Tim Hodkinson talks to prolific Indie author SJA Turney about the 2000 year empire of Rome
SJAT: I am a hopeless dreamer and optimist! Despite having set my sights upon a number of careers earlier on in life, I have drifted around them, following a career path like the Nile delta and that shows all the focus and planning of a Jackson Pollock painting. The one thing that has been consistent throughout my life, though, has been my irrepressible love of history. So after attempts to learn law and computing, I eventually settled into a degree in Classical History. I am also a travel junky. At every opportunity I will down tools and run off to a distant land to photograph three Byzantine bricks standing overgrown in a field on the edge of a desert. I am now married (fortunately to a lovely lady who shares my loves of history and travel) and have two children who seem to be developing a healthy interest in all things Roman! I am a borderline hippy with an abhorrence of violence and a very passive nature, who loves military history and arms and armour, and loves the more extreme forms of heavy metal music. Yes, I am peculiar, as people often point out. I am also terminally chatty, so beware engaging me in conversation on Twitter or Facebook!
TH: Marcus Falerius Fronto is a distinctive individual. Where do you get characters like him?
SJAT: Fronto is a composite of several things. One of the heaviest influences was Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of general Flavius Silva in the series Masada back in 1981, which thrilled me to the edge of reason and remains one of my favourite performances of all time. He is a man who is totally loyal to Rome and to his men, yet is also a man who hates futile war and wasteful campaigning. His strange but appealing ethical code and application of common sense in a situation you least expect to see it stuck with me. It is how I can only imagine the best of Roman commanders to be (such men as Corbulo, Agricola and Bellisarius for example.) Other than Silva, Fronto’s personality is informed by characters such as Robert Vaughan in Bridge at Remargen, Eomer in Lord of the Rings, and real-life figures such as Sir Thomas Fairfax, Sir Thomas Blood, Erwin Rommel and others. I suspect that if you look up those various references you will spot a number of factors that they all have in common, and that are present in Fronto. Essentially, he was born of characters that I respect for their strength, their sense, their ethics, their willingness to make a stand even against ruthless superiors, and to some extent also their rebellious and outrageous tendencies. Of course there was also the need to have someone that was to some extent a ‘chalk and cheese’ figure alongside Caesar. That’s Fronto. Others came about differently, but I think that would take too much space.
SJAT: My love of Rome was born back in the 70s when as a child I was taken to Hadrian’s Wall by my grandad and stood atop Housesteads fort in a blizzard. I was hooked. Let’s face it, Rome had the first true standing army and the first super-force in the world. Their army was so efficient and effective that the world still reveres their organisation and achievements a millennium on. If we throw in the Byzantine world (who considered themselves still Roman) then Rome and its military held an empire for over two thousand years. Rome is one of the most studied and loved subjects across the globe, and groups meet up to reenact their military in every corner of the world, so it’s clear that the subject is an absorbing one. Specifically, I found myself one day reading Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic Wars and thinking: ‘This is a great story, but told in a somewhat dusty and self-aggrandising manner. I wonder why nobody has every tried to turn it into a good historical military tale?’ And so that’s exactly what I tried to do. Of course, six volumes later, I have strayed from the direct text and into Fronto’s personal life and the politics of Rome, too, but it is still very much at heart a reworking of the Gallic War commentaries.
TH: Julius Caesar: tyrant, dictator, military genius, misunderstood great leader? What’s your opinion?
SJAT: Clearly all of the above! It is impossible to deny his skill as an orator, a politician or a general. History gives us that. That he was also ruthless, a womaniser, a master of propaganda, a megalomaniac and a schemer is also almost a given when one looks at then details. Caesar to me comes across as the first great ‘renaissance man’ and yet at the same time the first ‘super villain’. It is the dichotomy of good and wicked that makes him quite the fascinating character he is.
TH: You now have a second series set in Ottoman times. Why did you pick that that era/situation?
SJAT: Again, this was born from Rome in a fashion. My love of Rome led me eventually to visiting Istanbul, which kicked off a strange fascination with late Rome and the Byzantine world. From that it is hard to avoid studying the early Ottoman Turks and the fall of Constantinople. My Ottoman Cycle is set within living memory of the great city still being the beating heart of the Byzantine empire and the last flowering of the world of Rome. It is about the juxtaposition of the two cultures, really. The more I look into the era, the more it fascinates me, though largely in the eastern regions. Specifically, the event that triggered the series was an odd one. I was exploring the ruined structures of Istanbul and came across references to a church that had gone because it was used by the Ottomans as a gunpowder store and was struck by lightning in 1491, with interesting results. The event is so little known that I thought it deserved a story, and it did not take long to come up with a character who is far, far removed from a ‘Fronto’ and tie around him a plot that culminated in that event. The series has spilled on from that and will run to a fourth book before all the threads are neatly tied up.
TH: Are there any challenges writing two series set in two distinct historical eras separated by about a 1000 years?
SJAT: To be honest, I have found none. But then, I have also written two as yet unpublished tales set in the 2nd century and the early 1st, as well as fantasy works and short stories across two thousand years. Somehow, although I have to use a magic eight ball to make important decisions in real life and my memory is so poor that by lunchtime I have forgotten what I had for breakfast, my memory for historical eras, characters and events is excellent. I can hold the plot threads for different series with seeming ease, while often forgetting my dog’s name. In fact, I find it pleasant to alternate eras. It works as something of a palate-cleanser, keeping both fresh and enticing for me.
TH: Have you plans to set work in any other historical eras in the future?
SJAT: My word, yes! Heh heh. As well as the two other Roman periods I alluded to before, I am working on a joint project with the talented Gordon Doherty, which takes in another. Additionally, I have a part-written and currently-shelved work set in Renaissance Italy and am looking at a series that will cover 4th century, 8th century and 9th century. There is just too much fascinating history out there that begs to be told in tales to confine myself too much, though Rome will always be my literary heartland.
SJAT: Ooh. I like to feel the story before I write it. I like to visit the locations, because while it is easy enough to describe a place when you’ve studied books, photos and views in Google Earth, nothing compares to personal experience. When you walk across an ancient city or battle site, you can feel the heat of the blazing sun bringing the perspiration, the steepness of the chalky bank, the brush of broom on your ankles as you walk. You can hear the crickets buzz and smell the smells of the land. And when you have that you are able (I believe) to bring a place alive in writing. I would hope that that shows, particularly in my recent books, where I have made a solid effort to visit each site in advance. I certainly felt as though I knew each place as I wrote and could picture it clearly in my mind’s eye. In a similar vein, I have recently taken up reenacting the Roman military of the Principate with the fabulous Deva Victrix from Chester. My wrecked shoulders, trick knee and general unfitness are something of a hazard, in that I should clearly really be reenacting a 95yr old man, but the experience it provides is giving me an insight into the life that I could not have hoped for before. In essence, I gather all the info I can from sourcebooks, but nothing beats hands-on experience.
TH: Where do you sit on the “historical accuracy vs. story” debate? e.g. Is it ever OK to twist facts to suit fiction?
SJAT: I think it is almost essential to tweak events to suit a story, though it should be kept to a minimum and should stay as closely aligned with history as possible. But being an ‘accuracy-nazi’ endangers the readability of a tale in my experience. So many stories could be written, but you look at the details and realise that the best possible exciting tale is not possible because the enemy were four miles too far away. Do we write a dull tale because of that, or do we move that enemy four miles west to write an exciting scene? The thing is that we write ‘historical fiction’ and the keyword there is ‘fiction’. Keep to the history as much as is humanly possible, but for the love of excitement, don’t let that get in the way of a great story. Don’t completely overturn things, but tweak them, sure. I tend to make small adjustments as they are required and then explain in the notes at the book’s end. Can you imagine what the film Gladiator would have been like if the Maximus character had ended up retiring to his country estate and outliving the villain, while Commodus himself was strangled in a bath? Not quite the dramatic ending, eh?
TH: What’s the best thing about writing historical fiction?
SJAT: I get to tell the stories I love to read. It really is the best thing in the world for me. It’s like being handed your most enthralling dreams and your fondest hobbies and being told they are now your job. Can you imagine how that feels? Nothing can beat doing what you love as a career. That and the endless bloodshed and fart-jokes, of course!
TH: What’s the worst?
SJAT: Money! Ha. No actually, the worst thing is writing something, loving your work, and then sitting back and wondering whether anyone else will. Particularly when writing a new era or subject. I suppose it’s a facet of ‘pressure to perform’ with the additional factor of your income relying on it. Among the good reviews a book garners from readers (which is always a humbling thrill) there will inevitably be the odd bad one. Fortunately many of these are often idiotic. One-Star reviews with reasons like ‘I read it upside down’ or ‘the book’s the wrong shape’ or ‘I thought it was going to be about a mad zebra and was wholly disappointed with Roman wars’ just make me chuckle, but when I find a bad review with a well-reasoned argument, it does knock your confidence, for sure.
SJAT: I have often toyed with the ideas of Horror and Sci-Fi. I would never be able to devote my time to thoroughly exploring those genres, but I can almost feel an anthology of horror tales bubbling to the surface of my wizened, pickled brain any time now. And I had an idea some time back about a book set in the future revolving around the discovery of teleportation. But, to be honest, while I would love to write them, I have soooo much history churning around in my braincase it will be many years before I can see myself sparing the time. I have got a sort of different genre already floating around, as I have an unpublished collaboration with a fine artist that will see the mix of genres between Roman History and Children’s Fiction.
TH: Do you listen to music while writing? If so, what tends to be on your playlist?
SJAT: Hmmm. Yes. And all sorts. My musical taste is very eclectic, though I do have a tendency to listen mostly to extremely heavy Scandinavian metal. It varies as the mood takes me. This morning, for instance, I am listening to Korn as I answer this interview. The heaviest, pounding, thunderous music tends to accompany chapters with much battle or violence involved (In Flames, Scar Symmetry, Dark Tranquillity etc.). In between, it is often Pink Floyd, or Urma, or Midnight Oil, or the like. And then sometimes, as the mood takes me, I will get frivolous and listen to The Kinks, or The Clash, or something totally different. My musical playlist is as random as you would expect if you know me.
TH: Can you tell us a bit about your current WIP?
SJAT: Heh. I have several. I have the Roman children’s work, which is now having the illustrations added by the talented Dave Slaney, and which I cannot wait to unveil. There’s the joint work with master Doherty, but that remains a secret project until closer to completion (we’re about 2/3 of the way through now.) There’s a new collection of Roman tales coming at some point that is currently in planning, and will be released in support of a project that is close to my heart. But I guess the big work in progress is Marius’ Mules VII: The Great Revolt which I am now in the early stages of. This is the big one as far as the Gallic wars are concerned. It is also the one that I am most determined to get ‘just right’. With the great battles of Gergovia and Alesia here, it really is the culmination of the series to this point. It will not be the last book in the series, but there will definitely be some changes following it, and it will be something of a watershed moment in the series. While it will hearken back to the early books in its central theme being the battles of the Gallic revolt, it also has enough fascinating non-martial plot threads running through it that I think it will also appeal to those who are no lover of fight scenes. Certainly I have a new character who I love to write. Think of him as a Gallic Fronto and you’re heading in the right direction. The book should be out by Halloween, or that’s the plan, anyway.
TH: If you didn’t write, what would you do?
SJAT: Starve! Actually, I really don’t know. Over my ‘career meander’ for want of a better description for what clearly is no path, I have done many many things. I have sold cars, worked for the civil service, lugged bags of sand, sold paint, dealt with hire cars, coded databases and maintained computer networks and websites. And while I’ve enjoyed some of it, none of it grabbed me. Most of my more recent life has been IT-based and redundancy pushed me headlong into full-time writing. Simply: I have no real love of computing, and certainly no desire to go back to it. In the 3 years since I was made redundant, I have regressed almost two millennia and I’m not sure how I would go back. If writing stops being viable, I will likely return to the ‘Career Meander’. One thing I have often thought of and never done is teaching, so there is always that as a possibility. Let’s just hope I can keep up the writing and that people continue to like the books, so that I never have to find out!
Posted by Richard Lee