Legionary … or legendary?
Simon, welcome back to the blog. It’s been a long time and many novels.
And never far from my favourite Tasmanian. A long time indeed, since we both started back on Youwriteon, before we’d ever dreamed of being here, eh?
So true. Although perhaps we ‘dreamed’ but never thought…
1. Firstly, and with some trepidation at the answer, exactly how many novels in how many years? (I swear I am dreading the answer because I am a ‘one a year’ writer…)
I get asked this now and then and two things hit me in fast succession: one – I have absolutely no idea until I sit and count them up. And two – a wave of embarrassment, as you know me well enough to know that I don’t really like talking about myself and I get horribly embarrassed every time I try to big myself up. That’s why I don’t do promotion particularly well. I tend to hide from the public rather than revel in their presence, unless I happen to know them quite well. To answer the question in a rather roundabout way, then:
• Eight full volumes of Marius’ Mules. Plus a little novella in the middle.
• Four Ottoman Cycle novels
• Three Tales of the Empire fantasy novels (stay tuned for news on that)
• Two Praetorian novels
• Crocodile Legion – a Roman kid’s novel with Dave Slaney out on the 24th March
• Currently on the second volume of a joint series with Gordon Doherty
• One compilation with The H Team (A Year of Ravens) & another on the way
• Sundry bits and pieces in other collections
• One Roman standalone novel currently sitting with my agent
• And a partridge in a pear tree…
What’s that? 20 complete novels and other extras. Sheesh, it surprises me every time. I could spread it out and say over 13 years, since I started writing in 2003, but really, by 2010 I’d only finished two, so I guess if you ignore the languishing period in the middle, it’s 20 novels over 8 years. Yikes!
2. Love for all things of antiquity, when did it begin?
No trouble there. I have the clearest of memories of it. Six years old and out for the day with my grandad (my very best friend in my youth and the most profound influence on my life). He took me to Hadrian’s Wall, about a 2 hour drive from our home. It must have been winter, as there was snow in the air. We visited Vindolanda and the wall itself and the mithraeum at Carrawburgh, and most of all, we climbed the steep hill to the fort of Housesteads.
I remember almost everything about exploring that fort with him, but mostly I remember it starting to snow and getting stronger and stronger all the time. Then I remember standing on the wall itself at the northern side of the fort, above the steep drop (no I wasn’t in danger) and looking out over barbaricum from within the empire, the snow pelting me in the face. And I was in love. I never stopped after that. If anything it’s steadily got worse, my Rome-ophilia!
3. Why Rome?
See above. Ah, no you mean the city itself? I love Rome beyond all imagining. I first went back in 1990 with a friend when we left school. Yes, I am THAT geeky. Everyone else finished 6th form and went to an island somewhere to do tequila shots and dance at clubs. Ollie and I went on a coach tour of Italy, with a focus on Rome. And Rome blew me away, every corner you turn you find a new marvel to goggle at.
I’ve been back half a dozen times since, with my wife, and then with my kids too. And we all love it. And even now, when I know the city well enough that I can recognise most streets and can even navigate easily in the backwaters and outskirts, I am still annually finding new reasons to go back and astounding things I have not yet seen. The eternal city is two millennia of Roman history alone, without the renaissance stuff and the baroque fountains. It is a city steeped in history, mythology and culture. And every year more is discovered. I simply don’t have the words to describe Rome. If I could do it justice in words I would frame that description and never write again!
4. And yet, you have claimed quite publicly that Constantinople (Istanbul) is your favourite city in the world. Correct me if I am wrong, but this implies that the Byzantine culture holds your interest even more deeply than Rome. Why have we only seen a quartet of books emerge from that civilisation?
Istanbul was a newer discovery for me than Rome. It was 2009 before we first visited the New Rome. And my love of Roman history – despite my works on Caesar – has always centred around the principate and high empire (circa 31BC to 180AD). But Istanbul opened my eyes to a new world. Well, that and a book called The Climax of Rome, by Michael Grant. Between them they made me reconsider late Roman history and challenge Gibbon’s concept of the Decline and Fall. Rome did not fall in 410, even though the city was overrun. It did not fall in 476 when the last western emperor abdicated in exile. Rome only really fell in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turk and began the process that would turn it into Ottoman Istanbul. And even then echoes of Rome went on down the centuries. And that realisation: that 410 was not an end, but a fundamental change, opened me up to a whole new world.
I still love western Roman history, but now it shares its place with late Rome and Byzantium. When asked to say where my favourite era lies, now I would be hard pushed to narrow it down to less than 31BC – 1453AD. It’s all fascinating, and so very different no matter what century you look at that it will never become stale. In honesty, I would be hard put to choose between Rome and Istanbul as my favourite cities. And I think I’d just like to leave it that they’re my favourite two. Others are also in the running, though they’ll never match those two. Luxor, Carthage, Tarragona, Autun, and amazingly Krakow, despite its complete absence of all things Rome, all really float my trireme.
Why have I never written more in late Rome? Again, watch this space. I have a plotline ready for a true Byzantine epic the day I have space in my schedule. And the work I’m doing with Gordon Doherty is staunchly late Rome, too.
5. Why do you think there is an insatiable desire for Roman fiction?
Oddly, I don’t think it comes in fits and starts like most genres. The Tudors came and went, and the Crusades. Currently there seems to be a huge push with the Dark Ages. And yet Rome floats on throughout. I think it is simply because of the variety. There are military Rome novels of course (mine, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, Tony Riches, Gordon Doherty etc.) But even in that subgenre, Ben has written about the 3rd century BC when the Romans had more in common with the Greeks or the Etruscans than what we usually think of. And Gordon’s is in the 4th century AD, in a Christian world of Gothic incursions. The sheer scale of difference between the two is immense, and yet they are both essentially Roman military fiction.
Then there are the political novels and whodunnits. (Robert Harris, Lindsey Davis, Nick Brown, M.C. Scott for example.) How different, though are Robert Harris’ late Republican politics and Nick Brown’s 3rd century thrillers? And then there are sagas of family and dynasty, from people like Kate Quinn. Basically over an empire that lasted two millennia, spanned three continents and underwent a thousand facelifts, the variety is unending. That’s why the desire for it is insatiable – because there will always be something fresh for everyone.
6. I wonder what it is that prompts a storyline? A smell, the sight of something, a touch?
In my case it’s always one interesting trigger, and it’s almost always a place. Occasionally it’s an event or a person, but usually a location. This is not necessarily what prompts a book, but definitely a storyline for me. Hadrian’s Villa for Praetorian, Capri for Interregnum, Carthage for The Priest’s tale. Sometimes characters. Caesar for Marius’ Mules, of course. And sometimes an event: the explosion that destroyed the Nea Ekklasia for The Thief’s Tale. It varies, but a whole tale might be built around the smallest of things just because it fascinates me.
7. Even now, as you write about Fronto and Rufinus, how often do you uncover facts you didn’t know? What is the most surprising?
Always. Every day. Today, even writing something new, I identified where the veins and arteries run in the neck of a human being. I have a fairly good idea, but now I have it anatomically correct in perfect precision. Every day I will learn at least one thing, and often a whole slew of new things. And that’s healthy. To learn and challenge as you go. No one ever knows everything, so the only writers I can imagine not experiencing this wonder of discovery are authors who only write exactly what they know. How dull it must be to never
learn, eh? And I never make the mistake of assuming I know more than anyone else. You learn from the most surprising of places, and people surprise you. The most surprising fact I ever learned in my research was that you could find poison in ground up peach kernels. Love that. Glad I never liked peaches, too… (Actually, same thing with apricot kernels – arsenic!)
8. The emotional revelation is considered the way in which we (as readers) can relate to a particular character’s development. Your novels are essentially action novels, so how important is that emotional reveal in your story structure?
No novel, no matter its genre, can ever really be an engaging read without character progression, I think. That is not to say that the character has to change. Fronto in the Marius’ Mules books has never really changed throughout the series, but his attitude and reactions have undergone subtle shifts. If I had him changing in any real way, I suspect there would be an outcry. But yes, there is development. There has to be, even in a character like Fronto, who already started at a good age. For young characters like Rufinus, it can be more of a journey. Rufinus has changed a great deal over two books and there will be more changes in future for him, as it is near impossible to go through action such as he without seeing it have its effects on him. And that, I think, is where action novels have an advantage.
It can be quite difficult for a writer to effect a good character development in a very staid environment. I know. I’ve tried it. But where all is busy and action packed and events carry us along, those characters the action touches are inevitably going to progress a great deal, whether by their design or not. And I’m glad. Without that spark, the books would just be descriptions of fighting and falling and fart jokes!
9. Re-enactment came later for you as an author. What was the prime motivation? Has it made a noticeable difference to your writing?
It was almost entirely by accident, to be honest. I got in contact with Deva Victrix because I was looking for someone who had appropriate republican Roman equipment for the cover of Marius’ Mules, and it is surprising how few re-enactment groups go back before the empire. I quickly got to know Garry (the guy on the MM covers) and Paul, the centurion. And then through them the rest of the group. And while I met them through the books, I’ve stayed friends through the love of the society. Because it is like a strange brotherhood that transcends most other facets of life.
It has most definitely influenced my writing, though only in the more subtle ways. I can’t imagine there was a visual line where readers looked at the books and said ‘my word he suddenly knows a lot about this stuff.’ But there was a definite tiny shift in the reality of the detail, I think. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who wants to write about a period.
10. Since we first met on the review boards of YouwriteOn.com, your life has changed – marriage, children, and all things increasingly family-oriented. Yet you remain as staunchly disciplined as ever. Apart from your coffee addiction, a fact that is well-known across social media, how do you manage to programme your writing life and be so productive?
Ha. Am I disciplined? I don’t feel it! My wife might argue that point too! In fairness, I love what I do, and it’s very, very easy to immerse yourself in something you love. I set myself a word or page-count for each section of a book, and I write that section in a day. I make sure I do. Sometimes the words will flow like water and the day’s work will only take me three hours. Sometimes it becomes a struggle and a fight, and takes nine. But I will sit in the office and write it until it’s done, whatever the case. 99% of days it comes in under time and leaves me time to wind down before I switch off for the day. And I only write four days a week. The weekends belong to the kids, and I have Wednesday off with my wife as a date day, where we head into town, relax, read, have lunch, and I recharge for two more days. I’ve tried writing full pace all five days and by Friday I’m burnt out, so I’ve learned my routine. Plus it means I get a day out with the wife while the kids are in school!
11. Can you envisage writing about another age entirely? One that will seriously take your followers and fans by surprise?
I think I probably did that with the Ottoman books, to be honest. But there are few eras that interest me enough to drag me away from Rome for long, and most of them have become thoroughly explored by many other talented writers. I have toyed with a medieval murder mystery, a WW2 concentration camp story, even a modern horror, but so far they are only the embryos of projects.
My Byzantine one would be later, but still close enough. And I have another ancient project coming up, but again, not really far out of my comfort zone. As you know, Prue, I do have my eye on a collaboration to come next year, and that promises to be well and truly outside my usual sphere. Hush hush as yet, though…
12. What prompted that skilful move into children’s books and into Crocodile Legion? What were your own children’s responses to the novel?
I don’t know about skilful! That remains to be seen once it hits shelves and I get complained at. But there’s no violence and no sex and no bad language in it, and a minimum of fart gags. I’ve described it as Asterix meets Scooby Doo in Roman Egypt. To be honest, I just liked the idea. It actually came about when Dave Slaney (the book’s illustrator) and I were chatting and he directed me to some cartoons he’d done for a golf book. I was so astounded, since I knew he was a good graphic artist but had no idea he was such a talented artist in general, that I fairly quickly suggested a collaboration on a book with pictures. And for what other audience do you write a book with cartoony pictures.
I created the characters and put them on paper, but then Dave drew them and I had to go back and change bits, so good were his pictures. They were better than my descriptions! To be honest, my own kids, despite being in the books, haven’t read them yet. When the paperback is released, I will finally read it to them. Currently they’re on Harry Potter at bedtime, and they have books by Caroline Lawrence lined up (she kindly sent them signed copies!)
13. As parent to those two active young kids, what do you think is the future of literacy and of books in general. And in what form?
I actually have no idea, to be honest. But the thing that’s certain is that books and reading will go on. Whether print books decline and everything becomes digital, who can say? I hope not as I love my collection of hardbacks. I don’t think it will. I think there will always be ebooks and treebooks now. And audiobooks, of course. There are constant pushes to improve literacy, and we’re all behind that, I’m sure. This week is World Book Day, and Marcus is going to school dressed as Harry Potter. As long as children have a brain, they will always read. I just hope that the great publishing houses can move with the times and continue on a bastions of quality in the literary world, though it is looking increasingly like they will flounder and fall amid the torrent of independent work coming out, which these days is producing some excellent material.
14. Off-piste entirely now. You have the most frighteningly loud music taste for someone like me. How do your reconcile it with Rome and Byzantium?
Ha! I don’t. To be honest, my wife will accuse me of the same thing, musically. And yet today as I wrote my prologue for the new book, can you guess what 3 albums I listened to? Pink Floyd’s ‘Endless River’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ and The Mission’s ‘Children’. I listen to a great deal of loud music, from Scandinavian bands like Omium Gatherum and In Flames to more traditional American bands like Korn or Megadeth. But I also love Carl Orff, and Pink Floyd, and Midnight Oil, and Urma, and First Aid Kit, and a great swathe of old rock from Tom Petty to the Eagles, to CCR and so on. I have an eclectic taste, I think.
And my writing music often varies depending on what I’m writing. A battle scene might be accompanied by three albums by Bathory, roaring out their gravelly Norse vocals and thundering the chords. A humorous scene was once written to AC/DC songs like ‘Big Balls’. And the grand social gathering I just wrote? The Floyd. It’s all about the feeling, not the connection, I think.
15. You also have a perverse interest in inter-galactic relations, how does that fit with imperial Rome and Byzantium. Strangely, or perhaps not, I think I know what the answer will be.
Is this a Star Wars thing? Heh heh. I like a little sci-fi, certainly, but I am fairly discerning, I think. I love the recent and the original Star Wars. I love the better end of the Star Trek franchise. I love Galaxy Quest and Aliens and Robocop and a few others. But there is a vast amount of sci-fi that really doesn’t do it for me. And I loved a few sci-fi novels in my time, from Asimov’s Foundation series to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide by Douglas Adams. But like any genre, I think you pick out what you like and leave the rest. It doesn’t really fit with the world of Rome on the whole, but then I can encompass other things.
Although I have to admit to a marked parallel that can be drawn between the Star Wars saga and the shift of Rome from republic to empire… (Ha, that’s it! That’s the answer I expected!)
16. We live in volatile times, Simon. Terrorism has wide ramifications with what remains of our ancient cultures. How comfortable are you with expounding your global view online because as we know, social media can be as aggressive as it is supportive.
I can be truly outspoken against the sort of moroncy that is currently raising its astoundingly ugly head across the Middle East and North Africa. It makes me spit teeth I’m so angry at these people. How dare they presume to push an agenda to such an extent that mass murder and the utter ruination of irreplaceable culture become the norm? Gagh! And if only that was the least of it.
But it doesn’t have to be terrorism. The looting of Cairo museum was carried out by opportunists. Ratiaria in Bulgaria – a buried Roman city that could have yielded magnificent things – was bulldozed by local treasure hunters with the mayor’s support. JCBs on delicate arcades! It makes the blood boil. But no, it all needs to be stopped and I am far from above putting in my oar in the social sea and making a few waves when my dander is up!
17. And finally, how much do you like Lego? (Lest you’re unaware, Simon has been well known to step frequently on Lego pieces and let us all know of his pain!)
Hee hee hee. It’s a nice thing to do, isn’t it. And my Star Wars Lego Imperial Shuttle sits proudly behind me as I type. But in fairness that’s the only lego I own. I help Marcus build his, I suppose. But my toys don’t stop at Lego. I have a Playmobil legion and Playmobil redcoats. I have a working model ballista. I have a shelf full of Boba Fett nick-nacks. And I have better toys too… like a collection of four Roman swords thus far! Never grow up. You can’t help growing old, but growing up is a voluntary exercise!
Simon, as always, I love talking with you. You have a steadiness and humour that is always a delight and I look forward to collaborating with you in the future.
And now a big swollen head I have to scrape through the door to leave the office, for my day is done and now I need to take the kids swimming. It’s all go in Turneyworld!
Thank you, Prue. That was a deep and most thought-provoking set of questions, and I enjoyed having to think about them. And guess what? As per 7, I am still uncovering new facts, in this case about myself. I cannot wait to collaborate further. And there will be time…