As a lover of historical fiction, it gives me very great pleasure to be turning my attention to historical non-fiction too today, with a publication day interview with Charles Spencer, author of To Catch A King. I also have my review.
To Catch A King is published today, 5th October 2017, by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins and is available for purchase through the links here.
To Catch A King
Guided by its various twists and turns, To Catch A King tells the story the manhunt for Charles II, following the rebellion that spurred his father’s beheading in 1649. This unputdownable sequel to Killers of the King tells an old story with new eyes, challenging our polarised notions of royalism, nationalism and loyalty.
In January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded in London outside his palace of Whitehall and Britain became a republic. When his eldest son, Charles, returned in 1651 to fight for his throne, he was crushed by the might of Cromwell’s armies at the battle of Worcester.
With 3,000 of his supporters lying dead and 10,000 taken prisoner, it seemed as if his dreams of power had been dashed. Surely it was a foregone conclusion that he would now be caught and follow his father to the block?
At six foot two inches tall, the prince towered over his contemporaries and with dark skin inherited from his French-Italian mother, he stood out in a crowd. How would he fare on the run with Cromwell’s soldiers on his tail and a vast price on his head?
An Interview with Charles Spencer
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Charles Spencer. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions about your writing and To Catch A King in particular.
Firstly, when did you realise you were going to be a writer?
When I was 15 or 16, I wrote an essay on concentration camp poetry that was the turning point for me. I gained the confidence to believe that I could put words together in a way that others liked. I edited the school magazine at Eton college (having been arts editor to my precursor, Boris Johnson). I then went straight from Oxford university into TV journalism, and was writing my own scripts from the age of 22. I had thought about writing books, and the chance to do that was when I wrote to thank a literary agent for a book launch he had hosted for a friend of mine. The agent wrote back, saying he liked the way I wrote, and he would like to represent me.
Why do you write?
It is a compulsion. It’s hard work, it’s solitary, and it’s sometimes exasperating. But, at the end of the day, holding a new book that you’ve written remains one of life’s more thrilling experiences!
(I think all authors would agree with that!)
To what extent have you used or adapted what you learnt in your early journalistic career in your later books?
I worked for 10 years as a reported for NBC news, of the USA, working for them in 40 countries. Television is impatient and to the point, particularly when your reports are 3-4 minutes long. There’s no place for wasted words or thoughts. The story has to be clear and easily digested. Key points have to be drawn out. All of that experience was invaluable. When I write my books, I am keen to tie the words to the images in my mind of what is happening.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
It is a rollercoaster process for me. There are days when, in research, you want to shout “eureka!” – when you find a nugget that you just know will be in your book. Then there are times when you realise that the two weeks you’ve spent drilling down into one aspect have been wasted, because the findings are so thin – or perhaps irrelevant. When it comes to writing, I find it quite easy to get words on to the page. However, I edit at least four times after that, and am always surprised how many rough edges have been left in the previous version.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I have no routines, any more. I used to be much more rigid, but now I do what I can, when I can. My life is a busy one, and while my writing is extremely important to me, it has to fit in with the rest.
Please could you tell us a little about To Catch A King?
It’s the true story of the future Charles II’s time on the run after his army was defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651. If he had been captured, he would have been executed. It seemed impossible to those that were hunting him down that they wouldn’t quickly scoop him up – apart from anything else, he was enormously tall, for the era – six foot three – and so would stand out. He had incredibly close shaves, but ultimately was saved by good luck, brave companions, quick-wittedness, and grit. I’ve used the eyewitness accounts of those who aided Charles in his escape – a ragbag of peasant farmers, catholic priests and gentry, and royalist army officers, aided by some very strong women. We see what happened to them, too. It’s, in the end, the story of one of the greatest escapes in history.
To Catch A King has a cover that partially obscures the portrait of Charles, suggesting an enigmatic and partly unknowable man to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey?
I learnt a long time ago that the writer is not the best man to choose his cover: this was taught to me by my publishers! I loved the cover that the professionals at William Collins (publishing To Catch A King) chose, though. I think they wanted to convey the “they seek him here, they seek him there” aspect of the book. And you’re right, there is a lot more to Charles II than the womanising pleasure-lover that has come down through history. He was a very brave man, who inspired love and loyalty in those closest to him.
Your books focus very firmly on history. What draws you to this genre as a writer?
I’ve always loved history as a subject, and used to read all sorts of history books from when I was a boy. For me, history is about people watching – we haven’t, as a species, changed very much at all since Stuart times, and so it’s easy to put oneself in the shoes of a character from that era, and guess how it must have been. I also really enjoy reading history.
How do you choose which era of history to write about?
I’ve written 6 books. Two of them were on my family home and my family. The other four were on the Stuarts: Blenheim: Battle for Europe (a ‘sunday times’ bestseller, which was shortlisted for “history book of the year” at the national book awards in 2005) was written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the battle of Blenheim – Britain’s first major military victory on European soil in 300 years, since Agincourt. The more recent three have connected to the English civil wars, which are among the most dramatic moments in this nation’s history. I kicked off with a biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (2007); then had the fortune of my last book, Killers of the King, becoming a Sunday Times bestseller. It was the tale of what happened to the men who killed Charles 1, once his son unexpectedly returned to claim the throne. Then someone who read that wrote to me out of the blue to ask why nobody had written the story of Charles II’s escape for so long. I think I enjoy bringing topics that have been semi-forgotten, but shouldn’t be.
You have also written factually about your own history in The Spencer Family as well as Althorp: the Story of an English House. Do you prefer researching facts or the creativity of writing more and why?
I have tried to write fiction, but it didn’t go well. I am not convinced I have an ear for dialogue! I do try to give my historical works the pace and energy of fiction, while dealing in facts. Most people who think they don’t like history probably suffered a dull teacher or book when young, and it understandably turned them off. History not only can be lively – it generally should be!
Your works have clear themes of danger and revenge in a political world. To what extent do you think the lessons of the 1600s are relevant to today’s world?
One of the things about man is that he rarely seems to learn his lesson. History can repeat itself. The 17th century in Britain was a time of great polarisation, particularly over religion and politics – which were, of course, intertwined. We see the same rigid dogma today,and the same willingness to determine that anyone who doesn’t believe in your world view is beyond the pale. You only have to look at the sides who are still fighting over Brexit to recognise that. The same is true in the extraordinarily divided politics of the United States of America.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’, as the army tells its officers. And I believe solid research is the key. I am writing history, after all, so the facts must be correct. The writer part comes with the material being mastered.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I only read a few books a year, other than for research. I enjoy dry humour, and learning something new. Everything from Evelyn Waugh to Edward St Aubyn, and – in terms of history – there are just so many brilliant historians about right now that I struggle to pick one out.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that To Catch A King should be their next read, what would you say?
Charles II’s astonishing time on the run was one of the most dramatic moments in history.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.
My Review of To Catch A King
The future Charles II is on the run.
I rarely read non-fiction and was apprehensive about reading To Catch A King. I needn’t have been, because the vivacity of the writing frequently made me forget that this was a factual book and I became thoroughly absorbed in the narrative elements.
That said, To Catch A King is no sloppy fictionalised romp through the seventeenth century. Each element has been meticulously researched and the quality and extensiveness of the Notes and Bibliography are solid proof of just how much effort has gone in to making To Catch A King an authentic, believable and authoritative account of the events. It’s a period of history about which I thought I knew quite a bit, but I was thoroughly educated and loved the primary source materials included. Also worth mentioning are the excellent quality photographs of the portraits of Charles and those around him.
I was struck by the insight into life in general. I hadn’t previously considered the role of a blacksmith as the greatest source of local information, for example. I found the casual dispensing of life far more disturbing than I had previously considered. Somehow Charles Spencer has brought home to me just how fleeting and perfunctory life then was.
However, for me the greatest enjoyment of reading To Catch A King was the depth of understanding about the man I gained, regardless of his status in life. Charles Spencer explores every element from Charles II’s strategic planning to his need of a clean shirt so that by the time I read of his death at the end of the book I was actually quite moved by his passing.
To Catch A King is a book of elegantly written historical accuracy that brings alive a crucial period of British history. I found it both interesting and engaging.
About Charles Spencer
Charles Spencer was educated at Eton College and obtained his degree in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a reporter on NBC’s Today show from 1986 until 1995, and is the author of four books, including the Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year, National Book Awards) and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier.
You can follow Charles Spencer on Twitter @CharlesSpencerBooks__.