Friday, 30 September 2011

Blog Tour: VIII by Harriet Castor

Today I am pleased to be part of the blog tour for VIII by Harriet Castor. The other tour participants are as follows, so make sure you check any you might have missed:

(Click to embiggen!)

This is the blurb/info as lifted from Amazon UK - VIII is published on 1st October 2011!

VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family's violent past and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII. The Tudors have always captured the popular imagination, but in VIII, Henry is presented fresh for a new generation. H M Castor does for Henry what Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell - VIII is Wolf Hall for the teen and crossover market. The contemporary, original writing style will have broad appeal and VIII brings the tension of a psychological thriller and the eeriness of a ghost story to historical fiction.

Finally, a very warm welcome to Harriet...

Writing my new book VIII, a YA novel told through the eyes of Henry VIII, took a huge amount of research. I’m not complaining – I loved every bit of it. But today I wanted to tell you a little about some of the more… well, unusual aspects of the research process.

You’d expect me to have read great tomes on Tudor history, to have studied documents, visited palaces and consulted experts on everything from costumes to archery techniques, wouldn’t you? Yes, you’d be right.

But how about my endless obsessive watching of Elton John videos (or rather, two in particular)? How about my mining of Youtube for clips of Robert Downey Jr and John Malkovich? How about studying a huge in-depth biography of Elvis Presley?

No, I’m not mad. Don’t start backing away. Look, I’m a trained historian. Cambridge University, BA, First Class – honest! Let me rummage for my certificate…

You see, I wanted to steep myself in the detail of research, the known facts, the contemporary maps, the historians’ theories, the politics, the policies – all that. But I needed to find the emotional reality of Henry’s story too. This, for me, is a very different process. Because although historical research enables you to make the past vivid and present to yourself, at the same time it highlights the differences between the past and your own world. This is, of course, very necessary – you need to be aware of these differences, work with them, dig into them for insights. But, but. At the same time, because I was writing VIII in the first person, speaking in Henry’s voice, I needed to forget those differences and bring Henry closer… I needed to become him. And above all, I needed to get that Holbein image – of Henry standing arms akimbo, bearded and jewelled – out of my head. I could not inhabit an icon. I had to make Henry a human being.

Take, if you can, a couple of minutes to watch the video below. It’s a fantastic film made by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood of Robert Downey Jr lip-synching to Elton John’s song I Want Love. Downey is alone in palatial surroundings; to me the film speaks viscerally, immediately, of the loneliness of power. And of how easily it can push you into strange states of mind. Downey – or Henry, as he was to me when I was writing VIII – looks hard yet vulnerable, cold yet emotional… and dangerous. Here’s the link:

Completely by chance, another video I found hugely useful was also an Elton John one – here it’s Justin Timberlake doing the lip-synching, to This Train Don’t Stop. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the isolation and disconnection of the constantly accompanied ‘star’ (as Henry was in his own day). How, it makes me ask, can such a person remain emotionally undamaged? What madness must it be to live in that situation and have no one (pretty much) to check you, to have life-and-death power over everyone around you? Surely that sort of power must be a hellish, lonely trap?

When Henry was young he was handsome, charismatic, ridiculously talented. Constantly surrounded by a gang of male friends and hangers-on. Yet, inside, he was in many respects child-like and insecure. Here, Peter Guralnick’s monumental and brilliant 2-volume biography of Elvis came in. Of course Elvis didn’t develop into the monster that Henry became – but, in a radically different time and place, he shared so many of Henry’s natural advantages, and he did manifestly fail to cope with his power and success. How could his story not be relevant to my study of Henry?

John Malkovich’s meltdown in the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading put flesh, for me, on Henry’s rage, while a particular scene with Robert Downey Jr and Nicole Kidman in the film Fur epitomised one of Henry’s relationships. Another scene with Robert Downey (him again! My casting for Henry, you see) in The Singing Detective conjured Henry’s grief – these were visual, emotional talismans that I came back to time and time again as I was writing.

The real creative alchemy happens inside the writer, of course. It’s no use trying to stitch together moments from other works – and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that that’s what I was doing. These film and video talismans inspired me as a piece of old glass or a walk by the sea or a painting might inspire… and I have no notion whether anyone else can see, in what I watched, what they signified for me. Perhaps it’s too deeply personal. But I hope, in reading VIII, that you might appreciate the results.
Twitter: @HMCastor

Thanks so much for stopping by, Harriet!


  1. Actually I DO get what you're saying, totally. And you've put it – and illustrated – it brilliantly.

    You see it each time a celebrity implodes – how you can be idolised and surrounded with worshippers, yet at the centre of it all be utterly alone. It must be a very difficult place to be indeed; no wonder it often leads to tragedy.

    I can't wait to read Hal's story.

  2. This sounds exciting. I'll have to recommend it to all the YAs I know.

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