the bright sword
I was thinking the other day how important it is for readers who care about a writer to know what the hell that writer is doing with his or her time when he or she hasn’t published a book for a while.
So I’m writing a note to let you know what I’m doing with my time. Some of you already know. But for those who don’t:
Since The Magician’s Land came out in August 2014 my one desire has been to get another book out there. To that end I wrote half of a young-adult book. I also wrote half of a middle-grade book, based on a story I’d been telling my kids at night. I also wrote a screenplay. Not very surprisingly, none of these things resulted in another book, by me, coming out.
But while I was doing these other things, a big idea for a novel came clunking down out of the vending machine of my head. It was an idea for an Arthurian novel that was not, at least on the face of it, primarily about King Arthur.
I’ve always loved Arthurian stories, but for a long time I felt like the last words had already been written on him, by, collectively, Malory, Tennyson, White, Sutcliff, Stewart, Zimmer Bradley, Cornwell and probably a few others I’m forgetting. Not much white space left on that particular map.
But in spite of that, just as a mental exercise, I sometimes thought about what sort of Arthurian novel I would write — what called to me from that world, what would feel relevant to what I and the rest of humanity are going through right now, in our lives and in our time.
It was, for a long time, a bootless errand. Until I blundered on something that felt interesting.
White’s brilliant stroke in The Once and Future King, or one of many of them, was to write the story of Arthur’s childhood. All that business about Wart as a kid in the Forest Sauvage, Merlin living backwards, changing him into animals and so on, that was all White’s invention. Nobody had ever really tried to tell that story before. I started to wonder if there was something interesting you could do with the other end of the story –the aftermath of Arthur’s death.
People had sketched in this part of the story, but not in any great detail. Almost the entire Round Table dies along with Arthur at the Battle of Camlann. A relative nobody, Sir Constantine, succeeds Arthur on the throne. Lancelot and Guinevere give themselves to God and then die. The few survivors — Lancelot’s gang — hunt down Mordred’s kids and then die or go on the Crusades and then die. Arthur either convalesces on Avalon or doesn’t. The End.
I felt like there had to be more.
What if you began the story with the death of King Arthur (kind of like A Song of Ice and Fire starts, more or less, with Robert Baratheon’s death). When the last battle has been fought, when Arthur has been spirited away to Avalon, what happens to the survivors? What transpires in the shattered, darkened chivalric world he left behind? An Arthurian world but post-apocalypse, where the center has failed to hold, and the central pillar has collapsed.
And while you’re sorting out those questions, what new light would those answers shed on what came before? Could they give us a new sense of why and how Camelot fell? Could you go back and re-interpret the story of Arthur’s life and death through that lens?
I got interested in the answers to these questions, interested enough that I wrote the first 80,000 words of a novel about them and started pitching it. Viking — the same good people who published the Magicians books — bought it. Working title is The Bright Sword.
That was in August of 2016. I’ve been writing hard ever since. I quit my job at Time to write even harder. (I was burned out at Time, after almost 20 years there, and the Magicians TV show was still bringing in money. New season starts January! Also, although I didn’t know it, Time was about to explode.)
It’s a very different challenge from the Magicians books. It’s not a series, it’s one big long thick book, significantly longer than anything I’ve written before. Most of the characters are older. It demands a huge amount of research. I’ve taken a few longsword lessons; I need to take more. I find a lot of historical fiction to be rather deadly, so I’ve been studying writers who bring a fresh, immediate, contemporary feel to it — Hilary Mantel, Neal Stephenson, Kate Atkinson. I’m also interested in what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with the Founding Fathers in Hamilton. A lot of 20th-century writers (like Cornwell and Stewart) have taken a hard-nosedly historical approach to Arthur, re-grounding him solidly in sub-Roman Britain. (Or as solidly as possible, considering how little we know about the Dark Ages.) I’m taking a more romantic, classically Arthurian approach to Arthur, more in the Malory/White/Sutcliff mode, retaining the shining armor and chivalry and medieval geopolitics and the Holy Grail. But I’m throwing some Dark-Ages historical grit into the mix too. Lots of Roman ruins. Since last fall I’ve bought a whole library of books about medieval history, arms and armor, longsword technique, medieval battle tactics, Roman Britain, Celtic paganism, medieval forestry and on and on.
One of the great things about Arthur is that there is no real canon, and everybody chooses the elements and finds the balance that let them say what they want to say. I hope I’ll find my balance. It’s a long haul — I don’t even have a publication date yet — but I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far. My whole focus is on getting it finished and into your hands ASAP.