Yesterday I gave an in-depth look into how I felt about Bruce Macbain’s The Ice Queen (you can read that HERE) and today he’s been gracious enough to stop by for a discussion about his work and writing life. Enjoy!
Hi Bruce! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book, where we love most things history, so you’ll fit right in. I’m just getting into your Viking series (Odd Tangle-Hair’s saga) with your second book, The Ice Queen, but I plan to read your first book, Odin’s Child, also. Ice Queen recently released and book release time is always busy, especially when it’s over the holidays. How are things going for you?
Bruce: Hi Erin, nice talking to you, and thanks for that very nice review. Things are going very well. I just signed a contract with my publisher, Blank Slate Press, for the concluding novel in the Odd Tangle-Hair series, which is called The Guardsman and will come out sometime in 2016.
Erin: That’s great! I’m anxiously awaiting it. Come in and have a seat. We’ll nest in my library and I’ll bring out some tea or coffee. It’s chilly here in Ohio. What’s your pleasure and how do you take it?
Bruce: Coffee, please. Cream and sugar.
Erin: Wonderful! I baked some apple cinnamon muffins this morning too, so I’ve brought some out as well. Now that we are set, let’s discuss your work!
Bruce: Good. Ask away.
Q: You’ve been in the business of history for quite some time, even earning your doctorate in ancient history! I have a bachelor’s in history, but I always wondered how it might have been to do more in-depth study of ancient cultures. I’m assuming some of your favorite studies revolved around Roman and Viking topics?
A: My concentration in grad school was ancient Greece and Rome. As a professor at Vanderbilt and Boston University I taught courses in Greek and Latin language and literature, ancient history, and ancient religion—which has always been a particular interest of mine. My interest in the Vikings only developed later. Quite honestly, I was just thinking of an interesting subject for a novel, and I figured, well, who doesn’t like Vikings? So I started to read the Icelandic sagas in translation, and the more I got into it the more excited I got.
Q: When you teach of these time periods at universities today, what do you feel are the most important points to cover? What types of things can our culture today learn from the past?
A: One of the points I always tried to impress on students is how fragile civilization is. The glorious Athenian democracy lasted less than two centuries because it succumbed to demagoguery . The Roman republic fell because powerful men, like Caesar and Pompey, thought they could abuse the system for their own purposes, and wound up wrecking it. Individual decisions can have serious consequences.
Q: I bet you found all this research and knowledge useful in your Roman fiction series as well as your Viking series. How did you make the switch to fiction from non-fiction and was it more difficult than you thought?
A: Fiction is definitely more difficult, but also more fun. You have to do the same research asyou would for a scholarly monograph but then you have to make it interesting. In academe you’re allowed to be boring (and I was as boring as anyone.)
Q: Did you have to do very much more research than what you thought you might? What was one thing new you learned that surprised you in the writing of your Viking series?
A: You always have to do more research than you think you will, even in a setting like ancient Rome, which I thought I knew well. When I turned to the Vikings, it was all new to me and everything was a surprise: in Odin’s Child, the feuding culture of Iceland, the religious wars in Norway, and the folk mythology of Finland; in The Ice Queen, dark age Russia and the steppe nomads; and, in The Guardsman, the marvelously complex, bizarre culture of Byzantium. That’s why I have so enjoyed writing Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga.
Q: For readers who haven’t read the series, who is Odd Tangle-Hair? How did you create your fictional characters? Are any based on real historical legends or people?
A: Odd is what I like to call ‘a thinking man’s Viking.’ We meet him first at the age of sixteen when his family is slaughtered in a feud and he flees Iceland in a stolen ship to set out for the Viking life. And the saga carries him through to old age. I haven’t based him on a real character (as I have some other figures in the series), he’s entirely my own creation. He’s what I like to think I might have been if I had lived then—adventurous, curious, eager to learn, gifted at languages, sometimes naïve, sometimes foolish, but always with an ironic, self-deprecating take on everything.
Q: I’m a huge Viking fanatic, so I was excited to hear about your books. Not using the synopsis, how do you describe your novels for new readers? Are they more fantasy, adventure, or historical based or all? What types of readers will enjoy your novels?
A: The books have all the usual trappings that you expect in a Viking novel—battles, storms at sea, and so forth. But they offer more than that. Religious conflict and change is a subject that has always interested me. The eleventh century was a time when, in the northern world, Christianity was supplanting heathenism—frequently by violence. In this changing world, Odd is a resolute pagan, like his father before him. He is, in his own mind, ‘Odin’s child’. This gets him into a lot of trouble and is the springboard for much of the plot. There are some sympathetic Christians in the books but Odd is never quite won over by them.
There are historical characters in the novels too. Especially Harald the Ruthless, prince (later king) of Norway. Over six feet tall at the age of fifteen when we first meet him, the half-brother of Saint Olaf, driven by ambition and barely contained rage; he begins by being Odd’s friend and ends by being his nemesis. Then there is Princess Ingigerd of Novgorod; she is the “ice queen” of the title. According to Norse sources she was an attractive but tough, dominating woman—more than a match for callow, young Odd.
As for fantasy, there is some particularly in the first novel, Odin’s Child, when Odd and his crew are captured in the forests of Finland by Old Louhi the witch and her tribe. But nothing happens for purely magical reasons—and Odd is always shrewd enough to see the plausible explanation behind what seems fantastic.
Q: What do you like best about Vikings? Did you incorporate this into your novels?
A: What I like best about them is that they were more interesting than you usually see them depicted. It wasn’t all just head-bashing (although there was a lot of that, too.) If you read the Icelandic sagas—wonderful works of early Icelandic literature—you find real, complex human beings, often with a dry, sardonic sense of humor. I’ve tried to import some of that into my characters.
Q: I also love Icelandic culture and countries. I’m just intrigued by it. What is one thing that intrigues you about it historically? Did you use this in your novel? And what is one thing might interest you about it today?
A: I visited Iceland for the first time few years ago and was thrilled by it. I did all the touristy things—went on a horseback trek, tried (and failed) to climb the volcano, Mt. Hekla, bathed in the Blue Lagoon, ate lots of lamb and fish. Had a great time. (If you look at my blog at http://www.brucemacbain.com, you’ll find some pictures and short essays about all this.) What impresses me most about Iceland is that in the Viking Age it was the only self-governing popular democracy in Europe. When you go to Thingvellir Plain, where the Althing (all the free farmers of the country) met every year to make laws for themselves, it’s really impressive.
Q: I noticed you served in the Peace Corps in Borneo! That’s very cool. Have your traveled anywhere else for research? For fun? If so, where?
A: Borneo was a great experience for my wife and me. We were there as English teachers in 1964 and 65, when we were in our twenties. It’s the closest place to paradise I ever expect to live in. And we were able to see a lot of Asia—Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. On our way home we visited Iran (before the revolution) and Turkey. And, of course, I’ve been to Greece and Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
Q: What did you find most challenging when you began to write fiction? What do you feel has been your biggest personal success?
A: Well, I started by writing my two Roman mysteries, Roman Games and The Bull-Slayer, featuring Pliny the Younger as my sleuth. I’ve always liked mysteries but I never imagined it would be so hard to write one. The clues! The red herrings! The not-so-obvious solution! I ought to write a third novel to round off that trilogy (I kind of left things hanging at the end of the second one), but I’m not sure I have it in me. I’m amazed by these people who crank them out year after year.
Writing fiction of any kind is a challenge. You must create characters that readers can care about, and a plot that keeps them turning the pages. It’s never easy, at least not for me. I’m a terribly slow writer.
Q: What kind of taste in reading do you have? Movies or television historical shows?
A: I read historical fiction, but I tend to stay away from the periods that I work in because I don’t want to be influence by someone else’s imagining of it. (I’ve heard Lindsey Davis say the same thing.) Some of my favorite authors are older ones—Gore Vidal, Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Patrick Obrien. For general fiction, I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and Kate Atkinson. I also read a lot of non-fiction, particularly 20th century military history and espionage.
Q: What’s next for you? Is there more to the Odd Tangle-Hair saga?
A: No, I’m saying a fond goodbye to Odd after the third novel, The Guardsman, is published. It’s time to move on and learn something new. I’m currently researching a novel that is set in 18th century England and Scotland and features an actual ancestor of mine, Donald McBane, who was a British soldier and a professional swordsman.
Q: I LOVE spicy food and to cook it. I read you do as well. What is your favorite spicy dish?
A: I make curries, and a pretty good Pad Thai, if I say so myself.
Erin: Thanks so much, Bruce, for the interview! I look forward to owning and reading both your entire fiction sets. Best wishes to you with them and hopefully we will see you back here again!
Bruce: Thanks, Erin. I’m lookimg forward to it.
The Ice Queen: Book Two of Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga
By Bruce Macbain
Publication Date: November 30, 2015
Blank Slate Press
eBook & Paperback; 285 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
The second volume of Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga takes up Odd’s adventures as a skald (court poet) in the land of the Rus. Here he is drawn into a dangerous love affair with the passionate and cunning Princess Ingigerd of Novgorod, and is forced to break with his sworn lord, Harald the Ruthless. Along the way, Odd devises a stratagem to defeat the wild Pechenegs, nomadic warriors of the Russian steppe, and goes off on a doomed mission to explore the distant reaches of the Black Sea. The novel concludes with Odd sailing into the harbor of Constantinople, bent on a secret mission, which will almost certainly cost him his life.
Eager, curious, quick-witted—and sometimes wrong-headed—Odd Tangle-Hair recounts his story with candor, insight, and always an ironic sense of humor.
Author Bruce Macbain, Bio~
From boyhood, Bruce Macbain spent his days in reading history and historical fiction. The Greeks and Romans have held a special fascination for him, and this led to earning a master’s degree in Classical Studies and a doctorate in Ancient History. Along the way, he also taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo. Later, he taught courses in Greek and Roman civilization at Boston University, and published a few dense monographs, read by very few. In recent years he has turned to writing fiction, a much more congenial pursuit, beginning with two historical mysteries set in ancient Rome (Roman Games and The Bull Slayer). Now, he has turned his attention to his other favorite folk, the Vikings. Odin’s Child , the first novel of Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga, was published in May, 2015 and is now followed the sequel, The Ice Queen. A concluding volume will follow next year.
Bruce spends his spare time in the kitchen, cooking spicy food.
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