The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
This is the second time I have been able to welcome you as a guest on my blog. The first was when you were a debut author, just after your first book had been published, The War at the Edge of the World. Since then you have been very busy and are now well established, so perhaps you can tell me, Ian, what it is like to be an established author and how it has changed your life.
First, could you tell me briefly about the books you have published since we last met on this blog?
There have been three more books in the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series since War at the Edge of the World, continuing the story of Aurelius Castus as he rises through the ranks of the Roman army and gets steadily closer to the inner circles of power. Swords Around the Throne (2015) saw him confronting an attempted imperial coup in Gaul, while in Battle for Rome he joined Constantine’s climactic campaign against rival emperor Maxentius. In the latest book, The Mask of Command, Castus returns to the western provinces on a perilous mission to defend the Rhine frontier against barbarians – and rebellious provincials too.
Do you see these as stand- alone books or as a series which develops over time? In what ways is it developing?
The books are very definitely part of a developing series, with six of them planned in total, although each could also be read as a stand-alone novel. As the story progresses from one book to the next, the focus shifts from the lower ranks of the army and the furthest frontiers to the centres of the empire, and the dangerous intrigues of the imperial court and military hierarchy. There are still plenty of battles and conflicts, although Castus is now in a senior command position. He remains at the heart of the story, and his rather straightforward sense of honesty and loyalty is increasingly challenged by the realities of power.
It is sometimes said that the second book is the most difficult to write. The first book embodies a lifetime’s experience and probably took a long time to write but with the second book you must say something new to a deadline. Did you find this?
Funnily enough I found the second book by far the easiest! I actually wrote the first one very quickly, although it was drawing on a good ten years of research and planning – it was just a project I’d always wanted to do, and I was writing it for myself. So when I came to the second I had all of the same enthusiasm, but with the added knowledge that I had a contract and a publisher. Each book has built on what I learned with the previous one, and feeds off the continuing story, although as the various narratives become more complex in successive books, and the historical background becomes more tightly focussed, it does get harder to keep things running smoothly! But I haven’t yet run into any major blocks, and I still feel the same excitement and anticipation when I begin each new project.
Has your understanding of ancient Rome been deepened as you wrote more about it?
Oh, absolutely, yes. I’m constantly reading and researching different aspects of the background with each book – though perhaps my understanding had thickened rather than deepened. My awareness of the shortcomings of the sources for the period has certainly increased too. I think when I started I had a rather naïve belief that I could navigate my way through the historical evidence fairly easily, and create a clear picture of what probably happened without difficulty. But as I’ve arrived at every particular historical incident in the story I’ve had to accept that the literary record is not halfway as complete as we might like! I was always aware that most of the sources are essentially propaganda, but it’s only when you try and portrays events from the point of view of a participant that you notice the gaps and contradictions. I like to think I haven’t misrepresented anything so far – picking through the historical conundrums becomes quite engrossing, and there’s a definite sense of accomplishment when some rather obscure academic paper turns up a scrap of evidence that suddenly makes sense of an episode or a bit of chronology.
Do your books have a message or do you see them primarily as entertainments?
The entertainment aspect is always going to be paramount, I think – people read novels like mine to be immersed in another world, to have their imagination exercised and to experience an ongoing story. I do try and get the history right, of course, and part of the pleasure for me lies in detailing the background and characters; I’d like to think that anyone reading my books might develop a wider interest in the later Roman Empire, but that interest shouldn’t be sated by fiction; I wouldn’t claim to be a historian at all. As for wider messages, I certainly have themes that inform the novels as I write them, and some of those themes – naturally enough – have contemporary resonances. But I try not to be overt about things like that; readers might pick up on them if they care to, but I always remember the saying ‘relevance is the enemy of history’!
Has experience changed the way you write? Do you find it easier? Have you any lessons about writing and publishing you would like to pass on?
I’ve been writing for a very long time now, and I certainly find it a lot easier than I did when I was starting out – partly because I’m far more confident in what I’m doing now, and I’m better aware of my strengths and weaknesses. Discovering (or perhaps admitting to?) my obsession with planning helped; I always plot out every story in great detail before I start work, which doesn’t mean things won’t change as I write, but provides a surrounding structure that allows me to concentrate more on the details and individual actions rather than constantly worrying about the bigger picture. Developing a routine that works helped too, although none of the other writers I know do anything like it: basically I write at night, in short intense bursts, and when I’m working on a book I won’t do anything else at all. As I say – it’s not a routine for everyone! Perhaps because of that, I’m wary of suggesting ‘writing lessons’ more generally; find something that works for you and persevere with it would be the best one, I think.
Most aspiring writers would like to write full time and achieve a good reward for their work, although relatively few achieve this. Are you now a full time writer and do you find it rewarding?
I’ve been a full time professional novelist since the first book, yes – and it’s certainly the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I still feel supremely privileged to able to make a living out of it. It is a strange way to live though, especially with my unusual nocturnal working hours – I’m sure my neighbours must think I do absolutely nothing but read books and listen to music all day…
Are your books available in digital format and how important are these in overall sales? Do you have spin offs of any sort.
All of the novels are available as ebooks – my publisher, Head of Zeus, has been very active in promoting that format from the beginning, and I believe they do quite well. For the last couple of years I’ve been too busy writing the novels to consider spin-offs, although perhaps that’s something for the future. There’s a bit of fashion at the moment for ebook novellas that relate to larger series; as the ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels will cover over thirty years of history, there are plenty of opportunities for side-stories or incidental pieces, so I might think about that, maybe.
Finally could you tell me more about your latest book and your plans for the future?
The Mask of Command is the fourth book in the series, and begins five years after the climax of Battle for Rome (which would make it quite a good opener for anyone who hasn’t read the previous books). Castus has been promoted to a senior officer’s rank – Commander of the Germanic Frontier – and sent back to the west to defend the Rhine. But he’s also defending the new emperor of the west, Constantine’s teenage son Crispus, and he soon discovers that the barbarians on the far side of the river are only one of the many threats he must face. There are rebellious provincials, Saxon pirates, invading Franks, battles on land and water, even a murderous eunuch… Of all my published books so far it’s definitely my favourite. Meanwhile, I’ve just completed the fifth book in the series, which should be out in January 2017, and I’ll be starting work on the sixth and final one later this year. It will certainly be a strange sensation coming to the end of that one.
Thank you, Ian.
You can read my earlier interview with Ian at the MEET IAN ROSS page on this blog. And while you are at it why not meet some of the other interesting people on the MEET pages.
This interview is part of a blog tour, so please continue with the tour by visiting the other sites on the logo below – there’s a giveaway on Friday.