Regular readers may remember that a while ago this blog was host to guest David Pilling, at the launch of Folville’s Law. Well, he’s back again with another great book: The Half-Hanged Man, but this time, I decided to ask him some questions…
LDS: Can you give me a brief summary of the The Half-Hanged Man?
DP: The Half-Hanged Man is the story of a fictional English mercenary captain during the high days of the routiers or Free Companies that ravaged much of Europe during the late 14th century. Like many of his real-life counterparts, Thomas Page is an English commoner who rises to brief status and fame thanks to his skill as a soldier. Along the way he makes some terrible enemies, including Captain-General Hugh Calveley, an appalling black-armoured giant who wields a glaive (a type of battle-axe) that most men are incapable of lifting. Page recounts the story of his extraordinary life to Jean Froissart, the famous French chronicler, inside a tavern in Eastcheap. Froissart harbours doubts that the old soldier is who he claims to be…
LDS: What drew you to write about the Free Companies that terrified and burned their way through France and Spain during the Hundred Years War?
DP: The sheer charisma of many of the captains, men such as John Hawkwood, Robert Knolles and Bertrand du Guesclin, who clawed their way to high rank, despite having little or no noble blood: John Hawkwood’s father was a tanner, a particularly revolting trade. The drama and brutality of the time – Europe was plunged into chaos for many years – also appealed.
LDS: I’ve noticed that, in many of your books, you seem to write about the fourteenth century. What is it exactly that draws you to that period?
DP: The blood and guts, basically! And the insane politics. The fourteenth century was the ‘high point’ of the Middle Ages, in all its glory and violence and squalor. Many of the great names of the period – Edward III, the Black Prince, Isabella ‘the She-Wolf of France’, Pedro the Cruel etc – are a storyteller’s dream.
LDS: And then we have the fascinating character of Thomas Page, the ‘Half-Hanged Man’ of the title. I would love to know what inspired you to invent such a memorable man.
DP: He is a combination of several of the real-life English captains of the period, plus a few touches of my own. My initial idea was to write a tale about a man who survives a hanging – hence the ‘half-hanged’ part of the title. I married that to my love of the fourteenth century and it all snowballed from there.
LDS: The book is told in three parts to the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart. The first two parts are by Page and the last one by his sworn enemy, Hugh Calveley (a real personality from history). What made you choose Calveley and how was it trying to discover his ‘voice’?
DP: When I researched the many bizarre, half-fascinating, half-repellent figures from the period, Calveley stood out. He was physically gigantic and monstrously strong – seven feet tall, according to contemporary accounts, with a mane of red hair and incisors he had specially sharpened by a Moorish barber to terrify his enemies. As a man, I suspect he was every bit as ruthless and brutish as his peers, and so this is how I wrote him. He is not without a sense of honour, though, and is very touchy when it comes to his family being slighted. As a ‘new man’ i.e. the product of small Cheshire gentry trying to rise in the world, he is very much conscious of his lowly position in the world compared to the great lords he rubs shoulders with. All these things influence his actions.
LDS: Many authors find that their characters become really strong voices, almost taking over the story from the author. Did this happen to you at all?
DP: I had a strange experience writing the second part, concerning Eleanor or ‘The Raven of Toledo’. When writing Eleanor’s story, I felt like someone else was writing through me. The ‘tone’ of The Raven of Toledo is different to Page and Calveley’s sections, and she comes across as a more human and vulnerable personality.
LDS: The scenes that stood out most for me in this book were the battle scenes. Most authors find them quite hard to write, however I got the feeling from the flowing of the narrative (never mind the blood!), that these scenes were something that you particularly enjoyed crafting. Am I right?
DP: I enjoyed writing them in the sense that it was a challenge to capture the terror and excitement of a battle. Descriptions of battles in many novels are often terribly bland, in my opinion, or go overboard, soaking the reader in blood and gore. I tried for a convincing medium. Medieval fights weren’t pleasant affairs. All of it, of course, written by someone who has never been anywhere near a battle of any kind and wouldn’t go near one for a pension!
LDS: It is quite a complex era of history, and most of the meat of your book takes place either in France or Spain. How much research did you have to do, and how hard was it?
DP: Eleanor’s story required much more research than the others, since my knowledge of medieval Spain was pretty limited. I had to buy an extremely obscure book on Castile and the reign of Pedro the Cruel from a university library in the U.S. It was quite a surprise to discover that the politics of the Spanish kingdoms were much more complex and savage than in England and France. Men like Pedro and the aptly-named Charles the Bad were mesmerizing, truly awful men who gloried in their evil and took a twisted pride in it.
LDS: So how long did it take you to write it, from idea to last draft?
DP: Over a year, much longer than my other books. I kept giving up and coming back to it until it was done. 10. Where can people buy this book? On Amazon via Kindle and paperback. I hope to have it up on Smashwords soon as well.
Thankyou for being my guest David. To give you all a little taste of The Half-Hanged Man, here is an excerpt:
“I led my portion of the rearguard across the open ground to the right of the prince’s battalion, and surged into the first company of Castilian reinforcements as they tried to arrange into a defensive line. They were well-equipped foot with steel helms and leather jacks, glaives and axes, but demoralised and unwilling to stand against a charge of heavy horse. I skewered a serjeant in the front rank with my lance and rode over him as the men behind him scattered, yelling in fear and hurling their banners away as they ran. If all the Castilians had behaved in such a manner, we would have had an easy time of it, but now Enrique flung his household knights into the fray. It had started to rain heavily, sheets of water blown by strong winds across the battlefield, and a phalanx of Castilian lancers on destriers came plunging out of the murk, smashing into the front rank of my division. A lance shattered against my cuisse, almost knocking me from the saddle, but I kept my seat and slashed at the knight with my broadsword as he hurtled past, chopping an iron leaf from the chaplet encircling his basinet, but doing no other damage.
My men held together under the Castilian charge, and soon there was a fine swirling mêlée in progress. I was surrounded by visored helms and glittering blades, men yelling and horses screaming, and glimpsed my standard bearer ahead of me, shouting and fending off two Castilians with the butt of his lance. Another Englishman rode in to help him, throwing his arms around one of the Castilians and heaving him out of the saddle with sheer brute strength, and then a fresh wave of steel and horseflesh, thrown up by the violent, shifting eddies of battle, closed over them and shut off my view. I couldn’t bear to lose my banner again, and charged into the mass of fighting men, clearing a path with the sword’s edge. A mace or similar hammered against my back-plate, sending bolts of agony shooting up my spine, and my foot slipped out of the stirrup as I leaned drunkenly in the saddle, black spots reeling before my eyes.”
Buy David’s excellent book here:
The Half-Hanged Man by David Pilling