Historical novelist Harry Sidebottom talks about proving George R.R. Martin wrong in his new series the Throne of the Caesars.
Once in a while a writer knows exactly where a new novel or series came from. Years ago, mugging up some teaching for Oxford, I read a Latin inscription set up by a Roman centurion in the foothills of the Caucasus. Look at a map of the Roman empire. The Caucasus are miles beyond the frontiers. Straight away I knew it had to become a novel. Years later it became my fourth novel The Caspian Gates. Much more often a bunch of disparate ideas slowly come together. The gestation period is long. The majority don’t make it. My past is littered with abandoned stories: an alternative history series set around the Black Sea (Dark Waters), a fantasy series set in a big forest (Dark Woods), two modern thrillers (neither called Dark anything), a novel of World War One air combat (Next Man That Dies), and a range of sub-Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney literary novels (my favourite title among these Oxford-nose-candy novels – my own inexperience with Columbian marching powder did not hold me back – was Clever Young Men). Not wanting my sons to do a Hemingway‘s children on me (squeeze a few extra pounds out of Papa by posthumously publishing things given up because they were not up to scratch), when my first novel, Fire in the East, came out I destroyed all the previous stuff I could find (actually that is not quite true; I could not bring myself to kill what there was of Provenance, a story about illegal antiquities, or Next Man).
A couple of years ago I was thinking about a new series. I had written six Warrior of Rome novels in six years. Don’t get me wrong, I love that series. Ballista has been good to me, and I will return and do right by him. The next trilogy is ready to go. The plan has always been for five trilogies. But six novels in six years? A passion could turn into a treadmill. It was time for a break.
Sometimes you know the underlying themes of a novel before you start writing. With Throne they emerged as I went.
Right from the start I knew the new series had to be set somewhere in the Classical world (having finally learnt it was better to write about things you know about). Various eras offered. Alexander`s heirs squabbling over what to do with the world they had conquered had a strong appeal. But eventually the Roman empire of AD 235-8 won out. Just thirty years before the beginning of Warrior, there was a Star Wars sort of prequel about it; not too much of a jump for existing readers. There was a lot else going for those four years. Rammed full of plots and counter-plots, riots, revolutions, civil and foreign wars, it was a turning point. Two and a half centuries of imperial stability fractured seemingly beyond redemption. Welcome to the time of troubles, the age of Iron & Rust. And there were the sources. First a contemporary Greek historian Herodian. I had published several scholarly articles on him (he is seldom read, not too difficult to make yourself `an internationally recognised authority` on him). Then the wonderful ancient historical novel crafted as a series of biographies of emperors which we call the Augustan History. Add to these other contemporaries like the authors of the Sibylline Oracles, Philostratus, Censorinus, Julius Africanus, and later writers such as Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Zozimus, Zonaras, and Eusebius, the list goes on. And then there was archaeology. As luck would have it, one of the most significant finds for a century had just been discovered; the site of a huge battle deep in Germany in the Harzhorn Mountains. The final factor was the obscurity of the time. George R.R. Martin rightly identified one of the key problems of historical fiction: before you crack the book open, you know who lives and who dies. Not with AD 235-8 you don’t.
Having decided on a period, the question was what sort of novels? Some writers lucky enough to have some success with their first novel stick to the formula; maybe good for the bank balance, maybe less good for the fiction, perhaps even deleterious for the soul. If you don’t try and get better, set yourself new challenges, most likely you will get worse. Warrior was built around a central character and his familia. I wanted to try something different. Influenced by TV shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, I opted for a multiple point of view. A multi-POV (as publishers say) brings challenges, above all questions of chronology and continuity, but the benefits are immense. In Throne of the Caesars the whole geographic expanse of the Roman empire is rolled out, from Spain to the Euphrates. Similarly the focus can zoom down from the emperor and his courtiers, or the schemes of Senators, to the dwellers in the slums of the Subura, to prostitutes, cut-purses, outcast Christians, and to ordinary men and women trying to make a meagre living in the teaming eternal city. And then there was women. Warrior was set in the army. It gave few opportunities to introduce women. In Throne female characters can step forward and have their own point of view. (If it wasn’t hard enough to inhabit the thought world of men in an alien culture, now I had to imagine a change of gender! But, as I said, I like a challenge).
Sometimes you know the underlying themes of a novel before you start writing. With Throne they emerged as I went. What was the role of the emperor? His will was law, and he was worshipped widely as a god. Yet could he do what he liked? He was hedged around with the expectations of the elite. He only knew what he could see, what those around him told him. At a wider level, Throne is a series centred on politics. Men, and women, do terrible things to gain power and wealth. How do they reconcile their conscience to their unworthy actions? Some characters turn to philosophy, some religion, others have to find their own way. If all that sounds very serious, Iron & Rust is full of intrigue and action – as I remember, three conspiracies, two murders, three pitched battles, two assaults on fortified positions, and an ambush – however you read it, I hope you enjoy.
Harry Sidebottom, for Waterstones.com/blog