Interview with Kate Heartfield
(Author of Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy
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Kate Heartfield is a multiple finalist for Canada's Aurora Award. A Sunday Times Best Seller (The Embroidered Book). A former journalist and editor for the Ottawa Citizen, with a degree in Political Science and Masters in Journalism.
Her latest release is Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy, the first book in The Engine of History Trilogy. You can read our review of her book at the link below and read further for the interview she and I had during her press tour with publisher Aconyte Books.
Michael: Kate, How are you doing today?
Kate: I'm doing great. Very happy to be here.
Michael: I wanted to start with something you had said in an interview you did with Second Life Book Club about Assassin's Creed being bid in your household. Can you tell us more about the history you have with the series?
Kate: Yeah, for sure. I'm just so happy to be talking about it and thank you so much for your enthusiasm and support. It’s really exciting to be talking with fans about this and joining this cannon. As you can tell, I'm excited. I have a lot of enthusiasm for the games and for the universe.
So my personal history with Assassin's Creed is that I have a twelve year-old kid and a partner and all three of us are gamers. So we are quite frequently in our introvert corners of the house on a game of some kind.
I've played Syndicate, and I've played a little bit of Origins and I am currently working my way through AC2 at the moment. I've watched my kid play even more Assassin's Creed. So there have been many, many hours where I've been sitting in the living room, doing some work and he's been playing Assassin's Creed on PS4 and my partner also plays and I watch him sometimes as well. So, between the three of us I've probably at least watched most of the games being played.
Michael: It’s funny you note about playing through Assassin's Creed II. You also did some work with Choice of Gaming with the Magician's Workshop. Have you found any influence for the writing that you did with that from Assassin's Creed II, or vice versa? Have you noticed a lot of your personal choices for how you describe the characters, or the historical figures with how they [are] represented in Assassin's Creed II?
Kate: I hadn't played Assassin's Creed II before I wrote The Magician's Workshop. So, I didn't have a connection from that direction. But it's interesting now having written it, because The Magician's Workshop is set in Florence in 1512. It's really interesting now, seeing the characters and that setting. And one of the things I love about all Assassin's Creed games is the immersiveness of the setting and feeling you're there in a way that interactive fiction kind of coerces you in a different way that emphasizes agency and everything else, but it doesn't have that visual element a video game has.
Michael: How do you decide what mechanics to include, or write about, that were in the games?
Kate: Yeah, that's really interesting, and it was definitely deliberate strategy on my part to think, "Okay, how can I take what's cool about playing Assassin's Creed games" and not really replicate that in prose, because it's not the same format, but create that same sense of excitement and same sense of immersion and the choice of having sort of side quests and multiple plots happening at the same time, and it all coming together.
So, I thought about, I didn't want to make it too mechanical either as that can be quite annoying in prose if you had sort of "Here's my weapon's inventory". It wouldn't work the same way in a novel as the game. So in fact my editor had to pull me back a few times, because he noted that I would keep saying exactly what kind of knife it was or what kind of gun it was, and that kind of thing. And eventually "You don't have to give the entire serial number, everytime".
So I had, maybe a little too much of that in mind. I was thinking about all of those aspects of a game and... You know I did want things like weaponry to be there though, and to be important to think about how can they reflect the personality of each of the main characters? Like which kind of knife would they choose, for example. In the same way that you make that choice when you are putting together your character in a game. So that was definitely top of my mind.
Michael: Would you say that is the same thought process that you had when choosing which books for Simeon, specifically to study while he was going through his apprenticeship? Did you specifically pinpoint those books that you wanted him to read? What was your process with that decision?
Kate: That was lots of fun. I think what I wanted to do with the reading list that Simeon has... So Simeon is the main character, one of the two main characters in the book. He's a soldier, and he has a sort of a unconventional education. We learn early on that he was quite bright, and taken into a rich person's house early on to be educated, but it didn't work out. So he has a sort of a patchwork of an education. Then he meets his mentor, who an interesting character in his own right. So the reading list, [the] books that Kane provides Simeon to read, I wanted them to reflect what I though an Assassin's education should be, or could be about. So its sort of a mix of different things. You have very traditional fighting manuals, these traditions of German and Italian and French manuals for swordplay and for wrestling. I thought it would be really cool to draw on that really old tradition, because the brotherhood itself would have been around for so long and they might have incorporated those traditions of those old fighting manuals. But then also, a sort of renaissance man approach to understanding the world. So there's fiction in there, there's philosophy. It is a bit of a grab bag of different things that I though an Assassin should know, but its also reflecting the personality of the teacher that's assigning them as well.
Michael: When you're deciding the history that you want to explore, where you taking the "This is the historical timeline for this period, and then here are some blanks I can fill in fictional characters", or was it more of "Here is the idea of what I want to do. Let me find what period, or what events in history would fill into this"?
Kate: For us it really started with the period. Aconyte and Ubisoft had an idea that they wanted a trilogy set in this period. So they started working with me about, "Well how could we develop something in this period, and what are some of the things that would interest us in terms of the Assassins and Templars are up to at this time?" So we did start with sort of a basic idea of the time and place. That it would be probably Europe and in this time. I think one of the things that really stood out, I know to my editor at Aconyte, was that the 19th Century had a lot of political assassinations. That every monarch had at least one attempt on their life, several of them were actually killed. You had the rise of anarchism and the rise of Marxism and the revolutions in 1848. So there is just a lot of political ferments happening. With those assassinations, it seems like an obvious thing to ask the question of "Are the Assassins behind them? Are they not behind them? What would be their relationship to the brotherhood and to the Templars?" So it really did begin with that question of "Okay, lets look at what's happening at the time". Then from there it was sort of finding different elements in the history that I thought kind of fed in thematically to what I wanted to talk about. Also, there was a little bit of that sense of, that's another thing that people love in the games, is the opportunity to have those cameos with historical figures and interact with those people. So, that's another thing I wanted to replicate in the novel.
Michael: Did Aconyte approach you directly about this, or was this something you had to apply for?
Kate: It came about through my agent, so it was one of those things where my agent knew the opportunity was there, and thought I might be a fit for it because I've written a lot of historical settings and I'm really interested in historical alt history and that kind of writing is typically what I do. And, I have a little bit of background in interactive fiction and game writing as well. So she thought, yeah this seems like it would be a good fit for you. If you're interested. So at that point, I developed some pitches for Aconyte and they liked them, and they started working on an outline, and back and forth on that a bit. So it really was sort of a collaborate process right from the beginning.
Michael: Did you collaborate with the Ubisoft team, The game historians and such to work along with fitting this into the Assassin's Creed Universe?
Kate: It was really... I haven't written tie-in writing like this before for any property, and so I wasn't sure what to expect in that regard. I found it really wonderful and freeing and supportive, the way that that works. They would sort of provide information and say here's where you can find the things that you need to know. Here are a few things that we want to makes sure that you're aware of, in terms of writing. But I was already quite familiar with the universe anyways, so that part of it I felt pretty confident in. Then it was just a matter of, when we would work on an outline or the manuscript itself, just running things past Ubisoft at various stages of the process to make sure there was nothing that I was unaware of that would step on somebody else's toes, or something like that. I would kind of flag little things, "Please not this part of it is related to canon from another game" or something like that people would be aware I was throwing in those Easter eggs, or whatever.
Michael: I know that you're very big on representation in your writing. Were there any original characters that you had added for some form of representation in a game that's very heavily marketed towards a more male audience?
Kate: It is something that I think about in every stage. So I try to keep it in mind all the time. There is always a little bit of tension between the don't want to write outside your lane, or write things without thinking that you haven't properly researched, or haven't done the homework for and that kind of thing. So, I'm conscious of that as well. I am trying to represent all kinds of people in my writing and consider the kinds of people who have been present throughout history, but maybe haven't had as many stories told about them. I again felt nothing but support from Ubisoft and Aconyte in that regard as well. Definitely I was aware that with gaming in general there's, I wouldn't say maybe the majority but certainly a significant male audience. I have a strong female character in this book. There's one sort of minor side character who is non-binary, although they wouldn't have that word to describe themselves probably in the 19th Century. But they are actually based on a small note about a circus performer I actually found that "Ah, I'll steal that from history". There is a circus performer who is billed with being "neither man, nor woman". I thought, "Okay, they're going in the book." So when I do find those things in history, where people have maybe not, have been forgotten a little bit, I'll be "Okay, I'll put them in the book" and that way we can have a little bit more of a complete representation.
Michael: Have you had a chance to look at any of the other transmedia that Assassin's Creed has put out yet?
Kate: I have, not all of it by any means. I got myself a few books, a few of the novels, because I wanted to get a sense of what an Assassin's Creed novel is like. I think I have two of the Oliver Bowden novels and I have Elsa Sjunneson's novel that just came out; Sword of the White Horse. So I've read a few of the books. I've taken a quick look at, I'm trying to remember which of the graphic novels it was. But, yeah, I've been aware of a few things, but I feel like there is a lot out there that I haven't seen yet.
Michael: Are we expecting to see some modern day later on in the trilogy or are we staying specifically in the historical setting?
Kate: Not everything's written in stone yet. So, I don't want to say for sure "this is how it'll be". The conversations I've had with Aconyte so far about the rest of the trilogy are that it'll be historical setting and sort of carrying on the story from the first book. Yeah, I don't want to say too much about it, because I don't want to scoop announcements that are coming fairly soon. That's how its envisioned is definitely to maintain that historical period. But I think its interesting because its a fairly recent historical period, so it has the potential to bring us up into the 20th Century, and start thinking about things like the Animus, and how we get to that. The door's kind of open there in some regard, but so far, no plans to write about the modern period.
Michael: The trilogy for the Engine of History is set to go up through the beginning of World War I, is that correct?
Kate: I think that's out there in the internet somewhere. So I think its within the bounds of what I can say yes to. And that's first how it was kind of envisioned when I talked about how they came to me with this period. That was kind of the vision, mid-19th Century to World War I, in that period some how.
Michael: Are you avoiding well known periods in that time frame like Russia during World War I with Rasputin? Is that something you look at trying to avoid in depicting other historical settings that people may not know a lot about? Maybe telling more about the Crimean War or things like that?
Kate: It's always a little bit of a dance, because sometimes there are interesting stories in the parts that haven't been told as often. So there are things that draw me to them, but then at the same time, there's a lot of value in having some familiar touchstones that people can say "Ah yes, I was waiting for this person to show up!" or something like that. So there's a sense of, you kind of have an expectation to a degree. I wrestled with that a little bit, with my novel The Embroidered Book, because that's a historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette. My first thought when I had the idea was, "Oh my God, Marie Antoinette's been written about so many times", but not in the way that I did it. There's only so much room for one of those big well known historical figures. I kept thinking, Catherine the Great is off to the side in this book and I can't really let her on, because then she would take over. So, there's only room for so many of those well know events and figures. I think the same is really true in The Magus Conspiracy. We have Ada Lovelace at the beginning, and she is not as well known as she should be, but she's fairly well known. Being Lord Byron's daughter, she's kind of a celebrity. So she takes up a lot of room in that way, and she looms over the entire novel, in her legacy. So, there aren't that many other historical figures that are known to that extent for the rest in the book, and the few people that do crop up tend to be a little bit less well known. Unless they are walking on for a small part like the Emperor in Vienna.
Michael: Do you have an audiobook version coming out? If so, who is actually doing the recording for it, if you are able to say?
Kate: It is Recorded Books. I'm trying to remember the narrator's name. It's just gone out of my head. Anyway, if you look it up, there is a Recorded Books version. I believe it is slated to come out August 16th. Which is the same day as the US paperback. Its available through Audible, Libro, and all sorts of places.
Michael: I know from some of your previous interviews, you noted how nervous you were working with this tie-in for the first time. How are you feeling now after all the feedback you've received?
Kate: Really great. Really relieved. Its nice that the initial feedback from people who know and love the games has been really positive. That's really nice to see. Of course, reviews are for the readers and not the authors, so I try to separate myself from them to some extent. It has been really nice, the things that people have tagged me in, and said directly to me about the book. Its really gratifying that people have welcomed it into the canon, and see how it fits in. Because its a little bit nerve racking, coming into something that's so beloved and so wide spread. That so many people have played these games. Timidly knocking on the door and saying "Here's my offering".
You hope that it's okay and that you don't break anything. I feel it's been a great experience to write this story and I feel a lot of ownership over it. Even though it's an Assassin's Creed story, I feel very proud of it and how it worked out and sort of blended together what I like to do in fiction and what I think the game universe does so well.
Michael: Who would be your ideal casting for your main characters?
Kate: Oh my goodness, I haven't even thought of this. Who would be good? I'm trying to think. I don't know. I have such... I'm terrible when it comes to casting actors. I'm trying to think if there is anyone who is really... I can't think of a Simeon. Although I feel that there could be the perfect person and I'll think of them as soon as I hang up this call. With Pierrette, I don't know. She starts out quite young. I mean maybe, Millie Bobby Brown.
I started watching Taboo which has Tom Hardy in it. He's so good. He plays a returning sailor of roughly the same time period. But I think he's got kind of an edge to him. I see Simeon as, even though he is kind of closed down, and somewhat cynical. He's got sort of a spark of innocence in him as well and a spark of really good will. So I don't know, maybe someone like Andrew Garfield, maybe?
I'll wait for the fancast, because someone will have a better idea. Kane would be fun to cast.
I want to thank Kate for sitting down with me over this interview. For the full interview, check out the video that we recently posted to The Ones Who Came Before YouTube channel.
Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy is available digitally and in the US as a paperback in August. The UK will see the physical release in October.
About the Author
Mike Smith is a collector of all things Assassin's Creed and a major supporter for the transmedia platform for the series. With nearly a full library of Assassin's Creed media, he is exploring the universe in order of Genetic Memory and waiting eagerly for the next story to be released.