Harrogate History Festival: From historical fiction to Game of Thrones

Conleth Hill as Varys and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. (Picture: �2016 Home Box Office, Inc.)
Conleth Hill as Varys and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. (Picture: �2016 Home Box Office, Inc.)
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Author Tom Harper is chairing this year’s Harrogate History Festival which as well as featuring several big names will include some eye-opening debates. Julian Cole reports.

TALKING to Tom Harper, you sometimes forget which name to use. Not that it matters as he obligingly answers to Tom or his real name Edwin Thomas.

Tom Harper, who is chair of this year's Harrogate History Festival.

Tom Harper, who is chair of this year's Harrogate History Festival.

It’s a two-for-one offer in a sense. Here is Tom, the author of 13 published novels ranging from time-slip tales and historical adventures to contemporary thrillers. And here is Edwin, 39-year-old father of two and school governor.

Both are tall and sandy-haired, wry and amusing. Tom writes during the day and when he stops conscientiously tapping towards deadlines, Edwin dashes off to pick the boys up from school. Tom and Edwin are both married to Emma Hayiou-Thomas, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of York.

Tom is the programming chairman of this year’s Harrogate History Festival, a younger cousin to the town’s annual crime-writing festival. And in a moment both playful and serious, he is including a discussion of Game of Thrones – in a festival about history.

That’s just a fantasy, isn’t it, Tom? Outlandish stuff about dungeons and dragons, with feuding warlords and bucket loads of sex and violence. As well as skulls being crushed (we will return to those skulls later).

But hear Tom out, and it all makes sense. The York author is a great fan of George RR Martin’s fantasy novels, now a stupendously popular TV series, which he believes are shaped by real history.

Tom had the germ of this idea two festivals ago when Dr Gareth Williams, of the British Museum, mentioned in passing that his love of Tolkien had led to his fascination with all things Nordic and Viking. He was later spurred on by reading the French historical author Maurice Druon, whose novels set in 14th century France inspired the Game of Thrones author.

Tom believes that Martin illuminates the real past through his darkly fantastical tales. “When I read the first Game of Thrones book it was the first time I could finally understand the Wars of the Roses, which had completely baffled me for years,” he says.

He didn’t suddenly comprehend the details of every battle, so much as grasp the idea that “you’ve got rival clans and all these noble houses who are allied with them in various ways”.

When you read straight history you know the outcome already and this, Tom thinks, can make it difficult to appreciate how people felt at the time: to them the story still has no ending. “With Game of Thrones, because it’s made up you don’t know who’s going to win this epic struggle. So you understand the kind of calculations they have to make much better. That sense of contingency, of people having to make decisions with very imperfect information.”

Also on Tom’s panel will be the historian Tom Holland, expert on all things Roman, the fantasy author Joe Abercrombie, and Helen Keen, author of a new book called The Science of Game of Thrones. Together they will discuss all manner of unlikely questions, such as ‘could a man really crush a man’s skull with his bare hands?’

In his role as festival chairman Tom has also fashioned a debate entitled Sex and Violence, which pits romantic historical fiction against military fiction. “These are how a lot of people will experience historical writing, so we’re doing a light-hearted debate about which is a more valid way of getting to grips with history.”

Tom and his guests will ask if history is all about war and men doing manly things; or should we consider the female perspective, the day-to-day concerns? His panel will include York author Pamela Hartshorne, who will be arguing for romance. “Pam’s interesting because she wrote Mills & Boon novels in order to put herself through a PhD in medieval studies,” he says.

Tom’s work crosses the frontier from history to crime. He has attended both of the Harrogate festivals – and thinks he may well be the only author to have done a double-first: ticking off both the first crime festival and the first history festival.

So does he consider the history festival to be similar to its criminally inclined cousin? “No, it feels completely different and that’s what so interesting about it. Crime is this incredible behemoth and the history festival at the moment is smaller and it has a more relaxed and accessible vibe.”

As a writer, Tom likes a good adventure and cites the Indiana Jones films as an early influence and “one of the absolute touchstones”. In that mould, he concocts pacy adventures that rattle and twist and hum with activity.

He’s happy to ignore that old truism of writing about what you know. “For me it’s always been write what you don’t know,” Tom says. “If I wrote about what I know, it would all be incredibly boring and for me fiction is about escapism and being more adventurous and exciting than a fairly standard suburban life.”

Book number 14 is with the publishers and will come out next year. Tom’s most recent two novels, Zodiac Station and Black River, were modern contemporary thrillers that entailed adventurous-sounding research trips to the Arctic and the Amazon.

Thanks to “deadlines and seasons” he didn’t manage such a journey for his new novel about a merchant free-booting adventurer, a Brit who is shipwrecked in India in the 18th century.

This book marks a return to history for him. “It’s a straight-forward historical adventure, swashbuckling, with lots of derring-do and sea battles, set in the Indian Ocean. Pirates of the Indian Ocean rather than Pirates of the Caribbean.”

As yet the novel has no name and Tom does not always have the last word when it comes to titles. “The publishers have strong views. I’m keeping score, and I think it’s about 50/50 of ones I’ve suggested.”

While he sits at home composing great adventures shot through with danger, his sister, Iona Thomas, actually faces up to potential peril in her work. She is the deputy ambassador to Libya, based in Tunis (Libya being too dangerous).

“I am writing about men with guns and kidnappings, and my little sister is the one who does the hostile environment training where they simulate kidnappings and getting shot at,” he says.

Tom Harper was the pen-name Edwin was advised to adopt a few years back now. Tom has been good for Edwin, but Edwin does enjoy the separation and being able to put his alter ego in a box.

“It’s easier to talk about the books as well,” he says. “I don’t feel quite so presumptuous. It’s not by me – it’s by Tom Harper, he’s amazing!

The Harrogate History Festival runs from October 20-23 at the Old Swan Hotel. For details call 01423 562303 visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history-festival.