An Interview With Stephen Lawhead

An Interview With Stephen Lawhead
by Beth Goddard

Stephen R. Lawhead is an internationally acclaimed author of mythic history and imaginative fiction. His works include Empyrion, Byzantium, Patrick: Son of Ireland, as well as series novels The Celtic Crusades, The Song of Albion, and the Arthurian legend, The Pendragon Cycle.

His latest series is the King Raven Trilogy, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The first installment, Hood, was released last summer while the second book, Scarlet, is due out September, 2007 (published by Westbow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson).

BG: A big thanks to you, Steve, for joining Favorite Pastimes this week* and giving us the privilege of promoting your newest release. Hood: Book One in the King Raven Trilogy is the re-telling of a familiar tale, only re-imagined and placed in a different setting. What was your inspiration to write Robin Hood in this way?

SRL: For King Raven, I’ve used a similar approach to the one I used with my series, The Pendragon Cycle. Thus, the story I tell, while containing some familiar elements, is far, far different, unfolding in a different time. Also, the setting is new and different – not Sherwood, for example, but the wilds of Wales. Many of the familiar characters appear in interesting new roles and guises. So, there are surprises all along the way – fascinating incidents and details most people will never have read about.

BG: Why did you put him in 11th century Wales?

SRL: Because that’s where he belongs! Actually, this is what I like to do: take a popular tale of legend back to where it began ... as opposed to where it ended up. The thing is, whenever you get an enduring hero – like Robin Hood – you have to ask yourself: how did his story get started? That’s the question that interests me, and sometimes the answer can be very surprising.

Most writers seem only-too-willing to replay the same accepted version of the beloved outlaw over and over again – a version largely cobbled together during Victorian times and flogged by Hollywood.

As a result most people assume a fairly tame, swashbuckling tale which takes place in the high middle ages, involving a lot of aristocrats swanning around a balmy Sherwood Forest full of Merry Men singing Hey-nonny. However, the real Robin Hood was likely born in the devastating clash between two completely different cultures – British and Norman, following the devastating invasion of 1066 – and the root of the story is darker, more earthy and elemental. There is far more to Robin Hood than most people realize.

BG: That’s because, as you mentioned, we all grew up on Hollywood’s version of the stories. Tell us how Hood is different.

SRL: In the famous words of Pat Lobrutto: This ain’t your mama’s Robin Hood. Forget green tights, forget a lot of merry men ho-ho-hoing in a tame arboretum.

My Robin Hood is raw and elemental and he lives in a dark, forbidding forest. Sure he has charm, but he’s also a haunted man: haunted by the memory of his mother, whom he loved, and his father, whom he hated. My Robin Hood is a British freedom fighter – but often a reluctant one – who must make his way in turbulent times. I think readers will find that he’s a complex, compelling character.

BG: I’m always curious how much of a story is fact and how much is fiction and if separating the two is difficult for the author.

SRL: I wouldn’t call it difficult – I’d call it fun. I like weaving together the known threads of fact and the suppositions of fiction. The idea is to create a seamless whole out of the two. And the two elements – fact and fiction – aren’t really competing. In each case, it’s all about the story. Factual history is already a story – and creating a more personal story out of the mega-story of historical events seems a very natural thing to me.

BG: You’ve said in a previous interview that you seek out writings from local and amateur historians hoping to find an “unorthodox premise.” Was there any such “unearthings,” any surprises, while researching for Hood?

SRL: Quite a lot, actually. One of the most surprising was the probable genesis of the legend – not Sherwood, but the primeval forests of the Welsh borders known as the March. In other words, it is highly likely that Robin was a British freedom fighter, not an English lord. He was fighting for his people and his homeland in Wales, not squabbling over a titled estate near Nottingham. When you look at the evidence, you begin to see new possibilities for this story that have yet to be explored.

Another thing that surprised me was how late what I call the ‘accepted version’ of his story appeared. It wasn’t until six or seven hundred years after his birth, so to speak, that anyone tried to stitch all the various parts of the legend together to form a continuous narrative story. Before that there are only bits and pieces of anecdotes, incidents, poems, and songs by dozens of different writers in many different times and places. That leaves a lot of territory completely uncharted, and ripe for exploitation.

BG: You attempt to examine important issues from varying points of view in your novels. For example, in The Celtic Crusades you helped the Western reader to view things from an Eastern point of view. To quote Publisher’s Weekly regarding Hood, you “examine questions of faith from both sides of the conflict, so readers see Welsh monks praying for deliverance and Norman rulers asserting their divine right to the land.” Are you making any sort of political statements here? Do you ever find yourself favoring one side over the other?

SRL: Big questions. But no, I try not to take sides. It’s more important in historical writing to merely report what happened and the impact it had on the folks of the day. Also, I'm not consciously trying to dis current politicians - as tempting, and easy, as that may be. And I'm not trying to impose anything on anyone; that is, I’m not writing propaganda. On the other hand, it’s my book, so it’s going to come from my point of view. Like any writer, I naturally take up what I know or what I’m interested in. In Hood, for example, I liked exploring the distinction between these highly organized, politicized, corporate-type Norman priests...and the more disorganized, unsophisticated but often more spiritual Celtic clerics.

BG: You have said that you most always visit the places you write about. Do you have any advice you can offer to those of us who are unable to physically visit the places that we love to write about?

SRL: I think there’s no substitute for on-the-ground research. Of course I read widely, especially history, but it’s even better to be pony-trekking in Wales, riding a camel in North Africa, hiking in the Pyrenees, or wandering through the side streets of Jerusalem. To experience the weather, the way the sun rises and sets – like this (gesture) in a British winter, and like this (gesture) in a Middle-Eastern summer ... to smell the North Sea, or a meat market in Istanbul ... to taste the traditional foods of a place. There’s no substitute for it. It’s my goal to visit every place I write about – or, if it’s a no-go zone, I will find someplace similar.

BG: Since writing Hood, what would you say is your favorite novel or character from your novels and why?

SRL: The book I most enjoyed writing was Merlin. It flowed from the first sentence, and I had a lot of fun exploring such a mesmerizing character. Also, I am very proud of Byzantium, a book that I poured a great deal of energy into for a very long time, and it never wore out its welcome. Of course, the book I'm writing now -- Scarlet, the follow-up to Hood -- is my current favorite because it's what's in my head at the moment. And it is, by the way, a jolly good book.

BG: Can you tell us more about it?

SRL: Life in the greenwood gets increasingly dodgy. It’s bigger, bolder, and badder in every way, and all told from Will Scarlet’s unique point of view.

BG: I understand that publishers pursued you aggressively for your tale of Robin Hood. Tell us how it all began.

SRL: I always have several ideas on the boil at any one time. It’s true that I’ve been considering a series on Robin Hood; many of my readers have even suggested it as something they’d love to see. So, as I was preparing to decide on my next project, I mentioned the Robin Hood idea and it was eagerly picked up by several publishers. As a writer, I’m more than happy to take guidance from the people who have to get behind my books to promote and sell them in an increasingly difficult marketplace.

The enthusiasm of publishers means a lot. And they were all very enthusiastic about my peculiar take on the Robin Hood tales – excited even. So excited, in fact, that one publisher sent me a wooden case containing a full-size working replica of an 11th Century longbow and three hand-made arrows!

BG: And that publisher, WestBow, brought you back to the Christian market with Hood. Can you share why your novels have typically published through the general market?

SRL: Well, I’m proud that they have been accepted in the general market! And I think the fact that they have been accepted there – all with very strong Christian messages – means that a well-written book will find an audience. As a writer, I think of myself as a missionary -- so of course I want to be a presence where I can do the most good.

BG: Then as a missionary what would you say is the Christian message in Hood?

SRL: As part of my missionary zeal, I have always tried to present the Gospel in a winsome way – perhaps not an easy option, but true and ultimately worth striving for. For those without faith, I hope that they will read my books and be confronted with the power of real goodness in the face of evil. As a matter of fact, I have had many letters from people who say that some ‘small’ thing in my books was the beginning of their journey to faith.

For Christians, who already believe and trust in God, Hood – and the other books in the series – may serve as a cautionary tale. In it we see Norman invaders who are deeply religious, and who would freely admit that they rule as God’s servants on earth. Yet their faith has become so institutionalized, politicized, and compromised that they think nothing of burning a village and killing innocent people, but would never dream of missing morning prayers.

Set against this practice of Christianity is our band of merry men – who definitely ‘get it’ when it comes to the Gospel message especially as it relates to justice, but who don’t display many of the outward niceties. All of this is seen in my Friar Tuck who is, in my mind, a sort of ‘sin boldly and trust God’ character. He’s absolutely committed to Christ, absolutely unsettling to the establishment of the day, and absolutely incorrigible by any standard.

I would hope that this story, and the characters in the story, could entertain first and foremost. But I also expect that the thoughtful reader will be challenged to consider his or her own posture before God as he or she reads.

BG: Obviously, you believe that writers have a role in shaping people's worldview.

SRL: Absolutely. It's certainly shaped my worldview, and I have heard from many people saying that what I've written has shaped their lives in one way or another. This is either dangerous territory, or holy ground -- depending on what a person chooses to bring into his or her life and experience through reading. That being the case, I think that more writers need to be aware that once a book is 'out there', it may have human consequences.

BG: In addition to Hood, WestBow is re-releasing The Song of Albion trilogy—my personal all-time favorite. Why do you think Song of Albion is such a hit with your readers?

SRL: If I knew that, I’d do it every time! I’m not sure I understand fully why people respond the way they do, but what I suspect is that the mythic elements in that trilogy have a relevance and a force that resonate with readers. Also, quite frankly, I think that I had pretty much hit my stride, artistically.

Thanks again, Steve, for the opportunity to interview you! I wish you much success with the King Raven Trilogy.

© 2006 by Beth Goddard
*This interview originally posted at Favorite PASTimes on September 28 & 29, 2006.
Reprinted with permission from Favorite PASTimes and Beth Goddard.

Beth Goddard is a seventh generation Texan transplanted in Southern Oregon near the Rogue River. She loves to write and read inspirational fiction in several genres, including thrillers, suspense, historical and speculative fiction. But when she’s not writing, she’s busy home schooling her four children and serving with her husband as he pastors a local church. She enjoys hiking in the Redwoods and camping on the Oregon coast with her family. Find out more about Beth at www.elizabethgoddard.com.

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