DIY interview with Simon Scarrow
Having had the opportunity to do quite a few press interviews now, I've provided the most frequent questions and answers below.
Could you tell me about your pre-novelist career?
After university I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I enjoyed creative writing and had some vague ambition to become an author. The trouble was I needed time and space to write my first novel. Since my parents were living in the Bahamas at the time I suggested that I spend a year with them while I had a stab at being a novelist. Naturally enough they saw through the scam and told me to get back to the UK and find myself a job.
Being somewhat inept at interview technique at a time when graduate unemployment had peaked it took me nearly six months to find an employer who might appreciate my meagre talents. Meanwhile I had started my magnum opus, spurred on by the terrible ennui of being unemployed. When my father (a banker) heard that I had joined the Inland Revenue he nearly had a heart attack and was heard to lament that it was worse than having a daughter become a prostitute. I stuck at tax law and accountancy for nearly two years before deciding that the education system might yet find a use for me. So I went back to the University of East Anglia and began a research degree, focusing on popular culture representations of the Vietnam War.
Four years, one more novel and several short stories later I emerged from the university with another degree and went straight back to do a teaching qualification. In all, I managed to remain a student for eight glorious years.
I taught English and History at first, mostly to comprehensive kids most of whom I genuinely liked. The high point was taking a party of them on a trip to Hadrian's Wall where I could wax lyrical about the wonders of Roman civilization. After a while I realised I was sick of forcing Shakespeare down their necks and moved on to teach Media Studies at an FE college. This gave me more free time, and I wrote two plays and the first of the Eagle novels while I was Head of Department. Not that I neglected my students in any way. In my time at the college only one student ever failed the course, and our results rose to 20% above the national average.
Had you written much fiction before publication?
Oh yes. Three novels, two plays, several short stories and even some poetry. The first novel was written just to prove to myself that it was possible to write a novel. It concerned the adventures of a family fleeing the breakdown of social order in the Bahamas following a nuclear war.
While waiting for a publisher to pick up on this masterpiece I started on a second novel; a comedy thriller about a trio of students who get into the drug business and fall foul of ruthless professional dealers. I had some interest from a leading agent on this one - for a while, before he claimed to have too much on his plate to consider my work any further.
Still, I was encouraged and wrote a third novel. This was a detective novel set in the Bahamas, intended to be the first in a series. Again, I had a little interest, from a publisher this time, but nothing firmed up and I moved onto play writing instead. Joe Orton had had a big impact on me and my first attempt concerned two public schoolboys who had kidnapped a schoolmaster to raise money to finance their losses on the stock market. Unfortunately, the teacher dies and the play - a farce - concerns their attempts to dispose of the body before the police become too involved.
A professional theatre company immediately took a fancy to the script, but they went bust before it could reach the stage. After one more attempt at play-writing I returned to novel writing and began the Eagle series, which had been on my mind for a few years.
How did you get the idea for the series?
I enjoyed the Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester from an early age, and was quite delighted to discover that a number of other writers had turned their hand to this kind of fiction. Soon I was following the adventures of Sharpe, Aubrey, Maturin, Starbuck and more lately, Falco and Gordianus.
I enjoyed these series so much I wanted to create my own ongoing characters. The main difficulty was that the Napoleonic era was already overpopulated with heroes. Quite how they avoid bumping into each other on a regular basis is something of a mystery to me. Meanwhile, Rome was humming with sleuths. But no one had taken a military hero and plonked him down in the legions. So here was the virgin turf for a new kind of hero in a new setting, and I'm pleased to say that I'm the first author to use this setting in this way.
How did you develop your heroes, Cato and Macro?
I assumed that my readers would not be familiar with the details of Roman history, and life in the legions. Therefore exposition was going to be something of a problem. So I decided to have my hero be a raw recruit to the legions. He would have to learn the ropes, and through him the reader could be 'trained' as well.
In order to emphasise his outsider point of view I made Cato a bit of an academic, prone to self-examination and reflection on wider issues. Cato's uneasiness with military life is very much based on my own experiences. I had toyed with the idea of joining the army while at university and joined the Officer Training Corps. I loved the earthiness of the NCOs. They had a fantastic repertoire of invective and swear words and were consumate professionals. From a distillation of those men emerged Macro - the centurion of the unit Cato joins.
Did you need to do much research?
Of course. Much of the detail I already knew, having had some brilliant Latin teachers at the schools I attended. The first was one of life's great characters - Gordon Rodway. A bear like man with the most wonderful voice who delivered tense descriptions of life and death in Roman times from behind a great cloud of tobacco smoke billowing up from his pipe.
The second was Reg Nash, a dry-witted lover of rugby whose delivery of Latin grammar was sheer torture, but whose enthusiasm for the classical world was terribly infectious. Ultimately Reg won out and I got the top grade in the Latin exam.
After school, their inspirational teaching kept me interested in the classical world and I amassed a large collection of texts and explored as many Roman sites as possible across Europe. Once I started on the Eagle series the focus necessarily narrowed to the military world and I was fortunate that many historians now actually recreate the weapons they talk about. Peter Connolly in particular was a huge help, as were the logistic analyses of the late John Peddie.
What is the USP of your series?
From the reader feedback and the reviews so far it is clear that my characters are true to life and very sympathetic. Once these characters are placed in jeopardy, as they frequently are, the readers are carried away with following their plight. In addition the recreation of place and time is very tangible and readers say they become immersed in the fictional world. The combination of intrigue and battle also provides an effective narrative hook so that all these things make the novels slick, pacy, page-turners.
How far do you intend to extend the series?
The first five novels cover the first years of the Roman invasion of Britain. After The Eagle’s Prey Macro and Cato serve a brief stint in the Roman navy before heading off to the eastern provinces. The boundaries of the empire ran along the North coast of Africa, up through Arabia and the Middle-East, across Turkey, around the Black Sea and up the Danube and across the continent to the North Sea. So Cato and Macro can be set up against a diverse range of external foes.
I definitely want Cato back in Britain for the Boudiccan revolt, and in Rome in 69 AD for the Year of the Four Emperors. He'll also be around for the horrific siege of Jerusalem and the action at Masada. With good early sales there's no reason why Cato and Macro cannot have as many adventures as Sharpe.
How do you organise the writing day?
At the moment, I'm aiming to write 5000 words a week to keep well within the schedule for the latest book. Because I have two very energetic toddlers, writing is something that has to happen late in the evening. I tend to write between 10pm and 2am when everything has quietened down and there are no interruptions. The first thirty minutes are a headache but after that I find I get stuck in and can write up to 1000 words an hour when the pace hots up.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
II'd say that the research takes three to four months to totally immerse myself in Roman culture and the tiny details of military life.
Once I get the writing under way the books take three to five months to write, and another month of re-editing before Marion, my editor at Headline, is satisfied with them. She is quite brilliant at quickly spotting what needs to go and what needs extending, and I find that I agree with almost every change she suggests.
The Revolution series is far more demanding and takes at least twice as long to write.
How did you go about finding a publisher?
The same way most aspiring writers do. I wrote the first three chapters on vacation in the summer of 1997. On returning home I bought a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and started working through the publishers, sending in the first three chapters and a covering letter. I got nowhere, and realised that the only way to get a foot in the door would be to get an agent to do it for me.
So I went back to the Yearbook and started working through the list of agents, A-Z. When I got as far as D in 1998, Wendy Suffield at Merric Davidson wrote back to ask me for the rest of the manuscript. So I had to write back and admit that there wasn't any rest of the manuscript, and that I would send her the rest as soon as it was written. Fortunately Wendy was prepared to be patient and in due course responded very enthusiastically to the finished book. That said, Wendy advised me to cut the length from 132,000 words to 100,000. This radical pruning was quite an education in self-editing and taught me a great deal.
Finally in 1999 Wendy sent the book out to publishers and we struck lucky with Headline who made a three book deal. My luck extended in that the editor at Headline turned out to be the excellent Marion Donaldson. On the first day in December I finally achieved my ambition of being dined out in a swank London restaurant by a publisher.
Do you have any other projects on the go?
Yes. Apart from be busy writing the Eagle and Revolutions series I have co-written a screenplay with my brother Alex and we are thinking of writing another later this year. I have also begun an adult series for Puffin books and have quite a few other projects in development.
Why did you set your series in the Roman era?
Classical history has been a major interest of mine since school days. I think that what impresses me most about Rome is the sheer scale of what they achieved for such a long period of time. The traces of their civilization still abound in terms of ruins and those aspects of their culture than have passed down to us. Particularly the many volumes of creative writing, histories and letters from which it emerges that in many ways they were not so very different from us. That meant, as a writer, I could recreate a world that was at once familiar and yet provided a very different world to explore.
What did you think of the movie Gladiator?
Loved it! While it is littered with historical inaccuracies that doesn't really detract from the fact that it is great cinema. Thanks to computer technology we can finally get a credible representation of the magnificence of the city of Rome and epic scale of her wars and entertainments.
The opening sequence in Germania is just as I had imagined a Roman battle would look. It's unflinchingly grim and gritty and Russell Crowe is perfectly cast as the macho man with absolute integrity. The actual tale is well-trodden: take a heroic achiever, then strip him of everything and make him suffer the worst indignities before he fights his way back to the top. Of course we're rooting for him all the way and his tragic death is so moving.
I just hope this will be the first of many films that take advantage of computer technology to recreate the wonders of the ancient world.
Which authors do you most admire?
Historical fiction has always been my favourite literary genre - ever since I discovered Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth in the school library. Since then, I've tried to sample as much historical fiction as possible and I'm astounded that the genre is not regarded with more respect by reviewers and the literati.
Nothing comes close to the joy of C.S. Forester books. Patrick O'Brian is more amusing, and more detailed, but he lacks the human touch that Forester deployed so memorably in Horatio Hornblower. I very much like Bernard Cornwell's books, particularly the Sharpe series which has proved so successful for him. The pace seldom flags and the battles are vividly written. The Falco detective series of Lindsey Davis is quite wonderful and she brings ancient Rome to life in a very palpable way. But the most impressive writing I've come across are the books of J.G. Ballard. He creates astounding atmospheres and set pieces like no other writer.
Have any of them influenced your writing?
Only insofar as they have inspired me to want to write. I have tried to emulate other writing styles in the past, without any commercial success. When I sat down to write the first Eagle novel I wrote as I wanted to write and was not conscious of any influence at all for the most part. Where I did think about other writers it was purely in terms of wanting to be distinctly different to them.
I believe I have managed to develop a distinctive 'voice' in the way I write and this is born out by the reviews and comments of most readers.
Why do you write historical fiction?
Because I love the way in which it allows for a reader to have an imaginative vacation from the here and now. A lot of fiction uses a contemporary setting but has to slip into some kind of James Bond mode of fantasy in order to entertain. Historical fiction, by contrast, is obliged to be faithful to the facts as far as it can and so there is a sense of being a tourist rather than the literary equivalent of a couch potato.
Since we are often aware of the history, however superficially, the narrative resonates with verisimilitude. In addition, there is an encouraging trend whereby the characters have a contemporary feel to them, for example Falco, so that we can easily slip into the social milieu in order to follow their adventures. Being a big lover of the swords and sandals epics I wanted to represent the Roman culture I knew a great deal about in as life-like a way as possible.
I'm a great reader of history books, and am frustrated by the way good historians can create an exciting tale, but have to be faithful to historical method. Historical fiction, by comparison, is allowed to creatively fill in the gaps left by the historical facts, and that's what makes the world of historical fiction so very tangible.
That said, historical fiction suffers badly in two ways as far as a writer is concerned. Firstly, it is not seen as terribly lucrative by publishers who would rather be publishing safe Grishamesque thrillers or be jumping on the latest Potter bandwagon. Secondly, it is not treated with much respect by reviewers due to some residual assumption that historical fiction equates to breathless bodice-rippers. However, it's what I want to write and you have to work with that knowledge.
Why do you think that the ancient world is becoming increasingly popular as a setting for historical fiction?
It might be a fad. It might be that interest in the extreme decadence of ancient Rome parallels periods of perceived over-indulgence in our world. There is definitely a prurient fascination in the self-indulgence of the Romans and the sheer diversity of the deadly and sexy entertainments that they wallowed in. Thanks to the popularisation of the scandalous histories of Suetonius many of us are familiar with the perverted excesses of Caligula and Tiberius. They make for great copy, great novels, great TV series and great movies.
How successful have the books been?
So far so good. The books have been translated into over a dozen languages and are selling well around the world. The last three novels were all Sunday Times bestsellers. Better still, I am honoured that His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordon is a fan of the Eagle series and it is always a huge pleasure to attend signings and festivals to meet readers who have enjoyed my novels. What greater success can there be than to give fellow fans of historical fiction something to enjoy? Certainly, imitation is the nicest form of flattery, and I now have several other authors following in my tracks with their Roman military series.