Interview: John A. Connell, Author of Ruins of War

ConnellRuinsOfWarFolks, please welcome author John Connell to the blog today. We chat about Ernest Hemingway, WWII historical resources, the importance of high school history teachers, and plenty more.

Reality in fiction: how important is it? Lengthy travel, cussing, and bathroom breaks happen in real life. How do you address these mundane occurrences in your writing?

I’m like most readers; mundanities might reflect reality in our lives, but they’re generally boring in a story. I believe in the rule that unless some action is integral to establishing character or advancing the plot, it doesn’t belong. Now, if a mundane act adds dimension or give insight into a character—he or she might have a very unique way of addressing bathroom breaks—then that’s different. And if that’s the case in one of my stories (no bathroom-break scenes… yet), I keep it short and to the point. Perhaps, during lengthy travel, a plot is hatched, or a character reflects, revealing character, then great. I’ll use it.

Cussing I put in the dialogue box, and this is a tough one for me, particularly since I’m writing crime fiction with soldiers and really bad guys. The reality is, most soldiers cuss at the drop of a hat, and I feel obliged to reflect a sense of reality with their dialogue. It wouldn’t ring true without it. On the other hand, I find cussing—especially the most vulgar—more jarring on the page than when I’m, say, watching a Tarantino movie. It should be in there, but I avoid using it repetitively or gratuitously. For my protagonist in particular, I find other ways for him to express himself, except when he’s enraged or his frustration is too great to say it any other way. I mean, he’s only human… and a soldier to boot!

What now-dead authors would you like to interview?

I can think of a whole host of them! H. G. Wells, Graham Greene, Victor Hugo, Sir Author Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming

But one who came to mind immediately was Ernest Hemingway. I’d ask him about his time in Italy during World War One, his visits and impressions of Spain and Africa, and his initial struggles at writing and his incredible life in Paris. And, of course, about his writing process.

ConnellSpoilsOfVictoryWhat has been your worst or most difficult job? How does it compare to writing?

To make ends meet after college and into my mid-twenties, I worked as a printing press operator. During that time, I knew I wanted to pursue a creative path—this was after abandoning music and before launching into a film career and writing—but I still needed to work. It was monotonous and mindless, but I insisted on sticking with it until I discovered my “path with a heart.” I had some pretty crazy jobs while working my way through college, but I saw them as a means to end, laboring for my future. But the printing symbolized the doldrums of my twenties, directionless and feeling trapped.

Nothing compares to my writing life. Nothing. It is my greatest passion, and though it can be hard work with no certainty for the future, it is truly a joyous undertaking.

What nonfiction works have you found useful in building your book?

There are too many sources—books, articles, memoirs, archives, and websites—to list here, so here are the sources I turned to time and again: Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting, Nazi Gold (1984); Douglas Botting, In The Ruins of the Reich (1985); Wilford Byford-Jones, Berlin Twilight (1947); Edward N. Peterson, The American Occupation of Germany: Retreat to Victory (1977); Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986); Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: From the Libertaion of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift (1985); Vivian Spitz, Doctors From Hell (2005).

Who are your non-writer influences?

This is a harder question than it seems, since there are multitudes of people who influence who you are. Certainly my parents and some teachers fall into that category. In fact, it was a high-school history teacher who is responsible for me falling in love with history and historical fiction. He taught history by not simply reciting dates and facts, but by portraying history through the eyes of those who lived it. He explained moments in history by way of the people, what their lives were like, how they thought, how the world around them impacted their decisions—good and bad. Historical events became more immediate and understandable. I could relive the lives of those who made it, as if history were like a vast, timeless play. The truth of Shakespeare’s line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” hit me like a bolt. I was hooked. Anything, books and film, that allowed me to peer into this magical looking glass of the past, I devoured, especially stories involving the common man and woman caught up in tumultuous events of their time and called upon to do extraordinary things.

What are the top 3 historical time periods and locations you would like to visit?

Ah, a question I’ve played with every time the notion of time travel has come up. Alexandria in ancient Egypt (especially to visit the legendary library), Ancient Rome in Julius Caesar’s reign, and Florence during the renaissance. Of course, I’d have to carry along Harry Potter’s invisible cloak, or I wouldn’t last long…

ConnellRuinsOfWarRuins of War Book Blurb:

Berkley Publishing Group is thrilled to announce the publication of John A. Connell’s RUINS OF WAR (Berkley Hardcover; May 5, 2015; 978-0-425-27895-6; $26.95), an exciting debut thriller featuring a fascinating new character in Chief Warrant Officer Mason Collins—former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, prisoner of war, and now U.S. Army criminal investigator in the American Zone of Occupation in Munich. At a time when the worst horrors of the war are coming to light, there is another horror that is running rampant in the street.

In the winter of 1945, seven months after the Nazi defeat, Munich is in ruins. The winter is brutal, the citizens are starving, and end of the war does not mean the end of the chaos in the city. Quite the contrary. It’s Mason’s job to enforce the law in a place where order has been obliterated. It’s a dangerous job, though it is a job he requested. And his job just became much more dangerous: a killer is stalking the devastated city. However, these are more than just murders; they are horrifying brutalities that begin to wreak terror on the already beleaguered citizens of Munich. This killer has knowledge of human anatomy, enacts mysterious rituals with his prey, and seems to pick victims at random.

Relying on his wits and instincts while trying to work around the military-political blockades and hard-nosed commander, and trying to keep the memory of his past where it needs to stay, Mason must venture places where his own life is put at risk. From interrogation rooms with unrepentant Nazi war criminals to penetrating the U.S. Army’s own black market and working with an overeager American journalist, Mason must solve this heinous case before the killer strikes again.

Lee Child's Says You Should Read...

Lee Child’s Says You Should Read…

About the Author

John A. Connell has worked as a cameraman on films such as Jurassic Park and Thelma & Louise and on TV shows including The Practice and NYPD Blue. He now lives with his wife in Paris, France, where he is at work on his second Mason Collins novel.

Places to Find John A. Connell




Roman Holiday by Jodi Taylor

TaylorRomanHolidayWhere I Got It: Was free on when I picked it up (thanks!).

Narrator: Zara Ramm

Publisher: Audible Studios (2015)

Length: 1 hour 12 minutes

Series: Book 3.5 The Chronicles of St. Mary’s

Author’s Page

Note: Although this is Book 3.5 in the series, it works fine as a stand alone.

The folks of St. Mary’s are time travelers. They have rules and a whole costume department and some pretty snazzy tech, along with whole sheets of language cheats. The mission for this book is one to merely observe. They are sent back to 44BC Rome. Julius Caesar has installed his mistress Cleopatra in his wife’s house. Yeah. The dude has big brass ones.

This was my first Jodi Taylor book ever and it will definitely not be my last. The mix of history, cool tech, and humor had me hooked. I kept alternating between chuckling and, when surprised, snorting hot tea through my nose. I switched to cool water after the second time. The humor was often sharp and pointed (such as calling out Caesar on the wisdom of where to install his mistress when in Rome) – just my style of humor!

Also, our time travelers are lead by an older female, which makes her perfect for this mission as she can totally play the respectable wealthy matron. Plenty of unforeseen circumstances occur, and the proper mayhem follows.

I’ll be catching up on this series for sure!

The Narration: Zara Ramm was a great voice for the lead female in this book. She had the right mix of humor and experienced self-assuredness that really brought this character to life. She also had distinct and believable voices for the other female and male characters.

What I Liked: Time travel!; sharp-tongued humor; famous historical figures; a crazy set of circumstances.

What I Disliked: The cover art and the title don’t really say ‘time travel’ to me,which is probably why I haven’t taken note of this series before.

Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

Why I Read It: It’s the conclusion to a much enjoyed series.

Where I Got It: From the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox (thanks!)

Who I Recommend This To: If you are into ancient Roman history, Julius Caesar era, then this is a great series for you.

Narrator: Paul Blake

Publisher: AudioGO (2009)

Length: 15 hours 22 minutes

Series: Emperor Book 4

The Gods of War picks up right where The Field of Swords leaves off: Pompey has set himself against Caesar. Pompey has seniority, the Senate backing him, Caesar’s daughter for a wife, and, he believes, the will of the Gods. Caesar has his Gaul battle-hardened troops and a good grasp of the effective use of propaganda. Conn Iggulden spent the bulk of this book on the conflict between these two powerful men and how it nearly tore Rome apart. Julius must live through the betrayal of one of his generals; Iggulden portrayed the motivations and character of both sides in that conflict. I truly enjoyed listening to the author’s rendition of how this bit of history unfolded. Pompey and the Senate flee Rome for Greece, where Caesar must follow, leaving Mark Antony in charge in Rome.

The conflict brings the two Roman armies to blood. Octavian, a young relative of Caesar, is given his chance to show his ability at commanding men in battle and his skill shines through. It was good to see Octavian become a man in this last installment in the series. The conflict eventually spreads to the shores of Egypt, to which about the last quarter of the book was dedicated. Due to the fascination with Cleopatra, this may be the most well-known episode of Caesar’s life (remember that Elizabeth Taylor film?). Julius actually took a holiday in Egypt, for roughly 6 months, traveling the Nile, sightseeing, and most likely bedding the young ruler of Egypt. They eventually had an offspring, which raised all sorts of conflict back home in Rome, to which Julius had to eventually return.

If you ever watched or read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or the more recent HBO series Rome, then you know how this story ends. I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who missed out on this classic story, but I will say that I was very satisfied with the book. I felt that the motivations, fears, hopes, and desires of all the main characters were well laid out, giving the reader a very plausible rendition of how and why history fell out the way it did.

Paul Blake provided a decisive and strong voice for Julius Caesar. I also appreciated that he used the Latin pronunciation for the Roman names (such as using the ‘w’ sound for names spelled with a ‘v’). However, I sometimes could not tell when he was using his feminine voice and would have to pay extra attention to the dialogue to track when Cleopatra or another female was speaking.

What I Liked: I have long been fascinated with this period in history and I was well satisfied with this author’s rendition of it; the internal conflict of those who love yet envy Caesar was well portrayed; the battles, while detailed, were not overly gory.

What I Disliked: I would have liked to hear more about Mark Antony and why he was so favored by Caesar; the ladies were few and had limited roles and unfortunately limited depth in this series.

Emperor: The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Why I Read It: Books 1 & 2 were excellent, and I love this time period.

Where I Got It:

Who I Recommend This To: Roman Empire enthusiasts, and Gaulish warriors aficionados.

Publisher: Dell Books (2005)

Length: 594 pages

Series: Emperor Book 3

Once again, Conn Iggulden has kept me up late, distracted at work, and spouting Roman marching commands in my sleep. Naughty author. Book 3 picks up right where Book 2 left off, with Julius Caesar in Gaul, conquering as far as he can see through battle and road building. Marcus Brutus is still his right-hand man, Octavian grows into a very capable horseman and soldier, and Marc Antony becomes a growing presence in Julius’s life. Back in Rome, Crassus and Pompey must match wits and resources with some less-than-savory rising powers of the city, Milo and Clodius.

So far in the series, I think this is the best novel. Iggulden switches smoothly between the two main locations, but also smoothly between the main characters, showing the rift building between Caesar and Brutus over years, the friendship growing between Marc Antony and Julius, the wrangling back and forth (with mutual respect) between Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey. I also like how the cultural arrogance of the Romans was captured: The mighty civilized Romans bringing trade, roads, light, and civilization to the heathen Gauls. Iggulden does this without passing a judgement on the rights or wrongs of the supposed moral superiority of the Romans, but simply telling it in context. The interactions with Vercingetorix, king of the Gauls, were true to form.

There’s plenty of action and intrigue to move this story forward, but it is well balanced with insights into the motivations of the characters and nuggets about life at that time. While there are few ladies and all of them secondary characters, Servilia (Brutus’s mother), Alexandria (the goldsmith), and Julia (Caesar’s daughter), they have full lives and depth of character.

What I Liked: Straight-forward writing; character-building; the way Caesar absorbed Gauls into his armies; Pompey and Crassus have to learn to rule Rome without Caesar; left in a bit of cliff-hanger (looking forward to next book).

What I Disliked: No main character women.

Emperor: The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Why I Read It: Enjoyed the first book in series, love the time period.

Where I Got It: paperbackswap

Who I Recommend This To: Roman Empire fans, Julius Caesar aficionados

Publisher: Harper Collins (2004)

Length: 677 pages

Series: Emperor Book 2

Book 1 in this series was good, like a scoop of chocolate icecream. Book 2 is even better, like nutella on my icecream. At the end of Book 1, young Julius had to leave Rome as Sulla assumed complete control. Book 2 finds him on a ship patrolling for pirates and eventually Julius gets his ass stomped by a crew of swarthy sea bandits. Julius, his commanding officer, and a handful of other Roman soldiers are held for ransom, for months, in a cramped, dirty space. Yeah, that’s the sucky side to being in the Roman Navy.

Once free of the pirates, Julius and crew end up on the northern coast of Africa, with just the stinking, deteriorating clothes on their backs. through force of personality, Julius gathers up a ragtag army and goes pirate hunting. He eventually ends up in Greece, in time for Mithridates great final Grecian rebellion. After that, he returns to Rome for some political wrangling and assassinations. Spartacus’s slave rebellion follows that ups.

Julius Caesar lived in interesting times and he is still a young man at the end of this novel. In Book 1, I found Conn Iggulden‘s writing style compelling, yet simple. In Book 2, he has honed his story-telling ability to a riveting point, keeping me up far too late on a work night traipsing around with Caesar. I found myself reading 100-page chunks of this book at a time. Images from this book have stuck with me, such as Julius threatening the pirate captain, the formation of the Tenth legion after they suffered their punishment for cowardice in battle, his reunion with his wife Cornelia, Brutus’s blossoming relationship with his mother. I loved the juxtapositioning of Rome, a civilized, beautiful city, run by the shadowy side of politics versus the deadly open-field warfare in Greece.

What I Liked: tagging along as Brutus and Julius become men; reformation of Primegenia; the author’s version for the source of Caesar’s seizures; the factual descriptions of the Roman army in the field and on the march; the historical notes at the end of the book.

What I Disliked: The last 50 pages wrapped up several points in a hurry, and I wish the author had been given another 50 pages to flesh the ending out a bit.

Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden

Picabuche with my book.

Why I Read It: For fun.

Where I Got It: Own it.

Whom I Recommend This To: Roman history buffs and action-seekers.

Publisher: HarperCollins (2003)

Length: 624 pages

Series: Emperor Book 1

I love this section of history, and not just for all the dramatized literature, TV, and movies the life of Julius Caesar has inspired. So it would be hard for me to not enjoy a historical fiction based on this man’s life. The Gates of Rome does not disappoint. Conn Iggulden captured the early life of one of histories most studied characters. In this book we follow Julius as a young boy on his family’s country estate up to his early 20s and the beginning of his military career. As a boy, his childhood friend Marcus and he meet together many trials and tribulations. Tubruk, the estate manager, tries to keep them out of trouble, but it is hard work when they are constantly getting into scraps with the neighboring farm kids. Julius’s mother has suffered from some mental malady since giving birth to him and spends much of her time sequestered away. Julius’s father spends most of his time at Rome politicking. Tubruk has his hands full indeed.

As the boys age, the start their combat training under the tutelage of an ex-gladiator, Renius. He is tough, mean, unsympathetic. The boys had plenty of opportunities to die by his hand. After a slave uprising, both boys, now young men, go to live with Julius’s uncle Marius, a mover and a shaker of Rome. He has an unsettled on-going dispute with another Consul of Rome, Sulla. The two detest one another. As Julius comes of age in the world of politics and intrigue, Marcus and Renius join a legion that spends quality time in the far reaches of the Empire fighting to expand the borders.

This book was more than I expected. So much of Julius Caesar’s life is on record that this story could have had a very textbook feel to it. However, that was not the case. We saw how the boys grew to men as real people and not as some dry historical figures attached to statistics, dates, and places. I am eager to begin the second in the series.

What I Liked: That double boxing match with Julius and Marcus pitted against older, more experienced soldiers; Julius’s roof-top antics in the name of love; Marcus’s fight with one of the blue natives; Sulla’s character (in a bad way).

What I Disliked:  The love interest in Alexandria seemed a little forced; all the women are love interests or mentally deranged.