30 September 2014

Q&A: Robert Wilton (author of Traitor's Field)

The number of historical fiction authors choosing the English Civil War period as a backdrop is increasing. By my reckoning over 30 novels (where the story is set somewhere between 1635-1660) have been published since 2010, compared with around 15 in each of the previous two decades (see my list). Partly this is due to the explosion in print and digital self-publishing, but also reflects mainstream publishers' increased appetite for novels set in the 17th century.

Robert Wilton's Traitor's Field (2013) concerns the rivalry between two military intelligence agents operating during the Interregnum. I asked Robert about how he came to write about the 1650s, what particularly intrigued him about intelligence during the period, and what guides his writing and research ...

Struan: Your novel prior to Traitor's Field, Treason's Tide, was set in the Napoleonic era. What drew you to the 17th century?

Robert: The accounts of the activities of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey show what was happening in the shadows of different crises of British history. When I was wondering which period to focus on next, I happened to see a book about the civil wars on a shelf at home. That got me thinking about how an organization that has always been the power behind the government - the eternal force for stability and continuity - navigated the transition from divine right monarchy to Cromwell's republic.

And the more I read about a period I had thought was pretty familiar, the more I got caught up by just how extraordinary a period it was - not only the military and political upheaval, but the explosion of ideas.

S: The story concerns two men working in military intelligence, though on opposing sides of the conflict: John Thurloe and the Royalist Sir Mortimer Shay. How did the idea for this rivalry come about?

R: Cynically, a rivalry across the lines between two individuals is a handy way to represent tension and conflicting ideas between two systems. And I wanted to capture some of that wider tension - the storm of ideas, a kind of battle for the soul of Britain. Then, of course, they were both rather extraordinary men: Shay the implacable, larger-than-life veteran of the thirty years war and infinite misdeeds; Thurloe the product of the new age, a man able to make a career by helping to make a new world, and gradually coming to terms with the power of the old.

Robert Wilton. Photo © Elizabeth Gowing.

S: In the novel we see the thought processes Thurloe undergoes in trying to crack enemy codes and cyphers, both of which were used extensively in the English Civil War. How deeply did you explore this fascinating area of the conflict before setting pen to paper?

R: I think what really struck me was what the spread of printing meant for those who might want to control or distort information. Previously there had been one official truth - one orthodoxy about government or religion - and you accepted it or you were in trouble. With the inter-related spread of print and new theories of politics and of religion, that changed for ever. Not just the news-sheets, but pamphlets and even the ballads that would do the rounds of the taverns. So many more people were exposed to so many more sources of information. That's seen as a positive thing, but it means that people were now having to choose what to believe; they were being offered rival versions of the truth. It's fertile ground for propagandists - and for spies.

I included documents from the archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey because I wanted the reader to have the same experience - to have to make the same choice of what might be true, or what truth might be hidden among the lies ...

S: Early in the book there's a vivid description of the Siege of Colchester. Were there any particular resources you referred to when writing about the siege, or the period referred to as the 'Second Civil War' in general?

R: I'm probably supposed to be a bit fuddy-duddy about the internet, but it is rather brilliant - particularly if one's trying to recapture the atmosphere and historical detail of seventeenth century Britain while sitting on a terrace in the Balkans. Pictures and maps as well as textual sources. For the Doncaster/Pontefract scenes, including the Royalist raid and the death at the heart of the mystery, I found an excellent history of Pontefract written only a hundred years or so later.

I was able to mix some detailed accounts of key events with some of the primary sources, which give a special sense not only of what was happening but also of how people spoke and thought.

S: The mystery surrounding the death of Parliamentarian officer and Leveller Thomas Rainsborough is a key strand of the novel. What interested you about Rainsborough in particular when researching this element of the plot? Did your opinion of him develop at all during your research?

R: I think it did. He started as a promising plot point: in my early reading I'm always looking for the true moments of mystery, so Rainsborough's unexplained killing was immediately appealing - the drama of his death, cut down in the street in strange circumstances, and the confusion that began to surround it when people started to look at the details. (The solution that I offer at the end of the book does seem to fit all the facts; I can't claim more.)

Then I started to learn more about him: a controversial figure, certainly, and perhaps a bit of a brute; when he was shifted into the Navy his crew mutinied. At the same time he was an icon for the Levellers - his funeral, thousands of men marching, was a massive public demonstration of loyalty - and therefore of significant potential threat to the authorities.

That all fueled the mystery of his death. Then you read his speeches in the Putney debates, and it's the most wonderful oratory of liberty. 'For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government'. It was revolutionary stuff; and wonderful. No wonder they were scared of him.

Michael Fassbender as Thomas Rainsborough in Channel 4's The Devil's Whore (2012).

S: The narrative jumps between a number of different viewpoints and also includes primary sources to help develop the plot. To what degree do you map out your story before beginning writing?

R: Never as much as I'd like. For some reason I always start with a strong idea of the opening and a pretty strong idea of the ending, and not a clue about how to join them up. When there's a rich mix of characters, and different strands of plot, and of course the framework of historical events, it's a bit of a headache to fit them together and I usually end up with some kind of visual plan - almost literally a map showing how the different people and events link up.

There can be a tricky balance between wanting to let the characters and their stories develop naturally, and wanting to capture some of the richness of the contemporary world, and wanting to keep the story moving with excitement and energy.

It sounds terribly sophisticated, but there's always a moment when I realise I've put Oliver Cromwell in London when history knows he was in Ireland, or I need a character to ride from Edinburgh to York in about twenty minutes; then I have to go into a corner and weep quietly at the futility of it all.

S: You've worked in a number of government departments, including the Ministry of Defence. How has your career helped or influenced your writing of historical fiction?

R: I think it's given me a sense of what might be going on behind the scenes, behind the politics, behind the history that we think we know: the banal but also the surprising; the extraordinary but also the deeply ambiguous. I wanted the Comptrollerate-General novels to be a kind of celebration of the unsung officials who've kept the country stable over the centuries; but as the novels develop it always seems to end up that the unsung officials are incompetents, rogues or traitors.

S: In which century will your next novel be set?

R: The Spider of Sarajevo is set in the last mad weeks of summer 1914, before the world leapt over the precipice into war. With Europe in crisis, an old man in Whitehall sends four young agents out across the continent on a mission they don't fully understand themselves. The old man is gambling with their lives - with his own secret organization - in a last attempt to get Britain ready for the war he knows is coming. The stories of the four agents converge on Sarajevo, on the 28th of June and one of the turning points of history.

Robert Wilton is a writer, diplomat, poetry translator and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity. Of the prize-winning Comptrollerate-General novels, Treason's Tide, Traitor's Field and The Spider of Sarajevo are all available as real books and electronically (follow @ComptrollerGen). He divides his time between Cornwall and the Balkans.


Thanks to Robert for taking time to answer my questions, and to Corinna Zifko and Alison Davies at Atlantic Books.

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