A writer’s life can take strange and unexpected turns. Our next guest knows that well. One minute, you’re an unassuming meter reader sidelining as a guitarist in a heavy metal combo; the next, you’re talking to crowds of fans about hitting it big at one of the world’s most important literary events, wining and dining in Kensington while rubbing shoulders with royalty. And all of this thanks to his favourite British bandit, Robin Hood. This month, Edinburgh Book Review sits down with Steven A. McKay to talk about life’s sweet surprises, evolving heroes, the therapeutic value of black metal, and the difficulty in correctly firing medieval weaponry.
Last April, Steven McKay was part of the grand hustle-and-bustle of the 2014 London Book Fair with Amazon.co.uk, promoting his brand-new novel The Wolf and the Raven, sequel to last year’s flying start of his The Forest Lord-series, Wolf’s Head. A rising name in the genre of swashbuckling historical adventures, McKay took in the entire event with no small measure of starry-eyed amazement:
Steven A. McKay: I can’t really describe how it felt to be there. As everyone will probably know by now, I work as a meter reader, so, to go from doing that one week to being a part of the Amazon stand, taking part in panels answering questions about how to be a successful author in front of fairly large audiences…It was surreal! I loved it. Amazon put me up in a very fancy hotel, took me out in Kensington for a fantastic meal and I even met the Duchess of Cornwall. I regret not giving her a copy of my book though, I’m sure she’d have liked it!
While the Duchess may have missed the opportunity to get acquainted with his work, there are now many others out there who are. Since launching his career last year, McKay has taken great strides forward, connecting with a growing number of enthusiastic readers online; and with a great sense of optimism. Despite fierce competition between independent authors online, he has found the internet to be an asset in searching for an audience, and in reaching out to them:
Steven A. McKay: Honestly, without the internet my book would not have been published and we wouldn’t be doing this interview. Agents and publishers weren’t interested in my novel, they didn’t think there was a market for it. So in that sense, the internet is most certainly an asset when it comes to getting your book out there. It’s also a huge help in finding, and engaging with, readers via great websites like your own, Facebook, Twitter and so on. The internet gives authors every single tool they need to make a career, from publishing digitally, to having paperbacks made up, to marketing and finding people to collaborate with on projects like making audiobooks. I love the internet!
With his hit series The Forest Lord, McKay tracks the trail of the legendary Robin Hood, retelling the treasured saga from his own uniquely fresh perspective on history. With it, Steven A. McKay’s work has been mentioned in a single breath with that of Bernard Cornwell and Anthony Riches, and their hugely popular style of writing historical novels. What was it that attracted McKay to write new stories about Robin Hood? Was there any book or movie that set a benchmark for him personally?
Steven A. McKay: I really loved Bernard Cornwell’s series on King Arthur – the Warlord Chronicles – and I wanted to try doing something similar. I wanted a British hero – someone who would spend a lot of time in the forests and countryside, which is something I love about Britain. The choice of Robin Hood came when I drove past a house with the name ‘Sherwood’ and it was obvious then who my main character had to be.
In terms of setting a benchmark, before starting my own book I hadn’t read any Robin Hood novels (other than Ivanhoe, if that counts) but I watched all the DVD box-sets of the old TV show Robin of Sherwood and I took a lot of inspiration from that in terms of the camaraderie and bonds of loyalty between not only the characters in the episodes, but also the actors in real life.
While the very name ‘Sherwood’ might have been enough to inspire McKay to commit pen to paper on the hooded man, McKay presents us with a story that is something quite different from what we’ve come to expect. In The Forest Lord, there is no Sherwood Forest in sight, but instead we find Robin Hood roaming around Yorkshire; and it is King Edward II who sits on the throne of England, not Richard the Lionheart. So, what’s the story?
Steven A. McKay: Well, to be honest, the original ballads about Robin were nót set in Sherwood or in Nottingham. They were set in Yorkshire and Barnsdale Forest. And, again, the early stories mention Robin meeting a King Edward which clearly places the legend in a later period than the 12th century. When I found those things out I realised I had the perfect way to make my Robin Hood a little bit different to all the others. I’d like to think mine is close to the real people and events those very first tales grew up around!
Bringing the legend full circle also means we get to see a very different side of Robin Hood. As a literary character, the last century has seen Robin Hood evolve from a medieval legend to the classical hero of the silver screen, and then into an increasingly complex noble rogue – with an ever darker and mysterious back story. Now with The Forest Lord, Robin has changed once more into something of an anti-hero, whose sense of morality is arguably a little more ambiguous. Steven A. MacKay agrees that his protagonist may be part of this longer evolution, and reflects that this slow transformation may say something about our own changing ideas of what a hero looks like:
Steven A. McKay: Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story about a real man living a hard life in dark times. I don’t think of Robin in terms of a hero or anti-hero: he’s just a man trying to survive like the rest of us. He’s a loyal friend, he wants to be a good partner to Matilda and he likes to have fun. But at the same time, when someone tries to stick a sword in him, he’s going to get angry and make sure the attacker regrets it – that’s not evil, it’s just human nature.
I think it’s a good point though – Robin has evolved in various stages since those original medieval ballads. He was, at first, a violent robber that the lower classes could identify with, then the audience changed and he became an outlawed nobleman. These days, I think people appreciate that normal, regular people can be a “hero” just as much as a king or a wealthy knight.
To get a better sense of your historical character’s outlook on life, any author has to do a great deal of research, as well as invest in their protagonist on a personal level. So we were tempted to find out whether Steven A. McKay had himself gotten down to business, and if he ever practiced archery himself. And so we asked him, as well as how proficient he really is with a bow and arrow.
Steven A. McKay: Good question! Yes, I have, but only recently when I went on holiday near Inverness. I tried the archery there and managed to hit the bullseye once. It gave me a small insight into the process, but let’s be honest – those modern sports bows are nothing like the enormous warbows Robin and his mates would have used! I was lucky enough to become Facebook friends with an experienced archer called Chris who loved Wolf’s Head, and he made me some period-correct medieval style arrows. You should see these things, they are absolutely huge! I don’t think people – including me – realise just how dangerous these longbowmen were, it must have been a terrifying sight to be confronted by half a dozen enormous outlaws pointing these great weapons at you.
Apart from writing, McKay occasionally spends time enjoying playing guitar and bass with quite a different band of merry men, playing heavy metal. We wondered whether playing music inspires McKay’s writing in some way. Gritty music, gritty writing?
Steven A. McKay: Yes, very much so. I have music on all the time when I’m writing my novels and it is, as you say, gritty, being mostly black metal as I find the lack of melody really lets me concentrate on what’s on my laptop screen. In terms of writing my own music and playing guitar, it’s just another creative outlet. I prefer to be creative rather than sitting on the couch watching TV or playing a games console; it’s more rewarding. It also comes in handy when I’m making up Youtube video trailers for my books – I can use my own music instead of paying someone or using a generic track. You can see those videos on my Amazon page.
Lastly, we asked if the success of The Wolf and the Raven inspires McKay to go for thirds, and whether his fans can look forward to more adventures of Robin Hood in the immediate future?
Steven A. McKay: Yes, definitely! I’m working on book three now, and there will be one more book in the series after that. Like the first two, I will try and stick as closely as possible to the elements of the legend that people know and love, while introducing new twists of my own. I hope everyone joins me to see where the outlaws end up, since I have no clear idea myself yet and never do until I sit down and start writing.
So, all is open for both the writer and his protagonist. If you want to keep track of Steven A. McKay’s exploits, check out the latest news at his official website, or visit his Amazon profile, here. Also, be sure to have a look at EBR’s review of The Wolf and the Raven.