Friday, February 17, 2023

Interview with Dan Jones

Despite having interviewed Bernard Cornwell three times for the New Books Network, and as a result having enjoyed all of his Saxon Chronicles, I am not a big fan of war books in general. So I agreed to read Dan Jones’s Essex Dogs, which released this past Tuesday, with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised.

For those who love gritty descriptions of battles and campaigns, behind-the-scenes peeks at the daily life of soldiers in all its filth and profanity, and the push-and-pull between the medieval equivalent of enlisted men and their noble officers, there is plenty here for them to love. Dan Jones is first and foremost a historian, and his grasp of the details and his easy confidence in describing scenery, events, and the many hardships of a military operation on foreign soil make for a compelling tale. The novel follows the English army during its first major campaign of the Hundred Years War, from its landing on the coast of Normandy to the crucial battle at Crécy in August 1346. Suffice it to say that several historical characters—including King Edward III’s son, the chivalric hero known as the Black Prince—appear in an unfamiliar but amusing light.

The story moves fast, and the main characters—a small group of fighting men who call themselves the Essex Dogs—emerge as distinct individuals, each with his own past, personality, and problems. But it is their leader, variously referred to as FitzTalbot and Loveday, who dominates the story. On the rebound from personal tragedy, in a struggle to stay alive  under difficult circumstances, and intent on fulfilling what he perceives as a sacred trust from the group’s prior leader, known only as the Captain, Loveday is determined to keep his small group together no matter what fate throws at them.

What follows is an interview between Dan Jones and his publicist, Ben Peterson (questions in bold). Although I normally insist on conducting my own interviews, I made an exception in this case because Ben has asked the same questions I would have, so it seemed pointless to require a busy author to spend time repeating himself.

A Conversation with Dan Jones

You’re best known for writing books about British history. What prompted and inspired you to write your first novel, Essex Dogs, and why now? How did you prepare?

For some years I’ve been yearning to try my hand at fiction set in the Middle Ages. And plenty of my readers had been asking me when I was going to get around to doing it. As though it were the obvious natural progression in my career. I suppose it figures. My nonfiction books are built on narrative structures borrowed from screenwriting. They celebrate character and explore history through strong, colourful scenic narrative. They smuggle big ideas in under the guise of in-your-face entertainment. These are traits shared with fiction.

I conceived this novel in several stages. The idea of writing about a rogue band of freebooter-soldiers known as the Essex Dogs came to me while I was dozing on a flight from Prague to London in 2017. I began writing about them, but could not settle on the right adventure for them to have. So I shelved the project, and forgot about it until the winter of 2018/2019, when I rented a house in Normandy, quite near Saint-Lô. During a New Year’s Day walk on Omaha Beach with friends, I began to think that having the Dogs take part in Edward III’s 1346 landing a little further up the coast (near Utah Beach) might be viable and fun. A medieval D-Day, kind of like Saving Private Ryan but in fourteenth-century costume. Medieval American hardboiled. Yeah. That felt cool.

Yet even then I dithered. It was not until that summer, after a wide-ranging conversation over dinner with George RR Martin, a history lover whose works of fiction I admire enormously, that something clicked. I went home and started work. George had nothing to do with the writing of this story. His contribution ended at being an inspiration and a personal hero. But it was an important contribution all the same.

The novel is based on the Hundred Years’ War. How much of the book is based on actual events, and which parts are complete fiction? Which characters really existed, and who’s invented? Did the Essex Dogs and its members really exist?

The Crécy campaign of 1346 is every bit a real historical campaign. On 12 July Edward III—who claimed to be the rightful king of France as well as England—landed 15,000 men on the Normandy beaches. It was his “medieval D-Day.” For the weeks that followed, his troops marched and burned and pillaged their way through Normandy, raiding cities and indulging in a chevauchée—a terror campaign designed to frighten and intimidate French people and to disillusion them with their leaders. (This is exactly the same tactical approach to warfare that Vladimir Putin adopted in the first weeks of the recent invasion of Ukraine.) The English came within a few miles of Paris, before forcing a crossing of the river Seine and then heading north towards the Somme, now pursued by a hastily assembled but very large French army. The two armies collided near the Forest of Crécy in late August. It was a spectacular battle with an improbable outcome.

So that much is known. But the historical accounts we have for these events are mostly written either by royal/noble/clerical/knightly participants in the war; or else by chroniclers sympathetic to such a class of people and interested in the ideals of chivalry rather than the “ordinary” experience. It would be impossible to write a straight nonfiction book about the adventures of a medieval Easy Company—such as the Essex Dogs are—because there are no soldiers’ diaries from this age. That’s why I chose fiction and elected in my approach to invent an imaginary “platoon” but have them interact with real historical characters such as King Edward, his son the Black Prince, the earls of Warwick and Northampton, and so on. It’s a similar approach to that adopted by one of my favourite American writers of historical fiction, James Ellroy. Think of American Tabloid: the three viewpoint characters are running blind through history, running into grotesque imagined versions of the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, etc., etc. My Essex Dogs do exactly that, only in the white heat of a war for medieval France.

What was your process for weaving together fact and fiction? How did you create dialog and what research and sources were involved? Did you learn anything new or come across something that surprised you?

Well, as I’ve hinted above, all the plot points in Essex Dogs are real. I’ve pulled them from the sources of the time, which I know pretty well: we’re talking chronicles, letters, administrative records, and such. At the start of each chapter I’ve inserted snippet quotes from those sources to show you how fact and fiction intersect. But the Essex Dogs, my imaginary platoon, come at the events from a perspective not seen/cared about by the men who wrote those original sources. So there are many times when, in exploring the ordinary soldier’s view of events, my chapters run deliberate counterpoint to the official history. That also means there are a ton of Easter Eggs and jokes hidden in the text for aficionados who know their medieval history. (It doesn’t matter if you don’t spot them, it won’t spoil the read.)

As for dialog, that’s a really interesting point. There is no way to accurately mimic fourteenth-century speech on the page and remain intelligible to approx. 99.89% of modern readers. I also loathe the affected “Hollywood” rendering of “ye olde” dialog, which is about weird passive verb structures, phoney formality, and vaguely archaic vocabulary. For example, “be not troubled, my liege, the French want not this fight, I warrant.” Ugh. Gross. And lame.

I approached this as a translation task. Dialog in Essex Dogs is blunt, modern, often bracingly military and somewhat profane. The main concession I’ve made to fourteenth-century manners of speech is to include a colourful repertoire of high blasphemy—for in the later Middle Ages, cursing was done by references to God’s wounds or St Anthony’s bloody toenail, rather than leaning on scatology and urology. I had a ton of fun doing that. A TON. Maybe too much. You will have to be the judge.

Which characters did you enjoy writing the most and why? Which parts of the novel were the most challenging to write?

In light of the above, the earl of Northampton was my favourite. He’s the one noble character in the book who speaks a language the “grunts” can understand. Think General Patton’s speech to the Third Army in 1944, and you’ve got the general idea. When we first meet Northampton, he seems to be quite an atrocious individual because he doesn’t sugar-soap his speech like the other nobles do. Yet as the story goes on we learn that this man, the constable of the army (therefore roughly the fourth in chain of command), is the only one who can really communicate—and even sympathise—with the ordinary troops. And he’s prepared to put himself in harm’s way to lead them. I kind of love the guy, and I definitely lit up whenever he walked into a scene.

That being said, Northampton is not one of the Essex Dogs, and they were obviously my viewpoint characters. I spent most time living inside the head of Loveday, the leader, who is nursing a lost love and a lost brother-in-arms. Loveday consistently conveys the deeper themes of the book that transcend the period—about loyalty and regret, about the uncomfortable conflict between what you might call toxic masculinity and the deep-rooted male urge to be a good role model—a heroic father-figure and a brother. So he’s very dear to me. So too is Romford, the sixteen-year old, very damaged, very abused, a fiend and an addict, a sexually uncertain teenager figuring out a brutal world, but also at times just a tender little boy. Romford was the one who made me cry. When I was writing the last three chapters of the book I cried so much I almost shorted out the electronics on my laptop. Romford did that.

What are some of your favorite historical novels, and what about them do you find appealing?

Well, I mentioned Ellroy already. His American Underworld trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover) made a huge impression on me when I read it—it was a different sort of historical fiction than I’d seen before. Don Delillo’s Libra I guess kind of the same thing. I love Mary Renault’s visions of the Bronze Age world—her book The King Must Die took the Minotaur story and told it like nothing I’d ever known. Of course, right now there’s a really interesting creative moment around the Middle Ages, particularly among American writers, who I suppose are drawn to previous ages of great change when it felt like DOOM was coming down the line pretty fast. Lauren Groff’s Matrix and Otessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona impressed me. Then, of course, there are the medieval big guns. Bernard Cornwell has given me some great advice on the couple of occasions we’ve spoken, and I think his work is sensational. I’m a big admirer of Ken Follett. George RR Martin—goes without saying. What connects them all? World-building. Heart. Thrills. Ideas.

Essex Dogs is the first novel in a trilogy on the Hundred Years’ War. What do you have in mind for the other two novels?

Volume 2 is called Wolf Moon. It follows continuous from Essex Dogs. Only now, rather than marching into the unknown, the Dogs find themselves caught up in the siege of Calais—a brutal eleven-month blockade of a small port on the French coast.

Why are they there? Why does the king care so much about taking it? What are they really fighting for? All this will be revealed as in Wolf Moon we peel back another layer of the war and discover who really wants it to last for a hundred years.

Wolf Moon is about money, merchants, and the medieval “deep state,” which cares nothing for chivalry or the loyalty to kings, only about the naked pursuit of power and profit. We will travel inside and outside Calais, from the siege city built outside the walls, to the pirate ships patrolling the harbour, and into the dark corners of oligarchs’ houses, where the deals that shape—and end—lives are made.

And at the end, we hear the first, faint, chesty rattle of a natural disaster that is sweeping towards the Dogs and their world—and which will set the stage for the epic third book in the series, The Last Knight.

When can we expect your next nonfiction book and what will you be taking on?

I’m writing a biography of Henry V. It’s the missing link between my big chronicles of medieval England: The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. It’s a huge project and a challenge. But that’s the way I like it.


Images: Miniature of Edward III granting Aquitaine to his son, Edward the Black Prince, and of the Battle of Crécy from the Chronicles of Jean de Froissart public domain via Wikimedia Commons; map of Edward III’s chevauchée in Normandy in 1346 CC-BY SA 4.0 Goran tek-an, via Wikimedia Commons.

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