Terrible introduction for a writer, isn’t it? Even if he is sitting in my Big Red Chair. But in truth, the main protagonists of S.J.A. Turney’s novels would have worn exactly that. If they valued their future. I’m talking about soldiers of the Roman Legion as Simon is a writer of historical fiction set in Roman times. Liviu from the highly regarded Fantasy.Book.Critic said of Simon’s first book ‘Interregnum’:
“I could not put this novel down unless I *really needed* to since I was drawn into its world and wanted to find out what happens. The novel has a combination of the expected and some twists and turns I did not see, so while I could glimpse where it goes, there were quite a few surprises on the way. The characters are well drawn and believable. It is also a blood and guts novel, brutal at times with quite a lot of fighting, gore, summary killings as well as drawn out crucifixions and as it behooves such, the main characters are men…’ Not bad for a first ever review for a first ever release. Enviable.
I approached Simon and asked if he would be willing to answer my Ten Writerly Questions to which he agreed. Despite the seriousness of his subject matter, he is a quirky man and I swear there must be convicts in his family tree because such humour obviously made it across the seas to build a foundation for our Australian wit .
Please make welcome Simon James Atkinson Turney.
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I am the world’s most Yorkshire Yorkshireman. I was born in the ancient city of Ripon, in a maternity unit now sadly long gone and I was raised and schooled there, in one of those old fashioned Grammar Schools where children were still instilled with a sense of discipline. My grandfather, however, and great aunt, lived in a village seven miles away in the countryside, and I spent much of my free time there too, or at my grandfather’s photography shop when on summer holidays. It is no surprise, then, that despite decades during which I have lived in cities in several different counties, I ended up living back in Ripon and then afterwards in that very village, where I now live, married to a girl who came from the same place and went to the same school and whose family also live there.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
- Interesting. At 12, I think I was still drifting along in my own imagination, nerdy and obsessed with history. At 12, I think probably all I wanted to be was a Roman legionary. I know I was totally obsessed with them for a long time (read ‘still am’).
- At 18, I had sadly descended into realism. I went through three phases around that time. I wanted to be a barrister, but three months into a law A-level, I discovered that I did not have the memory for the job. I wanted to be a computer programmer, but a year into a higher education course for it, I discovered that, where mathematical statistics were concerned, I had as much aptitude for it as a blind stoat, so that one quickly passed me by too. Then I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. The closest I have come is to write historical fiction and to have an education in classical history.
- At 30, I think that all I wanted was to be more settled and a family man. I was wallowing in a period of low ambition at the time, single and bored with a humdrum job. The job paid reasonably well, but I needed something more in my life. A year later I met Tracey and achieved my goal. From there we have snowballed into a family with pets, house and children and, somehow, along the way, my writing has taken off and my career sorted itself out.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At 18 I intended to live abroad. I pictured myself by the time I was 25 or 30 living in the hills of northeastern Spain in a secluded villa while working for the Archaeological division of the Patrimonio de Catalunya, possibly unearthing the Roman city of Empuries. That was my long term plan (see above for career options: archaeologist.) I am now far too tied to family and my village. While I love to travel and would like to spend much of my time abroad, I know that this is my place and where I will always come back to. Satisfied.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
- That’s a tough one. My grandfather was the single most profound influence in my life until his passing in 2004. It is he who taught me to be interested in absolutely everything. It is he who gave me my love of history, on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall when I was six. Standing in a blizzard on the wall and staring out over the hills toward Scotland, I knew my life had changed.
- This is far from a ‘big event’. In fact, it is quite the opposite, but I fear it counts most for this question. I have had some of the most mind-numbingly dull jobs in my ‘career path’ for want of a better word. I have had jobs that would bore the socks off a sloth (if sloths wore socks.) There is nothing that quite spurs one to using the imagination and trying something new that suffering unbearable ennui every day from 9 to 5. It is these jobs – particularly insurance – that pushed me along.
- The books of Guy Gavriel Kay. Before GGK I had read history only really as non-fiction subject and was a staunch followed of the fantasy genre in fiction. GGK’s works had enough excellent fantasy to lure me in and enough of a grounding in real history to push me into expanding my horizons. He is still my favourite author and the writer I aspire to be.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you- – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
Hmm. I also write a blog, as do you. In fact I was blogging before I wrote a word of fiction. I have in no way ruled out any other format. I would love to write a screenplay. In fact, I would love to turn my book ‘Interregnum’ into a movie. But no matter how many avenues open up, there will always be a need for books, even if they are becoming ever more electronic in nature. Books store the knowledge of the world. Without them, our past is so much less meaningful. How would we know about the Roman soldier at Vindolanda who sent home asking for spare socks, or the garrison commander’s wife’s birthday party, without the written word of the Vindolanda Tablets. Our main source for the history of Roman Emperors is writings of people like Cassius Dio and Suetonius. The written word should never become obsolete, for fear that the human race goes with it.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Ah. A choice. Dark Empress was released recently, while Marius’ Mules III is in progress. Dark Empress is the third and final book in the fantasy series ‘Tales of the Empire’ and follows Interregnum and Ironroot. It is a departure for me, being a darker tale than usual, set over much of the lifetime of three people in the form of a saga, rather than a straightforward tale. It explores new elements of the world that was formed in the first two books, such as the southern, desert-dwelling peoples, the navy and piracy, and the relationship between boys and girls as they grow into men and women. Moreover, it contains more elements of the supernatural than previous works. I wait with interest, and a little trepidation, to see how such a different work is received.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I would like to think that my work contributes to expanding the genre and drawing new fans to the subject of ancient history. If of every hundred readers of Marius’ Mules, for instance, one new reader is sufficiently taken by the setting to further delve into the world of Roman history, I will consider my work worthwhile. Despite the focus given to the ancient world in fiction, movies and documentaries, it still astounds me how such a tiny space is devoted to it in the school curriculum. Certainly in Britain, the whole Roman era is glossed over in a matter of days. A sad state of affairs, given that Britain was Roman for four centuries, their empire lasted over a thousand years (or even two thousand with Byzantium), and probably had more of an impact on the direction the western world moved for the rest of time.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Once again, we’re back to my grandfather. He was a man of infinite jest and astounding knowledge. He taught my father about ornithology and nature and the countryside. He taught me about photography and history. He was a pilot in the second world war, took photographs so impressive that they now form a collection held in a library, travelled extensively, brought my mother up as a single father in an era when such a thing was virtually unheard of, rode motorcycles around the wilds of Scotland, and could take an intelligent part in a conversation on almost any subject from Victorian politics, to the nesting habits of hawks, to the difference between single and dual prop aircraft, to the motives of Wile E Coyote. In fact, during the war, he suffered from Pleurisy and was moved to a ward where he was left to die, having been written off by the doctors, but where he made a full recovery on his own. Quite simply, I can’t imagine a better person, and I hope that I become even half that man to my grandchildren.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I am no longer truly ambitious. Apart from finally removing ourselves from debt (which is rapidly approaching) and having a comfortable income, I have achieved most of the goals I set: married with children, living in the country, having a pleasant and interesting career (now), and having good friends. In my heart of hearts, there is actually still one ridiculously ambitious goal that I doubt I will achieve: to visit every Roman site in the world. Slowly I am working on it, but I hope for reincarnation, since it may take several lifetimes! Probably next time I’ll come back as a blind stoat who, as I earlier intimated, would at least be more mathematically competent, but such would endanger my travel goals.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I actually started by answering this one, since I was thinking about it this morning before you showed me the questions. This is the easiest, I think, and it comes in three parts:
- Read what you have written. If it is all good to read back and brings out a strong emotion in you, then it’s worth going on. If parts of it worry you, rewrite them as soon as possible. Don’t go on and hope they work in the end. They won’t and you’ll have to go back much later and do it. Get the task out of the way straight away. If you read it back and it does not elicit a strong emotion from you, it won’t from other readers and you may as well stop there.
- Don’t rush the job. Get the work proofed and then proofed again and then proofed again. When you’ve done that, go over it yourself, give it a harsh edit and then get it proofed three times again. When you’ve done that, give it to someone who’s interested in the genre and get them to read it. And then another person. They will be able to comment on anything missing or that doesn’t fit well. Only when it’s ready, go with it. I have fallen foul of this myself and now things are much more proofed, but there is still vast room for improvement.
Do not give up. If you believe in what you have and what you can do, fight to get it out there. Try every traditional method possible, but don’t be disheartened by rejection. There will be a lot of it. If traditional methods don’t work for you, be creative. Find new avenues to push the work down. Never stop. I have seen it said by even the most successful writers that the writing is the easy part. The hard part is promotion and marketing…
I’ve read all of Simon’s books except Dark Empress and it’s on the to-read list. I’ve just finished Ironroot which I have to say made me glad to go to bed every night so that I could disappear into my Kindle and read on. It’s truly my favourite Turney novel to date and I recommend it and then some! I fully expect Dark Empress to raise the stakes even higher.
Simon, thanks so much for revealing yourself through Ten Writerly Questions and may I wish you and your novels an onward and upward trajectory. (Even though I am seriously jealous of your prolific output!)