An Interview With Jack Whyte.

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E-Mail Interview April 2002.

Jack Whyte is the writer behind the Camulod Chronicles, which tells the story of Camelot, seen through the eyes of Merlyn, from Roman rule of the England, to his role in shaping a boy who would become King. Jack Whyte has so far written seven books in this series, and continues to do so publishing one book a year, starting with The Skystone in 1992, then the books The Singing Sword, The Eagles' Brood, The Saxon Shore, The Fort at River's Bend, The Socerer: Metamorphosis that follow, and his latest novel is Uther.
This interview is unedited, because there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here that I think anyone who enjoys books, life for that matter will get something out of this interview.

Q1. What inspired you to write?

Q2. What are your influences, what makes you want to write?

Same question, two different ways, but in reverse order with Q2 leading to Q1, and the answer to Q1 is that nothing "inspired" me to write. I never have believed in inspiration as a motivating force—at least, not in the sense generally understood by most people who talk about inspiration as an external force delivered internally to achieve a result, much as divine grace is used to achieve salvation.

As for the influences that make me want to write, I have simply never known a time when I was not fascinated by this English language of ours; with the way it operates and functions, and with the strength and complexity it offers us in expressing our ideas. The first rule of language I remember learning came from my mother when I was very young—probably before I went to school, although I can’t be altogether sure of that. She had taught me to read long before I was five, and one day she pointed to a word in a newspaper and asked me what it was. I had never seen the word before, but I can still remember learning it that day. It was pedestrian, and it was used in an advertisement warning people that in a contest between a pedestrian and a motor vehicle, the vehicle is going to win. She made me spell it aloud several times and then pronounce it, and then she delivered the lesson that was probably more important to me, in terms of my personal development, than anything else I ever learned. "Never use a word," she told me, "unless you can spell it and you know what it means." She probably editorialized on that, too, but that’s the message I remember and I stayed faithful to it all my life. I know she told me, by way of illustration, how much people love to feel superior to others, and how they’ll quickly identify any falseness or pretension in a speaker, and ridicule them for it. So I took her rule to heart. It meant I had to learn to use a dictionary at an early age, but that never seemed to do me any harm, and when I grew up a bit, whenever I saw the Readers’ Digest feature, "It Pays To Increase Your Word Power," I would read it avidly, but I seldom found any words in there I didn’t know already.

Probably as an outgrowth of my mother’s teaching, and certainly because I had a couple of brilliant and enthusiastic schoolteachers when I was in the primary grades, my favourite subject, between the ages of eight and eleven, was English and my favourite topics were grammar and usage. I loved spelling and syntax; particular analysis which involved the parsing and definition of parts of speech, and general analysis which involved the breakdown of sentence structure into clauses and component parts. I could spend hours analyzing, categorizing and defining, minutely, each individual word in a paragraph or in an entire page of text. That was my idea of fun, before I reached puberty, and I used to revel in it.

And then of course, there was my family as Influence. I come honestly from the grand Celtic storytelling tradition, born of a long line of Bards, tribal poets both Scots and Irish. In my grandparents’ generation, all the uncles and aunts on both sides were natural storytellers. Born in Scotland during the blacked-out nights of the Second World War, I grew up in a world where there was no television and even the radio was a relatively new invention . . . and I was in my teens when the very first commercial radio—Radio Luxembourg—came to be heard in Britain. Prior to that, there had been only the BBC—public radio broadcasting, commercial free. But that does not even begin to explain how different things were then. The phrase "Commercial free" implies that commercial radio existed, if only elsewhere. But it did not. "Commercial" broadcasting, the use of the medium to advertise goods and commodities, was an alien concept in Britain prior to the advent of Radio Luxembourg, and when it did begin to appear, over the course of the following years, people resented it and viewed it as a damnable imposition on their privacy—which in fact it was. But nowadays it’s the norm, and it is PBS, commercial-free, that seems bizarre.

But when I was growing up, during the War and during the Blackout, people provided their own entertainment, among themselves. Whenever there was a party—and someone was always throwing a party of one kind or another, regardless of rationing and irrespective of whether there was food or booze available—there would come a time in the proceedings when everyone, male and female, adult and child, would draw their chairs up in a wide circle and each person would rise in turn and perform their party piece. It didn’t matter how poorly you delivered yours, or how many times everyone had heard it, that was your piece, and you had every right to do it, to the extent of your ability. And people accepted that and lived by it, and an astonishingly small number of people had more than one single party piece. Even more astonishing was the fact that, of all the people who had an alternative, who could stand up and do something different to what they had done last time, fully ninety percent had only that one extra piece in their repertoire. To have three, or five or even, God Bless Us All, ten pieces at one’s command was seen as being little short of miraculous. So even as a kid, I was unusual for having a memory for lyrics, verses and stories that verged on the eidetic. I can still sing the songs today that I learned as a child, and I can quote entire texts and epic poems that I learned in school, and deliver them virtually free of errors.

I first learned to tell stories, in the visceral, narrative sense, by observation, by listening to the old storytellers in our village, and by listening to the material delivered at those parties.

While all that was going on, however, there was another series of events taking place in my life, off-stage, as it were. My father, a non-commissioned officer in a Regiment of the 51st Highland Division, was blinded in 1944, his eyes destroyed by an anti-tank mine, and he spent the following four years in rehabilitation, emerging in 1948 as a trained physiotherapist. From then on, everything in my world changed, and one of the most fundamental changes was a direct result of my father’s blindness. Never much of an intellectual before he lost his sight at the age of twenty-four, my father’s perspective on pretty much everything altered radically with the loss of his vision. Suddenly he realized—and very quickly—how important it is to have a good education. As a blind OR, which stood for Other Rank and meant anyone who was not an officer and therefore a gentleman, his future options were severely limited. The British Class System was still firmly in effect at the end of the war and everything in those days seems, looking back on it, to have been run by people who never wanted anyone to think they might be working class, and it was apparently taken for granted that disabled working class veterans were suited only for the most basic forms of employment, and that, in this instance, meant that my father was told he could either learn to hook rugs or weave baskets, and that he must learn to eat everything with a spoon because he was no longer capable (being blind) of using a knife and fork…

Now, my old man was a strong willed, stubborn character, and his response to being told what he was and was not capable of doing became something of a legend among his contemporaries at the rehabilitation centre where he lived. Suffice it to say that he continued to eat with a knife and fork and trained himself to use them so well that he could tell when he had a pea on the end of his fork. The only thing he really could not do was cut his own meat, since that requires being able to see, so someone else had to do that for him, but from then on he was fine.

As for the basket weaving and/or rug hooking, they were rejected immediately and he demanded to know what else was available as a possible career. Nothing, was the response. He was told, however, that had he been better educated, he might have been able to qualify for training as a physiotherapist. Long and the short of it, that’s what he became and the work he had to do to achieve his goal was little short of miraculous. He learned gross anatomy by listening to texts being read aloud to him, then learning and repeating them by rote. I can remember, at the age of six or seven, reading aloud to him from Gray’s "Anatomy," the standard anatomical textbook. I would read and he would listen, frowning. Sometimes he would stop me and ask me to repeat a sentence. Sometimes I would come across a word I didn’t know and I’d have to spell it for him, so he could tell me how to pronounce it. Then I’d read again and he would listen, and when he was ready, he would recite the paragraph back to me from memory and I would correct him on any errors. Time and time again, hour after hour, day after day . . . and I was seven. That reading experience largely set me up to read aloud all my life.

I say it largely set me up, because there was one other major influence at work on me throughout my boyhood. My father’s introduction to studying changed him forever and awoke in him a love for books and language that he had never known before, and so he learned to read Braille, but he also became a devotee of the Talking Book Library run by the National Institute for the Blind. God, how I loved to see those books arrive in the Post. They came on huge, double-sided, sixteen-inch, 16 rpm records, eight records to a shipping case, and sometimes there would be three or four cases of records for a single book . . . Readers Digest Condensed Books hadn’t become popular yet, in those days of the early Fifties—in fact, I don’t even think they were available in Britain—and so recorded books were recorded in full, with no abridgments.

The most exciting thing about this whole Library, however, was that there were so many blind and visually impaired veterans back then, right after the War, that all the famous British actors volunteered their services to record the books, and so I grew up, between the ages of eight and fifteen, listening to the greatest readers in the world reading the best books, and it was the voices of John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Mills, Eric Portman, and others that taught me about the human voice and its versatility. By the time I went to high school in England, I was utterly convinced that words were meant to be heard aloud and not read in silence.

So, there y’ are…. Some of the things that influenced me and made me want not only to write, but to read, and to read aloud, and to write things that are meant to be really heard . . . The shaping of a Storyteller.

3. Why did you want to rewrite the Arthur Legend?

Never did want to, and never tried to. And haven’t done it yet. I’d appreciate it if you would really think about that for a few moments, and mention it in whatever you choose to write from this input, because it’s really important to me and it seldom, if ever, gets mentioned. None of the seven books I have written to this point have dealt with the Arthurian legend, per se. They all pre-date the legend, because the legend of King Arthur really begins when the boy Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone—because he’s too lazy (we are asked to believe) to go all the way back to his uncle’s castle to fetch the sword his cousin Cay forgot to bring with him. Hey, if you’ll believe that, then I’ve no doubt you’ll also believe that any young knight, attending his very first jousting tournament, is likely to leave home without his sword and not realize what he’s done until he is on the point of climbing into the lists to fight for his honour and good name.

What I wanted to do, when I set out to write this series (and I originally thought it would only be one book,) was to explain and resolve the central mystery of the legend: the Sword in the Stone. Every version of the legend recognizes the story of the sword, and the belief that the man who pulled it from the stone in which it was magically set would demonstrate by doing so that he was the real King of Britain. I believed I had discovered the real secret of the Sword in the Stone, how it got into the Stone in the first place, and how the young man was able to pull it out, without magic and without fuss, in front of a large audience of people. So that’s what I set out to do, and as I went along, my research grew more and more intense, yet more and more eclectic and more and more exciting, and the story just kept getting bigger and bigger.

Even at its biggest bulk, however, A Dream of Eagles—the series’ name in Canada—is not about the Arthurian Legend. It is pre-Arthurian, and it’s an attempt to explain, against an authentic historical background, the laying down of the individual root elements of what would evolve, over the ensuing thousand years, into the legend of King Arthur and his Court at Camelot.

Q4. I like the character of Merlyn, was he based on anyone, as he is somewhat different to Merlin of other books that deal with the legend of King Arthur?

My Merlyn character is not based on any historical character—not consciously, at any rate, and I can think of no such character in the histories I’ve read. But he is a deliberate creation, designed and conceived to negate and cancel out the image of the sorcerer that Walt Disney and the Americans would have us see when we hear his name. Nowadays, I think of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and the other old wizard, Bumbledore or whatever, played by Richard Harris in Harry Potter, as filling that role rather well. I have always preferred to think that Merlyn’s magic was far more impressive than their kind of stuff. Merlyn’s magic, to me, was the magic of trained memory—the magic of education and knowledge, literacy and broad-based information in an age and at a time when literacy was being stamped out throughout the former Roman world and people were growing more and more ignorant—in the real sense of the word: knowing nothing and shrinking intellectually, rather than expanding. To illiterate peasants, a learned man must have seemed truly magical.

Merlyn also became who he is in my books because of another of my beliefs. I believe Arthur really lived, and I believe he lived at the time I have selected for him, at the time of Rome’s abandonment of Britain and the emergence of the great barbarian hordes of Vandals, Goths and Huns whose migrations changed the shape and construction of the ancient world. And I believe that Arthur must have been an extraordinary man—let alone a king—to have left us the legend we have. But if he was, in fact, the first King of a united Britain, and if he was one-tenth as amazing as his reputation suggests he must have been, doing a job that no one had ever done before . . . then how great must have been the man who wrote that job description and then showed young Arthur what needed to be done? That man is my Merlyn—a soldier and a warrior, an innovator and a dreamer, a gifted teacher and a stimulating mentor to an extraordinary young man.

Q5. How much of your stories are based on historical fact (eg. Battles, landmarks etc)?

That’s difficult to pin down, because as the books evolve, the factual material available for research dwindles rapidly. The first three books, covering the period from AD 367 through AD 429, are pretty solid, because we have some solid historical evidence to which we can appeal for source material. By 407, however, the Armies had left Britain and they had taken their scribes, clerks, quartermasters, records keepers and teachers with them. No one was keeping formal, written records any longer, and as we drift farther and farther into the mid-century period of the later novels, we leave the solid reassurance of hard, historical evidence behind, so that, by definition, the material of the stories drifts closer and closer to fantasy, since it is almost pure conjecture. By fantasy, however, I do not mean dungeons and dragons. That’s High Fantasy and I don’t write High Fantasy.

So, in the early books, the history is as close to rock solid as thirty years of research can make it . . . I’ve taken a few liberties, purely for the sake of story, but by and large the details are pretty accurate. The historical characters like Theodosius, Flavius Stilicho, Magnus Maximus and Germanus of Auxerre are real, and they behaved pretty well as described; the campaigns and battles they fought and took part in are genuine; and the locations I describe—places like Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), Deva (Chester), and Verulamium (St. Alban’s)—are all real, as well.

Q6. How much research do you put in for each story?

I think I’ve pretty well covered that in one of my earlier answers.

Q7. Is there a reason why your books are written in the first person?

Yes, there is: it’s the voice in which I appear to be most comfortable, although I did not use it in "Uther" and the result was quite satisfying and very different. I didn’t get into the First Person Narrative voice deliberately; it just kind of worked out that way. I had this character, Publius Varrus, in my head, and he seemed quite comfortable talking to me in his own voice. Not only that, but I had no difficulty in listening to him and understanding what he was telling me. Now, there are some natural disadvantages to writing in that particular voice, and—probably the greatest of those is the restriction to the first person experience in narrating anything. That’s why they say it’s the most difficult voice in which to write. When you’re using that voice, you can only talk (write) about what you yourself heard, saw, smelled, tasted, touched, felt, noticed, observed and thought. You cannot deal with what anyone else did, other than what you personally saw or heard them do, or what they or someone else told you they did. You certainly can’t deal with what they thought, unless you are describing what someone else reported thinking or having thought . . . so yours is the only character whose inner actions, thoughts and opinions you can describe. That makes it tough, and it puts great demands on your writing skills and your understanding of the syntax and construction of language and idiom. On the other hand, when you get it right, you can create some really memorable characters using that voice.

Q8. Do you believe in the Arthur legend yourself (I only ask because there are number of science fiction writers that don’t believe in life on other planets)?

Yes, I do. I know people who think me irrational because of that, but I don’t care and I can smile glassily while they berate and abuse me. But there’s more and more being discovered every year in the UK about the time I’m describing and writing about, the time when I believe Arthur really lived. It was a time, an entire era, that was almost completely unknown to us as recently as the 1940s. I believe it is only a matter of a short time more until some archaeologist uncovers a grave that will be acknowledged as being a possible Arthurian burial site. There’s enough experts out there nowadays, digging for it. I believe they’ll find it.

Q9. Do you see your work as Fantasy or something else?

As I said, I don’t write High Fantasy, and I don’t think of my own stories as fantasy . . . although of course they are, as is all fiction to some extent. Unfortunately, however, that word "Arthurian" applies to them, with all its fantastical connotations, and irrespective of my claims to have written historically-based, "PRE-Arthurian" stories, the name "King Arthur" is seen as an incantation; the history goes by the board and the fantasy takes over by default. I am not happy about that.

Q10. You have a quite following of loyal fans has this come has a surprise?

Yes, it has been a great, and delightfully enjoyable surprise, and I’ll never grow tired of the pleasure that affords me. I’ve come to know many of them through the interactive Readers Forum on my web site at www.camulod.com, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them on my travels because of that.

Q11. Would you want to see your stories of books turned into a film or mini-series?

The readers in my Readers Forum get into this once every couple of months and go off on orgiastic little casting sessions, placing famous names and faces at the disposal of some amazingly enlightened Producer in a major or minor studio, Movie or TV. I think, given my druthers, I’d like to see the stories in mini-series TV format. They’re big stories, with lots going on in them, and the standard, 90-minute-movie format always seems too short to me. It all boils down to content and time.

Q12 Are there any other projects you are planning to do?

Yes. I’m researching another series of historical novels, this one set 600 to 800 years after the current series and dealing with the Knights Templar, a group that has always fascinated me. Don’t yet have a time frame on it, but it’ll be there, one of these days.

Q13. Will we see you in New Zealand on a promotional tour as some stage?

I certainly hope so. My wife and I had a wonderful time in Australia in February and were looking forward to coming over to New Zealand, but we had to change our plans because of a family situation. We have every intention of returning next year, though, and wouldn’t dream of coming back without visiting New Zealand.

Q14. What is perfect day in the life of Jack Whyte?

That’s a hell of a question, and it’s not an easy one to answer, but I’ve given it some thought, and here’s the short response: It’s a summer’s day, in the Interior of British Columbia, which means temperatures in the mid- to high-thirties, Celsius, with no humidity. Perfect day starts with an early breakfast (8:00 a.m.) of fruit salad, cereal and toast and coffee, followed by a brisk walk and a half-hour work out on my Bowflex home gym. After that, a shower and a swift review of what I wrote the previous night, then a round of golf (I live on the course) from about ten-thirty a.m. until approximately two-thirty. Visit to the book store after that, where I read for a spell while my wife does some shopping, then home for pre-dinner drinks with some friends; then dinner, perhaps an hour of TV, and back to work from 9:00 p.m. through 2:00 a.m.

Q15. What is the best thing and the worst in being Jack Whyte?

Another toughie. The best thing about being me? It has to be what any other lazy layabout will tell you---it’s getting paid good money for doing the only thing in the world you’d be doing anyway, with or without pay…no boss looking over your shoulder; nobody waiting to tear a strip off you for what you’ve done, because they don’t like the shape or the colour of it; and nobody looking at you and letting you see them thinking they can do your job better than you can --- except that that changes immediately, as soon as your book gets published, because once it’s written and produced, then everybody in the whole world can improve it.

As for the worst, I really don’t know, because the way my life is right now, there’s not too much about it I’d want to change.