Anything important – sex, death, love, freedom, whatever – and the Romans’ views were very different from ours. MM Bennetts in conversation with Harry Sidebottom
I first encountered Harry Sidebottom two summers ago, at the Kelmarsh Festival of History, where he he had been talking about Rome to an enthralled audience of enthusiasts. He was as charming and erudite then as he is now, and it was with great pleasure that I chatted with him again about his popular Warrior of Rome novels.
MB: One of the first things I noticed when entering your world of the Warrior of Rome sequence of novels is that you break all the rules of popular or contemporary fiction. Your writing isn’t streamlined to eliminate all but the barest description, the description is there, and some of the writing is just beautiful and I loved it. Also, you’re not writing in the currently popular first person, but using a traditional third person omniscient narrator–and it’s working brilliantly. You’re equally not dumbing anything down–you’re employing the Latin terms for various things and functionaries, you’ve got a glossary in the back as well as a cast of historical characters–but no one could ever accuse you of info-dumping or say that these novels are dragged down by too much arcane history. So how are you getting away with all this? What’s the magic?
HS: Interesting questions. First person narrative first. I thought about using this, but decided to go with a third person voice because while the Warrior series is built around the central character of Ballista, I knew that I wanted readers to experience a lot of scenes through other characters’ POV, and I thought too many first person narratives might be confusing.
I think the recent genre rule that all popular fiction has to be very streamlined with very few if any descriptive passages probably is publisher-led. It might just be that some publishers underestimate what the reading public want and how much effort they are prepared to put into reading a book. I don’t like the idea of genre fiction. I think John Banville said something like there is just good writing and bad.
The Historical Afterwords at the end of my novels are very important to me. It is about honesty. They give me a chance to show, at least in part, where I have played with the history. Some readers say they like them. Others – usually hiding behind the anonymity of silly names on the internet (can they all be sock-puppets?) – get very upset by them. ‘Don’t patronize me! Vanity! Pompous academic!’ Presumably they get upset when the DVD they buy has bonus features. But maybe they have a point. How dare I think that as an Oxford Don I might know more about my subject than them?
MB: Ancient Rome is quite mentally distant for many readers: they know little about it beyond Cecil B DeMille toga dramas and Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels, but you’re spanning the millenia with ease in these novels and talking about what is essentially a very different culture than ours but without moral judgments and presenting the world they knew, but in a form we can digest. Can you talk about that for a moment?
HS: The key fascination in doing classical history is the strange mixture of similarity to us and difference from us in the Greeks and Romans. The late, great Mary Renault said something on the lines of the pleasure of historical fiction being the interplay of what is universal in the human condition and what was specific to a time and place. It seems to me true of any kind of historical writing and reading.
MB: So many authors choose to look at Rome in its imperial glory, writing about the days of Julius Caesar and Augustus (though they seem to skip Nero…), but you’re writing about essentially the beginning of the end, as the vast empire came under pressure both from within and without. Why did you focus on this segment of the history?
HS: I have been into the third century AD for a long time. We think we know what the Roman empire was like before in the second century, and the same for after in the fourth. The two look very different. In between lies the obscurity of the third. A time of lots of political intrigue and military action, and a time of profound changes – most importantly the rise of Christianity – with difficult and challenging sources, what more could you want?
MB: You are writing at an amazing speed, producing a new Warrior of Rome novel approximately every six months, which is one heck of a writing schedule. How much are you writing every day in order to meet your deadlines? How much research are you needing to do for each novel? And in all that, how are you still finding time to lecture at Oxford, eat, sleep and that sort of thing? Do you have a clone or are you actually just Superman of the Writing World?
HS: Every six months! That would be great. Actually it is the US publishing schedule that gives that impression. It takes me a year to do a novel: six months research, six months writing. I don’t write quickly, 1500 words is a good day. I do work very hard – six days a week, 9am-6.30pm, more when finishing a book. I am very driven. Which is odd. When I was younger I was very feckless.
MB: How closely do you stick to the facts when writing? And how do you weave your fictional characters through this period of immense turmoil and upheaval? Or is it a case of the history gives you the plot and you’re just putting your eye-witness there?
HS: The surface story of Ballista and his familia is completely invented (except for in the third novel, Lion of the Sun). I try to keep the historical underpinning as accurate as I can in every way. It is not enough to get the externals right – the clothes, food, whatever – you have got to attempt the imaginative leap into an alien thought world. Name anything important – sex, death, love, freedom, whatever – and the Romans’ views were very different from ours. It is where bad historical novels fail.
MB: What are the secrets of writing a successful series of novels with one protagonist running throughout? How do you keep it fresh? How do you continue to develop the characters over that many installments?
HS: One way is to develop the characters slowly, only reveal a bit at a time. In Fire in the East Julia is just someone Ballista thinks about. She appears in King of Kings, but does not get a POV until the third novel Lion of the Sun. Also let them grow and change in ways you were not expecting.
Calgacus started off in my imagination as a walk on comedy Scot – if you have ever seen the classic Brit comedy Dad’s Army, think Private Fraser; ‘We are all doomed, doomed I tell you!’ – but while writing he morphed first into Preserved Killick from Patrick O`Brian, and then into Ballista`s moral compass.
Having done six warrior novels in six years, to keep it fresh I am next going to write a different trilogy altogether. Throne of the Caesars is set in AD235-8. I am writing the first one now. Iron and Rust should be out summer 2014. Fans of Warrior can be reassured the new series has something of the prequel about it.
MB: What’s next for Ballista? Is there ever going to be a happy ending for him? [Tell me this isn’t going to end like that downer, Gladiator, because that was just the laziest ending ever filmed.]
HS: There may be, but not for some time. Warrior 7-9 are all plotted out. A lot of bad things are going to happen in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
Thank you for the questions.
MB: And thank you for giving so many thoughtful responses. Because you’ve certainly given me a great deal to mull over. So thank you for that…And I’ll look forward to the new Warriors with every kind of anticipation.