Interview - Tony Bradman talks Viking Boy, a love of history, and ships made from toenails.
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Boy oh boy, do we have a treat for you today! I’m not talking chocolate, ice-cream or cookies here, after all, how would I deliver them to you through the screen? All I’d be doing is smearing chocolate on my monitor, which is sure to make Laura ask questions about how I’m spending my time. And, if I sent you ice-cream in the post, everyone would be disappointed, even the post man, as he’s the one who’d end up having to deliver a gloopy ice-cream coated parcel. Anyway, as always, I’m getting off topic. Our treat for you is an interview with children’s author Tony Bradman.
Tony has written more fantastic books for children than I’ve had hot dinners – what can I say, I love salads. You’ve probably read some of them yourself. The brilliant ‘Viking Boy’ is one of our family’s favourite books; it’s an absolute blast of uncensored Viking adventures.
We were delighted to chat to Tony and find out more about him and his books. Your eye balls are sure to love this interview, check it out below.
Imagining History - Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing?
Tony - I was born and brought up in South London, and still live there. I went to ordinary state schools, and Mr Smith, my teacher in the last year of primary, read my class The Hobbit. I loved the story and the world it brought to life, and from then on I became a dedicated reader. By the time I was in my teens I knew I wanted to be a writer… I went to University, became a journalist and book reviewer, got married and had kids, and read books to them. That got me interested in children’s books, and so I became a children’s author. I started publishing books in the mid-1980s and have been writing ever since! I was a poet and writer of picture book texts to begin with, then went on to write beginner readers, reading scheme books, and eventually longer fiction. I’ve also edited lots of anthologies and books by other people, something I enjoy doing.
IH - You've written numerous books for young people based in and around history; Viking Boy, Anglo-Saxon Boy, Queen of Darkness, Blackout, Winter of Wolves and more besides. How did your interest in history begin?
Tony - I think it started in Mr Smith’s class! When he wasn’t reading us The Hobbit he was teaching us about British history, probably in a pretty traditional way - the Romans, Saxons and Vikings, Alfred the Great and the burnt cakes, lots of great characters and stories. History was part of the curriculum at the secondary school I went to - that was back in the dark ages when everyone took the 11 plus! I went to a grammar school where we did Latin too, and as part of that we learned quite a bit more about Ancient Rome. Then I was chosen to study ancient Greek too - my teacher was Mr David Raeburn, an amazing man - of course I didn’t realise it at the time, but David was one of the best classicists in Britain - he was teaching me at a very ordinary south London grammar school, but he was also translating ancient authors for Penguin Classics.
My study of Greek meant I learned more history, and I was also reading lots of historical fiction by great writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece. It was my early passion for Tolkien’s books that led me to them - Tolkien’s books are clearly fantasy, but they have a very ‘historical’ feel to them - which is hardly surprising as he was Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon! I think another factor was my own family background - my parents were of the World War 2 generation and they both served in the Navy, so I grew up listening to lots of stories about the war, especially the war at sea and the Blitz - that was history to me too, and it certainly left me with an interest in the more recent past as well.
IH - How do you decide which historical periods to set your stories within?
Tony - Simple, really - there are two factors - I’m more interested in some periods than others, and it also depends on what periods publishers are interested in too! Those tend to be the ones which are featured in the school history curriculum - for example at primary level that tends to be the Greeks and Romans, Saxons and Vikings, World War 2 etc. Luckily I’m interested in all those!
IH - How do you go about making historical characters and settings relatable to young readers?
Tony - That’s a big question! It starts with research, of course - you have to know the period as well as you possibly can so that you can bring it alive. That means knowing all the little things as well as the big things - it’s no good knowing about the battles if you don’t know what the people of that time wore or ate! Then it’s all about telling a gripping story by throwing your characters into difficult situations, with lots of decisions and dilemmas, suspense and cliffhangers. I always try to draw readers into the story so that they can get some kind of feeling for what it might have been like to live at that time. That’s what fiction does so well - it puts you into other people’s lives at different times.
IH - How do you conduct your history research?
Tony - I’ve always read a lot of history, so I know quite a bit about many periods. I also try to keep up with new books, especially in my favourite areas of the past. I’ve always gone to museums and sites of historical interest both here and abroad - there are so many fascinating places to see! Visiting a historical site can be very evocative - I always get ideas for stories. When I start working on a new story properly I do more detailed research - that can mean more visits, lots of looking at websites, and definitely more book buying! The research continues when I’m writing - I often come across something I feel I need to know more about - when I was writing Blackout, which is set in 1944, I found myself looking up the weather reports for London in February of that year! I have to say the research is one of my favourite things about writing historical fiction - and I usually get ideas for new stories from that as well.
IH - What's the most bizarre bit of history trivia that you've uncovered?
Tony - I’m not sure it counts as trivia, but when I was researching the Norse myths for my new book Viking Boy: The Real Story I came across the legend of the Naglfar. This was a ship that was supposed to be entirely made from the fingernails and toenails of dead men - ‘Nagl’ was the Old Norse word for ‘nail’ and ‘far’ meant ‘journey’. At Ragnarok, the day of doom, when the forces of darkness are supposed to attack Odin and the Norse Gods, Naglfar brings the dead to join in the battle, with the trickster God Loki steering it. Pretty spooky!
IH - You've recently released Viking Boy: The Real Story, a non-fiction follow-up to the story Viking Boy. How did you go about making your non-fiction history book engaging and fun for children?
Tony - I’d suggested to my editors that it would be a good idea to do a non-fiction book about the Vikings as Viking Boy the novel is used so much in schools with children who are studying the Vikings. They suggested that I use Gunnar, the narrator of the novel, as the narrator of the non-fiction book - and I thought that was a great idea. It meant that I could use Gunnar (and the other characters in the novel) to speak directly to the readers about the Vikings, and there are also sections of ‘straight’ non-fiction, so you get the best of both worlds!
IH - Are there any historical periods that you would like to write about in the future?
Tony - I love the world of the ancient Greeks, and I’ve never written a story about them, so that’s something I’d like to do. I have a couple of Greek ideas, too, one set in the Persian wars and another at the time of the siege of Troy. But I’m also always happy to return to the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, and World War 2. I’ve got ideas for all those periods.
IH - What are you working on next?
Tony - I’m not sure at the moment - I’ve written a lot over the last few years, so I’m taking a bit of time off and thinking about what I’d like to do next. There will definitely be something, though - you’ll have to watch this space!
Thanks Tony for taking the time to answer our questions! You can find out more about Tony’s books over at his website www.tonybradman.com or, if tweeting is your thing, at @tbradman.