My husband, a librarian (how convenient!), knows I love a good Viking yarn. So when he brought home THE WHALE ROAD by debut novelist Robert Low, I was pleased as punch and eager to be transported back to the time when my ancestors struck terror into the hearts of hapless dark-age peasants. I wasn’t disappointed. Low has a gift for sensory detail that makes the novel come alive. During fight scenes, he was able to get me inside the action rather than observe it, a rare feat for a writer. THE WHALE ROAD was a satisfying historical on so many levels, I knew I needed to interview the writer.
After a little digging around, I learned that Low, based in the UK, was a journalist and active in Viking battle reenactments. Ah ha! I thought. That’s one way to get that level of prized authenticity every writer covets. This interview was gonna be good, I thought. And it was.
Low’s latest novel, THE WOLF SEA, has its North American release on May 27, just in time for beach season.
We’re pleased to present part one of our two-part interview with Robert Low.
Q: You’ve been a journalist and a writer for many years, sometimes to dangerous war-torn areas of the planet. What drew you to writing historical novels, and in particular, Viking adventure novels? Do you feel that your years as a journalist prepared you well for novel-writing?
RL: I am child of the Sixties, brought up on epic movies such as Ben Hur, The Robe, The Vikings et al. A voracious reader, I discovered the joys of Nigel Tranter as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘White Company’ novels and Mary Renault (The Persian Boy is still the best novel of that period), Dorothy Dunnett and Alfred Duggan (the best historical writer, in my opinion). I loved The Long Ships, but I never quite found any novel about Vikings which was not as dated in style as, say Havelock The Dane, or aimed at adults rather than children or teens. So I wrote what I wanted to read – a Henry Treece with attitude. Being a journalist has many advantages. Having earned my living as a writer for years, I was unafraid of the process of getting the words in my head out on to the page; so many aspiring authors have trouble simply sitting down and getting started. Also, deadlines are no problem. Unlike fellow Scot, the late Douglas Adams, I do not like deadlines because of the lovely whooshing noise they make as they shoot past you – I can actually work to them and HarperCollins loves me for it.
Q: Historicals are demanding and yours are richly detailed, exploring a post-Roman Scandinavian culture that isn’t widely known. What’s your research process, and how do you determine when enough is enough, and what’s your rule of thumb for giving the reader the feel of the period without resorting to the dreaded info dump?
RL: When I wrote The Whale Road, I had already digested a great deal of information, but the setting – the Baltic and Russia – was not one I was familiar with myself, or had read a great deal about. The idea of the Viking road less traveled appealed to me. You will never know how sick I am of discovering yet another Norse novel dealing with what they did in America. I know it will appeal to the US market, but still – it was just ONE of many places they went and they went there maybe, twice, a sleepover in Norse times, no more. Meanwhile, much to the annoyance of the present-day Russians, who don’t want to believe it, the Swedish Vikings went happily off to the Ukraine and built Russia.
Having decided to go east, I then had to devour everything I could about the area, the period etc etc. Once I was sort of sure of the broad palette I could start writing and refine it as I went – what does a Slav house of 966 AD look like? What idioms would the Rus/Slavs use in speech? What is a Rus anyway? What do they wear? What foods do they eat and how do they cook them? That sort of information provides the feel but you have to beware of writing it for the sake of having the research and wanting to use it. Write the passage straight, then go back and work the ‘touchy-feelie history’ into what you have written and DO NOT try and slide off into some extended footnote that had sod all to do with the plot.
Q: You’re active in Viking reenactments and are an ancient warfare buff. How have these activities informed your writing? Do you get ideas for plotting and character development because of it?
RL: Re-enactment is practical archaeology; what we do is ‘living history’ and as authentic as we can make it, so living as a Viking for, say, ten days at a stretch gives you the feel (and smell) of what it must gave been like. It throws up a few interesting asides – like boots and ships, for instance. The popular idea of Vikings is of them leaping off longships and splashing ashore to charge into the fray. I have done it. If you wear wool trousers, you end up with wet-wool legs that feel encased in concrete because the water has added about fifty pounds of weight. If you wear stitched boots, you will find that the salt water rots the threads and they will fall apart in an expensive eyeblink. Ringmail rusts REALLY badly in salt water/air and is so heavy that, unless you get the leaping off the boat just right, you end up re-enacting the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan and mainly drowning. So, it seems to me, Vikings went barefoot and bare-arsed into battle, for purely practical reasons!
Q: In THE WHALE ROAD, your protagonist, Orm, becomes part of the Oathsworn, a crew of Viking raiders, each with his (and her) differing personality. How do you develop distinctive characters and what should writers be mindful of when creating their own?
RL: Almost all of The Whale Road characters are based on people I know, or amalgams of them. It is now a running joke in both Glasgow Vikings –the group I belong to – and the extended nationwide family of The Vikings that if you beg, plead or do some outrageously brilliant skill in one of the shows, then you will end up dying a horrible death in one of Robert Low’s books. Using real people, or aspects of them, is the only way I know how to create characters, unless they are actual historical characters with foibles of their own. Even then I can add stuff. For instance – Olaf Tryggvasson is a real, historical character who became king of Norway and forced Christianity on it circa 1000 AD. Before that, as a boy, he had been a pagan who ran his life using birds as oracles and all of that is brilliant enough. But then I decided, because the Oathsworn meet him (in Book 3) when he is nine years old and much older than his years, that he would have a fund of children’s tales, viciously apt for the moment, which he tells to all round the campfire, holding all these big hairy Vikings as spellbound as kids.
The one thing everyone who writes should know about characters is this – they are not immortal. Create them carefully. Get readers involved with them. Kill them when the plot demands it (you will know when). Too many books have lovingly-crafted people in them that you KNOW will not die, no matter what dangers they are put in. With me, you know Orm is the only fixed point and, like real life, anyone can die, even from the most trivial of circumstances. I know this – last year around this time, one of the reenactors I worked with waved me goodbye from a show, then went off to do his ‘day job’, which is jousting with horse and lance, as a stuntman. In a freak accident while filming a TV series a week later a sliver of wood from shattered lance went through the visor of his helm and killed him.
For part two of our interview with Robert Low, click HERE.
Photo credit: Audrey Russell