“Influences,” I’m often asked these days. “Tell us your influences in writing Saxon’s Bane.”
“Red wine,” I reply. “A nice Bordeaux preferably…”
The look in the questioner’s eye makes me regret the flippancy, but why do all writers have to be influenced? It makes writing seem so derivative, as if each newborn book is the product of some genetic formula, and shaped by the giants who have gone before. “Ooh, look, he’s got Jane Austen’s eyes and MR James’ mouth. Ah, bless.”
I know, I know, we must all be shaped to some extent by what we’ve read, but even the most clinical self-analysis doesn’t come up with some of the names that have been suggested. “Very like Robert Holdstock,” my agent said after he took me on. I muttered thanks and smiled, trying not to let my ignorance show, and immediately bought Mythago Wood. One enchanted read later I was immensely flattered, and it’s safe to say I now aspire to write as evocatively as Robert Holdstock (and others, of which more later) but can’t give him credit for shaping Saxon’s Bane.
‘Garner-esque’ is how my publishers, Solaris, are describing Saxon’s Bane, and at least one reviewer has since made the same comparison. Again, sorry; it is possible for someone to reach maturity, even middle age, without having read Alan Garner. I’m now a late convert, and I’d love to write prose with Garner’s bare, lyrical beauty. He’s like a great artist who can shape a face in simple lines, and let the character shine through the white spaces between. Don’t misunderstand me; to be mentioned in the same breath as Holdstock or Garner does wonders for my ego, but they’ve done nothing for my writing. Yet.
So what did I read? Dennis Wheatley, as a boy. What boy doesn’t enjoy a good horror story? I found him rather dated, though, even then. Aristocratic heroes quaffing champagne out of silver tankards seemed a throwback to a Victorian age when the peasants might have been taught to read, but adventures only happened to gentlemen. Tolkien was inspirational, and although I don’t write epic fantasy, I do like to craft legends in a landscape.
Landscapes. I’ve always been the kind of dreamer who likes to shut his eyes in the midst of a forest, and inhale its mighty peace. Sometimes you can catch the scent of an otherness, an ethereal sense that the past still resonates around you. In a wood near my home there are ancient, twisted, split-trunked trees, still living centuries beyond their natural span because they were pollarded in a distant, agrarian age so that they could be harvested for their wood. A thousand years before the oldest pollard was a sapling, invading Saxons settled here and called it Burna Hām, ‘the homestead by the stream’. A thousand years before that, a Brythonic tribe had a fortified encampment, still visible in low, linear mounds beneath the beeches. History written on history written on history. History that I wanted to bring to life, in every sense of the word.
In Saxon’s Bane I unleash a legend into the present day, but I didn’t learn to write a time-slip novel by reading other people’s books. I’ve read and enjoyed Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, and I’m honoured to be compared with her, but I learned more from a crusty old Geography professor at university, a man who could trace the progress of the Saxon tribes in English place-names. With a theatrical wave of his black-gowned, chalk-dusted arm, the landscape became a place where legends had happened. The sleepy village of Allingley, on the banks of the Swanbourne, became Aegl-ingas-leah, the clearing of the people of Aegl. With a small leap of the imagination Allingley could be linked to the legendary warrior Aegl or Egil, whose wife was Olrun, the Swan Maiden. Now that’s a good trigger for a story.
It’s the characters that bring any story to life, mine were not imported but fresh-shaped from Home Counties clay. I became very close to three in particular in Saxon’s Bane. There’s a young pagan woman whose name, Eadlin Stodman, is Anglo Saxon for ‘little princess’ and ‘keeper of horses’. She’s a bright-eyed, clean-faced earth mother who anchors much of the plot, and I think I was a little in love with her by the time I finished the book. Her character balances, yin and yang, with an intense, intelligent archaeologist who struggles to reconcile her academic discipline with her growing, preternatural understanding of her own excavation, an insight which makes her doubt her own sanity.
Then there’s a car crash survivor, a man who has touched the shadow world and found his way back, and who is exhibiting symptoms that some might label ‘Post Traumatic Stress’. He’s vulnerable, emotionally incontinent, and stubborn, but he fights. Even when the only weapon left to him is a bloody-minded refusal to let go, he fights. Because when the past comes crashing into the present it will be too late to run.
I’m told these three stay in the mind long after the book is finished, which is gratifying. They certainly stayed with me long enough to become a serious obstacle to writing the next book.
On reflection, perhaps I should have been more derivative. Then my first novel might have fitted neatly into one of the genre pigeonholes so beloved of the marketing types, but it wouldn’t have been Saxon’s Bane. I fear all this analysis and labeling is oriented inwards towards the cognoscenti of publishing, and not outwards towards the readers.
But then, in some far future that ego and hubris can construct in my own mind, I might read of somebody else’s work being described as ‘Gudgion-esque’. Then, of course, the labeling will be a Very Good Thing.