Questions & Answers
What made you want to be a writer?
I was a very poor reader at primary school, so my imagination was inspired more by watching films and playing with toys than by books. My interest in writing started at the age of eight, when my teacher liked a couple of my poems and pinned them up on the classroom wall. It was the first time I realised I was good at something and the idea of being a writer lodged itself somewhere in the back of my young mind. I wrote my first “novel” when I was around eleven – a rip-off of Star Wars scribbled in an old A4 jotter that only my dad got to read. A couple of years later my reading really took off. I enjoyed books so much that those early notions of being a writer took root and became a full-blown ambition. It’s been a long road since then.
Where does your interest in Greek mythology come from?
Again, early childhood. I loved epic films like Spartacus, Ben Hur and Jason and the Argonauts, which sparked my first interest in the ancient world. I also had a collection of Airfix Romans and Ancient Britons to fire my imagination (they’re still in the attic with the rest of my old toys). Later, as I widened my reading to include the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and Milton I became fascinated by the constant references to Greek and Roman mythology – references I rarely understood at the time, but which intrigued me. So I read Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and never looked back. When I went to university at the age of 24 I chose English and Classical Studies; the things I learned there eventually inspired me to write King of Ithaca.
What are your favourite books?
I could try to impress by reeling off lots of high brow authors and titles, but I’d just be lying. My favourite reads are mostly well told stories with great characters.
Top of the list has to be The Lord of the Rings because it’s the first book that I became fully absorbed by. JRR Tolkien’s fantasy world is a perfect and totally believable creation, and yet the characters aren’t dwarfed (forgive the pun) by the canvas they’re drawn against. Instead, they grip the reader and pull him or her into a setting that might otherwise be too big and impersonal.
Second is The Odyssey, probably still the greatest adventure story every told. Odysseus is pitched against everything that man, nature and the gods can throw at him and yet, with great patience, bravery and cunning, still emerges victorious – and all for the sake of his beloved family and his island home.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams, is next. Nowhere near as gloomy as the film, the book is populated by wonderful landscapes, terrible enemies, its own mythology and a host of enduring characters that quickly become the reader’s friends.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, is about a group of Classics student who commit murder just to see if they can get away with it. Written with depressing brilliance (if you’re an author) this book completely consumed me and became one of my main inspirations for studying the classics at university.
Ernest Hemingway was an inspiration to me in my teenage years. I read all his books and travelled to many of the places he wrote about. For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the Spanish Civil War, is the tale of a man sent to blow a bridge behind enemy lines, aided by a group of simple partisans. Drawing on Hemingway’s own experiences of Spain and combat, this is one of the most realistic and moving novels about war I’ve ever read.
Last of my all-time favourites is The War of the Worlds by H G Wells. The slow, hypnotic build up in a safe and sleepy Victorian Britain, followed by a heroic but futile resistance and then the ruthless extermination of our civilization is a story that has been seared onto my consciousness. It was the first apocalyptic novel I ever read and it took away my naïve, youthful belief in the permanency of mankind. I loved it!
How close are your books to the original myths?
There’s a problem with the Trojan War myths, though fortunately it’s a nice one to have. The problem is that there are so many myths, and so many versions of the same myths, and so many writers writing in so many genres and from so many cultures over so many years that it makes it hard to say what the “original myths” are. Also, there is little or no historical fact to measure the veracity of the myths by. The earliest written stories probably come from The Iliad and The Odyssey, but Homer himself and the origins of his great poems are almost as much of a mystery as the war itself.
Add to that the fact a lot of the myths come from sources that were lost long ago. Take the Epic Cycle, for example. This is a collection of poems, including the Cypria and the Little Iliad, that provide us with elements of the story that aren’t found anywhere else. Unfortunately, the original works no longer exist and only fragments remain. These scraps come from summaries of the poems written by later writers, such as Proclus, who quoted parts of the original texts. A modern equivalent might be to piece together the Harry Potter stories by relying on newspaper reviews and fan sites. What remains, therefore, isn’t complete or perfect but gives us a good idea of the original.
Although I’d read Homer, it wasn’t until university that I began to appreciate how many sources there are for stories on the Trojan War and how little most people know about them. So, when I came up with the idea for a series of books about Odysseus’s part in the myths, I decided to write something that would be accessible to anyone – not just those with a knowledge of the classics – and which would cover the whole story from start to finish, including as many of the minor myths as I could realistically and enjoyably fit in.
With this as my goal, I’ve tried to be faithful to the earliest myths as told by different Greek writers – Homer first of all. This hasn’t been an easy task for several reasons. Often, you can get two or more versions of the same story, sometimes with different characters or different endings. Where this has been the case, I’ve picked the bits that suit me best. Also, although the myths tend to be part of the same overall tale, fitting them together smoothly is not straight forward. Sometimes the timeline doesn’t work out. For example, Achilles’s friend, Patroclus, is listed among Helen’s suitors by the writer Apollodorus; most other writers have him as being around the same age as Achilles, in which case he would have been too young to have been a suitor. To make the story work, therefore, I’ve had to let my imagination glue the different elements together.
The vast majority of the major characters are plucked from the myths. I’ve tried to stay true to historical portrayals, but have also enjoyed digging a bit deeper with many of them. With Helen, for example, I wondered what it was that made her leave her first husband and how, later on, she felt about being the cause of the war. With others I used a bit more licence. Homer’s Paris is cowardly, irresponsible and a bit of a dandy, but I’ve chosen to make him a battle-scarred warrior who surrenders his honour for the sake of Helen. This was based on an idea from Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, in which he suggests a historical parallel between Paris (sometimes called Alexander of Ilium) and a Hittite warrior king called Alaksandus of Wilusa.
Then there are a handful of characters that are completely my own invention, most of whom are minor, third-spearman-from-the-left types. However, Eperitus, Odysseus’s friend, is not. Right from the moment I thought of the books I felt there was a need to create a central character who would bring an element of the unknown to the story. Eperitus does that, but naturally he and the plot elements associated with him are completely my own invention and have nothing to do with the original myths.
Overall, the answer to the question is that my stories aim to retell the full story of the Trojan War and therefore I’ve tried to stick to the original sources. I’ve read a couple of comments from those who know the classics well and perhaps expected something more high-brow, but I think they’ve missed the point of what I’m trying to achieve. On the other hand, lots of people who don’t know much about the original myths tell me how easy they found it to get into the books and how much they’ve learned from them. There have also been plenty of classicists who say they’ve enjoyed my take, and as I’ve always wanted to retell these stories in an enjoyable way I hope I’ve hit the mark.
What are your other interests and influences?
Spent a bit long on the last question, so I’ll keep this one shorter. My dad was a soldier before I was born and had shelves full of books about military history. I read these hungrily as a kid and have loved all things historical and all things warlike ever since. I also spent way too long watching films in my childhood – another passion that’s never gone away – and I find my writing has always had a cinematic element to it. I’m a bit geekish, too: what began with a love of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Middle Earth and the like has rolled on to include Harry Potter, Westeros and other fantasy worlds.
When I reached my teens I became a mod and bought a scooter, a passion that stayed with me long after the Parka coat and the Jam records disappeared into the attic. I still own a Lambretta SX200, but to my shame it hasn’t been road-legal since my first daughter was born and I had to divert my time and finances elsewhere.
When I reached my twenties, wanderlust set in. I’ve travelled to nearly forty countries (although that does include Vatican City), met lots of fascinating people and seen some wonderful sights. I’ve had a few adventures, too, including hitch-hiking my way across North America (coast to coast and border to border) and having my collarbone broken by a bull in Pamplona.
Things have quietened down since those days and now my main interests are my family – Jane, my wife, and my two daughters, Tabitha and Kate.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Too long. Writing doesn’t pay enough to leave my other job so I’m restricted to one full day’s writing a week, with a couple of evenings thrown in if I’m falling behind. I’m also quite a slow writer and usually manage between 1500 and 3000 words a day. Before I start a book I spend several weeks doing research, putting together a chapter plan, completing character studies and doing all those other essential things that are needed before the actual writing can begin. Once the book is complete, I spend a few more weeks editing it before I submit it to the publishers. Then comes the lengthy business of working through the text with my editor, sending it to a copy editor and finally typesetting and giving it a final read through for anything that has escaped all the previous edits – see The truth about being an author for more detail. Up to submitting the manuscript to a publisher, I would say it takes me around 18 months to complete a book.
When and where do you do your writing?
I prefer to hire a small chateau on the French Riviera, but when this isn’t convenient I write in my study at home. This has a large desk for my computer, a few shelves of books, an old piano and a print of Hylas and the Nymphs on the wall in front of me. Usually I dither around for an hour or so before I sit down and start writing. For some reason, I always find it hard to start. It’s a bit like taking a cold shower: I’ll seize on any reason not to do it, but once I’ve stepped in and the initial shock has worn off I quickly get used to it. Sometimes I can sit there all day and write nothing of any worth. This usually happens when I’m too tired to concentrate (which was more common when my daughters were younger and used to wake up several times in the night). Mostly though, I start slowly and reach my best and most productive around mid-afternoon. If things are going well, I’ll often carry on until eight or nine o’clock. After that I’ll usually veg out in front of the telly and watch an episode or two of The Walking Dead or something equally cheerful.
How many books will there be in there series and what are they?
From the moment in 1999 when I first had the idea for the series, I’d always planned six. As those who’ve read them will already know, the first, King of Ithaca, starts with the marriage of Helen ten years before the war, when the seeds of the conflict were sown. Jumping a decade to the second book, The Gates of Troy tells the tale of Helen absconding with Paris to Troy, the gathering of the Greek armies to bring her back and their first battle against the Trojans. After nine long years of stalemate, The Armour of Achilles is centred on the events of The Iliad, in which the Fates of Achilles, Ajax and Hector – the stalwarts of Greece and Troy – are decided.
Fourth in the series is currently titled The Oracles of Troy and recounts the story of the Trojan Horse and the final doom of Troy, as foretold in a series of prophecies. After that will come the story of Odysseus’s fantastic adventures as he tries to fight his way home to his family, including his famous encounters with the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops and the Sirens. And finally, in the sixth book I want to recount the homecoming itself – Odysseus’s long-awaited return to Ithaca and how he deals with the suitors. These men have taken over his home with the intention of murdering his son and claiming his wife for their own – and the throne that comes with her.
When’s the next one coming out?
Here’s the bad news. My publisher tried to push The Armour of Achilles through supermarkets but didn’t sell as many as they were hoping for, so won’t be continuing with the series. Since then I’ve found an agent, but despite his valiant efforts it seems no publisher wants to pick up a series halfway through. This is the main reason for the delay in getting The Oracles of Troy published (I finished the manuscript in April 2012). Naturally it’s disappointing, but on the bright side it also gives me the freedom to write the rest of the series exactly as I want it – see the truth about being an author for what happened to King of Ithaca. At the time of writing I’m doing a final edit on the manuscript before submitting it to a copy editor whom I know and trust; I’m also in the process of sorting out the cover with a very talented graphic artist. Everything should be ready by autumn and, to start with at least, will be released as an e-book. The good thing about e-books is the production costs are affordable and it also reaches a worldwide audience. One The Oracles of Troy is released I will turn my full attention to the fifth book in the series (see above).
I’ll keep the website updated about progress.
What will you write after The Adventures of Odysseus?
That’s a way off yet, I suppose, but when I get there the world’s my oyster (or my future’s a clam, to quote Paul Weller). I’ve got ideas for three unrelated young adult books, all set in England in the present day. I’ve also thought about a trilogy on Heracles, that mega-hero of Greek mythology. Considering the rate I write at, though, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.