When you really really want to read a book…..

It’s bad enough when you order a book and it turns out you can only pre-order it and it will arrive oh, months in the future that doesn’t feel real. But it’s even worse when you know that a book you are really excited about is just a smidgen away from being published and needs just a teeny fund raising boost.

That’s the case with my friend and colleague Adam Robert’s book, a collaboration (beyond the grave) with the author Anthony Burgess, to complete his book The Black Prince.

The book is over at Unbound, the crowdfunding/subscription publisher, and it is currently standing at 81%. It just needs 80 of you to sign up for the signed hardback, which comes with a free e-book, for £25.

Adam Roberts is one of the most interesting writers around. His work is deep, complex, frequently leaves me baffled and always challenged. You won’t regret purchasing this book.

Below I persuaded him to answer a few questions.

What is it about The Black Prince that attracted you to the manuscript?

It was the Anthony Burgess angle rather than the historical fiction angle that first drew me. Which is to say: it’s not that I had any great hankering to write a historical novel as such. But I’ve long been a fan of Burgess’s writing and when I chanced upon an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1972 in which he said he was 90-pages into “a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices”; a novel “about the Black Prince” I was intrigued. Writing medieval history via a writer as famously modern and experimental as Dos Passos—it’s a bold and I think brilliant idea. Burgess said: “I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.” The thought of (a big chunk of) an unpublished Burgess novel, and the thought that I might complete it, led me to the Burgess Institute and the Estate.

Why you? Why are you the best person to write this? No false modesty please!

A writer probably isn’t the best-placed person to have a clear view of his/her strengths, but still: there are, I think, consonances between the way Burgess wrote and the way I write—in part because reading Burgess as I was growing up influenced the sort of writer I became myself. So for instance: Burgess was an expert writer of pastiche, and could reproduce styles and idiolects brilliantly. That’s something I can do too: indeed, I don’t see ‘pastiche’ as a negative thing. Quite the reverse. So: to prepare for this novel I re-read Dos Passos’s “USA” and the complete run of Burgess’s writing, and then sat down to pastiche, as expertly as I could, Burgess-pasticheing-Dos-Passos. Just the technical challenge of that excited me. As I say I’m not the person best placed to say so, but it seemed to me I manage this. There are some other things: I share Burgess’s fascinating with literary form, and was able to do (to me) interesting things with the structure of the novel: Edward the Black Prince was by all accounts obsessed with the trinity, and the holy spirit, and I worked all sorts of threes, and nines, into the structure. But the main thing is that I really love Burgess, and that meant I could really immerse myself in the Burgess mode. I wanted to produce something of which, were he alive today, he could be proud. Or at least, not ashamed.

Can you elaborate on the links you see between historical and science fiction?

There’s a lot I could say in answer to this, but to be brief: both sorts of writing have to build their worlds, in ways neither obtrusive nor false. Both have to find ways of estranging their characters from the assumptions of their readers—medieval people really weren’t just 21st-century people in funny clothes, just as aliens really need to be more than human beings with pointy-ears or crumpled-foreheads—without pulling them so far out of the contemporary frame that readers lose the ability to empathise with and care about those characters. Writing the novel proved a fascinating business for me, actually. When writing SF it’s usually possible to shuffle the terms of the world, or the parameters of the physics, if they get too constraining of your story. I’m not advocating the completely untrammelled hand-wave as the basis of writing SF, but one of the attractions of writing in a fantastic idiom is that it just offers the writer more imaginative freedom. Writing a proper historical novel was something else. I read pretty widely in the history of the period—Jonathan Sumption’s multivolume history “The Hundred Years War” is very good—and poked and pried, but I found weird little gaps that my reading refused to fill. For instance: there’s a lot of stuff about how knights fought on 14th-century battlefields, and some stuff about how ordinary soldiers fought, ground troops and archers and so on. But let’s say you want to know exactly how the chain of command functioned, in the heat of battle. Are there, let’s say, medieval equivalents to modern NCOs? How, exactly, did sergeants or ensigns (Shakespeare’s Ancient Pistol = Ensign Pistol) liaise between the high command and the men? Were orders written on bits of paper and taken by riders to the front, as happened in the 19th-century? We know that trumpets were used to announce advances and so on, but were there whole descants of different musical parpings telling bodies of men to wheel, stand, retreat, fire arrows and so on? There are libraryfuls of books of military history, but lots of this nitty gritty is surprisingly elusive—or at least I found it so—and you need to know it if you’re going to write it from the grunts’-eye view. Some of it falls into the “we honestly don’t know”, because the written records from that time are really only interested in what the posh nobs were doing, on their champing-stamping heroic steeds, and the accounts of battles tend to be inflected by chivalric codes anyway. In a SF text you can simply fill that gap; but writing a historical novel is a much more painstaking business.

To order your copy of The Black Prince by Anthony Burgess and Adam Roberts, go to the project page at Unbound.

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