I am vey pleased to welcome Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society to today’s post. HNS was one of four top digital sites selected by survey participants – a wonderful accomplishment! If you have not yet investigated the society’s online site, you should do so; it offers a wealth of information as well as significant benefits for members. I recently subscribed to one of its services, the Historical Fiction Daily, which features a wide range of articles in an easily readable format.
Why did you create the Historical Novel Society? I wanted to join the society and it didn’t exist. I thought long and hard about starting up because I’d founded a literary magazine during my Oxford days, and it was successful but very hard work – and financially exposed. I knew that with the HNS I was going to be committing myself to considerable expense (printing and mailing magazines) as well as exposing myself to flak from those who would believe I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to run this kind of thing. So I didn’t jump blind, and I didn’t jump straight away – but I did jump in the end! Happily people were kinder than I’d expected, and though I was bank-rolling the society for a few years, we eventually got to break even, and have some surplus now.
Why are you passionate about historical fiction? I am passionate about fiction. For me it is the highest art, and my favourite form of fiction is the novel. I love historical fiction because it continually challenges authors. Many writers essentially have one idea, and write the same book every time. This is less possible with historical fiction, because you always have something new to challenge yourself with. You can’t write the same book in two different periods. If you are a committed author, you cannot write the same book about different historical characters. I’m also drawn to historical fiction because I love history: archives, architecture, and culture in its broadest sense. Historical fiction can sometimes bring history closer: you can touch back to the way that people used to think. I find it magical when that happens.
What twists and turns in the Society’s offerings have been most significant? So many! The real point about a society is that it changes as the people change. You get different input, different enthusiasms – and I have always given a pretty free rein to those who are willing to follow their ideas through. Also, my life changes, so I have had to stand back a lot over the years (I have a business and three children). We are more a North American society now than a UK group, both in terms of member numbers and numbers of active members. I’m delighted at that. I’m also delighted that technology has made things so much more dynamic for literary societies in general. The idea that we can conduct interviews by skype and promote them on our own YouTube channel would have seemed like science fiction when we started out.
What trends have you seen in HF novels in the past? What new trends are emerging? My view is that publishing works by following the ‘boom’ authors. I talk a bit about this here: http://historicalnovelsociety.org/the-bleeding-land/. Examples of ‘boom’ historical fiction authors since the society began are Philippa Gregory (though she had a following before), Conn Iggulden, Tracy Chevalier and, right now, Hilary Mantel. In a lesser way there have been several others. There have also been some influential movies and TV. Gladiator has done wonders for making men read historical fiction again – and Gladiator allied with the lasting popularity of Bernard Cornwell has had a large impact on the UK market. The film of The Other Boleyn Girl reached a different audience from the books. The success of Sharpe led to Hornblower on TV, and Jack Aubrey on film. The future? I think we are going to see a lot of less-literary, less-exigent versions of Hilary Mantel. I also think that the fantasy Game of Thrones will have an impact, though what impact is unclear to me. I also think that the genre that is loosely based on genealogy will continue in popularity: our grandparents and great grandparents lived through times that will seem increasingly mythical.
Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why? One of the things we set out to say from the beginning with the HNS is that historical fiction is ALWAYS very popular. The perception back in 1997 was that it was the genre that dare not speak its name. But the reality was that in the top twenty UK fiction paperbacks for the year in those days there would always be something by Wilbur Smith, something by Bernard Cornwell, something by Catherine Cookson and a ‘surprise’ – so 4 out of 20. I think we are actually less certain of getting that kind of result in the UK now. But happily the second rung authors seem stronger, and the perception of the genre is stronger. Literary HF has also always done well.
What debates are occurring today about historical fiction? Can you provide a perspective on them? The main debate I always hear is about whether novels are good history or not. I sometimes despair. Novels have to be good novels. It is history that has to be good history. Hilary Mantel is no more writing the real Thomas Cromwell than Shakespeare was writing the real Macbeth – or Jane Austen the real Elizabeth Bennett. My perspective is that I wish more of the discussion was about the skill (or not) of the writing (literary or mainstream). Other debates – yes – centre on commercial versus literary historicals, but there is confusion about what these terms actually mean. To that end we wrote as series of articles about the Walter Scott Prize shortlist, trying to define ‘literary’. Strangely, I think it is even more difficult to define ‘commercial’.
Who are the Society’s members? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them? I have always tried to respect members’ privacy – perhaps too much – so no, I have never attempted to collect specific data. Now that I see member sign-ups through our new website I can see that a lot of us are writers as well as avid readers. My guess is that people join because they approve of the project, and of the care and work that goes into it. Essentially we are a volunteer organization, and happily there are a lot of people out there who love historical fiction enough to want to help us promote it.
What prompted the Society’s recent overhaul of its web presence? What are the most popular features? Are you planning to add further features? We have been meaning to get the site overhauled for years, and to make our archives freely available. It is a fairly huge job for volunteers, and it had to wait till someone had the time and drive to devote to leading it (I tried several other people before taking it on myself). The most popular thing will always be the breadth of what we offer: the sheer number of reviews and features, all searchable in one place. So far what you see is the tip of the iceberg. New features? I am really looking forward to being able to have space to review more classic historical fiction. Our USP for the magazines was our ability to give the most complete coverage to new historical fiction. With the website we have scope to add to this much more of the history of historical fiction. After all, we all still love Dumas, Graves, Renault, Dunnett et al. There are also many of once popular authors who have now disappeared from view. We’d like to make them visible again.
Do you think of HNS as having a brand? If so, what is it? Not really. We didn’t even have a logo till this year. I confess I’m not really all that clued up in marketing terms: that’s perhaps another area we need to improve on.
Where would you want HNS to be in 5 to 10 years? What are your marketing strategies to achieve these objectives? As I just said, I’m not much good at marketing, but the aim is always to get more ‘reach’. That doesn’t mean more members necessarily, but hopefully more visitors to the website, and a better percentage of the membership who are actively helping with our projects. To that end I hope that the website will provide more connectivity. And of course we need more completeness in our coverage of historical fiction. We should have 10,000 reviews on the site by the end of this year. Maybe 20,000 is a good number to aim at for 10 years’ time?
Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers? People are enthusiastic about historical fiction, and they are probably a little star-struck by their favourite authors. Blogs allow them to show their enthusiasm and, sometimes, to interact with the authors. Another thing is people have their own point of view and like to express it. Blogs are a very cost-effective way of doing that, and of connecting with people whose interests and views coincide. The implication for writers and the industry is that there is much more democratization of reviewing and ‘word-of-mouth’. It also means that you have to be VERY careful with how you spend your time. Blogs, twitter, facebook… all eat up hours.
What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers? I always remember talking with Iain Pears in the days when An Instance of the Fingerpost was only part written. He was a Reuters journalist, really gifted, had had a few of his art-world mysteries published, and I could see that he had a future. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but he surprised me then by saying that he was not prepared to be a ‘public’ author. He wasn’t going to do the whole interview thing, the standing on stage. I thought – well you won’t get far then. I was wrong. Some authors will – always have – built their platform. The UK author I think remarkable for this is Alison Weir, who endlessly tours and lectures. She has made herself powerful with little help at the beginning from her publishers, and without a ‘boom’ book. But others are very head-in-the-clouds, either intentionally, like Iain Pears, or unintentionally. For them, the writing is the only thing. And if the writing is good enough, that can work too.
What advice do you have for writers? All writers are different, so you can make few generalizations, but one thing that Tracy Chevalier once said to me has always struck me as very good advice. Before she was published she attended the University of East Anglia Writing MA – the most prestigious writing course in the UK. She said that she knew pretty early on which of her fellow course members would be successful and which would not. It wasn’t the talent, she said – in fact, she said, the most talented of the writers had never succeeded. It was the attitude that mattered, the commitment. I think there is something for all of us in that.