When he’s not teaching at Huntington School in York, Tim Murgatroyd is writing epic adventures set in ancient China. Ahead of his book signing he talks to YorkMix about his inspirations – and worries about the impact of social media on young readers.
How did a Brighouse boy become inspired by ancient China?
I’ve loved poetry from a tender age and when I was a student at Oxford I discovered a small book of Chinese poems – in translation! That book fired a lifelong interest in ancient China. Its intricate culture fascinated me as a complex mix of tremendous decency and cruelty and romance. All of which inspired the trilogy.
Does your identical twin brother influence your writing?
We share more than just a clone-like appearance! My experience as a twin certainly inspired Breaking Bamboo. Two of the main characters are twin brothers confronted by the juggernaut of the Mongol invasion of China. One is a humble doctor, the other a heroic captain of artillery. But neither is fundamentally based on my brother or I!
War, murder, love and power: did you always set out to cover big themes?
I love reading “big” stories with an epic sweep – War And Peace, Dr Zhivago, Shakespeare, Dickens. In that sense I was naturally drawn to a large scale canvas. Oddly enough, I find writing a 500-page whopper less scary than a collection of short stories!
Tell us about the key characters in the trilogy.
Each novel is designed to be “stand-alone” so they share no characters. What links them together is that each book concerns a generation of the Yun family – who are themselves descendents of the narrator of Taming Poison Dragons, a fictional poet called Yun Cai. He’s a bit of a literary superstar (poets were like the modern rock stars of their day) and his shadow and legacy bind the three books together.
Where does The Mandate Of Heaven take the story?
The Mandate Of Heaven is set during the Mongol occupation of China and tells the story of three remarkable characters as they struggle to survive in dangerous times. We meet them as children and follow their adventures, tragedies and romantic entanglements to a dramatic conclusion.
Are there parallels between ancient China and modern York?
Everywhere you look! I strongly believe that all human beings – whatever their culture, language or place in history – share far more than sets them apart. We have much to learn from ancient China: lessons of inspiration and loyalty. As well as warnings how the rich and powerful can ignore their responsibilities towards ordinary people.
Are your students as into books as you were at their age?
Alas, I fear not. But then I was unusually into books and still am. In my opinion, the big factor deterring many young people from reading is the dominance of new social media like Facebook. Oh, and digital gaming. This is a great loss as a carefully crafted novel can teach you vast amounts about people and the world while simultaneously entertaining you like nothing else. Naturally, my own children have different views…
Name your favourite York… pub, shop, view, eating place.
The trilogy’s finished. What next?
I’ve finished a new novel set in nineteenth century California. It’s a half-tragic love story about a French woman who flees there to set up a vineyard in the Napa Valley. (Researching the wine was very demanding…) I’m also planning a new novel set in the world of the British silent cinema: a love story that jumps from past to present. Writing about the modern world after so many historical novels is almost as scary as writing short stories! But I’m excited by the challenge. You have to be: writing a long novel is never a stroll through the park.
- The Mandate Of Heaven is published by Myrmidon Books Ltd and is available on Amazon
- Tim is signing copies at Waterstones, York, on Friday, November 1 from 6.45pm
- Read more on Tim’s website