Interview with Roger Morris

Roger (R. N.) Morris is the author of thirteen novels, including Fortune's Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh. He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels set in London in 1914, the latest of which is The Music Box Enigma. His other historical crime series is set in 19th century St Petersburg and features Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. The series begins with A Gentle Axe.

He also wrote the psychological thriller, Taking Comfort, and the dystopian novel Psychotopia.

He is on Twitter as @rnmorris and his website is You can contact him at

TT: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in history – was it Raleigh himself, or did you come to him via more general history?

I think it started at primary school. I always loved history, but it was the stories. Characters like Sir Walter Raleigh and the stories that grew up around them. They stick in your mind – like the story of him laying his cloak down for Elizabeth to walk over – the characters take possession of you.

TT: What inspired you to write about Raleigh?

I studied Classics, rather than history and then my career took me in a different direction, but I always wanted to write the stories. I’ve written about different periods, not fixed on any one in particular. I’ve written historical crime fiction set in nineteenth century Russia, and London in 1914, just going into the First World War. Different periods attract me for different reasons. What attracted me to Raleigh and his period was the feeling that there was an explosion of intellectual ideas – a time of great change. You can say that of any era, I suppose, but in the Elizabethan era Shakespeare was transforming theatre, and also our understanding of ourselves, whilst Raleigh was transforming our understanding of the world. Lots of things were going on that still seem strange to modern people – archaic things, hard for us to understand. Not everyone suddenly became modern, but there was so much intellectual enquiry going on, that it interested me. Specifically, I went to an exhibition about El Dorado, and began thinking about a story line connected to it. My friends encouraged me, and so I worked on the idea over a couple of years to create Fortune’s Hand.

TT: After you had finished researching and writing the book, were you still interested in Raleigh or did he prove to have feet of clay?

It’s a bit hard to say. I actually wrote the book a while ago, but it wasn’t immediately published for various reasons, so I’ve become emotionally detached from it. I was not writing a history book, or a fictionalised biography, but historical fiction, so I did not write everything about his life, but concentrated on aspects of it that interested me. One of the most interesting things was exploring the idea of El Dorado. It was more than a literal place that Raleigh thought he could find – it represented an idea. Those who believed in it put themselves into tiny boats to cross the Atlantic, or invested in the expeditions commercially. The sailors believed that if they reached it, they would enrich themselves – of course, the rights and wrongs of it did not come into it. The more I researched the idea of El Dorado (I didn’t know much about it at first) the more the story captivated me. I was drawn to El Dorado in the same way that Raleigh was – or that he persuaded other people to be. In the beginning, it was a myth that he believed in, and invested himself in but as time went on, there are indications that he no longer believed in it as a real place, and that when he suggested to James VI & I as a destination for an expedition, he was just using it as a cover for raiding Spanish towns. He was desperate by then to gain the king’s favour and talked it up, as he knew it had power over the imagination. There was a certain cynicism… James had told him not to attack Spanish interests, but his men raided a particular Spanish outpost and Raleigh’s son, Wat, who was killed in the fighting, apparently cried out something like ‘Here’s your El Dorado!’ Which indicates they never really had any intention of finding the real El Dorado all along. That arc of Raleigh’s loss of belief in El Dorado, but his willingness to use it anyway, to further his ambitions, interested me.

He was a very complex character. Ruthless in the pursuit of what he wanted – the court, where he was a bit of an outsider, was a very competitive place. I came to realise that he was a great propagandist and controller of events. He reminds me of a modern politician – persuading other people to back his initiatives. He shaped the narrative. As a novelist, you have to be careful of going with the protagonist’s own narrative, and step back.

TT: One of the great arguments in historical fiction writing, is how closely the author should keep to known facts. What is your view on exercising artistic licence, and when might you do that?

The character in my book is my Walter Raleigh – I don’t have to tell everything about him, but I want to convey the essence of him. For example, I don’t mention him sitting down and writing a poem – that would be too static and dull. But the language I use is intended to convey the knowledge that he was a poet and wrote work that was often reflective and self-aware. You can never know what was going through a person’s head, you can look for clues and interpret them – more freely in fiction, but not too much, I hope!

One of the incidents I use is the famous story of him laying his cloak down to cover a puddle for Elizabeth – whether or not the facts of the story are true. I interpreted it in a more veiled way. When he starts his career, he has a new suit made, including a cloak of turquoise. When he holds it out, it becomes an ocean of cloth he could sail across, and take Elizabeth across – the symbolism of taking her across the puddle. The whole concept of tailoring making the man was a very Elizabethan idea.

TT: Raleigh, alongside Drake, Frobisher and the other ‘sea-dogs’, has long been portrayed as a hero, but now, there is a far more questioning attitude to them, and they may even be characterised as ‘villains’. How can you shape a story to be both sympathetic to your protagonist, but appeal to modern audiences?

As a historical novelist you can really embrace the idea of history being now – especially the current view of the whole Imperialist project and colonialism. You can’t write the same novel now, as would have been written in the 1960s, when he was presented as a swash-buckling hero. Now, of course, my attitude is more questioning and critical. One of the most difficult incidents is when he was suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, and instigated a massacre. It was very controversial, even at the time, as the inhabitants of the town had surrendered. But he didn’t care and ordered their slaughter. That forms a central episode – and perhaps the scales fall from the eyes of the reader. But I didn’t want my readers just to say, ‘what a monster’, and give up at that point – I tried to show the incident in the context of the time – not as justifiable, but as explicable. He went too far, but it was to send a signal to Elizabeth. She felt surrounded on all sides by enemies, and feared invasion and plots. The message he was sending was that he would protect her against anyone. Others might have been shocked, but she ‘got it’.

TT: Raleigh was one of the most prominent of the colonisers of what has become the United States – how do you depict this brutal and bloody time in the book?

The Roanoke Colony is the most well-known aspect of his involvement, but, in fact, he did not go on that expedition, so, since I am telling the story from his perspective, it is not central to the book. What interested me was the ambiguity of the age that Raleigh personified– the intellectual curiosity, mixed with utter ruthlessness. He would tell lies, knowing that they were lies, to achieve his ends, but he personified the energy of his age.

TT: What was the nature of Raleigh’s relationship with the queen? Did he genuinely admire her, or was he playing the courtly game purely for his own advancement?

He wanted something from Elizabeth – land, titles, money – but she wanted something from him, and others like him. Protection from war, the finding of treasure, putting down rebellions and doing the dirty work. But these mutual desires to gain something from each other don’t preclude an element of genuine affection. He was the nephew of Katherine Astley, her lady-in-waiting who had been with her for many years, so he may have begun his relationship with the queen with her already feeling some family affection for him.

Elizabeth gave her favourite courtiers nicknames – he was her ‘Water’, which was in part a pun on his West Country pronunciation of his name, Walter. Raleigh used this in an epic poem in which he elevates himself to heroic status as the Ocean, pining for Elizabeth as the moon-goddess, Cynthia, complaining of her coldness to him.

TT: Raleigh’s marriage to Bess Throckmorton was one of the scandals of the age – what can you tell us about that?

They married in secret – as courtiers, they should really have had the queen’s permission. But they not only married in secret, but he denied it when questioned. Elizabeth felt betrayed. In fact, despite the image of Raleigh as gentlemanly, he behaved rather shabbily towards Bess, leaving her to face the music whilst he went on an expedition – he had not always taken up opportunities for expeditions, but this one came in handy. The queen sent Frobisher to bring him back, and he and Bess were both sent to the Tower – mainly because he refused to apologise for having married without consent, and instead, complained about his treatment. In the end, he was let out of the Tower to resolve the problem of sailors looting the great Madre de Dios, the most valuable prize ship ever captured from the Spanish.

TT: Raleigh was not just an explorer, but a man of multiple talents. What can you tell us about his experiments with natural philosophy, and his literary interests?

He was an associate of John Dee – the queen’s astronomer and alchemist. Dee enhanced the science of navigation. Raleigh was interested in the new plants coming from the Americas – he created a garden in the Tower, and, of course, he was a writer. But a lot of his interests were in the service of furthering his ambition – the more he knew of the world, the more he could control events to his own benefit.

TT: Why did Raleigh lose favour under James VI & I – whilst James hated tobacco, that can’t have been the reason?!

James just really did not like him – there was a natural antipathy between them.

TT: How do you combine the different aspects of writing? Do you prefer to do all your research first, then write the whole book, or do you prefer to research a section, then write it up?

I didn’t know much about the period at first – which is slightly double-edged. I couldn’t just sit down and tell the story, I had to do a certain amount of research before I started. One of the things that attracts me to historical fiction is it being a learning and discovery process. It can then become kind of scary when you actually have to start writing. Having a lot of background knowledge might be a good reason to write more books set in the same period.

TT: Can you tell us anything about your current project? Is it a topic that grew out of your work on Raleigh, or did it have a different root?

I just finished my latest book this morning, and sent it to my agent – this is a contemporary novel, so nothing to do with Raleigh. I might come back to the sixteenth century – I am especially interested in John Dee, but I am going to take a bit of time off now.