Monday, 25 March 2013

S A Meade interview

Last week I featured a review and excerpt from 'Lord of Endersley' by S A Meade. I thought people might be interested in seeing inside the mind of another person writing about gay men in the Indian Mutiny. We're scarce. (Ten points if you get the 1972 movie reference.) Anyway, here's the interview.

Lord of Endersley is set during the Indian Mutiny. What made you want to write about that period?
I’ve been fascinated by India since I was very, very young, when a primary school teacher brought an Indian couple to our class so they could tell us about their culture. I was entranced. Then, when I was older I stumbled onto an amazing novel, ‘Zemindar’, by Valerie Fitzgerald. It’s one of those lovely, old fashioned doorstoppers, set in mainly in Lucknow during the 1857 uprising. I’ve since read a few others, including ‘Shadow of the Moon’, by MM Kaye, ‘Siege of Krishnapur’ by JG Farrell and, of course, ‘Cawnpore’. I’d been wanting to write a story set during this period for so long, I just had to wait for the right characters to come along.

How did you do your research?
With LoE, I had a rough idea of how I wanted the story to go. I knew that I wanted my main characters to be caught up in a siege. I thought long and hard about the Siege of Lucknow, but it’s been done. So I did some initial research about the Sepoy Uprising and found this amazing book on Google Books, ‘A Lady’s Escape from Gwalior’, by R.M Coopland, a woman who was widowed at the start of the mutiny, and spent part of her time in Agra during the siege there. It’s a somewhat biased account, but it gives some lovely details about what day to day life was like for those who were holed up in the Red Fort. That book was my main source for the India section. With the remainder of the book, researching the setting was easy since I live just down the road from the house I modelled Endersley on.

Lord of Endersley is a love story about two gay men. What made you write this genre, rather than more conventional stories?
I did actually start off writing ‘conventional’ historical womens’ fiction. But then someone posted a challenge on the Absolute Write forum, I wrote a scene about two men, best friends, who’d known each other since college. Basically, one of them confessed to the other that he was in love with him. Much sex ensued. I had a lot of good feedback. Then those two characters just would not leave me alone. I scribbled a few bullet points down on a flight between Phoenix and LA, was introduced to the music of Einaudi by my lovely roomie in Santa Monica and that was it. Four weeks later, I’d written the first draft of ‘Stolen Summer’, my first m/m romance. I really thought it was a one-off. I guess I was wrong!

Given that homosexuality was illegal until quite recently, do you find that writing historical novels with gay characters poses any particular problems?
It’s a bit tricky, but I’m fairly certain that many, many gay couples managed to keep their relationships alive and secret. With LoE, there was something I picked up during my research of attitudes to homosexuality in 19th century that gave me the validation I needed for the story’s conclusion. Basically, it tended to be the poor who were persecuted under the Sodomy laws, the better-off had ways of working around it.
Ah, yes, lube. I’m guilty of relying on handy little bottles of oil for my characters.

In my own books, there is very little description of sex. This certainly isn't true of yours. Some people would say that these books are just soft-core gay porn. How would you respond to that?

My initial response is to go and bang my head against the wall. I try to concentrate more on characters and plot, rather than just have the MCs have at it like bunnies for no apparent reason. I’m finding that I’m throwing in less and less sex with each new story. I think it’s a learning process, discovering that balance between the naughty bits and the plot. When I first started in the genre, it was more about the sex.  ‘Orion Rising’ is a prime example of that. Those two characters couldn’t keep their hands off each other. I think the novelty of writing sex scenes wears off after a while.

Do you think your books appeal only to gay men, or do you write for a wider audience?
The main audience for m/m romance is women. They make up the majority of my readers. I’d love to think that my stories appealed to gay men.

You used to live in the USA but now you have returned to England. Writing is quite a solitary activity, but are there differences between being a US based writer and working over here?
I don’t think there’s much of a difference at all. The main thing for me is that most of my stories are set in the UK, so it’s nice to live here. It means I don’t have to rely on good old Google Earth for my research!

I think Master of Endersley was your first historical novel, but I know it has given you a taste for the genre. What other historical works do you have planned?
I’ve written a novel set in central Asia and Russia during the ‘Great Game’. I’m waiting to hear whether the publisher I submitted it to likes it or not. I’m also about halfway through the next Endersley book which is set partly in St Petersburg before and during the Russian Revolution. The third Endersley book is set during WW2. So yes, there’s more historical stuff on the way and there may be more ideas biting me in the arse before too long. It doesn’t take much to set the plot bunnies loose.

Some authors don't like to talk about themselves while others love nothing more than to tell us the colour of the ink they write with. Is there anything you would like your readers (and potential readers) to know about you?
Um…anything I say is going to sound like a cliché. I like cats, chocolate, cooking, usual boring stuff!

Hilary Mantel has realised that gratuitous offensiveness gets column inches. (No, I don't care that she was "quoted out of context". She knew perfectly well what she was doing.) What would you like to say to get everyone talking about you?
Enough of the drama, people. Let's all just tell our stories and let the readers enjoy them. If the m/m genre can make it through the next year without any more upheavals, sulks, tantrums, foot-stomping, I'd be very very happy. I'm tired of the train wrecks.  

Friday, 22 March 2013

A sample of 'Cawnpore'

There was a blog site (now closed) which allowed authors to show off a sample of their writing so people could get a feel for their books. I spent ages choosing mine and, as you can't read it on that site any more, I'm posting it again here. It's an interesting contrast to the excerpt from 'Lord of Endersley', which I know Sue spent a while picking out. She concentrates more on the relationship between the characters, while this piece is more about the time and the place. Some readers who want a romance complain that my lovers (the narrator, John Williamson, and Mungo) lack passion. It's a fair comment. But the Lord of Endersley never learns how to couch a lance.


The anniversary of Plessey was now less than a week away and I feared that I could not hope to gain the skills I needed in the few days available to me. I need not have worried. Soon after dawn the next day, Mungo introduced me to his cousin on an empty plain a few miles west of Bithur, remote from any road and away from prying eyes. Amjad (for that was his name) was a wiry man but, though I still found it difficult to judge the age of Indians, I thought him too senescent to be in any shape to teach me. As soon as he mounted the skinny little pony he had brought to our meeting, I realised my mistake. The man was a magnificent rider, relaxed yet secure in the saddle as he galloped his mount in what seemed impossibly tight circles.

After a few minutes, he reined back and cantered toward a lance he had left upright in the red earth. Without pausing, he plucked it from the ground and wheeled again. As the pony turned, the lance was already couched under his arm. He kicked once and galloped straight toward us. My horse shied as Amjad raced just inches past my face and lowered the lance to the ground. A moment later, he raised it. There on the point, was a tent peg he had hammered into the ground before our arrival.

Twice more he turned at the gallop and the lance dipped to the earth and each time he raised it with another peg speared on the tip.

He trotted over to me and passed over the lance.

"You try."

Thinking this a joke, I laughed, but Amjad's scowl showed that he was serious. I looked to where he had speared up the pegs and saw another three forming a neat line alongside them.

I tucked the lance under my arm. It was surprisingly light. I turned my horse, but, before I could start toward the pegs, Amjad was shouting at me with a string of criticisms. I didn't hold the lance properly; I had failed to adjust my weight to take account of the new balance point I would need as it dipped; my left hand was loose on the reins. There seemed a hundred other things but these were all I could remember.

I sat on Kuching, feeling more and more ridiculous as he poked and prodded me into what he thought was a satisfactory position. Finally, I was allowed to kick in my heels and start toward the tent pegs.

I had taken barely half a dozen paces before I was subjected to another torrent of complaints. I had shifted my weight again as soon as I had moved, my kick was wrong, the horse didn't understand me, I had allowed my body to slump, I had pulled too sharply on the reins, I had taken my eyes off the pegs...

On my third attempt, I got as far as a canter before the abuse started; on my fourth I almost reached the pegs. By now, Mungo was struggling to keep a straight face. I, blushing furiously under the tan which was now almost as effective a disguise as my walnut stain, tried to hold onto my temper. I was, after all, no mean horseman. I had grown up with the beasts and, if I had not ridden during my sea-faring years, I had more than made up for my lack of practise during my time in India. Yet I had to admit that I did not have the smallest part of the skill of the old man now offering a devastating critique of every aspect of my riding. Even so, I doubted that his comments would be truly useful. Surely his skill was that of a native, born to his way of life. How could a morning spent subjecting myself to being treated like a child at a riding school make any difference to my own abilities? As the day grew hotter, I found, to my astonishment, that I could catch the tent pegs on my lance, if not at a gallop, then at a respectable canter. And my newfound ability to turn my horse back on itself without slowing impressed Mungo to the point where he caught himself clapping, despite Amjad's scowls.

Before noon, we had to stop. The heat had reached the point where neither man nor horse should be in the full sun and we walked our beasts slowly toward a grove some half mile away, where we sheltered under the trees and Mungo made us a picnic of cold rice with curried fowl and mangoes and figs to make a fine dessert.

Amjad enjoyed his food though, like many older men, he ate sparingly. I took advantage of the break to question him about drills. He was undoubtedly improving my horsemanship but I was still no clearer as to how the Nana's cavalry drilled. Having watched the Company's cavalry on parade, moving seamlessly from 'advance by column' to 'advance in line', responding, as if by magic, to the sounds of the bugle, I was all too aware that I had no knowledge of how to perform these manoeuvres. I was sure that as soon as anything more complicated than following the man in front was required, I would be exposed as an imposter.

Once I had got Amjad to understand my question, he laughed so much that he nearly choked on the last of his figs. Yet again, I had forgotten that the way that Indians organised their armies was totally alien to the British approach to matters military.

"Ride along with your fellows until they order a charge, then draw your sword and charge with everyone else. Your horse will know what to do if you don't." He laughed again.

"What about the lance?"

"If they charge, you won't need the lance. It's for showing off and sticking pigs. The first man you strike with it, it will snap off. And if it doesn't, you can hardly ride around with a body dangling from your lance, can you?"

Mungo passed him water, because we both feared that he would choke if he laughed much more.

"So why have I spent the morning learning to use the lance?"

Amjad spluttered and water splashed onto the baked earth.

"Because showing off is nine tenths of what makes a sowar. But don't worry – once the day cools, I'll show you how to use that fancy sword of yours."

We lazed under the trees, digesting our meal until the worst of the heat was over. Then Amjad was as good as his word. We did not leave the grove but Amjad stuffed a bag with leaves and soil and hung it from a branch. Then he rode through the trees, swinging his heavy tulwar, toward the bag, which was slashed open in an instant.

"Now you try."

My first attempt ended with my nearly falling from the horse as the weight of the sword unbalanced me. Having mastered the whole business of staying in the saddle while whirling my blade around, I twice buried it in tree trunks before I reached the sack. A few more passes rocked the bag to and fro but failed to cut it. Only as the shadows of the trees were stretching long in the afternoon did I finally manage to despatch my enemy well enough to satisfy Amjad. Even at the end, though, he had his doubts.

"Mungo tells me you don't really want to kill anyone," he said. "That's probably just as well."

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Lord of Endersley

S A Meade's book, which I reviewed earlier this week, is essentially a gay romance with a strong historical background, while 'Cawnpore' is more a historical novel with a gay romance at its centre. What's the difference? Well, when I was asked to select an extract to give the flavour of the novel, the extract I chose was about learning to ride in Indian cavalry forces. (I'll post it tomorrow so that you can compare it with this one.) S A Meade's excerpt, by contrast, centres on the romance between the Lord of Endersley and his officer lover, Marcus. Here they are trapped in the fort at Agra, surrounded by Indian rebels.

The locals burnt their dead as the long summer ground on. I leaned against the parapet and watched the pyres burn, their flames reflected in the swollen, inky waters of the river. A lantern flickered farther down the wall, another comrade in arms watching the same thing. There was no rain tonight, just a thick, smoky miasma and a sullen waning moon.

I heard Marcus before I saw him, his approach heralded by firm footsteps. I hated that rise inside, the uncontrollable lift of joy. I tried to summon some sense of indignation that, since that night, all I had had of him were a handful of apologetic notes explaining he’d been too busy to seek me out.

His native clothes were pale in the darkness. He paused beside the tiny pavillion and rested one hand on a pillar. “Jacob.”

I took a deep breath and folded my arms across my chest. “Marcus.”

“I’m sorry.” His voice was low. He lifted his chin and stared at me across the pavillion. His hair stirred in the vague breeze.

“For what?” I folded my arms tighter and leaned against a pillar.

“For neglecting you these past few weeks, for avoiding you.”

“You acknowledge the fact. That’s a start.” It was hard to keep my voice even and cold when all I wanted to do was breach that small space between us.

“It’s…” Marcus sighed and stared up at the starless sky. “Difficult.”

“What is? That you made a mistake that night? That it should’ve never happened?”

“No…it wasn’t a mistake, far from it. That’s why I stayed away.” He swallowed and took a step closer. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if we spend too much time together people will know it, people will see what we have. I don’t want you ostracised. I don’t want you to suffer for my weakness.”

“Being with me is a weakness?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I’m too fond of you. I’m the weak one. I can’t stop wanting you. I had to stay away.” Marcus took another step and rested his hand on my cheek. “Even now, I can’t help touching you.”

I lifted his hand away. “So you believe cutting off all contact with me helps us both?”

“Yes. As much as it hurts, I think it’s the right thing to do. We can never be together, not in the eyes of God or society. Why risk everything when we know that nothing can ever come of it?”

“What happened to being grateful for whatever time we had? Isn’t that what you said?”

“I did and I meant it. But I’m not certain I can bear it now, knowing that, when this is all over, we’ll be a continent apart. We’ll never see each other again.”

I hated that I could see the sense of his words. “So why not enjoy the time we have left instead of pretending we have no feelings for each other?”

“I knew you’d be like this.”

“What do you expect? Your silence hurt and angered me. You’ve left me wondering what I did to drive you away.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of any other way. I didn’t have the wit to put it in writing and I knew, if I saw you, I’d relent.” He raised his hand to my face once more. “Like I’m doing now.”

I covered his hand with my own and closed my eyes when he pressed his forehead to mine.

“What do we do, Jacob?” His voice was all anguish and longing, tugging at me.
The last of my angry resolve crumbled. “We take what moments we can and save our regrets and remorse for later.”

Marcus’ lips grazed mine. “Damn you.”

“Your tone doesn’t strike me as ‘damning’.”

He wound his fingers through my hair. “You make it impossible to deny you anything.” His breath was warm on my skin. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know.” I tasted his lips, earning a long sigh for my sins.

Marcus glanced over my shoulder. “I see we’re not alone tonight.”

“No, there’s always people out here when there’s no rain.”

He gave me another kiss. “Then we must pray for a longer rainy season. The rains will be gone by the end of next month.”

The tap of approaching footsteps broke us apart. Marcus sat cross-legged on the smooth marble floor of the pavillion. I retrieved my rifle and sat down beside him at a respectable distance until the officer of the watch passed with a cursory greeting before continuing on his rounds.

After he’d disappeared, I set my rifle down and Marcus shuffled closer, his leg touching mine. “There’s no peace to be found here.”


He leaned close. His lips were soft on my skin. “I’ll find somewhere for us. This is a huge place, there will be somewhere.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I should go. Staying here with you is too much of a temptation.” Marcus took a step away.

I watched the flicker of his pulse beneath his jaw and bit my lip. “Yes, you’re right. It’s just too risky here tonight.”

Monday, 18 March 2013

Casualties rise in Borneo war

The war in North Borneo continues, with remarkably little interest in the West. (If you have no idea what war I'm talking about, read my blog post HERE.) The government there is now claiming to have killed 62 rebel fighters and thousands of Filipinos are fleeing Borneo as Malaysian security forces turn on them following the 'invasion' of Sabah from the Philippines.

There are now rumours that the whole incident was backed by Malaysian politicians opposed to the government party, hoping to use the crisis to attack the Prime Minister. Whether these are true or not, I have no idea. But the invasion demanded money and resources that its nominal leader, the Sultan of Sulu, probably lacked. Somebody is behind it. 

In The White Rajah I simplified the protracted negotiations that gave Brooke control of Sarawak. Court politics in the mid-19th century was a Byzantine maze of family loyalties, political coalitions, treachery and death. It really does seem that not a lot has changed.

An alternative to reading 'Cawnpore'

'Lord of Endersley' is another story of a gay relationship set against the background of the Indian Mutiny. It's rather more explicit than 'Cawnpore' but it may well appeal to some of the people who like my books.

I'll be posting an excerpt and an interview with the author in the next few days. Meanwhile, here's my review as seen on Amazon.


'Lord of Endersley' starts in India in the mid 19th century. The natives are getting restless and Captain Billington warns the young Lord Endersley to ignore the official reassurances and flee while he still can. Endersley is gay and decides to take the Captain's advice, as much because he has developed a crush on the officer, with his military bearing and confident manner, as because he believes he is in danger.

The more Endersley sees of the Captain, the more he desires him, but homosexuality is illegal. This is, indeed, the love that dare not speak its name.

Endersley and the Captain set out together to Agra, where a British garrison promises safety. Almost as soon as they start on their journey, the Indian Mutiny breaks out. As they flee in terror of their lives, Endersley discovers that Captain Billington is not as averse to his overtures as he had expected. They become lovers, but, when they arrive at Agra, they are separated. Billington has his duties as an officer, while Endersley is billeted with the other civilians. In the crowded conditions of the fort, there is no opportunity for them to express their feelings for each other.

Billington finds a hidden spot where they can be alone and they take up their relationship again.

Both survive the Mutiny and Endersley returns to England. There, he is eventually joined by Capt Billington, who has now left the Army. Billington finds it hard to cope with the fact that he is now in reduced circumstances, while Endersley is a wealthy aristocrat. This puts a strain on their relationship, but eventually this is resolved and they settle in Endersley's magnificent home. Endersley's brother, though, is disgusted by the homosexuality and denounces him to a local magistrate. It seems that this will spell the end to their relationship and possibly the disgrace and imprisonment of Endersley. A remark from his faithful butler, though, makes Endersley realise that their secret is, in fact, common knowledge to the household. Victorian hypocrisy will triumph. Provided the two men are discreet, they will be able to continue their relationship.

The narrative runs more smoothly than this crude summary, but it is definitely on the episodic side. The opening is unpromising but, once the action moves to Agra, the historical detail is convincing and you begin to get caught up in the narrative. The romance at its core, though, still failed to involve me, because the two protagonists are so clearly attracted to each other that there is no real obstacle for them to overcome. For example, the practical difficulties of making love in a crowded fort are circumvented by the simple device of finding a hidden pavilion where they can be together. This may indeed have been possible, but convenient pavilions can seem a bit like lazy plotting.

It is only in the final part of the book that I found myself really involved. Victorian law and social norms pose a real threat to their relationship. Only now is there a real obstacle to overcome and it is overcome in a way which is not predictable but which probably reflects the reality of their situation. I found it credible and quite moving. Certainly, by the end of the book, I was enjoying it and I'm happy to recommend it.

Like most gay romances, this book offers scenes of explicit physicality. It's what the readers expect and S A Meade provides just the right amount of titillation. The sex will appeal to gay men and (so I'm told) quite a lot of straight women. Straight men may be less comfortable with it, but they should not allow this to get in the way of an entertaining and reasonably well researched read

Monday, 11 March 2013

Cawnpore in the news

General Havelock's relief of Cawnpore did not mark an end to the fighting there. Tatya Tope later attempted  to recover control of the city. There was a major battle and the British took heavy casualties.

The National Army Museum has just been given the tunic of one of the officers wounded in the fighting. Lieutenant Campbell Clark was ambushed by rebel sepoys and shot in the stomach. Astonishingly, he survived. The tunic, complete with bullet hole, was passed down through his family and given to the museum by his great-great-nephew.

Tunic worn by Lieutenant Campbell Clark, 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers, at Cawnpore, 1857

Lieutenant Clark was forced to wear a truss for the rest of his life to support his stomach and prevent his bowels from spilling out. He went on to have a long and successful career in India and at home, rising to the rank of colonel. He died of stomach cancer in Suffolk on 28 March 1896, aged 69.

The National Army Museum is one of London's less known museums. Situated close to Chelsea Hospital (the home of the Chelsea pensioners), it is a treasure trove of militaria, commemorating the army's activities for over 200 years. For anyone with an interest in military history, it is well worth a visit. Admission is free.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

War in Borneo - the story continues

It’s been quite a busy news day in the UK, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s not a lot of coverage of what’s going on in North Borneo. But for anyone who thought that the story of The White Rajah belonged to a completely different age, it might be worth checking out who the Sultan of Sulu is.

The Sultanate of Sulu was founded in 1457, but it’s a long time since it was recognised as an independent state. The old Sultanates are obviously just part of history, irrelevant to the 21st century. Except that, on 11 February 2013, over 200 Filipinos arrived in Sabah state to reclaim it on behalf of the Sultanate.

This all sounds like a protest that could be safely ignored, and for almost a month, the Malaysian government did their best to ignore it. Then, this morning, fighter jets, infantry and armour went in.
So, over 150 years after James Brooke gained Sarawak in a war between different factions in Borneo’s ruling elite, the fighting continues.

Public Lending Right

I know (because nice people tell me) that my books are held in some public libraries I also know (because I sneak in and check) that they get borrowed. So I've registered for Public Lending Right. Which means that when my books get borrowed, I get (a tiny amount of) money.

So now you can support the arts without spending a penny. Just go into your local library and ask to borrow my books. If your library doesn't have my books, ask nicely and they may get them. Again, this costs you nothing and it means a lot to me. Most importantly, it means lots of new people hearing about The White Rajah and Cawnpore and reading them and enjoying them.

Thank you.