Justin Hill tells Matt Fleming there’s more to the Battle of Hastings than meets the eye – and the same goes for Hong Kong writers
It took five years to write. It’s the first in the Conquest series, which chronicles the events surrounding England’s most famous conflict on home soil – 1066’s Battle of Hastings. It’s a huge departure from Discovery Bay author Justin Hill’s previous novels. It was published last year, scooped critical praise, and it’s just come out in paperback. It was also a Sunday Times Book of the Year for 2011. All in all, Shieldwall has put Hill on the international literary map. And left its fans craving for more.
The second book in the series, Hastings, will be out in May, next year – on the 1,000th anniversary of Swein Forkbeard’s first conquest of England. “The period covered in Shieldwall is virgin territory in the historical fiction world,” says Hill. “And no-one writes about the Viking Age from the point of view of the English. Vikings seem to make much more dynamic figures. But, looking at the Battle of Hastings, it was clear to me that the reasons that led to that battle were all sown around the Danish Conquest of 1016. Which no-one has ever heard of…”
Hill was born in the Bahamas but moved to York, England, aged three. He went to the country’s oldest school – St Peter’s – where pyromaniac Guy Fawkes was once a pupil. Hill decided to become a writer at nine after discovering Tolkien and he studied Old English and Medieval Literature at Durham University before becoming the youngest ever volunteer for VSO in China. From his first novel, aged 23, A Bend in the Yellow River, the 40-year-old hasn’t looked back – particularly since moving to Hong Kong in 2007.
But his novels, before Shieldwall, were all Sino-centric. “I had a few attempts to write a novel set in modern England,” he says, “and they all fell a little flat. But one day I was lying in the bath, listening to the radio, and I heard an American say that ‘we invaded Iraq because of September 11’. It’s odd how lies become history – and that immediately reminded me about Hastings and the Norman’s writing our version of those events. A lot of historians have examined and largely demolished this version, and I thought I would write a short novel about 1066.”
Hill says that, when he started looking at the histories surrounding 1066 (when, for those who don’t know, the Normans famously conquered England) he found the stories were ‘deeper and more complex’. He says: “There were seminal figures of history for all the nations of Britain – Macbeth, Duncan, Brian Boru, Canute, Godwin, the Godwinsons. And their stories were all linked. And I thought it would be great to tie these characters together and show how they contributed to one of the great events of history.”
Thus Shieldwall was born and has been a runaway success. Hill cites ‘the cherry on the cake’ so far as The Sunday Times Book of the Year plaudit, ‘which led to a few bottles of Bolly being opened!’ “It felt like a great endorsement of a book that I loved writing – and characters that feel real and close to me,” he chimes. “I’ve been delighted with the reception. People can be very protective of their view of the past and I was a little wary of how people would react. But I’ve found most historians and other historical writers enthusiastic and receptive. I’d love these to be the kind of books dads can give their kids and say ‘if you want to learn about the Battle of Hastings, then read this’.”
So Hill has become a prominent Hong Kong author, something which makes him proud. “I think the future of writing in HK is very promising,” he says. “There’s the festival, the book fair, the Man Asian Literary Prize and Asia’s first MFA in Creative Writing, which I teach on at City University. Perhaps now Hong Kong is growing up a little and having to define itself in order to exist as a separate place to the Mainland. It’s finding its voice. I think there’s a lot more to HK than just being a dramatic backdrop to expat stories.”
So, the future is the past for Hill as the Conquest stories hit the shelves in coming years. But he may also tackle a Hong Kong tale, he says. “For a long time I didn’t think I was going to write a Hong Kong story because I didn’t feel I knew it well enough. But I think that’s starting to change and ideas are starting to coagulate. Author Timothy Mo once said to me that Hong Kong is the graveyard of English novelists, so I love a challenge!” And so do we…
Shieldwall, paperback published by Abacus, is priced $94.