Monday, April 26, 2010

An interview with Tony Hays

Today I'm talking with novelist Tony Hays about writing his Arthurian mystery series, walking the landscapes of post-Roman Britain, one self-important monk's incomplete version of history, and that annoyingly persistent new religion known as Christianity.

The Killing Way
introduces Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, a hardened soldier who lost his sword arm fighting alongside Arthur in battle against the Saxons in the mid-5th century AD. In this first novel in the series, Malgwyn is pulled away from his favorite pastimes of drinking and wenching when Arthur needs him to investigate the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman — the sister of Malgwyn's late wife. The Divine Sacrifice, book two, takes Malgwyn to the fabled Ynys-witrin, otherwise known as Glastonbury, where he looks into the suspicious death of an elderly monk. He quickly learns that the abbey there is no peaceful refuge. A renowned priest, the future St. Patrick, has just arrived from Hibernia to investigate rumors of Pelagian heresy; the abbot seems to be hiding something; and the dangerously attractive new abbess is stirring up trouble with her unorthodox Gaulish beliefs about women's roles in the communion rite.

I've long been a reader of Arthurian fiction and like seeing how authors adapt its characters and themes to create something new and original. Many of the familiar faces from classic Arthuriana are here — Arthur, Guinevere, Kay, Bedevere, Merlin, and others — but Tony puts his own spin on their personalities and places them all in a gritty post-Roman setting fraught with political infighting and external threats. With his sharp intellect, dry wit, and skepticism about pretty much everything, Malgwyn makes for entertaining company, but since he doesn't accept compliments well, he might take offense at my saying so! I hope you'll enjoy this interview.

How long have you been interested in the Arthurian canon?

I grew up on Sword in the Stone like most kids in the 60s. But it wasn’t the literary canon that really captured my interest but the question of the historical Arthur. I remember reading a Time Magazine article in the late 60s, early 70s about an archaeological dig at South Cadbury, designed to determine if it could have been Camelot. From that point forward, I was, at least partially, tuned into that debate. I also read, about this same time, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, so really, I think, it was the history that led me into the fiction rather than the other way around.

Why, when it came time to write your own version, did you decide to recast the legend in the form of a historical mystery?

I love mysteries, writing them, reading them. So, that part was natural. And I was also aware that no one, to that point, had set a series of mysteries in the historical Arthurian world and I thought that was a natural too. Crime fiction also cuts across all social classes and allows the writer to fully explore a world, not just one aspect or segment of it.

Your image of Guinevere, as a young woman whose scandalous romantic liaison with Arthur got her exiled from her community of nuns, definitely goes against the grain. Even more so - Arthur refuses to marry her. How did your idea of her character develop?

This could get complicated. Okay, first, Guinevere is one of the earliest people associated with Arthur in the historical material, so the general consensus among scholars is that she is based on a real person (like Bedevere and Kay but, alas, not Lancelot). Second, one old standby of the Guinevere legend is that she ultimately retires to a monastery after Arthur’s death and her betrayal of him. In 1190, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey reportedly exhumed Arthur’s and Guinevere’s bodies from a grave in the old cemetery. A leaden cross allegedly provided their identities, and one account says that the cross referred to Guinevere as Arthur’s second wife. While opinion is split on it, an archaeological dig in the 60s proved that the monks did find something. The question immediately came to my mind, if Guinevere were truly an agent of Arthur’s betrayal, would she be buried with him?

And then, there’s the other side, what I’ve done is no different in its own way than the rather odd portrayal of Guinevere as an arrow-shooting northern princess in the recent King Arthur movie. Everybody shapes the characters the way they want them. I need a strong, headstrong Guinevere. I think you will find in The Beloved Dead (April 2011) that Guinevere comes into her own.

Malgwyn is not only an invented character, but he's initially very angry at Arthur for saving his life. He's also extremely (and amusingly) skeptical about Christianity. Why was it important to your story that he be an outsider in these respects?

When I started this project, I had choices to make. Do I go with a High Middle Ages Arthur, a la Malory, Twain, White, and Steinbeck? Or do I go with the more realistic setting of ca. 450 to 475 AD? I opted for realism. My intention was to paint a human Arthur, a real Arthur. By creating a character that is not only NOT enamored of Arthur, but who actually holds him in a kind of contempt, I felt that I was able to give a more realistic view of the man, that is the man behind the legend.

Fifth century Britain was also a place of chaos and transition. The Romans had converted to Christianity, but some scholars see a resurgence of Druidism and the pagan religions after the Romans abandoned the isles. By making Malgwyn a skeptic, really of everything, I could take a more objective look at the conflict between this “new” religion and the old gods. And beyond that, doctrine and theology within the Church were fluid at that time. Clergy had not been declared celibate by papal decree yet (though Augustine was promoting it). There were no parish priests. Monasteries were still embryonic entities in Britain. Remember too that the societal and governmental infrastructure of Britain had fragmented, collapsed in the wake of the Roman withdrawal, and the conflict between the Church and the old gods was a microcosm of that broader reality.

But my characters are dynamic; don’t be surprised, over the course of the series, to see Malgwyn declaring his faith in … Well, I don’t want to give away too much.

These may be the first historical mysteries I've read that take place almost completely outdoors! What things did you discover while walking the landscape around Cadbury Castle and Glastonbury that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

The distances involved. How Glastonbury Tor smells on a misty morning. The difficulties encountered with simple things like hauling water etc. And the inspiration part of it. Sometimes, when I would get stuck on a plotting problem, I would go to Cadbury Castle and sit on the ramparts and plot and plan, right there where my novels are set. Or Glastonbury Abbey or Pomparles Bridge. You get the idea.

Malgwyn doesn't think much of Gildas, the British historian/monk whose work has come down to us as a major source on post-Roman Britain. As someone who's done a lot of research into the period, do you share Malgwyn's opinion of Gildas's egotism and general untrustworthiness?

One of the things that frustrates Arthurian scholars is that Gildas could have told us so much, but didn’t. He chose instead to complain. Granted, he wasn’t really writing a history of the period, rather a religious work, but couldn’t he have given us just a bit more? Among the oldest stories linking Arthur and Gildas is that Arthur killed Gildas’ brother Huaill. Some scholars point to that as the reason that Gildas does not mention Arthur by name. The historical Gildas was absolutely younger than Arthur, hence his appearance in my novels as being at the outset of his career. I needed a character that was not ”evil” in intent but proved an annoying stumbling block at times. Gildas fit the bill. Sometimes things just feel right, and for Malgwyn, it felt right for him to be annoyed by Gildas.

In your author's note at the end of The Killing Way, you mention a letter written by Sidonius, a 5th-century bishop of Clermont, to a man known as the "Rigotamos." Can you provide more information about this letter and what it signifies, as far as identifying who the real King Arthur might have been?

Many scholars believe that the infamous Riothamus letter was from a continental warlord of the Armoricans, but there is a great deal of evidence to dispute that. The letter in question was sent to Riothamus by Sidonius and said this “However, I am a direct witness of the conscientiousness which weighs on you so heavily, and which has always been of such delicacy as to make you blush for the wrongdoing of others.” He goes on to say, “I cannot say whether his complaint is just: but if you bring the opponents face to face and impartially unravel their contentions, I fancy that this poor fellow is likely to make good his plaint ….” A little further Sidonius leaves no doubt but that he believes that Riothamus will give the man “a fair and equitable hearing.”

This same Riothamus (or in the Celtic Rigotamos) is credited by the historian Jordanes as being “King of the Britons” and with coming to Gaul (by the sea) and supporting the Romans against the Visigoths. He was betrayed by one of his men and was last seen retreating toward Avallone in Burgundy. So here we have a Brythonic king, known for his fair and equitable treatment of the people, who wars on the continent, is betrayed by one of his own, and was last seen heading to “Avallone.” It’s hardly much of a leap to see a hint of the Arthurian story in these facts.

At present, I’m putting together a YouTube video making a case for Riothamus as Arthur and Cadbury Castle as his primary seat of power.

Assuming King Arthur was based on a historical figure, do you think it likely that he and St Patrick may have really met in person, as they do in The Divine Sacrifice?

It is possible. They were very likely contemporaries. Some people credit Patrick with having founded the abbey at Glastonbury. We do not know where Patrick is buried, by his own wishes and Glastonbury is one of the possible sites. Almost every element, by the way, of Patrick’s portion of The Divine Sacrifice is grounded in his actual “Confessio.”

What was your journey to publication like for The Killing Way? Did you originally envision it as the first in a series?

The idea first occurred to me while living in Kuwait in 1996. I had been in England on vacation, and I picked up a copy of Geoffrey Ashe’s Quest for Arthur’s Britain. I had been fascinated with the question of Arthur’s historical reality since a teenager and I devoured the book. I sat down and wrote ten pages of the novel, creating Malgwyn at the same time, and then put it aside. After returning to the States and spending a good deal of time doing journalism, I decided to go back to writing historical mysteries in 2003. I immediately went to those ten pages of The Killing Way and pushed forward.

I always wanted it to be the first in a series, but I learned long ago not to bet on anything. I wrote Geoffrey Ashe, explained what I was doing, and asked him if he would let me visit and pick his brain for the book. He agreed, and that has proven to be the beginning of a good and close friendship. I queried twelve agents. One asked to see the manuscript. He offered representation and I accepted, but it took until January 2007 to close a two-book deal with Tor/Forge. Last spring after the release of The Killing Way, Tor/Forge offered an additional two-book contract, so Malgwyn and I will be together through the spring of 2012, and beyond hopefully.


I'd like to thank Tony for his willingness to answer my questions. The Killing Way is newly out in paperback from Forge ($14.99/Can $17.99) while the sequel, The Divine Sacrifice, appeared in hardcover from Forge in April ($24.99/Can $29.99). For more information, see the author's website.


  1. Fabulous interview--really great questions and the answers were really insightful!

  2. I have this book on my TBR list and just added The Divine Sacrifice (my TBR list just keeps on growing, along with my TBR pile!). I love Arthurian stories set in this time, rather than the fantastical books. Makes Arthur seem more real to me!

  3. Great interview! I have this one on my TBR list and plan on starting it soon.

  4. Oh, that was fun to read! I think the most interesting part to me was the material on Riothamus. For a minute, I felt like I could see the history taking shape from that skeleton. Thanks, Tony!

  5. Thanks for your comments, all!

  6. Valerie L.12:12 PM

    I really enjoyed The Killing Way and look forward to getting this next book in a very interesting series.

  7. Fascinating interview; Tony is such a nice person, too, as well as a skilled novelist. It was terrific to hear about his passion for this period in history.

  8. Anonymous7:12 PM

    I'm terrible with history, but I generally find historical books pretty interesting. My college elective course 'Reading for Recreation' made me come to this blog for an assignment. I don't know who Tony Hays is but I'll give his books a try...

    1. I've been seeing quite a few visitors from your class; welcome! To be honest, I wasn't much of a history buff in college either, but historical fiction opened up a new world for me that way.

  9. Luigi Scalise9:21 PM

    Hi I'm from the same Reading for Recreation class as some of the others. I did enjoy this article though. Can't claim to have grown up in the 60's like the author but, Sword in the Stone was one of my favorite Disney classics.

    1. Thanks for commenting! It's great so many people from your class have been finding this interview (the previous comment was from last year).

  10. Hi, I'm from the Reading for Recreation course as well, and its certainly interesting to read about an author I hadn't heard of before. I find it fascinating to hear about authors getting inspiration from other literary works.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Hannah! It's cool that every year new students are discovering this post and learning about a new author.

  11. Anonymous12:59 PM

    Great interview, great posts. Thanks Sarah.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate your taking the time to comment!

  12. Anonymous2:42 PM

    Fascinating to peek into Tony Hays mind for the Killing Way, he obviously has a great passion for history and writing. I never knew there was so much mystery involving the folk lore of King Arthur and its great to see someone tinker with the idea into a fun novel.
    On a side note, I've noticed a lot of my class commenting on here and I would just like to thank you, Sarah, for being part of your class and helping us look at new and different types of reading!

    1. I'm glad to hear you've been finding the blog interesting to browse through - thanks! Especially if it's been useful in suggesting new books to read.

      Yes, Tony was fascinated by history and writing, and he spent a lot of time researching the post-Roman period. Sadly, he passed away in 2015, but we stayed in touch, and I'm sure he would have been pleased to know new readers are discovering his books!