I've been writing historical novels for the past four or five years, and those years have definitely been the best time of my life.
Before that I was a foreign correspondent, working for the Los Angeles Times and Reuters and finally The Times of London in a series of far-flung places from Europe to Asia to Africa to the former Soviet Union. My Russian friends used to joke that as I got more experienced, I was forever being sent to riskier places. It was hugely thought-provoking, and also tremendous fun, in some ways, but with time I began to long to go home.
Writing about the past - yet another foreign country, to paraphrase LP Hartley - turned out to be the way. Who knew, back then, that hanging out in the London Library, reading books over the noise of kiddy computer football games at home, and getting the manuscript in on time, would come to seem every bit as thrilling as those scary taxi rides I used to take in and out of war zones?
Yet I think my books still reflect that earlier period of conflict reporting. My first novel, for instance, is about Thomas More's family of diehard Catholics, at the time Henry VIII was turning England Protestant, and although it has a very fictional love triangle and an art-history conundrum in its foreground, the background of religious conflict, arrests, secret police, and torture and execution for your beliefs all felt very real to me too.
I don't think it makes much difference whether these sorts of big, and often terrifying public events, are situated in the present or in the past - they've always cast the same long shadow over individual lives. The only difference is that more of us in the West lead more cushioned lives today, while, in the past, you were likelier to be caught up in whatever the troubles of the times were. To me, part of the pleasure of writing the books I write now is to make some kind of literary sense, a pattern, out of some of the terrible things I witnessed before - to try and understand how love, loyalty, friendship and quiet decency can, sometimes, help individuals come through, even those caught up in the larger-scale horror of war and conflict.
The four novels I've written so far have gone back in time from Henry VIII (the Middle Ages being a particularly rich source of turbulent history). I've skipped back half a century or so at a time. My fourth novel deals with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, back in the 14th century, at the time of the English Peasants' Revolt.
But I'm now regrouping ... and think it's time to move forward through time again. Maybe even to somewhere around the time of the Russian Revolution, which would let me bring into my writing some of the other things I learned on my travels!