Rutherfurd on Rutherfurd


Q. Your books are epic novels, sometimes covering thousands of years of history. You tell stories of fictional families set against a highly researched historical background, often in a single place.

A. Multi-generational sagas is the term in the book trade.

Q. They have been bestsellers in your native Britain, North America, and countries around the world. In the USA, you are called the successor to James Michener.

A. I owe him a huge debt. Elisha to his Elijah.

Q. Yet it's unusual for books which contain so much information to be bestsellers. Why do you think they have been so popular?

A. It's true that my books contain both fiction and non-fiction. I think they're an easy way to learn history. But above all, I try to tell gripping stories that move along with pace. It's the storyline that excites me, the art of telling a tale. And is it unusual for bestsellers to be highly informative? Michener, Arthur Hailey, Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth - all their books are packed with information. Another feature people like, judging from my fan mail, is that the books often deal with family roots. There's a huge and growing interest in genealogy all over the world.

Q. After the publication of Sarum, a former Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, Sydney Evans, wrote in a review: "I marvel at the comprehensiveness of his imagination."

A. Especially when I think of the person in question, I take it as one of the greatest compliments I've ever been paid. I believe I've some ability to absorb complex information and retell it in a compelling way. I'd like to think I might have made a good schoolteacher.

Q. Others have said that you have a talent for evoking atmosphere.

A. I hope so. But if so, it must be something inborn, because it happens through some process of osmosis that I don't myself understand.

Q. Do you have a typical reader?

A. No. Unusually, the books seem to sell equally to male and female readers, and to all age groups.

Q. How would you describe the books yourself?

A. My work is strictly popular fiction; but I take enormous pains with the research and make the books as good as I can. The books also popularize history; and I believe that a knowledge of history is one of the most important things any citizen can possess.

Q. You have said in interviews in the past that you refuse to cheat on history. What do you mean by that?

A. My fictional characters are free to follow their personal destinies; but I never alter the historical record just to suit my convenience, or my prejudices. Novelists and movie-makers are sometimes tempted to do that and maybe they believe it doesn't matter. I think it does matter.

Q. Why?

A. Because so much bad feeling - and so much political propaganda - is based upon the falsification of history. An extreme example would be the medieval blood myth told against the Jews  - that they kidnapped and sacrificed Christian children. Absurd, but widely believed for a long time. A small example would be the movie The Patriot. The bad guy English officer burns an American congregation alive in their church. This was pure fabrication. A deliberate lie. No such thing happened. Fortunately, many critics and journalists pointed out the error. If they hadn't done so, millions of people would have believed it, and no doubt many people still do. It seems to me that those of us in the business of storytelling, in books, plays or movies, have an ethical obligation not to mislead our audiences over the historical record, especially when subjects may be emotive and affect our attitudes to others. The bigger the audience, the greater our responsibility; and I don't think we can evade that responsibility, whether we like it or not.

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