Clifford Beal, originally from Providence, Rhode Island, worked for 20 years as an international journalist and is the former editor-in-chief of Jane’s Defence Weekly in London. He is the author of Quelch’s Gold (Praeger Books 2007), the true story of a little-known but remarkable early 18th century Anglo-American pirate. But he’s also been scribbling fiction from an early age: his seventh grade English teacher nicknamed him “Edgar Allen” undoubtedly due to the gothic subject matter of his extremely short stories. His debut novel, Gideon’s Angel, was published by Solaris Books in March 2013.
For recreation, Clifford used to don plate armour and bash the tar out of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism before moving to more civilised pursuits such as 17th century rapier and dagger fighting and motorcycling (though not simultaneously). Today, he is more likely to be found at the seaside or the Savile Club in London, sharing good wine and conversation in a place where the sparring is usually only verbal.
Kristin Centorcelli: You have a background in journalism and have been writing from a very young age. What made you take the plunge into writing novels?
Clifford Beal: I’ve always loved writing and began scribbling short stories around the time I was 13. Very short stories. I started to write an epic fantasy novel when I was in college but life just got in the way and it got put away. My journalistic output was probably equivalent to several novels but banging out magazine stuff just never really floated my boat. I needed to return to creative writing to get that buzz back. I tinkered with a historical novel for several years while I was still working as an editor but it was not until I left the 9 to 5 routine until I was able to get the personal space to write Quelch’s Gold and then Gideon’s Angel.
KC: Your newest novel, Gideon’s Angel (after Quelch’s Gold), came out early this year! Will you tell us about it?
CB: Well, it’s a cross between Day of the Jackal and The Devil Rides Out. It begins as a straight political thriller set in post- Civil War England in 1653 under Oliver Cromwell. But it quickly morphs into supernatural horror when the protagonist — Cromwell’s would-be Cavalier assassin — discovers an existing plot by some deluded Puritans being guided by an angel who in reality is actually a major demonic entity. He realizes that to save his England he’ll have to save Cromwell. And it’s a rather unlikely band of secret allies he assembles to fight back against Satan’s archduke and his minions.
KC: What kind of research did you do for Gideon’s Angel?
CB: I knew the time period fairly well to begin with having been a student of 17th-century history for more than 25 years. And Quelch’s Gold, which is narrative non-fiction set during 1703, taught me how to ferret out historical documents. It’s basically detective work but where all the main participants have been dead for centuries. For Gideon’s though, the challenge was in learning about magic, alchemy, and folklore from the period and using that to build a convincing picture for the reader about what people believed then. Many 16th and 17th century grimoires, full of spells, charms and “rap sheets” for demons, are still readily available. I used the infamous Key of Solomon for quite a lot of info.
KC: Gideon’s Angel takes place in the 1600s. What do you find most fascinating about this time period?
CB: For me what’s most striking about the period are the contradictions of life: Beautiful extravagant fashions yet terrible grittiness and squalor. New discoveries in science, medicine, and engineering but still widespread belief in witchcraft, magic and astrology. Daring political ideas and new social movements but still an age of kings and divine right. It’s a head-on train crash between the medieval world and the emerging modern. Kind of cool if you really like history.
CB: I’m a bit of both. Sometimes you reach points while crafting a novel where you need the discipline of jotting down developments and character actions and motives. Just the act of doing this often jump-starts the creative process if you hit a roadblock. But in Gideon’s I mainly just wrote with no outline, sequentially from one chapter to the next until plot strands became more intricate and I had to do a bit of road-mapping to take me forward. Overall, the story and action just came.
KC: What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing?
CB: As a teenager in the seventies I devoured epic fantasy and SF. Stuff from the past like Tolkien, R.E. Howard, H.G. Wells, and Burroughs but also contemporary writers like Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. Guess that kind of dates me but it was 60s and 70s speculative fiction that really influenced me.
KC: In your bio, it says you enjoy 17th century rapier and dagger fighting! We’d love to hear more about that!
CB: I’ve hung up the sword and buckler these days. But for many years I was practicing 16th and 17 century fencing with like-minded friends. Not choreographed stuff but real swordplay with blunted blades and padded doublets. Bloody good fun that makes modern fencing look very boring. European martial arts as it’s called is almost mainstream now but still a bit of a way from being an Olympic sport.
KC: You’re originally from Rhode Island. What made you decide to move to England, and what do you love most about living there?
CB: Yes, Providence, the home of H.P. Lovecraft and the first all-night diner on wheels. I came to the UK to do a Master’s degree and fell in love with the place. Also, at that time at least, the beer was better here than back home.
KC: What’s next for you?
CB: A prequel to Gideon’s Angel is ready and waiting in the wings. It tells the back story of my hero/anti-hero Richard Treadwell and is set in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. I’d say it’s a bit like Platoon meets The Wicker Man. Warfare, witches, and a little romance to boot. The latest project is an epic fantasy set in a world that resembles the 15th century Mediterranean and its squabbling city-states. But I’ve left the manuscript from college days deep in the bottom drawer.