Q&A with Joseph T. Pickett, debut author of Becoming the Conqueror

Writing is like walking through fog towards a home: at first, you see only mist. Take a few steps forward and a vague outline emerges.

Already setting a strong precedent with his debut novel Becoming the Conqueror, Joseph T. Pickett looks set to make his mark on the historical fiction world. Now, with book two on the way, Pickett gives us an insight into his journey towards becoming an  author, and why he chose the legend, William the Conqueror.

Q. Your book focuses on the early life of William the Conqueror, and gives us a different insight into his life. What was it about this historical character that appealed to you so much?
A. Having lived in France for many of my formative years and being English, William the Conqueror was a natural choice for me, as he connects the two countries. Reading about him, it struck me how little of his early life is well known, yet it explains so much of what he did – the violence, the mistrust, the passions. I just had to tell his story and go beyond the 1066 mentality. I had to meet the human, not the legend.

Q. The research for this book must have been a mountainous task. How difficult was it to remain historically accurate, as well showcasing your own fictional flair?
A. A quick look at the select bibliography shows just how much work went into it. Hundreds of historical documents and academic articles were consulted, as well as visiting dozens of historic sites in Normandy and England, and talking to leading historians. The first drafts were unbelievably stuffy. I was so scared of making a historical mistake. It was John Gillingham who said to me 'You are worrying too much about accuracy'. To have such a brilliant historian remind me of creative freedom was just what I needed. Suddenly, the story came alive.

Q. What are the ethics around writing about historical figures?
A. That’s a rather loaded question. For me, writing is about truth. Nine centuries separate me from William the Conqueror, so painting a truthful picture of his character was always going to be difficult. The key was to recognise my prejudices and those of the authors of the surviving original sources, as well as take a lot of advice from eminent scholars in the Anglo-Norman field. From this, I have attempted to construct a faithful character. Of course, some things may have got distorted to fill in the gaps, so a sizeable historical note has served as a confession to the reader of any liberties taken.

Q. Is this the first book you have ever written in full? If so, how many unpublished/half-finished books do you have?
A. Becoming the Conqueror is my first story. There are no half-finished manuscripts other than that of my second book, which is in progress. This is mainly due to the manner in which I write. I do have an idea for the next series of books, though, and it will be quite different.

Q. Most writers are passionate readers too. Which authors, if any, have inspired your own work?
A. Bernard Cornwell first got me into historical fiction with his Sharpe series, followed by the gripping Saxon series. Elizabeth Chadwick, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and J. K. Rowling have all been huge inspirations. But I have also been reading a lot of earlier writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote one of the earliest Arthurian legends in the 12th Century and the Gawain poet. Of course, one of my all-time favourite historical fictions is Shakespeare’s Henry V. 

Q. Do you have any writing routines?
A. I am most productive in the morning, so I always get up and start writing with a steady flow of coffee on the weekend. On week days, I try to sit down and write 600 words a day – no excuses. That’s only two sides of an A4 sheet of paper, hand-written with a fountain pen, so is achievable.

Q. How did you get into writing? 
A. That’s an easy one to answer: a high-stress job in Paris made me think 'Is this all I want from life?' As soon as I resigned, I marched into the W.H. Smith next to the Louvre and bought two biographies of William the Conqueror. Now I couldn’t live without writing.

Q. How does writing make you feel: exhilarated or exhausted?
A. In order to write, I block out all distractions and focus on my thoughts. The problem is that, sometimes, I am writing to try to get away from other thoughts. It’s a double-edged sword. Either the writing session goes well and makes me feel elated or it goes really badly and compounds an already dark mood. On balance, though, writing is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever undertaken.

Q. Do you believe in writer’s block?
A. Yes, it’s called laziness – and I am one of the worst offenders. Inspiration is not divine. It does not come out of nowhere. You have to sit down and get words down on paper. Eventually, an image will emerge.  Writing is like walking through fog towards a home: at first, you see only mist. Take a few steps forward and a vague outline emerges. Take a few more steps and you start seeing details. Before you know it, you are inside with a cup of tea. If you just stand still, the mist will never clear.  

Q. Is writing a full time job for you? 
A. Yes and no. I work as a sales manager during office hours – but that is 42 hours a week. Treating writing as a second full time job, I put the remaining 126 hours of the week to good use.

Q. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A. Hopefully with three published novels! I would love to be able to spend more time writing and less time working through spreadsheets.

Q. Is there anything you edited out of this book that you now wish you could have kept in?
A. Many things! It is frustrating having to cut out side stories which I have stumbled upon in research, but to keep introducing new characters and go off at tangents all the time might just test the reader’s sanity.

Q. What do you think is essential to creating a great historical fiction novel?
A. Telling a good story. The reader has to forget they are reading and be swept away. Thorough research is also crucial; if a glaring historical mistake creeps in, the reader remembers that they are reading, rather than living, and I risk losing them.

Q. What advice would you give to aspiring authors who are on their own writing journeys?
A. Get on with it. If you make excuses (no time to write, still thinking, lack of inspiration), it will never happen. The one thing you need to remember is the only person who will suffer is yourself. No one will tell you off and no one will praise you. Have unshakable faith that you will finish the book – and do it. 

Q. You are currently working on book two. Can you give us an insight into what to expect from this series? How many more books do you plan on adding to it? 
A. Becoming The Conqueror tells of how William becomes a formidable leader, who is able to seize opportunities. The sequel, Poisoning The Blood, will show another facet of his life: the price we pay as humans when we undertake such bloody tasks. It will also follow his troubled relationship with his eldest son. I plan on a third book in which the reader will discover the power struggle between William’s sons, after his death.

Q. Any last thoughts/comments for the reader?
A. Learning about history is a way of recognising prejudices we perhaps didn’t know we had. It is easy to underestimate the impact history has on our perceptions, even centuries later. As well as telling an exciting story, I hope my books make the reader hungry to learn more about the Anglo-Norman period. Remember that history is our ancestors’ actions: what we choose to stand up for today will be the history of future generations. The more clarity of thought and compassion we have today, the better their chances of living in a world free of prejudice.

The Kindle edition of Becoming the Conqueror is available on Amazon, here.

See my review of Becoming the Conqueror here.

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