Interview with Author Michael Jecks

ED- The Eerie Digest is very pleased to introduce an author who writes about Medieval murders. Michael Jecks’ novels speak volumes about times past, and are rich in history. Michael, this is a new twist for many of our readers and a delight to introduce you and your work. Please tell us how you started your work in this field of mystery.

MJ- I had no plan to be a writer when I was a kid. I always loved books, but I wasn’t dumb enough to think that there was a decent living to be made by an average guy, so writing was my third career choice. I was forced into it. First I planned from the age of twelve or so to be an actuary, because I hadn’t at that stage heard that an actuary was someone who found accountancy too exciting. So I went to college, full of the joy of learning, and failed every exams I took (apart from one, which included marks for coursework . . . bribery, I learned, helps you through life!).

After that, I went into computer sales. Which was great fun – at first. Money, cars, loose women – well, more along the lines of money and a car. But the trouble was, although I liked the industry, the industry wasn’t so taken with me. I had five years in one firm, then five more at Wang, but after thirteen years, I’d had thirteen jobs. The recession of the late 1980s/early 1990s hit me hard. Basically my wife and I both lost all the savings we’d built up, and it was clear that we had to do something radical.

Well, there is not much which could be more radical than sitting down and writing a novel when you already have a huge mortgage and no savings.

ED- We understand that Devon, England was your inspiration for your stories. Tell us about the land about there, and its impact on your writing.

MJ- I have always loved Devon. It was the one place in the world I’ve always felt comfortable. And when I started writing, it seemed sensible to place the books in a location in which I was content to stay – mentally and physically. A friend once said to me that there would be a lot more money in writing novels based around Formula One racing or baseball. That’s because he likes both sports – which is fine, but they don’t light my button. I’m a strong believer in writing about the things that inspire or excite you, which is how I soon focussed on the medieval era.

My series is more than a set of crime stories set in the middle ages, though. I started out knowing I was thrilled by the idea of knights and the reality of their period, but that immediately set me with a problem: which bit of the middle ages should I write about? After all, definitions of “medieval” tend to spread out from around 900 to about 1600. It varies with the historian, but running from late Saxon times to the Renaissance is reasonable. So seven hundred years of history – it’s a broad spread of time and includes massive changes in culture and religion.

I’ve always been fascinated with history, so I soon honed in on the fourteenth century. I’ve always had a massive respect for that great warrior-king, Edward III, but I wanted a hook to pull readers into my story, and I was determined to write about real, ordinary people, not just kings. So I hit on the idea of one of the last of the Crusaders, a fighter who’d seen war from the losing side, a man who had travelled the world, who had met popes and kings, who had a political understanding – a Knight Templar.

The Templars were arrested on Friday 13th October 1307, but some were not captured. Spanish knights did not surrender. The Germans joined the Teutonic Knights, the Portuguese formed a new Order, the Knights of Christ. And some in England and France merely faded away. My fellow was one such, a complex man: once a monk with a sword, now he maintained his religious faith, but a faith scarred with the betrayal of the pope. His ambition was to find a retreat in which he could live out his life.

Of course, that would make for pretty dull reading. So my poor knight, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, finds his way to Devon, where he is soon given the job of a Keeper of the King’s Peace, a sort of precursor to the Justice of the Peace, but a man who was given a warrant to hunt down felons ‘From hundred to hundred, shire to shire’. These were the first law-enforcers.

And his period was truly appalling. After the loss of the Holy Land, priests began to predict the end of the world in 1300. Famine, war, plague . . . and all came true in fifty years. A dreadful famine from about 1315, wars throughout Europe, especially between England and France, and then the arrival of the Black Death.

You couldn’t make it up!

ED- I’ve heard that you walk the moors thereabouts with your dog and gain background for your stories. Has that given you a better ‘feel’ for your story lines?

MJ- The location is crucial for me. I can’t write without visiting a site. But my books aren’t pure invention – I have to write two books a year, and they run on sequentially through time, fitting in with the historical events of the period.

I tend to visit the scene first in my mind by reading up on actual murders, looking at old court records, coroners’ rolls, ecclesiastical accounts of clerical misbehaviour, and any other information I can find. It all gives colour and a hard base on which to fix the story. Then it’s a case of walking over the landscape itself and seeing how the story works around the area. Some books, STICKLEPATH STRANGLER, TOURNAMENT OF BLOOD, SQUIRE THROWLEIGH’S HEIR have really developed from the landscape itself more than anything else.

ED- How many novels have you written to date on this venue?

MJ- My Templar series currently comprises twenty nine titles, and I’m embarking on number thirty as I write, which I guess makes it one of the longest series by any living author – especially one in which all titles are still in print.

However it is an evolving series. Each title is different from past ones: some are deliberately dark, others light; some are bleak, others humorous. The characters too are changing as they grow older, as their kingdom is changing around them, and as the politics of the time impinge on them to a greater or lesser extent.

When I started my series with THE LAST TEMPLAR, I had thought I was writing one medieval work – it came as a surprise to be asked to write two more immediately, and so I set out with a series of themes that interested me: first was the destruction of the Templars, surely one of the most clear and obvious acts of persecution ever committed; then I wrote about the persecution of witches; the harsh life of tin miners on Dartmoor and so on.

It was when I wrote the eighth or ninth book that I realised that my work was beginning to take on so much of the local history: the stories of the nuns in the various convents, the attacks on forest officers, the murders . . . and I began to use cases such as that of the necromancer, John of Nottingham, who was commissioned to murder the king and his adviser, among others, but use of waxen figures stuck with pins. Yes, what people reckon to be voodoo was actually a medieval European form of witchcraft. And from there, I moved into the mainstream, because about book twenty, I reached the period of English history in which the king became increasingly alienated from his people.

Poor King Edward II was never very popular, and from 1322 onwards, his reign was doomed. In ’26 his wife formed an army and invaded the kingdom, capturing her husband after a swift campaign, and holding him captive.

It has to have been one of the most thrilling periods in English history.

I was once told, by a very serious writer, that no series could possibly extend beyond eleven books, and I had to explain to him that I was already on my twenty-first. But the great thing about writing about actual events, real history, with real people, is that there is always more. I am about to write about the wars with Scotland, when Bruce was rampaging about northern England, then the deposition of Edward II by his fourteen year old son, then the son’s overthrow of his regent, the detested Mortimer, and then I have the weak, young king, and how he grew into one of England’s greatest heroes.

It’s frustrating to see how much more work I have to do!

ED- Who is the Publisher and where can our readers find your work?

MJ- The publisher for my first twenty eight books was Headline, a division of Hachette, and the last of these, THE BISHOP MUST DIE will be published in August in paperback. The first six titles were also published in the US by Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Last year I decided that the series was moving and developing in different directions, though, and I have to admit, I felt that fifteen years was probably long enough with one publisher, and so I have moved to Simon & Schuster. The first book with them, which is number twenty nine in the series, will be published as THE OATH in May.

My books are available from all bookshops and internet sites, in all formats – hardback, paperback, trade paperback, books on tape and CD and as ebooks.

ED- What is the title of your latest book, and can you tell us a bit about it?

MJ- THE OATH was a great book to write. It covers that terrible time at the very end of the reign of King Edward II, when he was forced to become a fugitive in his own kingdom.

The actual idea for the story came from THE RING AND THE BOOK, Browning’s evocative story of the deplorable Guido Franceschini who killed his wife and her parents. It was while I was thinking about the flight of the poor king and his desperate attempts to rally support, that the idea of a murder by a local squire of his own wife and her family came to mind. There were a huge number of murders at that time, as law began to topple.

So my characters are gradually drawn towards Bristol as the king rushes past on his way to Wales and, so he hopes, safety. Simon Puttock, Baldwin’s best friend, is forced to seek sanctuary in Bristol Castle, while Baldwin reluctantly seeks the king to join his bodyguard. He has given his oath to the king, and will not be foresworn.

But others are also riding to the king and to Bristol. An assassin set on recovering his fortunes, a loyal servant determined to prevent him, and two armies. And Baldwin is in the midst of this carnage and mayhem.

I had to read it again recently, and I found it enormous fun – which is not something an author can say every time he sets a manuscript aside for perhaps the thirtieth time!

ED- We also know that you have written some short stories. Can you give our readers some info about them?

MJ- I really enjoy shorts. I have written several using Baldwin, of course, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable to use him in shorter, punchier stories. Then again, I’ve also written about the Roman invasion of England (that was great fun!), and even modern day thrillers based on the security services. That one got me a special mention in the British national press, which is pretty rare. For a full list of all the short stories and the anthologies they appear in, look at my website, where there’s a synopsis of all of them, at www.michaeljecks.co.uk.

ED- Besides writing we have learned that you belong to a group known as The Medieval Murderers. Tell us about this group and what they do.

MJ- It was an idea I had eight years or so ago, to form a group of medievalists who would have some common themes: the main things being, to entertain an audience by telling silly or plain outrageous stories of our experiences with publishers and publishing. And let’s face it, all authors know some dire stories about both!

In the event I kept bumping into other authors who were fun on panels. I met the ever-delighted Bernard Knight, once a Home Office pathologist, but now author of the Crowner John series set in 12th century Devon, then Ian Morson who writes about the 13th century, then Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, Chris Samson and Karen Maitland. All of us get on really well, and it’s so much more fun going on a stage with them than on my own. We all have different stories, and bounce them around together.

About six years ago, I had an idea that we should see if we could write a collaborative book. But I knew that short story anthologies are not popular with editors, so I had the idea that a set of novellas, all, let’s face it, as a vehicle for our own stories, but all linked. We met in one of our favourite venues (a pub) and thrashed out some ideas, and we all agreed eventually on THE TAINTED RELIC. It’s a simple sounding concept: a piece of the True Cross has been stolen from a church and cursed by its murdered guard. From that moment all through history, anyone who touched it has died, all through to the present day.

It was fun to write, because a novella gives the author more space to develop ideas, and because there were enough people out there who wanted to read all our works, Simon & Schuster took on six versions of the story. They are now commissioning a seventh in the series, but I won’t be involved in that one – I have too many other projects I want to explore just now!

ED- How much research is involved with all of your writings and the activity of the group that you belong to?

MJ- The research is continual. As I write, I have ordered two more books today which may have some bearing on another book in the series. I am enormously fortunate that I focus on a short time-period, because it allows me to become a total nerd about (now) 1327. But my efforts are constant because I do have the attention span of a gnat, and as soon as I have read something, I have forgotten it. Which is absolute hell while writing – I had the proofs for BISHOP MUST DIE’s paperback last month, and I could not for the life of me remember the story at all until I was into chapter three.

When I was a very new author, callow and foolish, I was invited to give a BBC radio interview. I was thrilled by the idea, and hurried down to Plymouth to meet the absolutely divine Janet Kipling. She interviewed me for a few minutes and then asked me about some guy (I cannot remember his name even now). I didn’t know who she meant, and said so. At which point she reminded me he was one of the characters in my first book.

That may sound stupid, but you have to bear in mind I wrote that book in 1994. It came out a year later in hardback (March ’95), the hardback of my second book came out in November ’95, and this was February ’96. In the interim, I had written two more books and the synopses for three more. It wasn’t surprising (bearing in mind my bodycount per title) that I couldn’t remember the character she was asking about – but now I always have a flick through my books before opening my mouth!

Yes, research is continual. I am proud of the fact that my history is carefully checked. I am now close friends with a number of historians who read my books for pleasure – and they are hard to please. Every so often I do get complaints from readers, but usually it is because they have the feeling I am too unkind to members of the Church. But in truth, every situation of murder, robbery or rape which I mention in my works is authentic. Each is documented in the Registers of Bishop Stapledon and Grandisson. At the time, after all, a third of the population’s men were employed in one way or another by the Church. It would be miraculous if there weren’t a number of thieves and murderers in amongst them.

A delight of the research is the by-product of the friends I make. In one newsletter, I mentioned that I had a new fountain pen from Conway Stewart of which I was ridiculously proud. I love good quality writing instruments, unsurprisingly. For a while I was Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, and the only things for which I think I earned my reputation for eccentricity were for my writing with a fountain pen, and my proclivity for hats of all different types. Which is an improvement over my earlier life. I recall being told that at the age of twenty, I was hired for a job with Wordplex because the Region Director had never seen such a young man turn up to an interview with a pipe before (it was a rather nice Meershaum – I still have it).

Talking about pens, though: what was a surprise was the email I received shortly after from a reader to tell me he had liked my comments so much, he had bought a share in the company. A Victor Kiam moment if ever there was one! And to my huge gratification, the company is going to produce a limited edition “Michael Jecks” fountain pen in May, too. I reckon I’ll be using that for scribbling research notes in future.

ED- Michael, you have opened all of our eyes to a new venue in murder mysteries. It is refreshing to most of us and gives mystery lovers everywhere a chance to enter this new realm. We also have many students who follow our magazine and this will open up new ways that they can express their writing and achieve their goals. It has been a genuine pleasure and I hope that you will be back with us again. We sincerely thank you for being with us.