Ian Graham, author of Monument, Q&A

I’m VERY pleased to be joined today by a really fantastic writer, Ian Graham. I reviewed one of his two new books a couple of days ago HERE, and now I get to ask him some questions about his work. Read on and enjoy!

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Hi Ian, thanks for joining me for this short interview today. I’ve been a fan of yours for years now so it’s been a joy to finally get hold of your second book. Going back to that first book, though, why did you decide to write about an anti-hero in Monument?

Hi Steven. Oddly enough, I didn’t consciously decide to write about an anti-hero. During the writing of Monument, Ballas didn’t strike me as exceptionally unpleasant at all; I suppose that I was considering more his virtues – determination, resilience, physical competence – than his vices. Of course, I wasn’t quite so oblivious as to fail to recognise that he was fairly unwholesome in many respects, but I was generally preoccupied with his admirable qualities; also, knowing that his childhood had been harrowing, I was inclined to regard him with a certain degree of sympathy.

Only when the book was released, and reviews started to appear, did I realise that Ballas appeared a much darker character to readers than he did to me, which was a great – and gratifying – surprise.

 

How did you plan it out before you started writing? I mean, Ballas is such a bastard yet, somehow, you managed to make readers empathise enough with him that they were rooting for him and reading right until the end of the book to see what happened. It must have been incredibly difficult to strike that balance so people didn’t just throw down the book in disgust at his behaviour.

Monument is the only book I more or less improvised from start to finish. I began with a handful of loose ideas: the Penance Oak, the character of Ballas, and a (very) vague notion of an artefact called the Monument (I didn’t know what its function was, only that it was a device of great importance). Each day, I’d write a scene, or part of a scene, then spend time working out what I would write the following day. Nowadays, its seems an appallingly reckless way to work, but back then it felt completely natural. As I didn’t think of Ballas as being conspicuously unpleasant, I did not foresee any real problems regarding the readers’ empathy – beyond the usual ones, at least; if I had, Ballas might’ve turned out a softer – and less interesting – character. Sometimes, perhaps, it helps to be stupidly unaware of important things!

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Now, I should say, I read Monument years ago but I’ve been waiting eagerly for the next book from you. Finally, I found it (and another one!) just a couple of months ago. You had a gap of years between your first and second books – why?

After Monument, I became paralyzingly self-conscious when I sat down to write – and self-consciousness obliterates the vital naturalness of the creative process. This led to a catastrophic drop in confidence, and a hideous loss of perspective. I became hypercritical, and everything I wrote didn’t seem up to scratch. I’d show work to friends and other writers, but when I received positive feedback, I’d assume it arose from politeness or a desire to be encouraging. It was a long, grim period; I was writing every day, but getting nowhere. Of course, I still have a self-critical streak – most writers do, I think – but it’s largely under control, thank goodness.

Let’s just make things clear for people – Monument was your debut novel, but your two recent books Path of the Hawk (Books 1 and 2) are actually prequels to Monument. What made you go down that route and are you glad you did it like that?

The publishers asked if I’d consider writing a prequel – it was that simple – and I was more than enthusiastic about the idea. I’d often wondered what Ballas was like in the period between childhood and embittered middle age. I knew, roughly, how he had spent the time – that he’d been a soldier, then a member of the Hawks, Druine’s elite regiment. But how had his personality developed? What was he like before he sank into alcoholic hopelessness? Fortunately, when I started writing Path, I found that I had an instinctive feel for the younger Ballas, and didn’t have to go through a tricky process of “reverse engineering” the character back to his former self.

What would be your suggested reading order for the series?

As Monument and The Path of the Hawk can be read as standalone pieces, there is no necessity to read one before tackling the other. If someone starts with Monument, they’ll be catching Ballas at his lowest ebb; if they then move onto the prequel, they’ll get a good – and hopefully interesting – sense of what he once was, and exactly how far he had fallen by the time Monument takes place; within Path, there are hints of the unhappy direction his life will eventually take . . . Alternatively, if Path is read first, the reader may enjoy the shock of coming abruptly face-to-face with the reprobate version of Ballas.

I haven’t read Path of the Hawk Book 2 yet, so is that the end of the Ballas series, or will there be more from him? And will there be another long gap before you publish something new again? I hope not! What are you working on now, if anything?

I’d be delighted to write another Ballas book, but at present I’m working on a story set in a different world with a different cast of characters. With any luck, the new one should be finished before too long. I won’t say anymore about it; I’m one of those writers who feels that discussing a work-in-progress, no matter how vaguely, completely kills the desire to write it. Unusually for me, though, I plotted out the entire story before starting to put down the words; hopefully, this will prevent me from crashing into dead-ends or getting lost amongst plot-tangles . . .

What about your own reading tastes – who are your favourite authors? Monument was, of course, graced with a cover endorsement by the much-missed David Gemmell, were you a fan of his?

I’m fairly magpie-like in my reading tastes. When I’m working on a book, I avoid fiction as I find myself involuntarily adopting the stylistic traits of whoever I’m reading at the time; during such periods, I’ll read a lot of philosophy, psychology and occasional gobbets of history. Novelwise, though, there are so many writers I admire. My academic background is in the Romantic poets – Keats, Byron , Wordsworth et al; they made an enormous impact on me. But so did many other writers: Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Goethe, Borges, Gogol, Bulgakov . . . The list rolls on, endlessly. Within the genre, though, it was David Gemmell who had by far the largest impact on me. I think there are primarily two ways in which a writer can influence an aspirant: he can either make them realise which kind of fiction they want to write or, if they already know, they can show them how to go about it. With Gemmell, it was the latter: I already had an inkling of the type of fantasy I was keen on writing – in particular with regard to the realism of the characters – and when I read my first Gemmell novel – Morningstar – I thought, Ah, this is how it’s done! It was quite a revelation.

I was incredibly fortunate to know Dave in person. In the winter of 1992, I attended a five-day residential writing workshop at which Dave was the writer-in-residence. Afterwards, we stayed in touch, and I’d occasionally go to visit. He was a fountainhead of good advice and encouragement and, of course, is greatly missed.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers, old and new?

To the old readers, I’d say, Thanks for your patience! And to the new ones, I hope you enjoy the books – and try not to pick up any of Ballas’s bad habits . . .

Thanks for doing this Ian, I really appreciate it. It was a great pleasure to finally read more of Ballas, a character who truly stuck in my brain. You created a real classic in my opinion!

Bio: Ian Graham is a writer living in the north of England. The Path of the Hawk is a prequel to his first novel, Monument.

Website: iansgraham.net

One final note – a few people asked me (Steven) where to get Ian’s books in the USA as apparently they’re not available there. I’d suggest American readers track down the paperback versions from the Book Depository or Amazon UK as they are really worth reading!

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Robin Hood meets Odysseus!

Here’s a fun new Q&A between myself and Odysseus author Glyn Iliffe on the Edinburgh Book Review website, take a look!

http://www.edinburghbookreview.co.uk/news/steven-a-mckays-interview-with-glyn-iliffe

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Glyn Iliffe, author of the excellent Adventure of Odysseus series.

New Q&A with the Indian Book Reviews blog

Here’s a short interview I did recently with the Indian Book Reviews website. They’ve enjoyed all my books and really supported me since the beginning so please take a look! You even get to see what the title of the first book in my next series might be…(actually it’s changed since I did this Q&A but it’ll give you an idea of the direction I’ll be going in once the Forest Lord series is done with).

CLICK HERE

Also, the US Countdown deal worked pretty well, pushing Wolf’s Head up to number 1 in the Medieval chart, while my overall author ranking also reached number 62 in the History section. Of all the thousands of authors writing history-themed books on Amazon.com I was in the top 100, it’s mind boggling to me. 🙂

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So, THANK YOU if you bought any of the books, I hope you enjoy them!

 

Q&A with my narrator Nick Ellsworth – James Bond and more!

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Rise of the Wolf is out NOW from Audible, so hopefully you haven’t used your monthly credit yet. It should also be available on iTunes soon. And that’s not all – Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is also available to pre-order from Audible, you’ll be able to listen to it on November 13th!

To celebrate, here’s a Q&A I did with my excellent narrator, Nick Ellsworth. Enjoy!

 

Collaborating with someone on a project has to work in more than just the obvious ways. Anyone that’s ever been in a band will know it doesn’t matter how good your music sounds if you just don’t get on with the other musicians!

I’d heard some horror stories when I first started looking for a narrator to produce Wolf’s Head so I was very pleased to find Nick Ellsworth. Someone who not only sounded great but completed the project quickly with very little input needed from me. He’s since produced all of my books (five so far) and has been a pleasure to work with each and every time. If you’re looking for someone to read your novel, check him out on the ACX website, but first, read this…

You’re a busy man – can you list your resume in terms of acting/voice-over work?

As an actor I’ve worked for the RoyalShakespeare Company, The Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre and various theatres up and down the country. I’ve done some TV stuff including a recent episode of The US series, ‘Bones”. As a young actor I had small parts in the movies, “The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Force Ten From Navarone’.

What was your favourite job, ever?

Probably playing a despicable villain in a play called, ‘Heaven and Hell’.

What’s it like doing voice-over work compared to TV or film? Is there much difference?

Voice over work can be much more concentrated as the scripts tend to be much shorter than performing in TV or film, but voicing a TV commercial for example, you can spend up to an hour just working on a few words and getting it exactly how the client wants it.

robin hood booksWhen I’m writing a book I have a file with a list of characters and what they look like, height, hair colour, etc. Do you have similar audio files, with snippets of each voice you do for characters, so they’re consistent?

No, but if a character comes up again later on in a book or a later book in the same series, I’ll refer back to previous voice files to refresh my memory, regarding the voice I used.

Speaking of your accents – are you a Yorkshireman? You do a very convincing version of that one, almost as if it’s natural, which is, obviously, perfect for my books. One listener told me she thought your Yorkshire accent was sexy!

Well, I was born and brought up in N. Wales, but my family on my mother’s side are from the Manchester area, so I grew up around people with strong northern accents.

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You’ve produced all of my books now, including the Xmas novella. Which did you enjoy narrating the most?

I’ve enjoyed reading all of them, but the last one, the Friar Tuck novella, I thought was totally captivating with its blend of religion, folk-lore, courage, humour and adventure. All set around the magical time of Christmas!

Who would you choose to narrate a book you’d written?

I really like Peter Firth’s voice, who was one of the leads in the spy series, ‘Spooks’. I think he has a great reading voice.

Of course you HAVE written books – my own daughter read one or two of them even before we started working together. Tell us a bit about them.

I’ve written picture books for very young children and short stories for older children. I’ve also written an anthology of bible stories and a re-telling of famous fairytales. You can find most of them on my Amazon homepage.

robin hood novelWhat future projects do you have lined up (until my final Forest Lord novel needs your talents)?

I’ve written a comedy series for radio which I’m trying to sell and have a booking for a radio commercial for the ‘Most Haunted’ TV series and am presenting an awards ceremony for the Heathrow Academy. Most excitingly, at the beginning of November I’m heading off to the US for 7 weeks. I’ll be visiting friends in LA and San Francisco, playing a little poker in Vegas, then shooting off to Washington DC to spend Christmas with my brother and his wife. Should be fun! (providing I don’t lose too much at the poker tables!)

Thanks for doing this interview, enjoy your Christmas!

You can contact Nick via his website

Audio interview with me from last year’s London Book Fair

I was interviewed at LBF14 for an internet radio station – AudioBookRadio.net, but never heard much more about it. Until today, when they contacted me to tell me it was on Youtube so… have a listen. I hope you can all understand my (polite) Glasgow accent! It’s a bit noisy and you can’t really hear the interviewer but my answers are clear enough.

1 – What book most inspired you to be a writer?
2 – Is there a book that you wished you had written?
3 – Is there any subject that you think does not belong between the covers of a book?
4 – What book would you most want read to you?
5 – Do you think you would have been a storyteller in the days before print?

ROBIN HOOD

Writing Superheroes! New interview with me, have a gander

Brand new Q&A with yours truly in which I talk about the new bookhow I deal with my supervillain, and the importance of Wham! and Noddy Holder…

http://randombitsoffascination.com/2015/07/19/writing-superheroes-steven-mckay-the-sequel/

All good superhero stories, have a sequel–something else happens after the first foe is vanquished.  How does your sequel begin (after the publication of you first/most recent book….)

In my last book, The Wolf and the Raven, Sir Guy of Gisbourne was vanquished, with a terrible scar and an eye missing for his troubles. In the new novel, Rise of the Wolf, Gisbourne is back and, as you’d expect, rather annoyed…In terms of beginnings, this is the first time I’ve used a prologue. I never really understood why they were needed but, looking at the structure of the book, I thought this would be a better way to kick things off than the first chapter. I hope my readers agree!

Click the pic of me to read the rest!

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Q&A with Andrew Latham, author

 

Today I’m joined by Professor Andrew Latham. He’s written a few non-fiction books already and is what I’d call a true scholar, but now he’s turned his hand to fiction and his excellent new novel The Holy Lance is just about to be published. I posted my review for that already, but now you can learn a bit more about it in my Q&A with the author.

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Hi Andrew, I’m glad to have you here today! This isn’t your first book, since you’ve previously published non-fiction, correct? How does it feel to be publishing a novel rather than a history book? How do the two compare?

I have to say, it feels great! Any time I have published an academic piece (whether book, article, or book chapter), I have felt a real sense of accomplishment and professional pride. This kind of writing matters – to a small number of people, at least – and a job well done is a job well done. But this is different. In some sense, I have been training my whole life to write academic works. I know how to do it, understand the business, and feel at home in the world of academic publishing. Writing academic works seems natural and, well, work-a-day. Writing this novel, on the other hand, has been something entirely new. Nothing has really prepared me for it. At the outset, I knew next to nothing about writing fiction, did not understand the business, and felt totally at sea in the world of fiction publishing (don’t get me started on the whole agent thing). So, at a minimum, the sense of accomplishment is greater. But I think there’s more to it than that. I really haven’t thought about this until you asked the question, but I think that writing a novel – even if no one actually reads it – is intrinsically more rewarding in that it allows one to create and inhabit a world in ways that the kind of scholarship I do simply cannot. I love my protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan; I like (or loathe) the other historical and fictional characters that populate my novel; I feel deeply invested in the battles that punctuate the narrative; I feel the rhythms of the day as laid out in the Templar Rule; I can taste the watered wine the Templars were allowed a couple of times a day. And I can feel the enchantment of a world governed by cultural matrix of faith rather than science, of God rather than Man (which is not to say I always want to inhabit this world, just visit now and then). These are the sorts of reactions I have to The Holy Lance that I have never had to any of my non-fiction works. So, when you ask how it feels, I say it feels great. Now, don’t get me wrong – I hope it’s a best-seller, receives critical acclaim and wins lots of awards. But even if this is not to be, it feels great to have written it.

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What inspired you to write The Holy Lance? Why this story, in this time period?

Essentially, it was born out of nothing more ambitious than a desire to tell the truth about what Saint Bernard of Clairvaux called the “New Knighthood”, the Knights Templar. In the popular culture, of course, there are three basic narratives about the Templars: they are either odious religious fanatics; cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly real motives; or mystical (and often heretical) keepers of some terrible secret. Turns out, though, that not only are these narratives ultimately silly (although they can be grist for some great entertainment), they are actually far less interesting that the reality of Templar life. Think about it for a moment. On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers. On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity. How was that possible? How did they reconcile these two personas? And how did they do so in a way that made them the most effective military force in the Latin East? Answering these questions – that is, trying to make sense of the actual reality of Templar life – was what really what inspired me to write the novel.

And what better way to get at these questions than to approach them via one of the oldest stories in human culture – the quest. Basically, The Holy Lance tries to illuminate the reality of the Templar life by chronicling the transformation – through a series of challenges encountered while trying to recover a potent religious relic – of one vicious-if-repentant “worldly knight” into a vicious-but-reformed “New Knight. The story really begins when the protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan, is charged with recovering the long lost Spear of Longinus, a religious relic widely believed to be responsible for the near-miraculous success of the First Crusade. As the narrative unfolds, Fitz Alan must overcome a number of obstacles – you know, the terrain, enemy fighters, treasonous companions, his own shortcomings, that sort of thing. As he attempts to deal with these challenges he often screws up, sometimes erring on the side of being too much the brutal warrior; other times, on the side of being too much the pious monk. Whenever he does fail these tests, however, first of all he puts things right. That is what makes him an archetypal hero. But he also learns from his mistakes. Like all heroes in these quest-type stories, during the course of his journey he has to learn an important lesson – in this case, how to reconcile the two warring elements of his personality, the brutal warrior and the pious monk. In other words, though the trials he faces on his quest, Fitz Alan is transformed into the ultimate Templar knight, a lethal blend of Christian piety and marital prowess.

I should note at this point that none of this is to imply that Fitz Alan’s a saint – like all great military adventure heroes, he most assuredly isn’t. It is, however, to place him in his proper historical context. Fitz Alan isn’t simply a twenty-first century (presumably secular-humanist hero) parachuted into a story set in the twelfth century. Rather, he’s my very best educated guess about what a twelfth century hero would actually look like. As such, like almost all people in medieval Christendom, Fitz Alan understands the world in terms of Christian religious categories and concepts. For the people of Medieval Latin Christendom, these beliefs were neither a symptom of mental illness nor a cynical ideological smokescreen concealing their true motives (power, wealth, glory, pleasure, what have you). Instead, rather like the laws of physics are for us, Christian religious categories and concepts provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which medieval people made sense of – and thus acted in – the world around them. As I see it, not taking the medieval religious worldview seriously would simply be to get Fitz Alan – and his world — entirely wrong.

Why the quest for a religious relic? A couple of reasons, I suppose. First, the Templars were obsessed with such relics. They truly believed them to be both significant holy objects in their own right and as “force multipliers” that would help them in their battles with the Saracens. Second, after the Holy Grail (which does in fact make a brief appearance in the novel) the Lance was probably the most important relic in all of Christendom. In my judgement, however, every possible permutation of the Grail story has now been done (Monty Python, Dan Brown, Bernard Cornwell, Umberto Eco… the list goes on). This being the case, I thought to myself why not use the next best thing – the Holy Lance? Perhaps if I were a literary theorist, I might also say that I like the way the Lance – the weapon that pierced the side of Christ as he hung of the Cross – symbolically embodies the intermingling of the martial and the religious. But I am merely a humble political scientist and will leave such advanced theorizing to others.

Finally, why the Third Crusade? Again, a couple of reasons. To begin with, the Third Crusade resonates in the popular culture more than any other (with the possible exception of the First). Some combination of the Richard-Saladin relationship and the so-near-yet-so-far nature of the campaign has made this particular campaign remarkably appealing down through the ages. In other words, people just seem to enjoy reading about this crusade. Perhaps more importantly, though, I really wanted a setting that would allow me to draw a sharp contrast between the worldly knight and Saint Bernard’s New Knight. Having the story set in the Third Crusade allowed me to contrast King Richard (the ultimate “worldly knight”) with Michael Fitz Alan (the ultimate “New Knight”) in what I hope are revealing and interesting ways.

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What research did you have to do for the book? I expect, given your background, this was much easier for you than for most people!

You might think so, but I actually did have to do quite a bit. Having just completed an academic book on war in medieval Europe, of course, I was pretty well-versed in the “big picture” of the crusades. But as I started thinking seriously about writing a novel, I realized that there were some pretty big gaps in my knowledge base. First, I didn’t really know all that much about the Templars. I had no idea, for example, how they were organized, or what they wore, or what they ate, or what the rhythms of their day looked like. Nor did I have any sense of how they were recruited, what the Templar Rule entailed or how it was enforced. Nor, finally, did I have a well-developed understanding of the Templars battle tactics, weapons or other aspects of what in the army we used to call “fieldcraft”. In other words, I had to research all of those fine-grained details of daily life that were utterly irrelevant to the big political issues I had tackled in my recent scholarly book.

Second, after deciding that the Third Crusade was going to be the setting for my novel (for the reasons described above), I realized that I actually knew very little about the details of that particular crusade. Again, I had the strategic big picture nailed down. Richard, Saladin, the crusaders’ multiple unsuccessful bids to take Jerusalem – these sorts of “big picture” things I understood pretty well. But I had only a very shaky grasp of the operational details of what quickly became Richard’s campaign against Saladin. I was almost completely ignorant, for example, of the political and strategic realities that shaped Richard’s actual campaign plan. Similarly, I did not have a firm grasp of the operational ebb and flow of the crusade – the key manoeuvres and decisive battles that ultimately determined its fate. Developing a clear campaign-level picture of the Third Crusade took a surprising amount of time and energy.

Third, I had to do a fair bit of research on King Richard. As I said above, I liked the idea of contrasting Richard with my protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan. Once again, however, as I moved from thinking about writing a novel to actually writing one, I realized that I did not really know enough about King Richard to carry on. And so I had to tackle the literature on one of England’s most written about monarchs. No easy task, let me tell you, as there are many, many good (and even more not-so-good) non-fiction books and documentaries on the Lionheart. And then there are the fictional treatments of him, both in print and on film. I don’t pretend to have covered all the sources, but I certainly covered a lot of them.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, I had to do considerable amount of research on how to write a novel. As I’m fond of telling people, although a voracious consumer of fiction, I’m sure the last time I actually produced any was way back in elementary school. I’ve never taken a course in creative writing, nor attended a writers’ workshop nor done anything else that would have prepared me for the serious work of writing a novel. I can write academic non-fiction, of course, but as any scholar-turned-novelist will tell you, that is a completely different craft. So, having decided that I wanted to write a novel, I quickly realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea about how to do so – and that that was likely be a bit of a problem going forward. Given the nature of my day job, of course, my instinct was to hit the books. And so I spent almost a year reading up on things like plot, characterization, pacing, dialogue, setting, how to write a battle scene – you know, the sorts of things one needs to know how to do if there is to be any hope of writing something people might actually want to read. Probably more helpfully, I also spent a lot of time re-reading several of my favourite authors with a more writerly eye, reverse engineering them as much as possible to see how the masters handled the various elements of historical-fiction writing. The readers will have to decide for themselves if any of this research paid off, but rest assured I did my homework.

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You have more books planned in the series, right? Any word on what they might be about or when they’ll be published? Do you have any plans to write other novels set in a different period, or even in a different genre?

Yes indeed. This past January I was able to sketch out a pretty detailed outline for the next instalment of what is currently conceived as a trilogy but which may evolve into a longer series. And, once it’s officially summer break, I will begin drafting. The goal is to complete the sequel to The Holy Lance before September and write the final instalment in January/summer of 2016. Whatever happens, I promise Michael Fitz Alan will definitely see the Third Crusade through to its bitter end.

After that, and providing the punters approve, I’ll continue writing historical fiction (can’t see myself venturing beyond that genre, but one never knows). I may keep on with the English Templars – I already have many, many more stories half-developed for this “band of brothers” ready to go – but I may also branch out a bit. The Hundred Years War appeals a very great deal, as does the First World War (I’ve written or taught about both in recent years). We’ll just have to wait and see.

The cover image is striking and should catch the eye but I’m curious – being an indie author I have total control over my covers from the art to the blurb. Did you have any input into any of this with Knox Robinson?

Yes. Here’s how it worked. Knox Robinson (isn’t that a good Scottish name for a publishing firm?) asked me for a few ideas. I gave them three. First, I provided a few pictures of Templar knights from the late 12th century. I was very specific about the period and the order – didn’t want the cover to feature some totally wrong, tin-pot-helmeted late 13th-century Hospitaller. Then I provided a few pics of the Templar battle flag. Again, very careful to get the basics correct (black on top, white on bottom, red cross straddling – that sort of thing). Finally, I gave them a few battle scenes involving Templars. I didn’t really fancy this, but I thought it best to give a wide range of options. The result: a cover that I’m really, really happy with. Simple, striking and symbolic! Couldn’t be more chuffed with how it turned out.

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What promo stuff will you be doing to get the book out there?

The usual kinds of things, I suppose. My publisher will be doing some promotional things, though I’m not entirely sure what those are. Seems to me that these days even those who go the traditional publishing route are well advised to act as if they were self-published and do everything possible on their own to get the word out. So I’ll be doing book giveaways on Goodreads, guest posts on respected blogs, soliciting good reviews on Amazon, etc. Fortunately for me, the college PR department is arranging some local publicity – so that sort of thing is taken care of. And, if all else fails, I suppose I could simply make it mandatory reading for all of my students.

I like to listen to music when I write, it helps me focus and block out the outside world. Do you listen to music or have anything that helps you get “in the zone”?

Usually, when I write I’m in monastic mode — complete silence, no sensual distractions (coffee, food, etc.). I’m not really very monastic in most of my life, but on reflection, I guess I am when it comes to writing. Total quiet. That’s what I need. Writing this novel, however, I found myself listening now and then to various pieces of medieval and Templar music. There are some great groups out there doing this kind of thing. Personally, I’ve come to love Ensemble Organum. If you want to get in the medieval/Templar mindset, you should to check them out on Youtube.

Click here to hear them

What books do you read yourself to unwind?

So I’m a bit of a freak. When I’m not reading historical fiction, I read… wait for it… history. Medieval political thought, medieval political history, medieval military history. But not just medieval history. I like the history of the two world wars as well. I teach in all these areas, so maybe that’s all there is to it, but I can’t get enough of this stuff – really helps me stay centered.

Any Templar movie recommendations?

This is one of those questions that is best answered in what our medieval forebears called the via negativa (in the opposite way) – that is, by telling you what movies I would not recommend. First, I loathed Kingdom of Heaven, Night of the Temple and The da Vinci Code – all three on the grounds that I found them either totally historically inaccurate in their treatment of the Templars (and/or the crusades) or because they were just plain bad. There are many more, but you get the point. Second, beyond movies, I have detested a variety of Templar-related novels. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was pretty good, though not terribly accurate. Beyond that, though, there’s not much. Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is just plain wrong, as is Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar (also a movie). And I’m afraid it’s downhill from there. There are some notable exceptions, of course. Robyn Young’s Bretheren Trilogy comes to mind (fantastical in its treatment of the Templars, but I like the way she writes). But generally speaking, there are few works of fiction that really capture the realities of Templar life.

On the positive side, there really is only one piece of popular culture that I have found (mostly) accurate and (largely) compelling – Arn! In movie form, this is a beautifully filmed, truly compelling Templar story. One of the few downsides is the portrayal of Saladin (again, just plain wrong – at least according to Muslim contemporaries). Otherwise, though, I highly recommend it.

But wait, Steven, there’s a little bit extra just for you. Two Templar-related metal bands I have found. The first is Grave Digger, a German band that has produced a Templar concept album entitled Knights of the Cross. The second is Hammer Fall, a Swedish Power Metal Band who refer to themselves as “The Templars of Heavy Metal”. If you haven’t yet encountered these, I hope you find them as enjoyable as I have doing this interview.

Cheers, mate!

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Cheers, Andrew, and thank you for your time. I have to say, I was surprised to find myself enjoying The DaVinci Code movie, perhaps because I already knew all about the back-story before Dan Brown turned it into such a mega-selling novel. Arn, I have to agree, is fantastic – I own it on Bluray, the only movie I’ve ever watched with subtitles I think!

 

You can find out more about The Holy Lance at the Knox Robinson website which also has links to buy this fantastic book. Don’t miss out, it’s a cracking read!

Kate Quinn “Lady of the Eternal City” Q&A

Today I’m pleased to introduce author Kate Quinn, who’s just released her new book, Lady of the Eternal City (my review of it will appear on Monday so look out for it!).

National bestselling author Kate Quinn returns with the long-awaited fourth volume in the Empress of Rome series, an unforgettable new tale of the politics, power, and passion that defined ancient Rome.

Elegant, secretive Sabina may be Empress of Rome, but she still stands poised on a knife’s edge. She must keep the peace between two deadly enemies: her husband Hadrian, Rome’s brilliant and sinister Emperor; and battered warrior Vix, who is her first love. But Sabina is guardian of a deadly secret: Vix’s beautiful son Antinous has become the Emperor’s latest obsession.

Empress and Emperor, father and son will spin in a deadly dance of passion, betrayal, conspiracy, and war. As tragedy sends Hadrian spiraling into madness, Vix and Sabina form a last desperate pact to save the Empire. But ultimately, the fate of Rome lies with an untried girl, a spirited redhead who may just be the next Lady of the Eternal City . . .

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Hi Kate, thanks for chatting with me today. First of all, it’s a huge book! How long did it take you to write it?

Maybe a year? It’s all a blur. This was originally intended to be part and parcel of “Empress of the Seven Hills,” which covers the reign of Emperor Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan. But I realized that there was no way so much history was going to fit in one book. Hadrian’s half of the history barely fit into this book.

The historical aspects are extremely impressive and are woven into the story with great skill so it doesn’t feel like a lecture. How much research did you have to do? What part of that did you enjoy the most?

I researched obsessively, Anthony Everitt’s superb biography of Hadrian being my primary Bible—I wore it to tatters like a child’s security blanket. Researching Hadrian’s reign was fun because of just how many dramatic real-life events happened to him: action-packed lion hunts, mysterious prophecies, assassination attempts, epic love affairs, nearly being struck by lightning while making sacrifice to the thunder god—I made none of those things up.

That brings me nicely to my next question: how much of the book is based on historical fact? Did you embellish much or add anything to make it a better story?

I flexed the ages of my younger characters to fit the story better—we have no birth date recorded for Annia Galeria Faustina the Younger, so I edged her birth up some years to suit the story, and I edged Marcus Aurelius back a bit to keep him more contemporary with her. Vix, my fictional Praetorian, is a composite of several real historical figures: Marcius Turbo whose incredible military career launched him from common legionary to Hadrian’s right-hand man, and his fellow Prefect who was fired for being “overly intimate” with Hadrian’s wife. What I did most often was fill in the spaces behind the (sometimes very sparse) facts. We know Empress Sabina was “overly intimate” with her Praetorian, but we don’t know what that meant or what really happened. Likewise, we know very little about the early years of Jewish rebel leader Simon Bar Kokhba. In both places, I let my imagination fill in the gaps.

Which character did you enjoy writing the most? Do you get attached to them and feel sad if anything bad happened?

I was very fond of Antinous, he of the beautiful face and the equally beautiful soul. He was a late addition to the book as a viewpoint character; I realized with the help of my critique partners that the story needed his voice, and I realized this about 6 weeks from my deadline. So I wrote all his scenes at once at a white heat, inserting them where they were needed, and his voice was warm and immediate in my head. Which hurt because from the very beginning, since I knew what was in store for the historical Antinous—and I grieved for him.

You did a good job with Hadrian who, at first, I thought was just going to be a complete loon but you gave him a lot of depth and it really made for a better read.

Thanks! Hadrian was a puzzling character, the most contradictory and frustrating historical figure I’ve ever researched. He’s like a handful of water to pin down; almost every character trait he had was bracketed by its direct opposite. He was a blood-lover with a merciful streak; a sybarite who loved roughing it; a religious cynic; a superstitious man of science; a military man and a classical scholar. I nearly tore out my hair trying to pinpoint his character, and I still have no idea if my version is any closer to the truth than anyone else’s!

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I must admit I was a little surprised at the Romans’ negative attitude towards homosexuality, given their love of Greek culture with its iconic figures like Alexander the Great. Indeed, Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous seems to mirror that of Alexander and Hephaistion.

Roman sexual mores seems homophobia-free at first look, but that isn’t really the case. Two men could only bed down respectably if one of them was either a slave, or if of the same social class, a teenage boy. Once Antinous passed into his twenties (which I conjecture he did, since his statues all show a mature young man and not a weedy teenager) he would have been held up to public scorn for taking the woman’s role in a relationship, even if that relationship was with the Emperor. And Hadrian was condemned as well, because his passion for Antinous crossed the bounds of what was considered seemly. Roman manhood stressed the need for gravitas and emotional restraint—for an emperor to show such uninhibited public passion for a concubine (of either sex) was seen as an embarrassment.

I couldn’t help noticing Annia was quite similar to another character from recent literature whose name also starts and end with an ‘A’… Did you have that in mind at all when you were writing?

No, but the comparison delights me because I’m a huge “Game of Thrones” fan, and I love Arya Stark. It’s hard to find a way to make a historical heroine a badass, given all the constraints on female behavior, but with the craze during Hadrian’s reign for all things Greek, I found a way for Annia to be a runner like the famed women of Sparta.

I first read your work in A Day of Fire which was a quite exceptional book. Ben Kane was one of your co-authors on that – do you have any plans to visit Hadrian’s Wall in period correct Roman garb with Ben in any future Romani Walks of his?

I’d snap up the offer in a heartbeat, since I do my best thinking on long walks. But what is correct period Roman garb for a Roman girl walking the wall? I’m no marathoner like Annia, and if I travel in the period style of any of my Empresses, I’ll need a litter and six strapping litter-bearers.

Not sure if Ben, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield (the other authors that did the Romani Walk in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières and Combat Stress) would be up for that to be honest! How is A Day of Fire doing though? I see it’s been shortlisted as one of the best indie books of 2014 in the forthcoming Historical Novel Society conference which must be a huge buzz for you.

It was! We’re all delighted. Thinking about doing another collaboration; we’ll see what happens.

What’s next for you? More historical fiction? Do you have any plans to try a different genre or a completely different time period?

I’ve already done a two-book branch-out into Renaissance Italy, with a duology about the Borgia family. I’ve got other ideas, maybe even something 20th century, but nothing’s certain yet!

Brilliant answers, thank you again for this Kate.

Now, check back here on Monday for my review of Lady of the Eternal City. In the meantime, you can find out more (or buy it!) here:

Buy LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY

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