Dark Dabbers, please clap your eyes together and welcome Simon Turney, author of the historical fiction Praetorian, to the blog. We chat about ancient Rome, stage fright, Masada, Tolkien, and so much more! Enjoy!
What now-dead author would you like to interview? What are some of the things you would chat about?
I suppose, given my genre, I should be saying Apuleius (whose work Frankie Howerd emulated in Up Pompeii – Oooh matron!), or Aristophanes and his frogs and clouds. In honesty, most of my favourite authors are still alive and kicking, some quite hard. I would dearly love to meet the man who was responsible for the Notitia Dignitatum – the catalog of Rome’s military stations and existing forces in the early 5th century. It is missing sections and aspects that would be of great interest to a student of the late Roman military. And because while that’s drool-worthy exciting for me, but excruciatingly dull for a reader, I would also have to say J.R.R. Tolkien. I would love to know what plans he had that never came to fruition even at the hands of his son. I would love to know the history of the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Ringwraiths in particular. And the history of Tom Bombadil.
I would love to relive my first experience of watching the 80s mini-series Masada (aka The Antagonists). I remember watching it in around 1981 and being utterly riveted. I have watched it as an adult and it is still one of the best pieces of film ever made, in my opinion. I love the talented Peter O’Toole‘s portrayal of the war-weary general Flavius Silva so much that it has heavily influenced the characters in my own work. But nothing will ever beat the feeling of a first watching. I used to wait for Saturday night (I think it was Saturday!) to come around, switch on the TV and settle myself in ready, no matter where I was. I watched it at my grandparents’ and even missed a meal to see it. I even went to Masada a decade or so ago, purely off the back of that series.
I think the level of mundane material in a book is critical. It can mean the difference between Biggles and Schindler’s Ark. If it is too heavy, it can make the book laborious, slow and OTT – like that bit of the Bible where everyone is ‘begat’ing each other. No one wants to sit and hear in detail a legionary’s toilet habits (curly poop!) when they could be reading sword fights and chases and love scenes. There is a certain requirement for it, but I find that, given these specific examples, lengthy travel is best dealt with in retrospectives while setting the next scene (unless the journey contains its own fascinating events.) Bathroom breaks I only introduce to the text if it has a place (sometimes it does – I had a legionary attacked in the latrines) or in the form of toilet humour, which gives it an extra point as well as jogging the reader’s memory that all people have to answer nature’s call in due course, even half way through cleaving a Celt in twain. Cussing is a troubling one. Every writer approaches it differently. I like to write work that my family can read. There is a great deal of violence, but I’ve yet to ever write a sex scene, and my cussing is generally of a level I would consider acceptable as a reader. I reserve the F word for moments when I want the audience to blink in shock. Maybe once or twice a book in general, and often not at all. That being said, I cuss a lot myself while writing… especially when the coffee runs out.
For me the social network revolution has produced the best bit. I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers on Facebook and particularly on Twitter, which is – let’s face it – just an ongoing world-wide conversation. The sheer vibrancy of life in the world of Twitter grabs me. Also, from a couple of years ago getting to know a Roman reenactment group to produce book covers, I have ended up as one of the unit, marching in kit, putting on displays for the public and generally exploring the life of a legionary. Not only am I learning more with every event than I ever did from half a dozen textbooks, I’m having fun into the bargain and experiencing a growing camaraderie with my fellow legionaries. For me the worst side is public speaking. I suffer with tremendous stage fright and on the odd occasions I have tried it, I tend to end up a sweaty, blubbering panic-ridden wreck stumbling and stuttering through things that I could expound on to the end of time in a small group of friends.
My worst job was in admin and then computer network management for an insurance company. Though the job itself was pleasant enough, the extreme corporateness of the company sucked all the joy out of life and years of work there felt like walking into a tomb lit by fluorescent tubes. Moreover it did not take long to come to the conclusion that insurance was a business founded on making the ordinary man suffer. In that respect it was similar to the civil service, in which I’ve also worked! I’ve had soooo many different jobs. I’ve sold cars, sold paint, heaved around bags of sand, managed networks and small admin departments, hired cars, paid farmer subsidies, pulled pints, entered fuel data and so much more. Most were slightly more mind-numbing than even the most dull soap-opera. Quite simply nothing compares to writing. Writing wears me out like no other job has. Even when I am not writing, I am thinking about the plot and how I can improve things – as I go to sleep, as I drive the car, as I shower, as I eat my dinner. But at the same time, that is fine, because writing is a labour of love, not a job. It is simply the best career in the world, despite all uncertainty and stress.
I have an enormous library of classical texts and historical reference works. My office is basically wallpapered with books. My wife bemoans my work text collection, as does my bank manager! I always look out specific texts appropriate to my plot (Les Voyages d’Alix: Massilia is a prime example for my next book.) But since most of my work is historical, most of my locations are real and the works I use are simple location-based guides and texts. Apart from a huge variety of fairly random texts, the one series that I find uniformly helpful on all projects are the military history works of Osprey Publishing which are era, nationality and unit specific.
I would love to visit ancient Rome, but it would have to be a qualified visit. I wouldn’t want to do it as a slave or a pauper. As a free citizen (or preferably a noble) is the only way to realistically visit Rome. I would just love to see what Rome looked like without all the blokes hanging around the Colosseum in Roman tribune costumes that are slightly less convincing than Gary Glitter’s defense lawyer. Other than ancient Rome, I would love to visit late Byzantine Constantinople. The last days of that empire under the threat of the Turk fascinate me. When did the kebab come to Istanbul again? Other than that, again, I would love to visit Charleston in the early days of the American Civil War, when it was all still to play for. I am a Confederate at heart, not because of the ‘slavery issue’ but because I believe in the individual rights of the American states to self government, and not to be ruled from Washington. And because of the cool coats. And the accents. And some of the commanders. I think I’d look good in a confederate grey coat and the red artillery hat!
Oooh, most of them! I’ve read things like the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Aeneid. I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses and various Greek and Latin playwrights. I read both Caesar’s campaign diaries and Suetonius’ 12 Caesars. But there are sooooo many others I haven’t read. I have only dipped into Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and have been trying for years to get around to reading them fully. I have Vegetius’ De Re Militari on the shelf behind me and have only used it piecemeal for reference. I’d love to read that through. Likewise Thucydides and Herodotus. There’s just not enough time in the world for all the things worth reading, is there? And it’s not like they could televise ‘On the military institutions of the Romans’ is it?
Frankly, I have never got used to fanmail. When people tell me how much they life my books I come over extraordinarily shy and embarrassed. I am not a natural self-promoter. Therefore any time anyone gushes over my work, it’s awkward. Probably the oddest moments for me have been when I’ve been at a big author do, such as ‘History in the Court’ in London, and have spoken to some of the biggest names in Historical fiction, only to find out that they already know about me. That’s strange. I never expected such people to have heard of me, but it seems my infamy has spread! Probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve had was a long conversation with a fan, who enjoyed my work, but entered the conversation believing my name was Stephen. He called me that for half an hour, and I was so surprised that I didn’t immediately correct him – my name is Simon, incidentally. Then problem is that when someone has called you the wrong name several times it becomes awkward to broach the subject, and so I went by my expected pseudonym for half an hour. Weird.
Promoted to the elite Praetorian Guard in the thick of battle, a young legionary is thrust into a seedy world of imperial politics and corruption. Tasked with uncovering a plot against the newly-crowned emperor Commodus, his mission takes him from the cold Danubian border all the way to the heart of Rome, the villa of the emperor’s scheming sister, and the great Colosseum.
What seems a straightforward, if terrifying, assignment soon descends into Machiavellian treachery and peril as everything in which young Rufinus trusts and believes is called into question and he faces warring commanders, Sarmatian cannibals, vicious dogs, mercenary killers and even a clandestine Imperial agent. In a race against time to save the Emperor, Rufinus will be introduced, willing or not, to the great game.
Places to find S. J. A. Turney