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Five Minutes With… Simon Stirling

Simon Andrew Stirling is an author and historian whose latest book, “Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means”, was published by the History Press in August 2013.  His previous book, “The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero”, was also published by the History Press in 2012.  Simon’s blog, in which he reveals ongoing research and comments on his adventures in publishing, can be found at here. He is an accomplished speaker and is available to give talks on any subject related to his work on Shakespeare.

What is an historian?

A historian is somebody who studies an aspect of the past in an attempt to understand it and to be able to explain it to others. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I was a professional dramatist for many years and I knew that history offers endless material for great stories.  If the central question in all drama is, “In such circumstances, what would you do?”, then history is a succession of extraordinary circumstances in which ordinary people found themselves.  Over time, I became especially interested in certain periods and – even more so – certain historical characters (namely, the original “King” Arthur and William Shakespeare).  I wanted to know more about these people and their times; I wanted to know what made them great.

 What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?

There isn’t one.  I’m very fond of really useful encyclopaedias and unusual dictionaries.

Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?

No.  Research can be very varied and very specific.  I’ve yet to find a website that covers enough ground in sufficient detail to be indispensable.  Procrastination … well, that’s another matter.

What is your favourite historical place?

The Isle of Iona in Scotland.  I was married there in 2002 (a beautiful occasion).  That was my third visit to the island, and we’ve been back six times since.  I find the place endlessly fascinating.  Every time I go there, and every time I research into its past, I find something wonderful.

You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?

I’d probably go back to the Crucifixion – to see what really happened.  I’d be interested to discover what Jesus was really like, and to think “So this is how it all started.”  I’m not a Christian, and so for me the interest would be human and historical – and the startling realisation that centuries of terrible things could be traced back to that one moment in time.  Plus, I doubt that the Crucifixion happened in the way it’s usually portrayed.

You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?

I chunk everything down.  There’s a lot of mathematics involved in my approach to a project.  I figure out the structure, how many words per chapter (roughly), and then work every day.  I don’t have a daily word count, but I can tell whether I’m on schedule or not.  The research itself is an ongoing process: I write while I’m researching, and I continue to research as I’m writing – you often can’t know what you need to research in more depth until you’ve hit that moment in the narrative.  That’s okay, because the fresh research can also influence my rewrites.  The process can be very long but it feels fairly organic, and as long as I’m breaking some ground everyday I’m reasonably happy.

Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?

The two main periods I’ve studied are the Dark Ages and the Elizabethan/Jacobean eras.  I’m looking forward to doing some more work on the Jacobite rebellions, so I guess that would be my fallback.

Why is history important today?

If you do not know where you have come from, and how you got to where you are, you can have no real idea of where you’re going.  This, ultimately, is what really fascinates me about history.  It makes the subject very contentious: those of a conservative, right-wing way of thinking present the past in a certain way because it appears to justify their prejudices (I’d say the same of the left, but there doesn’t seem to be very much “left-wing” history around these days).  What this means, of course, is that history can be manipulated in order to present a misleading notion of the past.  Now, that worries me, because if you’re making decisions on the basis of a wholly misleading sense of the past, there’s a strong chance that those decisions will not be the right ones.  Equally, people can be held down, even persecuted, by those who appeal to an inaccurate and fanciful idea of history, and great crimes can be covered up by those who write up the historical accounts.  Retelling the past properly, honestly and accurately is an empowering thing.  People can be shocked to discover what things were really like, what really went on, but then they’ll note the similarities to our present age, and maybe their eyes will open a little.  Those who rewrite the past do so, I believe, in order to refashion the present in their own preferred manner.  That’s a very dangerous game to play.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

I like it when ordinary people accidentally stumble into immortality – like the unidentified man from Porlock who ruined Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” by knocking on the door.  My favourite is probably the chap whose breeches caught fire when the Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613.  Fortunately, there was a bottle of ale at hand, so he put out his own little fire and escaped unharmed.  These moments of human interest and absurdity are what make history for me.

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