Launch: Daniel Pugsley’s Son of Babylon
INTERVIEW BY ELLEN IRWIN
Daniel Pugsley is a college lecturer in ESOL and English. He spent a decade living and working in Italy, Japan, Poland, and the UAE. When not lecturing, he performs proofreading, beta-reading, and coaching services for historical fiction and fantasy authors. He is married with three children.
What was your “elevator pitch” for Son of Babylon?
The wolves at court are circling, and they can smell blood. With his father King Hammurabi defending Babylon from invasion, Bani and his mother face a death struggle of their own…
What was your inspiration for writing a story set in the mesmerizing world of ancient Babylon?
I am a huge history nerd, and a lot of what I read for fun is historical fiction. In early 2020, I was watching a YouTube video telling the incredible stories of rulers such as Hammurabi and Zimri-lim. Around the same time, I had been re-reading the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell, as season 4 of The Last Kingdom was about to be released. I found myself daydreaming about a series written from one POV in the style of Uhtred, but set in ancient Mesopotamia. When I started digging into the history a little deeper, I uncovered all these amazing real-life characters. Bani jumped out as the obvious candidate to base the story around.
Was there a particular historical figure or event you came across in your research for this novel that fueled your creation of certain character complexities or plot twists?
There are a number of characters with real-life inspirations. Bani’s mother is a blend of two real-life characters, and the way they are portrayed by the writers I feel captured them in the most iconic way. Brunhilde in Shelley Puhak’s book The Dark Queens was just an incredible woman. From her I took Ellat’s drive and ambition, and her political and emotional intelligence. The way she very quickly makes an ally from High Priest Diitanii is straight from the Brunhilde playbook. I also added a touch of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, as portrayed in Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers. Ellat gets her self-confidence, her resilience and her deep love for her child from Jacquetta.
While reading your book, I was particularly moved by the depth of the relationship between Bani and his mother as they are caught up in the storm of war. What compelled you to write about a mother-son bond such as theirs?
As a father of three, and someone lucky enough to have a great relationship with my own parents, I really wanted to reflect that with Bani and Ellat. I think the strength of this relationship is fundamental to Bani’s character. It’s what allows him to recover from the terrible things he sees and endures. I did find it difficult to get those chapters right though. It was only after I found the essence of Ellat’s character that they started to come together. I’m really proud of how many people have told me the relationship between them was a standout feature of the novel.
You spent ten years teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)—in Italy, Japan, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates. How did your experiences during these years abroad inform this story?
Living in Abu Dhabi for five years meant I got to know many people from a range of modern middle-eastern cultures. I now teach a lot of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish people, who are the modern inhabitants of the lands of ancient Babylon. I have definitely used elements of their lived experiences in the story, to help me with authenticity. I was able to draw on my own journey as well. For example, when Bani arrives in Eshnunna, he is almost overwhelmed by all the small details and differences he notices, and that is a direct reflection of what I feel like in a new country, especially when I arrived in Japan.
I also read that you love playing and watching sport, and have a background in rugby and Muay Thai (or Thai boxing). How have practicing these disciplines helped you write about combat in war-ravaged Babylon?
We have all heard the adage ‘write what you know’. I have never been in the military, and I don’t think any of us will ever know what a shield wall really feels like when the enemy are trying to cave your helmet in with an axe. On the other hand, I have stepped into the ring, and I have been in the changing rooms before a big rugby game. I was able to use that to focus on the emotions Bani felt during a fight. When you know what it feels like to train so hard you taste metal in the back of your throat, and you know how thick your tongue feels after two hours of Muay Thai in the blazing summer heat in Phuket, it’s a little easier to empathize with someone who just fought all day!
What was the most significant challenge you personally faced while writing this novel, and how did you overcome it?
Like most authors, I would love to have more time to write. I had to be strong about carving out some time most days, and it remains a real struggle. I have three kids, edit and beta read books, I have other interests like sport and I also do charity and union work. My passion for the story and for writing kept me highly motivated, but there are only so many hours in a day!
What will Bani’s main focus be as he continues his journey in the sequel to this first book of the Babylon Series?
This is hard to answer without spoilers for the ending of Son of Babylon! After all he has been through, Bani knows what he wants out of life. At the end of the book, he isn’t satisfied with what he’s achieved so far. He will keep trying to change that during the series, despite all that’s about to be thrown in his way.
What first pulled you into the wonderful world of historical fiction?
Thanks to my mum, I was an early reader and I have always loved books. My first proper novels were the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. As a progression, my dad suggested moving on to the Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell, who quickly became my favourite writer and remains so to this day.
What was the last great book you read?
The Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel.