A landscape architect by training, Henry Vyner-Brooks lives in the Lake District, with his wife Ruth and five children.
Below is a Q&A with this author.
1. What first inspired you to write The Heretic?
It was in 2010 that I first became aware of the mystery of St Benet's Abbey; the only monastery never dissolved by Henry VIII – think of it, the only one! It is situated on what sometimes becomes an island, linked to the mainland only by a causeway; all alone on the marshes. If a writer wanted possibilities for a location, here it was.
We were visiting my sister for a family gathering and I needed to house my own expanding family. A large yellow boat on the Norfolk Broads provided the best solution and so, we enjoyed a magical week there one spring. And then while visiting St Helen's church I heard about the Monk Pacificus, his coracle and little dog… and BAM, I was hooked. There was a story here that deserved to be told. I can honestly say that this book came looking for me.
2. Do you have a particular writing routine?
We home educate our children, and run other businesses from the house too, so it’s no writers haven of peace during the day. But since the birth of our fifth child, I have commandeered the laundry room… okay commandeered is overstating the case a tad… lets just say I offered to do the family laundry if I could have a dedicated writing desk in one corner. Its quiet, with a good view of the mountains and near the kitchen so I can be kept caffeinated.
I write mainly during the night when the house is quiet, but other times too if my schedule permits. I aim for about 1000 words when I'm on a run, so about a chapter a week for historical fiction. I've written four books in one year, but The Heretic was the longest project I've worked on. To write in that period where little is familiar, to really make an effort to grasp the post-medieval mindset, took serious work.
3. Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.
Aha! Well, we have summer schools each year at our mountain ranch and my advice to students is always set aside the time and keep at it, don't keep going back to titivate the prologue and chapter one, just keep going. Oh, and burn the TV!
4. Which living author(s) do you most admire?
I read a lot more history and philosophy than fiction, which is probably a shame but what can you do? Time is so short and I have started writing so late in life. In The Heretic blurb I acknowledge the influence of people like C. S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Leonard Verduin, G. K. Chesterton, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Hans Rookmaaker. Though I think when it comes to fiction Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall was a game-changer for me, the bar went up ten notches.
5. Which book would you take to a desert island?
The Bible. In fact the more widely I read, write and lecture, the more extraordinary it appears to me when I come back to it.
6. If I could rewrite history, I would…
Have let Hitler go to Art College, which he wanted to do, though I suppose it might not have prevented the Holocaust in any event. History is complicated.
7. In another age I would have been . . .
What, apart from a heretic at the stake? (I have both Catholic martyrs and fiery Puritan dissidents in my family tree!) Hmmm, I'd like to say “a 19th century American pioneer pressing west on the overland trail,” that's the romantic explorer in me. But I'd settle to be John Ruskin's secretary. There was so much going on in that era, so much potential and optimism to affect change – in economics, engineering, industrialization, urban design, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelite movement etc. And maybe I'd be able to show Ruskin how to love his wife, fight for his marriage, which I think would have prevented his mental decline (and made him a more whole man), and won for the world many more valuable books. (That is, if he had had time to write them between parental and grand-parental responsibilities!)
8. Who would your fantasy dinner guests be?
I'd like to have John Ruskin and the Dutch art historian & cultural philosopher Hans Rookmaaker for a meat fondue (a long meal) where we could discuss everything that I'm currently confused about.
9. Which book do you wish you had written?
Almost anything by Chesterton. Its not that I agree with him on everything (I've just been listening to The Superstition of Divorce while doing some DIY) but his erudition and his range sometimes make me want to hang up my pen. Oh, and he's sooo funny!
10.Who is your favourite literary character?
I wanted to say Puddleglum from The Silver Chair; the idea of homely heroes is always compelling, but my children threatened to leave home if I didn't say Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. I think the struggle between Gollum and Smeagol showcases Tolkien's peculiarly Christian conception of human nature, something that rings true with children.
11. Did any of the characters in your book surprise you while writing?
Yes, the novice Mark was intended to be one sort of character but would not stay so. Suppose I'm a sucker for redemption!
12.What would your super power be?
To fly – is that too boring? My daughter says I should ask for the power to refill mugs with finest Arabic coffee, just by pointing at them – a writer's heaven!
13.What is the worst piece of writing or career feedback you’ve received?
Aha, well that would be my A level English essays. I am dyslexic and poor Mr Davy wrote to my father to ask for me to be removed from his class. “His essays are unmarkable, he said. (A word my father pointed out was not correct English either!)
14.What is the worst job you've done?
I took a summer job once in a bottling factory at an undisclosed location in the north of England. It was run by lots of butch women with red faces and facial hair. Yes, very scary! I'm glad to report that after 23 years I am able to put the past behind me.
15.What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Carpe Diem, seize the day! I came to writing in my mid-thirties because I was diagnosed with cancer. On the day of my surgery I started writing a novel for my sons, expressing the deep things that I might never get to show them. I did survive but I will never forget that feeling of how short life here is. So, Carpe Diem: write down what's really important to you long-term and do something about it.
16. Have you written anything and been surprised by its reception?
Yes, my first novel – the one I started in that hospital bed – The Shoulders of Giants, was warmly received by old and young alike, which conventional literary wisdom says is pretty much impossible.
One man in his late sixties confided that he'd stayed up all night reading it under the covers because he couldn't put it down. And a teenage girl read the whole book over the phone to her cousin. Things like this are water to a writer’s soul.
17. Which book (not your own) do you wish everyone would read?
I usually say this about the last book I've read, but remember genuinely saying it about The Abolition of Man and The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Oh, and Mere Christianity… can I have three?
18.Which book do you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t?
Probably Lord of the Rings, without skipping the genealogies and Elvish poetry! We read it together on our honeymoon... eek, okay, well bits of it anyway!
19. How do you feel about physical books versus e-books?
It is not correct that print media is down solely because of digital media (the latest studies show a more nuanced picture) but things have changed dramatically in the last decade. I hate reading off a screen myself, but I notice without exception that Kindle readers (not Kindle Fire but the black and white ones) all rave about their devices, so I guess I can't knock it until I've tried it.
20. Do you have any advice for an aspiring author?
Read widely; dig a deep well for your work. Write what you know, and make sure you have another source of income!
A novel of espionage, romance and intrigue set in 1536 amidst the dissolution of the monasteries. Based on historical events, this post-medieval mystery is laced with romance, fuelled by greed and decorated with bouts of feasting, smuggling and jailbreak. A 'Piece of Passion' from the publisher... 'I bought this book for Lion Fiction because it is so full of life. Henry completely engages the reader in the turbulence surrounding the end of the Middle Ages, and the dreams and agonies attendant upon the birth of the Renaissance. Brother Pacificus is particularly finely drawn, as are the three youngsters. The horrors of religious bigotry, and the manipulation of religion for political ends, are starkly depicted; but there is also a redemptive strand within the book which is neither trite nor comfortable. You have the sense that the author utterly lives his creation: a true labour of love.' – Tony Collins, Publisher, Lion Fiction.