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Interview with Tom O’Rourke

First off, thanks for joining us – and congratulations on writing a fantastic book! Can you tell us a little about yourself? Writing is not, as it were, your day job, correct?

It’s good to be with you – and I’m delighted you liked West Briton Story. True, writing isn’t my day job. In my early days I worked with a theatre company, so language has always featured in my work. Becoming a father made me think about a less precarious way of life, so I studied law, became a commercial barrister and now work with words in a different way by day

Plenty of people coping with the demands of life and work day-dream about writing a novel but never actually get around to doing it. What prompted you to get West Briton Story down on paper?

Well, I’ve been trying to find my true writing voice from around the age of seven years old, I guess. Over the years, I’ve produced many draft manuscripts in my spare time, none of which satisfied me – not quite the right form, content and structure, but which were all part of a journey towards forming WBS in my mind. It eventually became clear to me that I needed some time without any other distractions to focus properly on creative work. By working independently for a period of time I was successful enough to create funds to concentrate just on writing for a few short months. So I prepared a room, drew the blinds, and started to write. First up I produced an experimental novella which came to a close with a coda describing Dante’s visit to the Italian hilltop town of San Gimigniano in May 1300. Now this coda is less than a thousand words – but in it I found my writing voice. To anybody reading this coda, it might perhaps appear to be a good, workmanlike three pages or so; but to me it was a real breakthrough, an amazing sense of capturing on the page precisely what I wanted to say, in exactly the manner in which I wanted to express it. And I discovered something else too, something equally as thrilling – that under the cover of a historical setting, you can write any story in the world. A London agent liked it, but by this stage I knew that I wanted to write a series of books set in the Dark Ages, and this would become West Briton Story.

Why this time period? It’s not exactly as familiar to readers as the Victorian era or ancient Rome.

It’s a period of fires and hearths and storytelling. It’s also a time of the clamor and clash of tribes, an unsettled time which eventually saw the creation of a new society, which was changed forever from what had gone before. This period also saw the first traces of our English language. I love the elegiac lyricism of Old English, Celtic, and Welsh poetry and wanted to try to rediscover this in prose in some way. All of these factors and many others appealed to me. So I decided to write a Dark Ages tale about (very human and flawed) heroes, and the play of fate, but I also wanted to inquire about the world and its ways, and be prepared to laugh with the characters from time to time.

There’s a very natural cadence to WBS – no ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ but still the flavor of non-contemporary speech and thought. That’s obviously a conscious decision on your part – does it reflect on the reading you’ve done in the genre? What are the books and authors that germinated West Briton Story

Thank you. Getting the rhythm of the language right was every bit as important as the plot. I wanted to created a sense of the speech and thought of that time but without disturbing the flow of the book. (Working on WBS was a pure ‘flow’ experience – deeply pleasurable, and I hope that some of this sense is conveyed to the reader). The best poetry of that age (e.g. ‘The Seafarer,’ ‘The Wanderer,’ from Old English, ‘Y Gododdin’ from the Welsh) always seems to assume a very direct connection with its reader, probably because much of it would have been spoken to family and friends around the hearth. So this shared knowledge of the world between writer and reader, of its delights and horrors and mysteries, this was also something I was looking to re-create in the book.

As to where the book came from – that’s a big question, but the short answer is that it was born out of three short entires in “Ethelwerd’s Chronicle,” and the reader can enjoy those paragraphs set out at the back of the book. An entire lost world seemed to be hinted at in those few words, with the names of long-forgotten British kings that I’d never heard of, bound up with the names of present-day British cities (albeit in their ancient British form) that were real enough. I was intrigued; I wanted to explore this lost British world in my imagination. Having by now found my writing voice, those paragraphs provided all the inspiration I needed to start writing the series. As to other, general influences – that’s down to a lifetime’s reading of anything and everything I can lay my hands on, from the classics (Homer and Virgil) to Dante and Shakespeare, right through to British comics of a certain vintage (the Victor Book for Boys, the Hotspur, the Hornet) and American comics (the DC and Marvel ‘glossies’ introduced into the UK many years ago), with more esoteric and mysterious influences such as Frazier’s The Golden Bough thrown into the mix. There is one scene, a meeting of Champions before the first battle, that was directly influenced by a series of line drawings by Matisse on the subject of Hercules and Antaeus. I even had the great American fillm-maker John Ford in mind whilst describing the epic vistas of Dark Age Britain. So you can see that I’m happy to draw inspiration from creative work wherever I can find it, and I haven’t even begun to describe the historical materials I researched to lend authenticity to the work.

You’re self-publishing WBS – which is something of a journey in itself, and one more and more authors are making. What prompted the decision on your part? Has the whole process surprised you at all? (Try not to make the answer to this one just an unbroken stream of expletives!)

Well, an early version of WBS received positive feedback from prospective publishers, together with the news that publishing had hit a slow market generally, and that the market for books of this period was particularly challenging – especially for a first-time writer! So that was a good early education for me, but the praise was warm enough for me to make my final revisions and take the plunge into self-publication.

I found the design and artwork and proof-reading to be a delightful phase. My son, who is a professional digital artist, produced the frontispiece for the book, and I found a good printer. So all of that was great fun, and I would encourage others not to be too anxious at the thought of doing the same. Marketing, logistics, and distribution are the big challenges for the small publisher, and it’s just been a matter of pressing on and staying with the process.

Finally, what’s next for you? Are there more chapters to come in the West Briton Story saga?

Yes, I have material for another four books. I hope readers will be engaged and entertained by WBS. If so, I will be delighted to oblige that readership with more in the series. But for now, many thanks for your time and interest in WBS. And congratulations to you and the rest of the team at Open Letters Monthly – it’s become essential reading for me in the last few months, and it’s a real achievement for all involved with it.