Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Toby Venables, whose new novel Knight of Shadows - just published by Abaddon - turns Guy of Gisburne into the hero of the Robin Hood legend.
Toby Venables is a novelist, screenwriter and lecturer in Film Studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He grew up watching old Universal horror movies when his parents thought he was asleep, reading 2000 AD and obsessing about Beowulf. There was probably a bit more to it, but he can't quite remember what it was.
He has since worked as a journalist and magazine editor - launching magazines in Cambridge, Peterborough, Oxford and Bristol - and once orchestrated an elaborate Halloween hoax for which he built and photographed a werewolf. He still works as a freelance copywriter, has been the recipient of a radio advertising award, and in 2001 won the Keats-Shelley Memorial Prize (both possibly due to typing errors).
His first novel (for Abaddon) was The Viking Dead - a historical-zombie-SF mashup which has been described as "A fantastic mix of history, violence and horror" and "ludicrous fun".
AN INTERVIEW WITH TOBY VENABLES
Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I'm a writer (obviously...) but I also write screenplays and lecture on film-related matters at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. So, film is a huge influence on me – more so than other novels, actually. When I wrote my first book – a zombie novel – I hadn't read ANY zombie novels myself. But I'd seen an awful lot of zombie films, and that was the legacy I felt I had to deal with. Zombies are fundamentally a cinematic phenomenon, anyway. Stylistically, there are a few key literary influences – mostly dead people. Mary Shelley, H G Wells, Conan Doyle. Significant among the live ones is Stephen King, who I think is a great writer as well as a great storyteller. He makes the world he creates feel real. More recently, Dan Simmons' The Terror made a huge impact on me. An incredible, audacious piece of work – and painstakingly researched. You really feel the textures and smell the smells as you're reading that. And the slightly crazy fantastical elements are woven in without apology. I love that. Outside of genre I have huge admiration – verging on hero-worship – for Bruce Chatwin and Chuck Palahniuk. Both are great stylists.
What inspired you to write Hunter of Sherwood: Knight of Shadows?
It was a combination of things. I was very frustrated by Ridley Scott's film and had been thinking about new ways to tell the Robin Hood story that made more of the dual identity - kind of a superhero story, with the grim, tough feel of The Dark Knight. Robin Hood is, in essence, a prototype Batman figure. Then, by complete coincidence, David Moore – the commissioning editor at Abaddon – came to me with an intriguing suggestion: he was looking for someone to launch a book series in which Guy of Gisburne was the hero of the story. I'd previously written The Viking Dead for Abaddon (Viking and zombies) which leaned heavily on research into that culture and period, and he thought I might be a good fit for the project. I thought so too! I pitched an idea to him that took on board my ideas and his, and that was that.
It's an interesting idea to use Guy of Gisburne as the protagonist. What made you use him as the protagonist?
See above! This switch was totally David's idea. But I shifted things slightly, making Gisburne something of a tragic hero – and also taking Robin Hood into rather radical new territory (he's a psychopath). Of course, these characters are fictional to begin with, so can be adapted to almost any purpose. But they are also legend, which is something else again, and I wanted the story to in some way be about that – about the power of story to overturn truth, for good and ill. The key for me – and the justification for the switch – was actually found in a historical character. Richard the Lionheart is a saint-like figure in the more recent Robin Hood stories (film especially), who returns to England to save the oppressed Saxons. In reality, he hated England, did not speak English, and spent no more than six months of his reign here. His first act upon becoming king was to sell everything he could and raise taxes in order to generate money to finance his crusade. He is recorded as having said "I'd have sold London if I could have found a buyer..." Then he went off to the Holy Land leaving the kingdom in the hands of an incompetent, self-serving justiciar, the deeply-hated William Longchamps. Richard was a great military commander, but also essentially something of a brute – a man who seemed to care about very little, prone to acts of cruelty, whose only love was fighting. Gisburne is the antithesis of this – and Hood idolises Richard for all the wrong reasons.
Is Robin Hood one of the characters in this novel or have you concentrated on writing mostly about Guy of Gisburne and his adventures?
This is very much Gisburne's story, and I wanted people to root for him – even when he was up against the charismatic Hood. S, we're with him all the way. We discusssed at length how much Hood should be in it. I ddn't want him to be the main villain – certainly not in the first book, anyway – but we all understood that he had to be there, even if it was in the background. In terms of actual pages, Hood is in the book relatively little, but he still manages to be a dominant force. That's part of his story an character, really; even when he's not there, somehow manages to take things over!
Have you always been interested in folklore and the legend of Robin Hood?
Actually, yes! And I didn't realise until recently, when I thought back on it, how much! I actually played the part of Robin Hood on stage at primary school, around the age of 9, and had a toy bow that I played with until it broke. I was so distraught at this that my dad thought it was time to go out and buy me a proper one – a fibreglass longbow, with four practice arrows and a bale of straw. I could hardly draw it, but fired arrows into that bale of straw for hours on end, picturing myself at the archery competition where Robin splits his opponent's arrow shaft! As a writer, though, I've always been fascinated by legend and myth in general – especially those from Nortern European. So often these get eclipsed by Greek and Roman myths, which are still seen as somehow more 'worthy' (that's true cultural imperialism for you, stretching back over two millennia). I was always more interested in Thor, frost giants and dwarfs than Odysseus or Perseus, and am always looking for ways to rework or plunder those stories, often filtered through my love of cinema (The Viking Dead makes repeated references to Beowulf – and King Kong!).
Was difficult to reinvent the legend of Robin Hood?
Once I had the rationale in my head, it all fell into place. And, actually, I rewatched The Adventures of Robin Hood recently – the 1939 one with Errol Flynn, which I love – and it totally works if you imagine Hood as a kind of unstoppable, irrepressible madman! My Hood is pretty close to the Flynn version - with a few dark secrets up his sleeve... As I was creating the scenario, I was also finding parallels with recent history - the War on Terror, for example. The book includes a description of the battle of Hattin – the 9/11 event of the day, which sparked off the Third Crusade. My Gisburne spent several years as a mercenary, and so I placed him at this apoclayptic battle, at which most of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitalers – the elite fighting force of Europe – were wiped out in a single day.
How would you categorize Hunter of Sherwood: Knight of Shadows? Is it historical fantasy, historical adventure fiction or something else?
Author Colin Greenland once said to me "All fiction is fantasy..." That aside, I probably wouldn't describe KoS as "fantasy" in the sense that it is usually meant. There are no mythical creatures, no acts of magic. Not even any zombies (though I sort of sneaked a few in). While the action is sometimes heightened in an Indiana Jones kind of way (well, why not?), this is – I hope – very clearly the real world. There's all the grit and pain and stink of the age. That's what interests me, really. I want to feel that the world is real. There's also quite a bit of research to create a factual backdrop for the fictional characters. Many of the nemd characters really existed, and Prince John was in all the places that we find him at the times specificed in the book. I was quite obsessive and nerdy about the period detail - although I also took liberties when it felt right to do so. It should all be within the realms of the possible, but there was no rule book to say how people should act, and I'm sure there were those who flouted convention and did things their own way. I also directly quoted some medieval sources, including a first-hand account of Hattin by an Arab chronicler. I'm not into novels that have noble dragons that the hero has to bond with and ride, like a glorified, scaly horse... Apologies to lovers of glorified, scaly horses! I think it's about time we had a dragon that was just a big, horrible, slavering monster (and I intend to write this one day). So, I'd say "historical adventure" about covers it. But I don't mind too much. At a couple of points it did threaten to turn onto a horror novel, so it's drawing on a lot of different things. And I think fans of traditional fantasy fiction will enjoy it.
What will you write next? Are you planning on writing a sequel to Hunter of Sherwood: Knight of Shadows?
Expect some news on this very soon! Let's just say we'd like it to be a trilogy, and that the remaining parts are already sketched out to bring the story of Gisburne and his nemesis Hood to a conclusion... Beyond this, I'm also working on a zombie novel set in Victorian London, influenced by all the 19th century novels that I love – Frankenstein, Dracula, H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle. It's huge, but I'm pretty excited about it. I get to destroy the whole of London.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Yes - the guy on the cover (pun intended) is Jason Kingsley, one of the owners of Rebellion, of which Abaddon is part. He does what's called full-contact medieval re-enactment, which essentially means he puts on armour and fights and jousts for real!