James Aitcheson was born in Wiltshire in 1985 and studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where his fascination with the medieval period began. His first novel, Sworn Sword, is set in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and is out now in paperback (Arrow, £6.99). The sequel, The Splintered Kingdom, is due to be published in September.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always written stories since a very young age, and as long as I can remember I’ve harboured ambitions of being a professional writer, although I didn’t necessarily always see myself writing historical novels. As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and so I used to write a lot in those genres.
What was it that inspired you to write historical fiction?
It was only when I went to study History at Cambridge that I began to think about turning to historical fiction. The idea for a novel set in the years after 1066 came to me while I was in my final year, putting the finishing touches to my dissertation on the Norman Conquest. I wanted to explore what it would have been like to live during those unsettled years when the English were still coming to terms with their new foreign overlords. Of course the novel in its final form was very different from the one I set out to create, but that still remains for me one of its central themes.
Do you plan to write in any other genres?
I love history and at the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying writing about the Norman Conquest, which I think is such an interesting subject, with so many facets that I’ve still to look at in detail. Having said that, I do have ideas in mind for books set in other periods, as well as for more contemporary fiction too. It’s hard to say where my interests might take me, so I would never completely rule out a return to sci-fi or fantasy at some point in the future.
What was the last book you read?
The last book I read was The Ruby in Her Navel by the late Barry Unsworth. I first read it when it came out in 2006, and it was a real inspiration for me, showing me the power of the historical novel to evoke a distant time and place. I’m currently reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, which explores how civilisations throughout history have dealt with, or failed to deal with ecological catastrophe, and what lessons we might draw from their examples.
How often do you write?
I find that discipline is incredibly important, and so I try to write something every day. Usually that’ll be a portion of my current work-in-progress, but occasionally it’ll be some material for my blog, or an upcoming talk or paper that I’ll be delivering. It’s important to keep the writing muscles well-exercised!
You took the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa- how do you think this affected your book?
The MA in Creative Writing was enormously beneficial for me. I’ve often said that it would have taken me ten years to learn on my own what I learned in a single year on the course. The in-depth feedback from tutors and fellow students was amazingly useful, while the focus on deconstructing texts and finding out what makes them work helped me to hone my prose and develop my narrative voice, and gave me the confidence to experiment with new forms.
Do you think that Creative Writing courses have a lot to give, or do you prefer your writers “free-range”?
As a reader it doesn’t make much difference to me what the author’s background is; I’m only interested in the quality of the writing. But I believe that creative writing courses have a huge amount to offer to aspiring writers, by providing both a constructive atmosphere in which they can learn their craft and a forum in which they are taken seriously as novelists and poets.
Do you spend a lot of time in the company of other writers?
I’m still in close contact with several of the other writers from my year on the MA. Every month we hold a workshop where we review each other’s work and discuss all things literary over coffee and cake. So much of a writer’s time is spent alone, which means that it’s vital to have a support network in place. It definitely helps to have people around you who understand the creative process and what you’re trying to achieve, and who can give specific and insightful feedback. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of such a group.
Is there a time you prefer to write? Or a place?
I tend to be more of a morning person, although I don’t set myself strict working hours. Instead I aim to write one thousand words each day, and I just keep going until I reach that target. Sometimes that will take only a few hours, which allows me time to add new material to my website or update my followers on Twitter and Facebook with my latest news, while other days I’ll still be writing late into the evening.
Do you write singularly on your computer or do you also write by hand?
I often get asked this question! Since about the age of ten I’ve written my creative work almost exclusively by word processor, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I often make notes by hand, though, and usually I have several notebooks on the go at any one time.
What did it feel like to hold your finished book in your hands?
It was a very strange feeling! Up until then I’d only known the novel as something that existed on my computer screen and as a collection of typed A4 sheets, so to see it in its final printed form was a real thrill.
What do you think of e-books and how do you think they will change the publishing industry?
I think there’s a lot of fear surrounding e-books and what the future holds for the publishing industry, some but not all of which is warranted. The electronic format is still in its infancy and we’re likely to see changes in the next ten years that we’ve barely even begun to consider, and yet I doubt very much that the traditional paper book will disappear any time soon. We still listen to the radio, after all, even though we now have television and the internet. There are bound to be new challenges, but I also think there will be new opportunities for writers and publishers.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The best piece of advice I could offer to any aspiring writer is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. Whether it’s prose or poetry or scriptwriting, the more you produce the better it’ll get. You can have talent, but to get published you also need persistence and determination. If possible, find a community of writers or someone whose opinion you value and trust, and see if they’ll give you some friendly and constructive feedback on your work, but only when you feel it’s ready to show.
Interview by Jessica Cook