Today I am interviewing Toby Venables, author of the new epic historical-fantasy novel, Hunter of Sherwood: Hood, final book in the Guy of Gisburne trilogy.
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DJ: Hey Toby! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Toby Venables: Well, I’m a writer in various media – novels, screenwriting, journalism – and author of four novels, all of which have been in some way historically based. The first was The Viking Dead, which threw together Vikings and zombies, but was as much a love letter to Viking culture as anything else. Then came the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy (AKA the Guy of Gisburne novels). I’ve also written a couple of screenplays – nothing yet produced, but the next one is looking good – teach students in Cambridge, have contributed to an academic tome on zombies, am married with two children and shoot English longbow.
DJ: What is Hunter of Sherwood: Hood and then the Guy of Gisburne trilogy about?
Toby: Essentially, it turns the Robin Hood legend on its head. Abaddon – who had published The Viking Dead, and who knew I had a thing for medieval subjects – suggested the idea of having Sir Guy of Gisburne, the traditional villain of the piece, as a hero of a series of novels. As it turned out, I had been thinking about new ways to tell the Robin Hood story – kind of a Dark Knight version – so I jumped at the chance. I went away and worked out some ideas and they liked them, so we went for the first novel, Knight of Shadows. The challenge I set myself was that the story I wrote had to fit with the real history of the period (it’s set it at the time of King Richard and Prince John) and also had to fit with the legends we know. But it also had to have a genuinely admirable character in Gisburne, and a real villain in Hood, and real reasons why we would root for the man who legend has remembered as the bad guy. Originally, there was talk of this being an ongoing series. After the first book, though, it was clear that this needed a distinct narrative arc, and we all agreed that a trilogy would work better. Gisburne and Hood are destined to have a showdown, and that showdown is what the novel Hood is all about. It has a bit of a Magnificent Seven feel to it. And it is quite grim. Although it isn’t horror, I have a love of that genre, and there are moments where it becomes horror. Comedy too. I like that contrast of tones, and that kind of richness. Life is like that.
DJ: What were some of your influences for the Guy of Gisburne trilogy?
Toby: There are lots! What interests me most, thinking back over it, is that most of my influences are cinematic. The Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood made a huge impression on me as a kid, so that is certainly in the mix – as are all the subsequent movies, in their different ways (as well as the early ballads, for those who know them). But in most of these, Gisburne is a cartoon villain, if he appears at all; I obviously needed him to be more than that. Superheroes have fascinated us for decades – never more so than now – and Robin Hood himself is sort of a proto-superhero figure, so I had that in mind from the start. Gisburne is a Dark Knight – but literally a knight – fighting to maintain order in a kingdom that is on the edge of chaos, and with the somewhat crazed character of Hood ever keen to tip it over that edge. It’s a conflict that fans of the darker incarnations of Batman and The Joker will instantly recognise. Other key influences are Indiana Jones, to which there are quite a few knowing nods, and James Bond. From the very start the publishers and I talked of Gisburne as a 12th century James Bond; it even has a Q figure in the crusty old enginer Llewellyn of Newport, as well as 12th century gadgets. Some of these are somewhat outlandish, but all possible within the period. It was a fairly outlandish time. The grip of the law was tentative, and there were places it did not reach at all, so Westerns are a big influence too, especially Sergio Leone. Also Kurosawa’s samurai films. But really there are so many I don’t even know if I could track them all. I actually quote the Italian Job at one point – though that’s mostly for mischief…
When it comes down to it, though, it’s not cinema, it’s words. I’ve been writing for years – journalism mostly – so, again, it’s hard to tease out what has gone into that mix, but off the top of my head I would cite Mary Shelley, H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bruce Chatwin, Anthony Burgess and the Beowulf poet as the ones who have exerted the most influence. That doesn’t always translate directly into style, however. From a purely stylistic point of view, the influences that are easiest to identify are the most recent: Stephen King and Bernard Cornwell. I came late to both, but there is so much to like and to admire (and liking and admiring are not always the same thing). Of course, they’re consummate storytellers, but they’re also truly great writers. Great artists. Like Spielberg, people often don’t see that – or prefer not to – because they are so hugely successful, which conflicts with people’s misconceptions about ‘art’. They also tend not to draw attention to their art, ploughing everything into story and characters – just getting on with it, really. But they are great, nonetheless – and smart – each the kind of writer that I strive to be. Another I’d put in that category is Dan Simmons, whose novel The Terror, was phenomenal.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Toby: Let’s start with Hood… Everyone knows him and what he stands for – robbing the rich to give to the poor – so how does one make that a bad thing? Making Gisburne a hero is relatively easy, but how does one make Robin Hood into a genuine villain, without changing him from the character we know and want? The key to that was Richard the Lionheart. In the more recent vesions of the legend, Richard is a saintly character, who returns to deliver his beloved England from injustice and tyranny, and who is idolised by Hood. But the historical Richard did not speak English, spent no more than six months of his reign here, and mostly looked upon England as a resource to raise cash for his crusade. He introduced crippling taxes – the kinds of taxes his brother John is usually blamed for – and sold everything that wasn’t nailed down. He sold titles to his Anglo-Norman nobles, and even did so retrospectively, demanding money for titles he’d already bestowed. He really cared nothing for England, and was the very last person who was likely to champion the underdog – if you look at how he ruled his territories in Limousin, Périgord and Aquitaine you find a cruel and quite possibly psychopathic tyrant, against whom the people were continually rebelling; he was not the champion of the oppressed, but their oppressor. All he really cared about, it seems, was fighting. But he was very good at it – and that is the cornerstone of his reputation. So, who would idolise a man like that? Well, another adrenaline-addicted psychopath! Someone who just wants to see the world burn. And that’s what Hood is. He’s pretty much exactly the Errol Flynn version – larger than life, insanely charismatic, throwing himself at danger, but also dragging his own men into that danger. And not caring. All he wants to do is fight and fight and fight… And all around him, people mistake this for heroism; they follow him, devote their lives to him, sing songs of him. There have been numerous characters like this in history, who have been followed for all the wrong reasons. There’s a moment in Hood when he stands on a rock and delivers a motivational speech to his men. There are elements of Flynn’s Hood and Henry V in that speech, but mostly it’s taken from the last words of Charles Manson to the court that has just convicted him. They fitted easily into Hood’s mouth. In the second book, The Red Hand, Hood spends most of the time locked in a cell while Gisburne is chasing down another villain, which allowed for parallels with Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
The essence of both characters is that they are misunderstood; Gisburne is destined to be remembered as the villain, because he serves John, who is universally hated (and also, in my version, misunderstood, if flawed) and because he is against Hood, whose legend becomes seemingly unstoppable. Gisburne, therefore, is a tragic hero. He’s a man who has been wronged, who was destined to be a knight and then had that future wrenched from him by Richard. He has lived as a mercenary across Europe and in the Holy Land, and so has become incredibly self-contained. Too much. His gear is his own. He carries everything with him. He has no squires or pages. Relies on no one, trusts no one. There’s a good deal of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the character. So, then, the obvious thing to do is have John knight him and force a squire on him. The interactions with his grumpy squire Galfrid form one of the key relationships of the trilogy. The other is with Mélisande de Champagne – a woman who is not only good-looking and intelligent, but every bit as good a fighter as Gisburne. It’s a common trope in modern medieval stories, having a rebelious (often cross-dressing) woman who can get stuck into the action with the boys. It’s anachronistic, but there are good reasons why we want that in the mix. But also, for Gisburne, a man largely shaped by combat, it means she understands him in a way no other woman ever has before. So, sparks fly in a different way!
Gisburne carries a Saxon seax in a scabbard across the small of his back. It belonged to his maternal grandfather, who was a Saxon, and often Gisburne fights with a Norman sword in his right hand and Saxon seax in his left. He also gets seasick and has a terror of travelling across water.
Galfrid loves cathedrals and will go miles out of his way to visit one, even though he doesn’t give much of a hoot for religion.
Hood wears a copper disc about his neck which he unconsciously touches when he’s uncertain. That’s his ‘tell’.
Mélisande appears to have martial skills which have their origins among the Saracens. Only in Hood do we find out why.
Richard has the most enviably regular bowel habit of any English monarch.
DJ: What is the world and setting of the Guy of Gisburne trilogy like?
Toby: As near as I can make it, it’s the historical reality of the late 12th century. So, definitely patriarchal, and quite rigidly hierarchical. But also quite chaotic. ‘Law’ was harsh but also very unevenly distributed, and things could get dangerous quite quickly. All the named places are real – or were real. Nearly all the named people are also real; it’s really only the key characters who are not. Some events or settings in Gisburne’s adventures are slightly fantastical – the sewers of Jerusalem, for example, become bigger and more extraordinary than their real counterparts – but other than that, I have aimed for complete authenticity. This is not ‘fantasy’. There is no magic, nothing supernatural (as far as we know); it is real. The manners, materials, Even the weather, days of the week and phases of the moon are as correct as I can get them.
To help recreate that world, I researched specific places and events in some depth – probably more than was strictly necessary! For Knight of Shadows there was a lot of obsessing about the contemporary layout of the Tower of London, for example, and trying to figure out where its weak point would have been (I found it). We are also taken in flashback to the Gisburne at the battle of Hattin – the 9/11 event of its day, where Saladin utterly destroyed the Christian army. For this, I went to contemporary sources, and even quote from Arab accounts of that battle.
The Red Hand takes place mostly in London, so there was a lot to find out there, to make it live and breath as a place – but prior to that, Gisburne also travels to several different castles where attacks have taken place, and I used this to show different types of castle. We’d already had the classic examples of Dover and the White Tower in Knight of Shadows, so I had one that was a grim, crumbling wood and plaster relic of earlier Norman times, and another that was an early example of a fashionable manor house – built for show rather than for defence, by a man who thought himself safe from attack (mistakenly, as it turns out). The castle of Sir John de Rosseley, by contrast, is based on Restormel castle in Cornwall – a beautiful building that is completely circular, like a crown atop a hill. This really belongs to a slightly later period but is meant to show de Rosseley is ahead of the curve. The physical environment can say a huge amount about a person, or set a tone for the whole sequence. Get the world right, and people will believe the rest, even if it does get outlandish.
By the time of Hood, in 1194, Europe was also being hit by famine – the result of endless rain ruining the harvest – so I’ve tried to reflect that. I’ve also made a real historical event the centrepiece of the book: the siege of Nottingham Castle. This happened pretty much as described, on the dates specified. The only elements that were not really part of it are our heroes, who have an influence on it that somehow never made the history books! But the siege engines, the gallows, the burning of the wall, the excursion from the castle by Henry Rousel and Sir Fulcher de Grendon to identify the king and the names of all the participants – all true.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Hunter of Sherwood: Hood and completing the final book in the Guy of Gisburne trilogy?
Toby: It’s contradictory. I’m glad it’s over, and I will miss it terribly! The research was really satisfying. It led me to take up the longbow and put me in touch with some amazing people I would otherwise never have met. With research of this kind there comes a point where books are no longer any good, and you need to find out about all the stuff that they don’t cover. It was a very different, hands-on world in which everything was hand made, and I relished exploring the day-to-day material culture – what they carried, fought with, ate with etc. I actually began to collect recreated items of the type I felt Gisburne would own. A helm, mail, a bow. I had Gisburne’s eating knife made for me by the legendary Tod of Tod’s Stuff. I actually have an entire medieval scrip bag full of travelling gear: eating bowl, a razor, Castille soap, firelighting steel and flint, beeswax for his bowstring and spare fletchings for his arrows, everything – there’s even a purse with the key to his house and coins from the period. These are now my souvenirs from Gisburne’s world. What can I say? I’m a massive, irredeemable nerd.
DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first two books of the Guy of Gisburne trilogy? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?
Toby: Reviews from bloggers and readers on Amazon and Goodreads have been incredibly positive – Knight of Shadows and The Red Hand both currently have 4.05 stars on Goodreads. But, more than that, the comments show that some people really get it, which is all a writer really wants. Some don’t, which is fine. You can’t expect everyone to like what you do – that way madness lies… A few people got quite angry about specific things, such as the journey times from the Holy Land (they said it couldn’t be done; it could) and one person accused me of having swallowed a dictionary, but I quite enjoy those responses. One Goodreads review that stuck in my mind said something like: ‘If Bernard Cornwell had a son, and that son was a novelist, he would be Toby Venables…’ That was incredibly flattering, but also kind of weird… I’ll take that weirdness, though. Cornwell’s the high water mark for me.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish Hunter of Sherwood: Hood?
Toby: I know what it will be, but I can’t tell you.
DJ: What was your goal or theme when you began writing the Guy of Gisburne trilogy? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or perhaps there is a certain theme to the story?
Toby: The theme has certainly grown as the trilogy has progressed. I think with something like this you have some idea what themes you’re covering when you start, but then look back when it’s done and see things you didn’t know were there. The great advantage with a trilogy is that you complete a book, have a lull, and then can write the next in the light of that realisation. Different people will draw different things from it – or just enjoy the story, I hope – but for me it’s all really about legends, and how legends are made; the crossing point between history and myth, fact and faction, truth and lies. Also, how legend can seep into history and change it. These days, Richard the Lionheart is regarded as a great hero of England. There’s eve a heroic statue of him outside Parliament. Yet the historical Richard was an out-and-out bastard. His legend has taken over, fuelled in no small part by the fictions of Robin Hood. His father, Henry II – who was a very canny king and introduced all manner of political and legal reforms – is far more deserving of that place, but he just doesn’t fit the narrative. Richard won battles, and that’s what great kings do, even if they’re monsters. As the Joker says, it’s ‘all part of the plan’. Talking of which, I should add that while writing Hood, the US election was happening, and I found it impossible not to make comparisons with that. There was this man, Trump, whose legend was so strong among his supporters that no truth, however damaging, could touch it. That also made me realise this book had come at exactly the right time.
DJ: I’m always curious when authors finish a series, how close to the original course they stayed when it is finally completed or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?
Toby: When I was writing the first book I didn’t know at all where it was going beyond its last page. Hood was really only a minor character in that – but even so, I knew that somehow the fates of these two characters had to be played out. When I was planning and writing the second book we had agreed that it would be a trilogy, and by then it was clear to me where that had to go, so I sketched out what I knew had to happen in the final book and worked backwards. But there was a lot of opportunism along the way. The Red Hand was meant to be a smaller story before the epic conclusion – the Temple of Doom episode of the trilogy. Knight of Shadows roved far and wide – all across Europe and back in time to the Holy Land – so for a change of pace and mood I set the second book in one place: London. Somehow, though, it became a bit of a monster – I ended up cutting several chapters, which are available on my blog as deleted scenes. And things cropped up that I later used in the final book. Some led to revelations about particular characters. There was one major revelation at the very end of Hood that I had not expected at all – but when I realised it, I knew it had been lurking there all along.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Hunter of Sherwood: Hood that you can share with us?
Toby: Two quotes from Hood himelf:
“All it takes to live forever is to be freed from the tyranny of truth. Of fact. Of history. Throw off these chains, and what might we not become? So, no, it doesn’t end here. Not even if we kill each other. It begins.”
“Just because you want to kill someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them.”
And one from Mélisande de Champagne, who gets all the best lines:
“I may not relieve myself standing up, Sir John, but I can take a kick to the goods better than any man here.”
DJ: Now that Hunter of Sherwood: Hood is released, what is next for you?
Toby: After Brexit and the US election there is a serious temptation to take to the forest with my bow… But not quite yet. Right now I’m working on a screenplay with my wife – a horror story with a twist. It’s been commissioned and has a director, so hopefully we can get that made before the world ends. In prose fiction, my next big thing is set in late Victorian London – so, historical again, but a very different period, and a very different kind of story. I start out with an entirely faithful evocation of 1880s London, then utterly destroy it with a zombie plague. It all goes a bit steampunk along the way. In essence, this is my response to the politics of the day. The title is Zombie & Son.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B0077D64VW
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Hunter of Sherwood: Hood and the Guy of Gisburne trilogy that we haven’t talked about yet?
Toby: The guy (pun intended) on the cover is Jason Kingsley, who owns Abaddon. He is a medieval enthusiast and master horseman who has jousted competitively – and he was the inspiration for John de Rosseley.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Toby: Thank you!
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*** Hunter of Sherwood: Hood is published by Abaddon and is available TODAY!!! ***
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The vendetta with Robin Hood has cost too much: blood shed, lives lost, friendships severed. Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent of Prince John, has had enough, and wishes to enjoy a little quiet on his own land. But Hood grows ever more troublesome, and if the barons of the North will not convince Guy to resume the hunt – nor even the rightful King, Richard the Lionheart, returned from long imprisonment – then perhaps the simple plea of a missing daughter’s father, and a promise to restore a good man’s name, will.
Hood has gathered an army – among them the insidious Took, the giant John Lyttel, the cutthroat Will the Scarlet, the brilliant but bitter Alan O’Doyle. Guy must now recruit an army of his own, calling upon some familiar old friends – and one all-too-familiar old enemy…
The stage is set: Sherwood, long a home to both men. The final confrontation begins…
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 2000AD 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”. He is also author of the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy – now on its second book – in which Guy of Gisburne is the hero, and Hood a bit of a rotter. The first of these novels, Knight of Shadows, garnered some charitable reviews, including one which essentially implied the author was the bastard son of Bernard Cornwell. Which was nice.