Saxon’s Bane, by my pal Geoffrey Gudgion, will be released on 12th Sept in the UK and
27th August in the USA by Solaris Books, an imprint of Rebellion. You heard it here first: read and enjoy. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy, which I read at sea between Malta and Gibraltar. (It wasn’t all lolling about admiring the moon or fiddling with sail trim.) It gave me some fine questions to ask Geoff and here they are.
SCT: The book is rooted in a lovely slice of English landscape. I guess Allingley is connected to a real place nestled somewhere in the Downs; how easy did you find it to adapt somewhere you obviously love to make it fit your narrative requirements?
GG: Sorry to disillusion you, Sarah, but Allingley is fictitious! Although the novel is set in the present day, I wanted to weave in the Saxon legend of Aegl, a mighty warrior, and his wife Olrun, a swan-maiden, so I created a remote, English village with the essential plot elements; a Saxon name (Allingley would mean ‘the clearing of the folk of Aegl’ in Anglo-Saxon), a stream (the Swanbourne) and a peat bog (you’ll know why, having read the book). I’m delighted to hear it seems real to the reader.
SCT: In the book you reflect on the sanctity of places. You (or rather your characters) suggest there are two kinds of sacred place. Some are naturally that way, such as springs and streams and woods, but others become sacred because of their continuous association with worship and prayer. The ancient church of Allingley is such a site. I find that an attractive notion, though it is very different from the fashions that say divinity is everywhere and anywhere – the movement to take faith beyond churches (or mosques or synagogues) for example. It also sits aslant from the Moslem hadith that ‘the world is a place of worship’, which my own novel uses as a central text. How far, do you think, that physical rootedness is necessary to a sense of the divine that is simply not available to those of without that profound attachment to a particular patch of the Earth?
GG: That’s a pretty profound question! I believe divinity is everywhere, but some places inspire a sense of the numinous. The words I put into Eadlin’s mouth in the section you’re describing were:
“Some people can find that peace anywhere. For most of us it’s easier in certain places. Springs like this one, even churches. Some people never find it at all.”
SCT: You give us a detailed description of Fergus and Kate’s car crash and the long wait for rescue. You say, in a passage I really liked,
‘The rain had stopped and there were woodland noises of birdcalls and wind through leaves, sounds of peace sighing over collapsed airbags that spread out like tablecloths in front of them. Bloody stains seeped outwards in the wet. Earthy autumn smells mixed with engine oil and blood. Kate’s airbag was humped over the steering wheel, and she had fallen forward with her hair fanning out over the stains, gold tumbling onto rose.’
I loved the way you combined blood and fear with familiarity and peace. Were these passages particularly difficult to write, or, as sometimes happens, were they so vivid they just flowed? And, either way, what techniques helped you achieve that sense of grounded-ness in the misery, so that Fergus is absolutely convinced of the reality of the ‘tramp’?
GG: Those passages were already pretty vivid. They were not very hard to write from the word-crafting perspective, although there was an emotional cost. I wanted to describe that dream-like state as the body shuts down, where some senses are sharper, such as smell, hearing, and sight, while others fade, such as touch and finally, blessedly, pain.
I once had a similar experience, and, like the character of Fergus, I heard myself left for dead. I knew how to describe that moment, and the fading of life that followed. But who knows whether the things we see at the edge of death are real, or a product of our own trauma? That ambiguity, that uncertainty, was what I was striving to achieve in those aspects of the book.
I knew how to describe the emotions, the sensations, of someone trapped in that type of environment. The scenes were no more ‘real’ than Allingley is ‘real’, but if they live for the reader, then I’ve done my job as a writer. Of course the car crash is just the trigger for the book.
SCT: Of course, and there are plenty of other scenes which are equally vivid, and a lot happier too, including Fergus’ recovery from the crash. Often he recites, like a mantra, pain is not a boundary. I liked this, not least because it echoes my own character’s belief that fear is not a reason. For me, though, pain often is an obstacle, and (like fear) it can be an important warning. Would you say a bit more about how Fergus uses this approach to pain not only in his physical recovery but how it helps him push through the boundaries between one world and the next to avert the evil that has come into the village?
GG: Fergus’s full mantra is ‘face the pain; pain is an obstacle, not a boundary’. After life-changing injury, you can become very focused, and quite stubborn. If you stop when it hurts, you let the injury define the scope of your recovery. Fergus reacts to the threats in the latter half of the book the way he reacted in the crash scene when he heard someone say “this one’s dead too”. He fights. Even if the only weapon left to him is a bloody-minded refusal to let go, he fights.
SCT: Is Fergus you, Geoff?
GG: No; he’s much too nice. I just knew how to give him the behaviours of someone emerging from trauma; he’s sometimes irrational, a bit emotionally incontinent, and did I mention stubborn?
SCT: I don’t think your background is Saxon myths, runes and archaeology, so you must have done lots of subject-specific research. Tell us about your research approach and how much you ended up leaving out.
GG: I guess 80% of my research is rambling reading of ‘anything relevant’, which tends to spark ideas, while about 20% is specific research to flesh out an idea and give it substance. Much of that is online, although I’m lucky enough to live within commuting distance of the British Library and London’s museums. Only a tiny fraction of that ever reaches the finished page, but it’s fun.
SCT: Leaving the book behind for a moment, I know you are an active member of Verulam Writers’ Circle, which has a great record. How has being in a good writers’ group contributed to your development as a novelist? What tips would you pass on for other groups looking to support their members?
GG: I think writers’ groups are fundamental. The key elements to me are mutual critiques and a social element, because writing’s a lonely business and it’s good to have fun occasionally. Competitions are important, too; winning a prize is a great encouragement to keep going. For me, winning the short story prize at ‘Get Writing 2011’ was a great boost. It told me that spending all these hours hunched over a keyboard wasn’t pure self-indulgence.
(You can find that short story, Muse, on Geoff’s website.)
SCT: Finally, and returning to Saxon’s Bane, as a rider myself (though not so much recently), I enjoyed your descriptions of horses throughout the book, and their key role in the story, When Trooper meets Fergus, that confiding moment of muzzle to neck, was lovely. Fergus is obviously a natural rider as he learns so fast. Will he and Trooper go on to other adventures together?
GG: Horses can be great healers: they’re empathetic, intuitive, and tactile. In that first contact, Fergus found ‘a distant echo of childhood, as if he was once again a hurt infant who had found a soothing presence that was large and gentle and warm’. I think the horse-healing dimension was fully exploited in Saxon’s Bane, but the character of Fergus still has mileage. He won’t appear in the next book, but may come back in the subsequent one. I think there might be a role for an attractive, fey, lady archaeologist as well.
SCT: I’ll be looking out for both those books. Thanks very much for sharing your time and insights with us. I bet you’re enjoying this moment, preparing for the book to come out. Very best of luck (not that you need it), and see you at next year’s Get Writing conference.
GG: If not before, Sarah! Our boats must have passed in Biscay recently; you coming North, me heading South. And yes, the run-up to the launch is incredibly exciting.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog. It’s an honour to be here and happy sailing!