Good morning this rainy Easter Monday. Around this time last year, I completed the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. One of my colleagues on that course was Christopher Lloyd King. He has just published his first novel, Black Sun (available from Amazon: goo.gl/ApwVn9). I am delighted to have an interview with him on my blog.
Christopher Lloyd King came to writing fiction after a career in television. He directed single plays and series over a thirty-five period. Credits include BBC’s ‘Forgive our Foolish Ways’ for which Kate Nelligan received a BAFTA nomination as best actress, ITV’s ‘The Thing About Vince’ starring Timothy Spall, which won a Silver Rose at the Montreux TV festival. He directed two series of Channel 4’s ‘The Manageress’, starring Cherie Lunghi, and many popular series, including ‘The Professionals’, ‘Minder’, ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’.
He was educated at St. Peter’s College Oxford and L’Université d’Aix/Marseille, with an M.A. in film directing at The National Film and Television School.
Please say something about your writing journey to the present day.
During my directing career, I wrote screenplays (with a view to directing them myself), so have always been interested in telling stories, placing characters in a landscape. My scripts have tended towards historical settings, ranging from post-World War 1 rural Ireland to the Welsh mountains of the interwar years. Subjects have included sexual intrigue within a ménage à trois, the social ostracism faced by a gay pacifist during the build-up to war. A common thread in these scripts is an interest in the ways political events on the global scale affect the everyday life of ordinary people.
It was this preoccupation that led me to the story of Black Sun. I read Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising, an account of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-83, and was struck by the similarities between those events and the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was the same slender pretext for declaring war, the same impulse from British politicians to control the natural resources of a ‘third world’ country, the same demonisation of a tyrant. and the same outcome: huge loss of life and the creation of a power vacuum leading to devastating civil war.
Zulu Rising led to my reading more widely. I became fascinated with the story of Mehlokazulu, whose impetuous action to punish his adulterous mother became the justification used by the British. I wondered how this young warrior could bring himself to garrotte his own mother. Without any ambition to start writing a book, I set out to examine his motives. It was like unravelling a mystery; one thing led to another and eventually the architecture of a novel was revealed.
How did you do the research for Black Sun, and how you feel about writing about another country/culture?
I was, and am, sensitive about describing historical characters from another culture. In the case of Black Sun, cultural appropriation is far from my purpose. Black Sun is written objectively in third person, which I hope helps maintain a detachment and avoids any blurring between author’s attitude and the value system of the characters described.
One difficulty I had to overcome is that most histories of the period are Euro-centric, written from a European perspective by British or South African writers. Zulu history is essentially oral, word-of-mouth stories passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Two exceptions are Bertram Milford’s Through the Zulu Country and Paulina Dlamini’s Servant of Two Kings. Milford travelled through Zululand soon after the Zulu defeat, interviewing the Zulu participants – including Mehlokazulu and his father Sihayo. He took down verbatim their testimony, thus presenting Zulu eye-witness accounts of the battles.
My most important source was Paulina Dlamini’s book. A short, eighty page, monograph, this is a direct account of the war through the eyes of a thirteen-year old Swazi princess sent to work in the Zulu King Cetshwayo’s household. Nomguqo (her pre-baptismal name) was therefore witness to conversations at the highest level in the royal court and remembered them in detail. After the fall of the kingdom and ensuing civil war, she converted to Christianity and became an evangelist. Her fellow missionary, the German Lutheran Heinrich Filter, transcribed her stories and published them in 1911 (the English edition wasn’t published until 1986). Paulina’s memories are fresh and in exquisite detail. Consequently, she became the second principal character in the book.
As a boy growing up in the North-East of England, I was aware of the history of the Zulus from reading Henry Rider Haggard’s romances set in Zululand, specifically Nada the Lily. The writing was so vivid I wanted to visit Zululand and see for myself where the story was set. The opportunity came after leaving school. Before starting university, I spent nine months in newly independent Zambia, as a volunteer teacher. During the Easter break I travelled down to Durban and went inland to kwaZulu, where I spent some time in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It was exactly as I imagined it, a vast landscape with traditional ‘kraals’ (which I know now are called iMizi in isiZulu) dotted over it.
Then in 2016, my eldest son and I made a trip to kwaZulu on a trek through the uKhahlamba mountains. We made a trip to iSandlwana and had the good fortune to meet Lindizwe Ngobese, a local historian. Lindizwe is the great great grandson of Meholokazulu, the hero of Black Sun. We have kept in touch ever since and I am waiting, with my heart in my mouth, for his reaction to my evocation of and tribute to his ancestor.
What is your ‘writing process’?
The research and writing of the book went hand in hand. I discovered the characters, and therefore the story, as I read about the history. I wrote narrative ‘sign-post’, scenes which I knew I had to describe, like the ‘battle of the first fruits’ in Book 1. These provided guides to direct the story, but at no time did I follow a prescribed plan. It’s fair to say that the novel wrote itself – serendipitously. There was a good deal of back-tracking and re-writing. In retrospect, it would have been more economical and practical to have written a story plan, but since I had no idea of what I wanted to write, I allowed myself to be guided by the characters.
Five years in the writing, the manuscript ended up at an unwieldy one hundred and fifty thousand words. I had no immediate plan to seek a publisher, content with the reaction of my wife, who cried at the ending. Job done, I thought.
However, pure chance led to the manuscript being read by Simon Clegg, MD of PiqWiq, a small independent publishing house. He showed it first to Rob Dinsdale, an agent with A.P. Watt. Rob’s notes were invaluable and produced a quantum shift in how I considered the book. He reminded me that I was writing character based fiction and not history. He made me realise that characters are not aware they’re living through ‘history’; they’re living each day as it comes. ‘History’ is how we interpret events from the perspective of time having passed, where we have the advantage of seeing patterns and knowing the ‘ending’. I wrote a whole new draft with this injunction in mind.
Simon Clegg then showed this draft to Sadie Mayne, a freelance editor, who deemed it worthy of publication. Then came the time-consuming task of turning the clumsy manuscript into a book. Sadie was very helpful in shaping the narrative, cutting sections that were overwritten and redundant and encouraging me to expand areas that were underdeveloped. There was considerable to-ing and fro-ing.
The title Black Sun suggested itself very early on. One of the most dramatic features of the battle of iSandlwana, the first encounter between the British invasion force and the Zulu army, was the partial solar eclipse. According to contemporary Zulu accounts, the ‘sun went black’. The image provides a particularly apt metaphor for the eclipse in fortunes of the Zulu nation.
PiqWiq suggested that the novel might provide material for two books. Various dividing points were offered, and eventually it was decided that the themes of Book One, dealing with the build-up of hostilities, would be neatly rounded off with the Zulu armies marching to confront the British invaders, with Book 2 starting at the battle of iSandlwana and ending with the annihilation of the Zulus as a fighting force.
Have you any writing tips?
It would be invidious of me, as a beginner, to suggest writing tips to other novelists, but I myself have been helped by my previous experience of directing for television.
I know, for instance, that characterisation is all. Story is the consequence of the interaction of characters, what they say and do to each other. I am interested in the ambiguities in behaviour, inconsistencies which lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. This is the essence of conflict. So, finding those ambivalences is key to plotting, determining what the key objectives are for each character and deciding how these intersect or contradict each other.
Also from editing television programmes, I’m aware of the unwritten rule to start a scene/chapter late and leave it early. Rely on the audience/reader to fill in the missing information. As readers, we all construct in our mind’s eye the rest of the narrative as we make our way through each stage in a novel. This is the key to understanding how to maintain suspense, keep the reader’s attention.
Brevity and concision are also lessons learned from TV. This applies to description and scene setting. It’s important that the reader has a sense of where and when an action is set, but this works most effectively when it is integrated into the action. It should not appear as imposed, or arbitrary
What motivates you to write?
I write as I read, to be taken into another world, the imagination of the author. I’m always surprised by what my imagination throws up. There’s a strange alchemy that transmutes half-buried ideas and half-remembered thoughts into concrete images, and from there into a coherent narrative.
I have another historical novel on the stocks, set in the same period of history. The 1870s threw up conflict across the world, where indigenous people fought to protect their lands against the incursion of greedy, land grabbing settlers of European origin. For some years, I’ve been reading histories of the American Wild West (childhood fascination with ‘Cowboys and Indians’, I suppose). I chanced upon Empire of the Summer Sun by S.G. Gwynne, winner of a Pulitzer prize. This tells the story of Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche war-chiefs. Quanah’s understanding of his people’s need to adapt to new circumstances is poignant. The friendship that developed between him, leader of a nomadic nation, fighting to preserve an unsustainable way of life and R.S.Mackenzie, colonel of the 4th Cavalry, who defeated him in battle, is the basis of the new book Blue Norther.
‘Which question did I wish you’d asked?’: which book would I like to have written? Sebastian Barry’s Days without End. The first-person narrative of the seventeen-year old Irish volunteer, in love with his brother-in-arms through the horrors of the American Civil War, is a masterpiece of characterisation.