Which writers have inspired you?
Lots of different writers at different times. When I was a child I read a lot of adventure stories: John Buchan, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean. In my early teens I thought Tolkein the greatest writer ever. By the time I was at University I was into on the one hand what is often rather dismissively referred to as the English comic novel, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, and on the other the nineteenth century Russians. It probably says something about my limitations that I still prefer the early Russian writers, Pushkin and Lermontov to the later masters. Among contemporary novelists, I always get the new Julian Barnes and William Boyd as soon as they are published. For historical novels, I grew up reading Alfred Duggan, Graham Shelby, and Mary Renault. Patrick O’Brian remains an inspiration. Recently I have discovered Cormac McCarthy; wonderful, a literary novelist who does not avoid action.
How and where do you write?
It is no good poncing about waiting for inspiration to strike. I work in my study, nine to five, six days a week; more if a deadline is near. I carry a notebook, to get descriptions of stuff I see and hear fixed before I forget it, and to jot down lines from books and newspapers.
How does writing fiction compare with writing non-fiction?
They are not as different as people tend to think. Writing history or historical fiction – for either you choose what research to do, which bits you will use, how you arrange and nuance them. Doing both helps. In scholarly research I often come across things that will be useful for the novels, and writing fiction makes me learn about new areas of the classical world.
What drew you to this period in history?
The third century AD was a period of fast change, with lots of political and military activity. I had done research on it before. The sources are particularly interesting. That little is known for certain, adds a level of freedom.
Why do you think Ancient Rome remains so popular?
I can think of a couple of pretentious possible reasons. A world where there was one remaining superpower which ‘policed’ the world, and where there was conflict between east and west, might resonate in the twenty first century. Or maybe it is just Gladiator was a great movie.
Do you believe that people should be able to learn from historical novels?
I adored Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels. When I read a straight history on the subject, N.A.M. Roger’s wonderful The Wooden World: Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, I found I already knew a great deal from O’Brian’s fiction. If a historical novel neither teaches you anything nor raises interesting questions, most likely it is not worth reading.
What liberties do you have to take with the history for the benefit of the action?
The surface level stories of Ballista and his familia are invented – the very little we half know about the historical Ballista is in Lion of the Sun – but the background is as true as I can make it. Not just the externals – the clothes, food, weapons and the like – but the internal lives of the characters – their attitudes and values. One thing I did change in Fire in the East was the name and lay out of Dura-Europos; the topography and archaeology of the town was too complicated to fit easily into a novel. Where I change things, I let the reader know in the Historical Afterword.
Your characters are so vividly drawn – is character development harder in historical novels? Or is it more important?
I don’t see a difference. I am impatient with the artificial boundaries of ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction. As, I think, John Banville said, there is just good writing and bad writing.
Do you have any favourite historical film/TV adaptations?
Probably my favourite historical film is Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. The reason is oddly specific. I remember watching the original series on TV. It was Sunday evenings. We had dinner early, so I could watch it with my father. He is dead now. Thinking back to it, I seem absurdly young for my years then. I also often re-watch Ran, Kurosawa’s Samurai re-imagining of King Lear, and Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu. My favourite TV show was The Sopranos until I saw The Wire – the nearest ever thing to a novel on screen. Just like I do not read many novels set in the classical world, I do not watch many films with that setting. But, that said, Gladiator was marvellous.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write a lot, different types of thing, only show the stuff you are very happy with and have been so for some time, do not pastiche, find your own voice, get an agent. Obvious stuff.