Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tudor charmer who moved to the dark side: Harriet Castor and VIII


If you were going to write a novel based on the life of Henry VIII you’d probably have plenty of good ideas where to get some inspiration – after all, we all know about Henry VIII, right?

You might begin with history books (lots of research). Looking at lots of portraits painted of the period. Yes. Good plan.

But would you think of . . . the Star Wars films? Darth Vadar? A biography of Elvis Presley?

Harriet Castor’s fearless historical novel, ‘VIII’ is told in the first person through the eyes of Henry (Hal) himself, allowing us to walk in Henry’s shoes. It gives us a view of a gifted and handsome young man with high ideals who becomes increasingly morally corrupt.

In a talk to the Oxford Children’s Book Group on April 30, Harriet Castor, who has a lifelong fascination with tudor history, explained the long journey she had before being convinced she had something genuinely new to say, and tackling her novel.

The result is a gripping narrative that many won’t recognise as the story of Henry VIII. In making this a fresh novel for teens, Harriet Castor has managed to convince us why a brilliant youth, noted for his sporting prowess and his looks, was to turn into the figure we all recognise.

It was the psychology that intrigued the author, who aimed to write something that succeeded by being historically accurate, but not a history lesson disguised as a novel, or even a novel that only people interested in tudor history would read.

What we are given is a novel that shows us what we find in common that helps us understand people living 500 years ago, rather than focusing on all the elements that were very different about their lives.

‘The image we have of him comes only from the last fifteen years of his life, but despite the huge gap of 500 years I felt there was much we could relate to about the huge pressure he was under and all the seeds that were sown in his teenage years,’ says Castor.

The story focuses on Henry’s teenage years – the formative part of his life and is, at its heart, a mythic fallen angel story – a version that resonates with many current teen reads.

It’s an incredible novel not just because of managing to say something new about a well worn period of history, but because readers will be able to relate to the demons that plagued Henry and get swept up in understanding what turned a teenage boy full of promise into the paranoid tyrant everyone knows from the history books, as all his early promise steadfastly remains unfulfilled.

As well as being a cracking book and something different for teens, the ease with which she writes about the period means it will also appeal to anyone who loves Tudor history, or wants to discover another side to a figure we all think we know.

Five questions with . . . Harriet Castor's writing life

Harriet has written more than 40 books, getting her first book published when she was just twelve (surely got to be some sort of a record) – Like many children, she had hand-written (and illustrated) a story about a cat. Only she not only persuaded her mother to send it to a publisher, but the publisher was looking for just that sort of simple story to publish as an early reader . . .  Her latest book is her first for teens – 'VIII'.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

A series of two books about two sisters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

Just get on with it.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is that the audience is so fresh and open. The worst is probably that some people tend to presume that you do it because you can’t write for adults –  they think it is the easier option, rather than that you might have taken a positive choice.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

A thermos of strong coffee. I have to make it myself and it has to be quite right. If it is cold I also wear my dressing gown which I put on over my clothes. I apparently need to create a lot of mess and apparently have to have an extremely messy desk which becomes a mess on the floor. By the time I have drunk the coffee it is about lunchtime and I have had enough.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Having ‘Fat Puss’ published at the age of twelve.  I never had to go through the experience of years and years of trying to get published as it meant what I wrote got read.

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