Interview with Barrie Doyle
Perspectives on writing
Q. What was the inspiration for your first novel, “The Excalibur Parchment”?
A. I have always been intrigued by the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur and Camelot. Historians—who once poo-poohed the idea of Arthur as a “myth’—are now acknowledging that a mighty warrior king galvanized the Celtic peoples of the post-Roman era in Britain and led them in battle against Saxon invaders. So I began to question who, what, where and why (my journalistic training) these people were. I devoured all the stories and novels. As the story of Excalibur Parchment began to take shape I added new elements. I postulated that Merlin was an arch Druid which was extremely likely given the nature of Druidic faith as well as the power and role of Druids in Celtic culture. The reality is that the “new” Christian faith was infiltrating Britain at the time and the old faiths, whether Druidic gods or Roman gods, were falling by the wayside. I was also intrigued by the current mood in societies around the world to break away from known national identities and rework themselves into more compact almost tribal entities. You see it happening in Canada in Quebec for example, as well as in Turkey with the Khurdish peoples, and many other groups in many other nations. So the concept of a rebuilt, rejuvenated, aggressive group determined to reassert themselves became a premise to develop. The result was modern Druids trying to re-establish their faith by destroying the one religion that defeated them back in the Dark Ages. Fold in some modern-day terrorism and link it to the existing stories of King Arthur and his iconic sword Excalibur and, voila! The Excalibur Parchment.
Q. So what then, was the inspiration for “The Lucifer Scroll”?
A. With the end of “The Excalibur Parchment” there were still some loose threads. What would become of Stone and Mandy? Was the Druid movement finished? Did Huw recover from his wounds? I love history. I am fascinated by the past and how the tendrils of history waft around our modern day, impacting our culture and politics and worldviews in ways we don’t even realize. As I studied the Nazi era I was intrigued by the undertones of evil and the occult that permeated the Nazi system. The satanic rites and ethos of the SS, the determined searches for ancient icons such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Spear of Destiny—Die Heilige Lanze—and other religious artifacts that the Nazis believed would make them indestructible. The fascination with the occult driving Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi leaders, underscored a rising, almost unstoppable evil. There are stories that the “spears” found in the Vatican and a museum in Vienna are fakes and this too underscored the allure of the Spear of Destiny. Fold in the stories of Nazi leaders escaping in U-Boats with art treasures and artifacts at the end of the war. At the same time, history also led me to Istanbul, the city that straddles two continents and two cultures and that for hundreds of years was the centre of the world. It was time to put everything together—the characters from The Excalibur Parchment, the intriguing history of the Nazis and the occult, and the rich history of Istanbul. The Lucifer Scroll brings them together in a unique way, I believe, and tackles the subjects of terrorism, the occult, and that hostility towards Christianity.
Q. Did you outline the books before you started writing?
A. No. I never outline. It is, for me, too structured and constraining. I have heard other writers say the same thing, but I have now experienced this phenomenon myself: the characters drove the book and told their own story. I was often as surprised by a plot twist or development as any reader would be. I remember coming to a point in Lucifer where Stone Wallace and his American intelligence agent friend Chad Lawson were under attack. (Spoiler Alert): We were in Wales at the time and had plans for a little sightseeing that afternoon. I remember leaving the story wondering how on earth they were going to get out of the incredibly tight trap they were in. I had no idea. When I got back to them the next morning they very gently led me along and showed me how they did indeed escape. Similarly, in Excalibur, I had Brother Thomas and Owain lost on the Welsh moors in cold wet weather, or wading hip deep in frigid rivers, or hiding in caves. None of that was outlined. My characters told their stories and led me down paths I would never have dreamed of if I had outlined the book first. Outlining works for some novelists I suppose, but not for me.
Q. What made you set both stories largely in Wales?
A. Wales is certainly an important location, but by no means the only or primary one. Wales is a beautiful, intriguing, musical, history-filled, castle-filled, legend-filled nation that sits quietly beside England and its raucous neighbours Scotland and Ireland. The Welsh are just as feisty, just as proud and just as vocal as their Celtic cousins. But Wales is also a largely ignored in the pantheon of literature, particularly South Wales and its valleys. So, as a Welsh-born writer, I had a virtual blank canvas to work with. The beauty of the land is astonishing. From the rocky cliffs of Glamorgan and Pembroke to the upland moors and narrow valleys, the countryside is breathtakingly beautiful. Add in the generous warm spirits and lilting accents of the Welsh and I can truly answer the question of why Wales is so prominent in the books with a question of my own: why not?
Q. What locations, other than Wales, are prominent then?
A. I lived for a number of years in Washington D.C. which is a city loaded with intrigue, history and excitement. London, England is my favourite city in the world. I love to walk its streets and soak in the history and the culture. Venice and Istanbul are locations I chose particularly because of their historic nature and also because of their scenic uniqueness. Only twice in my life can I say that my breath was truly taken away by a sight: once was my first view of the Grand Canyon. The other was walking out of the railway station in Venice onto what seemed to me to be a medieval stage set. Istanbul, or Constantinople, is also one of those cities whose influence and historic nature transcend the centuries and the ebb and flow of various cultures. It is a city I believe everyone should visit—modern terror activities notwithstanding—in order to comprehend who we are as a people and as a culture.
Q. Those are all major cities. Anywhere else?
A. Absolutely. In Excalibur there are a number of locations—some identified by their real names and others by fictional names such as Llanfyron—across South Wales. Careg Cennan in particular is a lonely, brooding castle ruins in the Brecon Beacons near Carmarthen. Then we travel to upstate New York on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, the New Forest in Hampshire, England and the Broceliande Forest and Paimpont in Brittany, France. As I wrote Lucifer I included a number of other locations that enabled the story to be spread over a wider scope even than Excalibur. So we wind up exploring the English Lake District, the Austrian Tyrol in the area around Zell am See, north Wales and in particular, the island of Anglesey. In North America I was enchanted with the small New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences. It is a small unprepossessing place in the desert and was named after a long-gone television game show. But its name elicits all kinds of delicious irony as the location of an isolated prison. In Canada, the real beauty of the Georgian Bay area with its blue waters, thousands of islands and picturesque towns had to appear. So the books really reflect my own travels as well as the places I’ve lived and enjoyed. I hope readers will vicariously enjoy these many different and captivating locations and, perhaps, set out on their own journeys of discovery as a result.
Q. How accurate are your locations in both books?
A. Hopefully very accurate. I love to travel and have visited all these places. I have walked the streets of London and Istanbul that are described in the books. I have visited many of the sites identified in them such as Haghia Sofia in Istanbul, the Lido in Venice, and The Houses of Parliament in London. I have taken trains from Euston station, ridden boats in Georgian Bay, driven through the New Mexico deserts, walked the Tyrolian Alps and sailed around Lake Zell in Zell am See. I was speaking with one reader who cornered me in Wales and said “I know the spot where Brother Thomas sat and prayed.” She pointed at a particular spot on the side of the valley and I had to confess that yes that was indeed the place I had in mind when I wrote that scene. Hopefully those who’ve gone to Venice had the same breathtaking experience I had when they saw the Grand Canal for the first time. The same for readers who walk inside Haghia Sofia and take in its immenseness and grandeur even 1,500 years after its construction. And hopefully they will agree that I have indeed captured the scene well.
Q. What motivates your characters?
A. The antagonists of the stories, the vengeful and zealous Druids, are motivated by greed and lust for power but as well by a determination to revert to an ancient pagan faith. To them, modern day religions such as Christianity have too long influenced society, culture, politics and governance. They see a world that is failing. They see society breaking down. They see “religion”, especially Christianity, as something to be despised and disposed of. For them, a return to the pagan gods of the earth, fire, war, and the underworld is the motivation. They believe if Christianity is destroyed along with the other one-god religions of Islam and Judaism, the door will be open for them. As pagan worshippers they will step into the gap they created and bring the world back under the domination and power of their ancestors. As believers in the gods of war and the underworld, they are immune to concepts like mercy and pity. So compromise and accommodation is unacceptable. It is total war for them with a goal of annihilation of the Church. Nothing more and nothing less. And that leads to various terrorist attacks and plots, all of which are allowed, even though it means mass deaths of innocents.
Q. Sounds like something out of today’s headlines.
A. Absolutely. It is this type of philosophy that motivates ISIS and other terrorist groups. They extrapolate real or imagined insults or actions into motivation for mass murder. Murder is condoned, even promoted as in jihad, because the greater good in their eyes outweighs the pain and suffering of some. It is a total rejection of any sense of humanity, replaced by an evil lust for power and domination. Concepts of peace, justice, love, harmony and friendship are anathema. Instead, anarchy is encouraged as a weapon to destroy whoever is in your way so that in the end the strongest—you—will survive. A friend of mine read Excalibur and blurted out that to him it seemed the story was ripped from the headlines. He was quite surprised when I told him that the bulk of the story was written long before a group known as ISIS was created. And I believe that ISIS is a deadlier, even more evil incarnation of Al Qaeda with its tendrils snaking through our communities and recruiting vulnerable people. Just as the Druids do in my books.
Q. Okay, that takes care of the bad guys but what about your heroes?
A. In Excalibur there are two protagonists in the story that’s set in the 1300’s and there are two main heroes in the Twenty-first Century story. Brother Thomas, the monk who saves Excalibur, is a particular favourite of mine. He’s a man who wants to do the right thing but is constantly insecure about his abilities and unsure of his own strength to carry out what he’s called to do. He falters and fails. He questions God and the direction he has to protect Excalibur from the Druids. He leans heavily on and admires his companion Brother Owain’s calm assurance and strength. The motivations of both are complex and yet simple. Owain loves a girl and wants to leave the abbey and return to a secular life. He’s what we would call today a “streetwise” individual, smart in the ways of the forest and willing to loyally support his friend Thomas even if he doesn’t have all the information he needs to make a rational decision. But at the same time his motivation is simple. Even at the end, his motivation is much more prosaic. He wants to be with his love. Thomas is simple in that he just wants to be left alone, content with where he is, wanting to experience life but actually unwilling to put forward the effort. His goal is an unremarkable life serving God in his abbey. The complexity of his motives become apparent as he wrestles with the desire to serve God and tries to learn how to trust God at a time when every solid thing in his life is stripped away. He struggles to understand God’s call upon him, to learn how to pray and how to yield to him which, in turn, leads to great growth. He becomes the man he wants to be: faithful, courageous and even strategic. I think that anyone who seeks to be a practicing Christian struggles with exactly the same things. How do you know what God wants? Can you truly trust God? Indeed, is there really a God at all?
Q. That’s okay for the monks of the 1300’s, but what about your modern day protagonists?
A. Stone Wallace goes through the same kind of questioning except that he never even starts with the premise that there is a God or that he even wants to believe in him. Rather, Stone has been deeply wounded by life and loss and so seeks to wrap himself in his career as a journalist. The workaholic mindset has left him alone with no family and few friends. As he gets involved in the search for Excalibur he too undergoes a metamorphosis. He wants to do the right thing but doesn’t know how. He looks to the one person who, in some senses, has been a father figure. Huw Griffiths is a man Stone admires. He’s mentor as well as friend. Most of all Stone admires Huw’s solid faith despite the losses in life Huw has sustained. From the sidelines Stone is slowly drawn in to the point where he has to let go all the concepts and ideas he’s held about religion and faith and look at the impact Huw’s beliefs have. Stone will struggle and slip and slide as he works his way through these issues and is soon motivated by a simpler aspect of humanity, the glimmering of love as he works with Huw’s daughter Mandy. For Huw it is much simpler. He is motivated on one level by his professional curiosity as a historian, archaeologist and theologian. He is driven to know, to dig deep until the mystery is solved. At the same time, Huw has the more complex motivation of guiding his younger colleague out of his self-imposed armour and learn to allow himself to be hurt, to be vulnerable as he grows into a deeper more rounded person.
Q. Both Stone and Huw appear in “The Lucifer Scroll” as well. Are they still struggling or are they content with the answers they got in “The Excalibur Parchment”?
A. Certainly Stone is still struggling. He finally comes to terms with his father’s untimely death and visits the grave for the first time since he was thirteen. His mind is still swirling, struggling with what’s he’s learned in theory about God and about prayer but still unable to fully trust and still unable to practice what he now seems to want. It is then that bullets fly by his head and the whole nightmare starts again. Huw is just as blustery and determined as ever, seeking to get to the bottom of every mystery put before him. For all that he is a professor though, Huw finds it much easier to “tell” both Stone and Mandy how to deal with life, love and faith than he does to model it. So he too, especially I think in Lucifer, is more vulnerable and therefore more human. He doesn’t have all the answers but plugs on regardless. And I happen to think that that is a huge strength of anyone, fictional or otherwise. To me, success in life is the ability to plug on regardless, not having all the answers and not always being successful, but doing it anyway.
Q. Excalibur and Lucifer are part of a trilogy, “The Oak Grove Conspiracies”. What’s next and how did you come up with that title?
A. The centerpiece of most Druid ceremonies—their temple, if you will—was the Oak Grove. So that explains the trilogy title I hope. What’s next is something tentatively called “The Madoc Treaty” which explores the story that a Welsh prince, Madoc, sailed to North America in 1170, landing in what is now known as Mobile Bay. In fact the Alabama chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution raised a plaque to that effect and had it placed on the outer banks of that bay. Add to that, one of the underlying tasks President Thomas Jefferson gave the Lewis and Clarke expedition was to seek out the truth of a Welsh-speaking Indian tribe. These facts alone were enough to put the story into motion. But, as I said earlier, where the story goes is in fact up to the characters to decide. It’s their story. And I will be interested to see where it leads. Won’t you?