In conversation: Simon Scarrow
Simon Scarrow talks about the twelfth book in his Cato series, The Blood Crows, why he was drawn to historical fiction in the first place, and why Hollywood has a lot to answer for in the modern understanding of Rome.
It has in retrospect, but never when it was happening, because you think, right, well, I’m writing books and one day one might get published, and then one does get published. And then you have to come up with a few more, and think, wouldn’t it be nice if they were successful, and then they start becoming successful…the whole thing is very gradual and you never really know it until you stop and look back and think "Blimey! What was that?"
I’ve seen you quoted as saying that historical fiction is a hard sell, so why did you choose it?
Because I’m interested in history, and because the books I enjoyed reading as I was growing up tended to be things like Hornblower, and later on, of course, [books by Bernard Cornwell and Rosemary Sutcliff, and a lot of that was part of my growing up. I thought, this is what interests me, this is what I’d like to write – I did actually start out by trying to be very, very commercial and so I’d be going into bookshops to see what was selling and then thinking, right, I’ll write that kind of thing. So there were three false starts, and it was just purely because I wanted to read something that was set in ancient Rome, that was a kind of a worm’s eye view of what was going on, and not a lot of what I wanted seemed to be out there; that was why I gave it a go and really wrote for me and tried not to second-guess the market, and it seemed to work.
Yes, it certainly did…what do you see as the dangers of disregarding history, because the message in The Blood Crows seemed to me to be that disregarding history was worse than simply being unaware of it?
It's the most dangerous thing we could do, frankly…if you look at the whole continuum of humanity and civilisation there are so many ways we are standing on the shoulders of giants and we owe it to ourselves to understand that chain of cause and effect. I we don’t, like Eugene O’Neill says, there is no future, there is no present there is just the past endlessly repeated. If you get caught in that trap it just leads to tragedy and this is one of the things that gets me, for example, about the current engagement in Afghanistan. I was having lunch with Paddy Ashdown last year and we were talking about this…he was saying how important it was that we were in Afghanistan and I was saying, look, it’s not as if we haven’t been there before, on two or three occasions, and, as far as I recall, they didn’t end too happily the last time round. What makes you think it’s going to be different now? It's that aspect of history, that these things have happened before, these things have precedent, (which we mustn’t forget). We seem to have a generation of politicians – a continuum of politicians – who never seem to learn from this. That's why I think it’s vital that History is taught and I’m really big on going into schools and saying how important this is because the last government were on the verge of getting rid of History as a separate academic subject and rolling into Geography and calling it something like Humanities. Now that, I think, is the thin end of a very nasty wedge.
You mentioned that you go into schools… is your readership, then, quite broad?
Oh, very - when I started writing the Macro and Cato books my impression was I was writing for bored people from the City of London on the train home, who would tend to be guys; people like my father, really. But it's turned out that the demographic for the readers of my adult books, and my Young Adult books, is actually much, much broader than I thought – something like at least a third of my readership are female, which I never expected, and in terms of age, I have Macros and Cato fans who are as young as eight, all the way up to dropping off the twig. (We saw Simon at the Hay Festival last year doing a talk for children and enjoyed it so much we'd wished he had been our teacher- Ed.)
I assume, having read you, that when you write you must disregard the eight-year olds – you can’t cater for that extreme spread of readership, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to be true to your story.
Absolutely. When you do get into a series, and I’m writing the thirteenth book of this series, the characters have a momentum of their own, the narratives have a momentum of their own, and you just have to be true to that. There is this oeuvre of Roman military books and that is all I focus on; I don't actually think of an implied reader on any way, shape or form, the story just tells itself.
That’s a great point to reach in the creative process, when it’s natural, but not forced, it’s still hard work, but there’s a wellspring of story.
One of the things I get a little bit alarmed by when I’m reading a series, is when somebody does something dramatic by killing off a major character
You have to trust the series as well. One of the things I get a little bit alarmed by when I’m reading a series, is when somebody does something dramatic by killing off a major character, and you think, Yeah that smacks of a bit of desperation. Batman and Robin did this in DC Comics frequently, and it's called a series for a reason and that’s why you have the ongoing characters; I’m interested in Macro and Cato and, OK, they’re going to get wounded, but I’m not going to off one of them to satisfy some novelty freak thing… This isn’t going to be a spoiler alert is it? No, not at all. As long as there’s still a significant mortgage to pay off I would say the guys are fairly safe.
Have you reached a peak research point with Roman history – as in, do you now know so much you have to do much less for a new book?
No… I would say most of my research was actually done whilst I was at school, because I really enjoyed Latin; I was never terribly good at the subject, but the culture and the history was excellent fun. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an expert and I’ve got it all there - apart from anything, the research is so much fun that as soon as something new comes out I’m straight in the shops and buying that (because) it might offer an interesting new angle on some aspect ancient Rome that I wasn’t previously aware of. If I’m writing a novel which has a specific new focus, like for example with The Blood Crows, which set in a cavalry unit, there was a brilliant book on Roman cavalry that had recently come out which goes into the absolute nuts and bolts of it - the feeding process and the differences in Roman bridles and snaffles and all that sort of stuff. I mean, basically, I’m a Roman nerd and I will hoover this stuff up until I drop.
Are there as many parallels as I think I see between the Roman army and the soldiers of today?
Well that was always the big problem when I was starting out on this, because I thought to myself: What is a Roman soldier like? We know so little about these guys. When you see them [in films] the soldiers do interesting salutes and tend to be in the background, and it’s a bit difficult to get a handle on them. One of the things I did was when I was at University was to join the Officers Training Corps - never with any intention of becoming a soldier, just for the fun of shooting guns and running around in uniform, basically – and it was really, really interesting seeing officers and non-commissioned officers interrelating, with each other and with the soldiers. One of the things that really quite shocked me was just how wide the vocabulary of expletives was that these guys could employ – they were brilliant, you would pay good money to listen to these guys because they were just so funny and so insulting…they were shouting in your face and you just don’t want to react because that would not be good, and I guess that was the game, they were trying to get you to react. So I thought to myself, well, let’s think about the homologies here: We have a professional army with a 25-year sign-up period; same thing with the legions. We have regimental traditions: same thing with the legions. We have regimental colours and so on; same thing with the legion. There’s a hell of a lot of similar things going on, so I thought why don't I apply the sensibility of the British Army, which I do understand, to the archaeological research which I’ve got, and come up with a form of Roman army that feels quite real. One of the delights of the series is the amount of feedback I get – it’s not just British soldiers who read these book, it's American soldiers, and the guy who runs the Malaysian Military Academy is a fan, the King of Jordan is a fan. So all of these guys who are ex-soldiers really relate to the experiences that Macro and Cato have, and one of them in particular was saying he was quite amused by the scenes early on in the series where they’re digging trenches, and he said "Same thing, the best weapon we’ve got is still our spade!" When you get that kind of feedback from soldiers you feel like you’ve cracked it. It’s a particular way of thinking, the military, and with the Roman army being one of the world’s first professional armies, you can, with some degree of justification, make those comparisons.
I would describe you as a "detail" writer, but you weave it into your narrative so it’s not something that gets in the way – how obsessive are your readers, and do they ever pull you up on any perceived errors?
That is one of the givens of writing historical fiction, frankly, that that is going to happen at some stage. The real pleasure, of course, is knowing that they’re wrong…because they will write and email this stuff to you and there have been a number of occasions now where I’ve been able to say, no, look at that, there is the evidence; and score one to me, really.
Has no one ever been able to pull you up?
I had something from a German reader recently, I think about the second book, The Eagle’s Conquest. He said that there was a problem because I had written that Carta Nova was burned to the ground by the Romans and destroyed in the Second Punic war and that it was actually the Third Punic War. So I said to him, actually, Carta Nova was a name of a city I invented for that particular book. What can you say? I think the contract between a historical novelist and a reader is that you do the research as accurately as possible, you present it as accurately as possible; if, for any reason, you deviate from that you say so in the Author’s Note at the back, and by and large that seems to work. When I’m reading historical fiction and I come across stuff and I know it’s wrong, it really gets me, badly…I’m probably far more picky than 99% of my readers, which is why I go to such great lengths to make sure it’s as right as I can possibly get it - without making a book one of those big info-dump sessions that some authors seem to like.
I was surprised by the size references, in terms of height, between the Romans and the Britons.
There were differences between races and one of the things that Roman reference sources do is constantly make a point of is how big the Germans looked to them – these were big, strapping, blonde-haired guys with huge physiques roaming around the forests of northern Europe. They were quite intimidating and frightening, and the Romans used to reassure themselves by saying, well, great, but they’re not trained like us and that’s what’s going to save us in the end. Let’s not forget that the Roman legions, as time went on, became more and more populated by these Gauls and these Germans and so on…in actual fact, you get to the situation, in the first century AD, when there’s a civil war in the Empire and some of these Rhine legions come down to fight and the local (Roman) population look at them in horror and think who the hell are these people? They look like barbarians, but they happen to be wearing Roman armour!
Your style is an interesting mix of ancient and modern – we are in an old world, but we’re listening to up-to-date, quite sweary, modern dialogue. Was this a style you devised, or simply the way you write?
I thought to myself, look, there’s no point in making these people speak like they’re some sort of archaic anachronisms of some kind or another. Let’s make them feel like real people we could be standing next to. And then, on the issue of swearing, it's been quite funny…this is one of those things where people will get in touch and say, hey, they’d never used the F-word, or the C-word! And you say to yourself, well, actually, we know the Romans had a very healthy vocabulary – there’s a brilliant book called The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, which goes through a lot of the etymology of some of these insults. And it causes problems, because I try to be as historically accurate as possible and in one of the books I had somebody call somebody else a "cocksucker" – now that is a Roman expletive, it’s attested, and my editor said no, no we can’t have that, it's an Americanism. Well, the evidence is there! So sometimes, when you do the historical research, and you present it accurately, then you will get people who think they know what Rome was like telling you, no, they wouldn’t possibly talk in that particular way. And I kind of understand that. One of the compromises you make is between what you can demonstrate accurately from historical research, and what people take as the reality. So for example, the old "Thumbs up, thumbs down" thing in gladiator fights…everybody thinks they know how that works, it’s kind of like received knowledge now. In actual fact, the best guess that we can make about this is that, if you wanted someone to live, you waved a handkerchief, if you wanted them dead, you stuck your thumb up, down, sideways, whatever. If you wanted them to live you got your hanky out and waved furiously.
Have you ever seen that used anywhere?
No, I haven’t, actually… it’s like a lot of these things, Hollywood has a lot to answer for – until quite recently, until the Rome television series, almost every depiction I’ve seen of ancient Rome has been gleaming white marble, and the reason why the Romans left behind gleaming white marble is because all the paint has peeled off. In the actual time they loved their colour, they painted their buildings bright reds, oranges, yellows, they loved that stuff. So Rome was the first series to say, no, this is what it looked like, and we're going to go bonkers on the colours, every building is going to be plastered in it. It was lovely to see that kind of reality finally.
Hollywood has a lot to answer for – until quite recently, until the Rome television series, almost every depiction I’ve seen of ancient Rome has been gleaming white marble
You put in some Latin words, mainly I think for money, but not for objects, like the "testudo", which you call a tortoise; what guided your choice in Latin usage?
Because I get irritated when I read historical novels where somebody will be talking in English for most of the book and then all of a sudden they’ll launch into a Latin phrase, and you’re thinking, what on earth’s going on here? Either write the whole thing in Latin or write in English, but why give us a mixture? People just don’t (talk like) that. It doesn’t work, it’s one of those moments that just rips you out of the reality and reminds you what’s going on. And for me, the key thing with storytelling is: Keep your reader where the action is, don’t stop them believing in what’s going on around them.
In your head, when you’re writing, are you your characters, in that time?
Absolutely. It all comes together in the writing process, it's that thing Stephen King calls the moment when you begin to see through the paper, and all the research pads out the detail and helps create the sense of sounds, smell, lighting, this sort of thing, so that’s how it kind of works. When I’m in that situation, I’m not in the position of someone about to deliver a lecture on what they see, I’m just enjoying the scenery. What I’m trying to do is describe it to the reader as I’m enjoying it vicariously, so it’s that sort of process.
At the start of The Blood Crows, arriving in Londinium is one such a moment; it’s like a border town…like the wild west, in a way.
Exactly, it’s like the Dodge City of the ancient world.
How much of that detail exists and how much of it were you extrapolating from tiny pieces of evidence?
You extrapolate from the evidence, but also it’s personal experience. When I was growing up, one of the places we lived in was Hong Kong; my father had a boat down on Aberdeen, a harbour on Hong Kong island which was covered in refuse and dead animals and turds and stuff like that. In any situation where there’s no Health and Safety, no policy on that, that’s what that kind of environment will look like. Which is why, when I describe Rome in Praetorian, when they’re coming upriver and beginning to see the city, there’s all the stuff that’s in the water; the same thing applies to Londinium.
When did the Boadicea of my youth become Boudicca?
She was actually always Boudicca, we got that wrong, and I can tell you exactly where it went wrong as well. There was a poet, Petruccio Ubaldini, who wrote a play about Caratacus in the 16th century; it was called The Lives of the Noble Ladies of the Kingdom of England and Scotland, in which he claimed - wrongly - that Boudica was two women: Voadicia and Bunducia. He came up with the name Boadicea, and as this was a very popular play that’s how the name stuck…and passed into received wisdom. Chinese whispers.
You make some very interesting links, in your Author’s Notes, between modern-day warfare and that waged in Britannia, as well as the effect of social media. Has there been a paradigm shift in modern warfare, to the advantage of the "Davids" as opposed to the "Goliaths"?
Yes, absolutely. Apart from anything, no one in Rome would have given a toss if there were Roman troops going round massacring people, that was part of the game. We’re in a different kind of age now. One of the things that every Roman general [had to their] advantage was that they knew that it would take months to get a message back to Rome, reporting on anything that was going on, so if they’d screwed up there was always an opportunity to put it right before somebody came out to check. Nowadays, military officers are always looking over their shoulders, because there’s no such thing as a battlefield anymore. I was talking to a senior soldier about that a while back, and I was saying that it was more of a battlescape, in a way. What you have to build into that is that it’s not simply what occurs in battle, it’s your awareness of how it’s going to play out in the mass media, and that’s now getting down to informing tactical decisions, not just strategic decisions. If a bunch of squaddies goes into the field now, and one of them has a helmet cam on, that makes a difference. For the first time in history we’re now getting an archive produced by the participants… everybody is now a war cameraman, that’s how it is.
Do you think this all started in Vietnam?
No. Some American soldiers had Super-8 cameras, but these were still quite bulky. Nowadays you have something somewhat less than the size of a matchbox that you can stick to the side of your helmet.
I’m fascinated by the battle tactics and strategy used by both sides at Bruccium – are they based on fact?
Well, the Roman tactics and strategies were written about quite extensively, the native strategies (less so); what makes Caratacus such an interesting character for me…he’s one of the few opponents of the Romans who actually worked out a way to beat them. Unfortunately, he didn’t stick at it. He was a sort of General Giap, (the Vietnamese military commander) of the ancient world, really, because he understood that if you fight them on the battlefield you will get pasted, [and that] the only way you can effectively defeat someone who’s going for a long war is to attack their lines of communication and constantly harass them. Now, it was when he stopped fighting the Romans on the battlefield that he started to have an effect on their conquest of Britain, and was becoming very, very successful at it; but every so often, unfortunately, he’d be goaded by his own side, because they were a warrior culture - enough of this, we want a battle! And that’s when things went pear-shaped.
There is an arrow in the background on the cover of The Blood Crows, but no reference to archers until right at the very end, when Cato leaves Bruccium – were they not a major weapon for either side at the time?
Not as important as you’d think - we’re not talking long bows here, we’re talking a minor nuisance with limited penetrating powers. The only significant battle that was won by archers was Carrhae, where Marcus Crassus led his army into the desert and was surrounded by (Parthian) cavalry archers who had an unlimited supply of arrows…it was the worst defeat the Romans ever had, something like seven legions were defeated. But other than that, your slingshot is a far more deadly weapon than an arrow…when you think about it, this thing has quite a high "muzzle velocity", you’re talking about four or five ounces of lead, or stone, and the kinetic energy there is pretty ferocious, and those things are far more lethal than arrows. The short bows, which were what was mostly used by native soldiers in places like Gaul and Britain, were great for hunting but weren’t going to penetrate shields or armour.
Many of your characters are based on historical figures – is Quertus a real person, or an archetype?
If you think the story through, this is Macro and Cato going up a valley to find a renegade commander, called Quert-us…so, Heart of Darkness, and I wanted that line, for someone to say "What about Quertus?", and someone else to say "Quertus? He’s dead…".
As for censorship… somebody once accused me of writing "war porn", and it really hurt
Did someone like him actually exist?
Well, we’re talking fairly savage conditions here, and fairly savage forms of warfare; much as Caratacus worked out a way of defeating the Romans, I’m sure there were certain Roman officers thinking, OK, so how do you fight a guerrilla war? They’d had bad experiences like this before, particularly in Portugal, where there was a very famous renegade who had them going for many, many years, and they could never defeat him until they eventually worked out the best way to do it was to bribe one of his supporters to betray him. So there would have been people thinking of the value of different forms of warfare, and terror is a form of warfare; it’s quite effective, provided you apply it judiciously.
What I really liked, and you completely caught me, was the way you introduced Mithras into the storyline. How important were the gods to career soldiers like Macro and Cato?
That was one of the compromises I have made in the series, because the Romans were absolutely bonkers about superstition, I mean literally bonkers – every time they went on a sea voyage they would have a little stone altar made and you see these things littering the museums up near Hadrian’s Wall. They would always be praying to gods, offering sacrifices, curses…they would write little curses on valuable bits of metal and chuck them in wells. They were constantly going on about it, and I thought, if I do it to the degree that it preoccupied the Romans, the chances are modern readers would think it was a bit odd, so I’ve tended to downplay it a bit. But Mithras really interests me, because, of course, it is the prototype for Christianity, and so it’s an opportunity for some of the characters to act true to form, in a way, to the way things would have been in the Roman army at that time. And I have been conscious of the fact that it’s something I’ve downplayed more than I should have, if I’m honest.
More references might change the tone of the books.
Well, if you want to make it feel immediate and it’s happening to you now, if something like that (is thrown in) too frequently, it creates a distance between you and the characters that you’re identifying with.
While the book has some brutal scenes, was it worse in reality and have you had to censor yourself at all?
There’s a brilliant book, called The Western Way of War, in which this American historian tries to recreate the conditions of what it would be like to stand in an ancient battle line; he was actually talking about the Greek hoplites, not the Romans, but I think there are a fair amount of similarities there. These guys would have to have been pressed and beaten into place…and the abiding smell would probably not be sweat, it would be shit and piss as these guys would have nowhere else to go, and some of them would be frightened. And the damage that edged weapons can do, it’s pretty horrific stuff…all of it’s pretty up and close and very, very personal. There’s a degree of horror that goes with that, and certainly you get a sense from some of the ancient sources that there was an ancient world equivalent of shell shock, that people just could not cope with that kind of thing after a while…it would have been fairly bloody and fairly brutal. And as for censorship… somebody once accused me of writing "war porn", and it really hurt, as it’s the last thing I actually wanted to do. Yes, I wanted to write adventure stories set in the ancient world which were realistic, and in which the issues to do with imperialism and the parallels with the modern world were brought up. What I was not trying to do was write stories that just said "Ain’t war fun!" and "Let’s see how gory we can get!" I prefer to leave that to horror writers, frankly.
Britannia, AD 51. As fierce opposition among the local tribes grows, a ruthless warrior threatens to shatter Roman rule. The excellent twelfth novel in Simon Scarrow's bestselling Eagles of the Empire series, which includes THE GLADIATOR, BRITANNIA and CENTURION.