however small.  Innocent people are condemned to hang just for standing up for their rights and Robin begins to realise that as a lord, he has a responsibility to defend the people whom he once ruled.

He tries to regain his lands legally, but when he uncovers a plot between the Viponts and the John, Count of Mortain to wrestle the crown from King Richard his life becomes threatened and he is banished from the Locksley Estate.  A cold blooded murder finally pushes Robin into a corner, when the only thing he can do is what he does best......fight.


The tale of Robin Hood is one that everyone can recite.  Will Scarlette, Friar Tuck, The Sheriff of Nottingham and Maid Marian are all well known characters whose part in the tale are well known.
However, Lauren Johnson, cleverly twists the characters in this imaginative reworking of the legend and not all the usual suspects play their pantomime roles.

The author is a historian and it shows as her accuracy to the period is exceptionally accurate.  Combined with a natural flair for story-telling, The Arrow of Sherwood is a very impressive debut by the Bristol born author.  Being very interested in this period of history, I am always drawn to stories like this but even though the legend of Robin Hood is well known, this is a refreshing and unique perspective and one that deserves to be read.

I am proud to give the Arrow of Sherwood 5 Crosses and bestow Lauren Johnson with the Golden Hammer and Anvil Shield for writing a very impressive debut novel which surprises and thoroughly entertains.
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