Tuesday, August 10, 2010


His first, Caligula, introduced the Emperor's elephant to much acclaim and the zoology continued with Claudius. But Douglas Jackson doesn't plod like his creation, he races on from one great story to the next: now we have Hero of Rome and a sequel in the making. Welcome, Doug, to QHistorical!

Your third book is out and you’ve been a full time writer for a year. How does it feel?
Hero of Rome seems to be selling really well, it has given both Caligula and Claudius a boost and I’ve just had a great review by Allan Massie in The Scotsman so I’m pleased with the way things are going. I’ve had a fantastic year. It’s been great being able to devote more time to writing and developing ideas and I’ve seen more of my family in twelve months than in the previous five years. The only downside is that I took my decision to go it alone at the start of the worst recession since the Depression and the fear of what might happen if things don’t work out is always with you.

What was it that made you decide on Imperial Rome as the setting for your novels?
I was driving home from work one night after a friend had jokingly suggested I should write a book. Where do you start? They say write what you know, but the world I inhabited and my interests were very bland, so I was a bit lost. Luckily I was listening to a history programme and I gradually realised that history was something I loved more than anything else. Rome and the Romans have always fascinated me. When the guy on the radio talked about the Emperor Claudius riding on an elephant at Colchester, I knew instantly that was the story I wanted to tell.

How important are grammar and punctuation to you as a writer and a reader?
As a journalist and someone who spent ten years as a sub-editor crafting words on a national newspaper there’s only one answer to that. ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ says it all. How can you achieve nuance and accuracy if you don’t know where to put a full stop or a comma? Since I started writing books I’ve come to love the colon (don’t laugh) and the semi-colon because they give more flexibility than a full stop. That may make me a sad figure of fun, but it also makes me a better writer.

When you are writing do you have an audience in mind? Is it a person, real or imagined, or a group?
I don’t think I write for anybody but myself, and I sometimes worry that it could restrict my output or narrow it so much that it loses its appeal. Hopefully I’ll develop as a writer and a person, or at least a personality.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
My agent Stan gave me a tip that I’ve found very helpful. Once you’ve got your idea for the book, lay it out a chapter at a time in single paragraphs. It gives you a perspective on the whole book and saves a lot of time writing yourself out of blind alleys, which was where I spent a lot of my life during the first book. A more fundamental piece of advice is one I keep giving myself. Just keep writing. It’s never wasted.

How does writing a novel differ from journalism? Do you think your career experience made the process easier or harder?
A novel is an entirely different beast from a news story, or even a two or three thousand word news feature. Sometimes a novel is so huge that it threatens to engulf you in its sheer complexity. It’s like wrestling an octopus with one arm tied behind your back. Luckily my career experience has helped me become an expert octopus wrestler. Dealing with words all the time means writing comes relatively easily and being in charge of something every day that keeps changing shape and requires enormous accuracy is good training.

Were you conscious when you were writing your books of other writers who have set books in the same milieu recently (Conn Iggulden and Robert Harris to name a couple)?
I was conscious that I didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced by them. I’d read Conn’s Emperor series and Robert Harris’s Pompeii and thought they were wonderful books based on great ideas. Caligula was then just a twinkle in my eye called The Emperor’s Elephant (I didn’t even dare call it a book – it was my project) but I wanted it to be as unique as I could possibly make it. I went back to the usual primary sources, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio, and created my own Rome and Romans. I think I got it just about right, but I now realise that doesn’t make me particularly unique because everybody who writes good Roman fiction works from those same sources and naturally some of us will come to the same conclusions.

How did you go about researching your books?
I was a raw first-time novelist, actually not even a novelist, just a writer trying to tell a story. I didn’t have any understanding of the balance between research, historical accuracy and creating a readable work of fiction. But as a reader and a writer I knew the difference between right and wrong. I did a lot of research early on (that’s part of writing I love, that finding out new things that might interest other people) but I soon found that research was getting in the way of writing. Eventually I decided to write until I reached a point where I needed to know something and then find it out. That way it’s the story that comes first. I’ve since heard the term ‘info dump’ and I think it’s probably the historical novelist’s greatest enemy.

Some historians argue that Caligula was quite cruelly treated by history? How did you feel about that aspect of the character?
I’m not sure about cruelly treated. He was almost certainly, at least in his later years as Emperor, a vicious, sadistic, merciless young man who revelled in his power to inflict pain. Whether he was a psychopath, suffering the symptoms of some disease or the victim of drugs is another matter. I think being a journalist allowed me to read between the lines of the histories and I had a certain sympathy for the boy trying to live up to the memory of his father – Germanicus, probably the greatest Roman of his age if you believe the stories – and brought up in a gilded cage that gave him no relation to reality. That didn’t stop me using the juiciest bits of the histories to get to the heart of a fascinating fictional character.

What’s next after Hero of Rome?
My next book will be the continuing story of Gaius Valerius Verrens in Defender of Rome. It’s 64 AD and a damaged Valerius is back in the city of his birth and making a living as a lawyer when the Emperor Nero gives him a thankless mission that puts he and his whole family in danger. Two well known early Christians, plus the philosopher Seneca and naturalist Pliny the elder all have parts to play in a story of which is full of intrigue and political backstabbing and winds up with a barnstorming finale.

Thanks, Doug, we look forward to Defender. Respect!

Visit Douglas Jackson's Amazon page here (UK purchases) and see Doug's book blog here. 

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