Christopher John Sansom, British crime writer and author of the much-acclaimed Shardlake detective series, was born in 1952 in Edinburgh. An only child, C.J Sansom grew up “in a very conservative household, with a small and capital C”, so his interest in politics in his teens, leading him to a “radical, independent socialist position” was unexpected, but something that he has retained ever since.
C. J Sansom graduated with a PhD on the British Labour Party’s policy towards South Africa between the two world wars, from Birmingham University. After working in a variety of jobs, he trained as a solicitor, practising in Sussex as a lawyer for the disadvantaged. It was this part of his career and the knowledge it built up, that ultimately informs the Shardlake series, the main character being the hunch-backed lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII. Since writing this series, C.J Sansom has won the 2005 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award (awarded by the Crime Writer’s Association CWA) for Dark Fire, the USA Today Best Book of the Year award in 2009 for Revelation, and was “Very highly commended” in the 2007 CWA Dagger in the Library awards. The author’s seperate novel, Winter in Madrid, is a thriller set in Spain in 1940 after the Spanish Civil War, a step away from Henry VIII, but one that received as much interest and praise as the Shardlake series. C.J Sansom now lives in Brighton, East Sussex.
Hi C.J Sansom,
Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview today, the most recent book in the Shardlake series, Heartstone, is being released in paperback in February 2012 by Penguin, so you must be rather busy!
Q: We’ll start by just asking simply, why crime fiction? Would you ever venture into another genre?
– There is nothing I like better than a good crime story, it can be a great way of exploring character and also of showing all aspects of society from top to bottom, if you want to take this very flexible genre in that direction. I have written a non-crime book; Winter in Madrid is a spy novel and so is the book I am writing at the moment, which is an alternate history novel set in a fictional 1950s Britain, after the Germans won the Second World War. It is a whole new challenge to think about how history would have turned out if just a few important things – in my book Churchill never becomes Prime Minister had been different.
Q: What is the average day in the life of C.J Sansom?
– I always write in the mornings, because I have always been a “morning” person. In the afternoon I will usually go over what I have been writing in the morning, and then the evenings are mine.
Q: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that some of your decision to make Shardlake a detective turned barrister was down to the fact that you yourself had studied law so therefore understood it firsthand, and also because “it existed then and now, so it provides a point of contact for readers”. Obviously a huge amount has changed since the 16th century in terms of the law, and being a model citizen. Are there any surprising similarities you’ve noticed whilst writing the books? And has it been difficult to separate your modern outlook on Law from how it would have been back in the Tudor period?
– It is impossible for any historical writer to completely separate themselves from their modern outlook on Law, or anything else. But that is the great challenge, to try so far as one is able to get into the mindset of people living in an age where so many daily realities, and religion and ideology, were quite different from ours. However some basic structures of English law – the adversarial common law system, many of the rules of evidence, the process of bringing a civil (less so with a criminal) action to trial – have continued down the centuries although the laws themselves have of course completely changed and simplified. In Heartstone I have a brief conversation between Shardlake and the young girl who one day will be Queen Elizabeth I, about what justice is and whether it can be found using the law, which I think encapsulates some eternal dilemmas.
Q: Your stand-alone novel, Winter in Madrid (published 2006), can safely be said to be rather different to the Shardlake series, albeit all of them being set at changeable times in history. How different was the writing process for this novel? And did you find it more difficult or easier to write?
– The main difference in the writing process was that the story is told through three different third-person narratives – from the very different points of view of the characters Harry, Barbara and Bernie. That was more difficult in that I had to jump backwards and forwards between the minds of three people, one a woman. But it also meant I could get a wider range of views and characters in. With the novel I am writing at the moment, I’m telling the story from the point of view of four characters, which adds a further level of complexity. However I find it an enjoyable change from always pursuing murderers to having main characters who are pursued, or in hiding.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you offer to any aspiring writers?
– First and foremost, Bottom on seat and keep practising. Second – Be ready, even eager, for constructive criticism, because there are always rough edges to be shaved. Third, don’t start by writing autobiographically – try to keep an edge of distance from your subject.
Q: What top 5 things would be in your Room 101?
The TV series “The Tudors.”
The Tea Party
Q: What is the most bizarre criticism you’ve ever received?
– That my books are cruel to horses. The Tudors often were, but that’s history and I won’t prettify it.
Q: The most recent installment of the Shardlake series, Heartstone, was published in March this year, and is due out in paperback in Februrary 2012 (published by Penguin), and for those World of Books customers who haven’t caught up on the series yet, we can strongly recommend it! The novel relays events in the summer of 1545 when Henry VIII dragged England to war with France, and in doing so debased the currency and caused inflation to soar. Matthew Shardlake and sidekick Jack Barak, commisioned by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr (Henry’s final, surviving spouse), journey to Portsmouth to investigate claims of “monstrous wrongs” that have been inflicted upon a young ward at court.
At a time when life was incredibly cheap, and people lived shortly and roughly, why do you feel a murder investigation is such a powerful storyline?
– Life was indeed very cheap in Tudor times – from disease most of all, but also violence, from the state (punishments were ferocious) and from fellow citizens. And there were years of bad harvests when people starved. However it was a strongly religious age, and murder is always looked upon as the worst crime, while the very fragility of the state meant that it was important for it to investigate and punish crime to keep control and credibility. But murder being the worst crime, then as now, when it happened it would be investigated as thoroughly as the resources of the times allowed. That could be difficult, especially in a sizeable city with an ever-changing population like London.
Q: What can your fans expect for future C.J Sansom books? Will you write any other stand-alone novels set in different eras?
– As mentioned above, I am now writing an “alternate history” novel set in 1950s Britain. Then I have two more Shardlakes planned, one set in 1546 against the background of Henry VIII’s last illness, and another set in 1549, during the short reign of his son Edward VI, against the setting of Kett’s rebellion, a massive social revolt that shook the country. One day, if Shardlake and I last that long, I would like to take him on into the reign of that extraordinary woman, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I.
Q: And finally, here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Of course the more books that are saved from landfill sites the better. I do worry about the rapid growth of electronic books, because it will damage the whole publishing industry, but I think it will find a natural limits and there will always be a place for books – new and second-hand.
A fan of C.J Sansom and fancy re-reading his work? Not quite caught up on the Shardlake series? A newcomer altogether and been intrigued by this interview? Make sure you pick up a copy of Heartstone when it comes out in paperback in February, and why not visit our site and have a browse?