… in conversation with Gillian Hamer.
As historical fiction writers go, they do not come much more successful or prolific than Simon Scarrow.
Since the publication of his first novel, Under the Eagle, in 2000 he has published a further eleven books in his Eagle series set in the Roman empire, the last just last October, titled The Blood Crows. Not content with the success of the Eagle series, he has also written a four book series under the title, Revolution, set around the time of Wellington and Napoleon, plus a third series, Gladiator, aimed at the Young Adult 11-14 year old market. Oh, and let us not forget the five Roman novellas published under the Arena title.
So, when he finally found time to draw breath, Words with Jam were knocking at his door to ask what drives on his passion for historical fiction, the secrets of which genres he plans to visit in his future works, his thoughts about adapting books into film, and how he sees the future of publishing.
You're obviously best known for novels set during the Roman Empire, but you have handled a cross section of history including the Napoleonic Wars. What attracts you to particular periods in history?
It’s hard to say when you are talking about interesting periods in history. So often it is the human story that is the catalyst for a novel. A particular event or predicament that creates the drama around individuals. Aside from that there just happen to be some historical periods that interest more than others. The ancient world being one, and the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era another. At present I am about to return to a novel set in the Second World War which I started last year. It is about a tiny marginal event, but the themes are universal.
What is it about the Roman period that inspires you to write not only the Eagle series, but also your latest Gladiator series for the YA market?
Rome was always on the curriculum when I was at school (more so because I also studied Latin as well as history), and outside of school it seemed to be on television – hardly a week went by without a TV showing of Cleopatra, Fall of the Roman Empire, Spartacus, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Quo Vadis or later on I, Claudius. All great stuff. At school I was an ancient world nerd and loved every aspect of the history and culture. As a result I would say that most of the research for the novels had already been done by the time I left school. The YA series came about as a result of telling a story to my boys when I would walk them to school. Eventually they said they liked it so much that it would be a shame not to tell it to others. All of which has pleasingly resulted in two sons who are also fascinated by history and studying hard for the subject at school.
Research, love or loathe? It must be a massive part of your books. How do you handle it?
I adore research. It’s the best way of putting off writing (and I mean that in a kind of positive way!). Seriously, I spend the vast majority of my working time immersed in books, visiting museums and historic sites and talking to re-enactors. There’s so much good material out there that I would need ten lives just to get through a fraction of the material I have gathered over the years. But, once I commit to writing the books the research has to stop completely to focus on the story.
Location plays a central role in your books, how important is location to you when creating a new world or setting for your readers?
The sense of a lived in setting is at the heart of the craft as far as I am concerned. Your reader has to believe they are ‘there’ when they get stuck into a book. And that means that I have to create the sights, sounds, smells and general ambience of a place. Consequently, I do my utmost to travel to the places where the novels are set and soak up as much sensory detail as possible. For example, at the end of The Eagle in The Sand there is a knife fight in a desert by some cliffs where there is a single tree growing. That tree and the setting is a faithful description of a spot in Wadi Rum in Jordan. The same goes for many settings in The Legion, where I had great fun reconstructing ancient Egypt from three research trips down the Nile.
What other genres do you enjoy reading? Would you ever write in another genre?
I like a lot of historical fiction. The Hornblower series is still my runaway favourite. Other than that I enjoy some crime novels (though not many, since as a writer you know the nuts and bolts of storytelling and can usually work out who the villain is within the first 20-30 pages.). Most of my reading these days is non-fiction. I just love finding out about ‘stuff’. As for writing in other genres, I will be starting a crime series later in the year for which I have high hopes.
Are you a visual writer? Are there any of your books you would particularly like to see in film or television? Any plans in the pipeline?
I’m not quite sure what you mean by a visual writer. I suppose the nearest I can get to explaining my perspective on this is by drawing on Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ when he says that after 20 mins of writing he begins to ‘see through the page’ and gets transported to the world he is creating. If that’s what you mean, then yes, it is the same for me. Getting novels made into films is such a difficult process and frankly the experiences I have had with an American film producer with respect to his plans to adapt my YA novels were not encouraging. Apart from wanting to turn them into an animated feature, starting in the present and time-slipping back to Rome, he also wanted to cut out any references to slavery (“y’know, that’s a bit of a bad word here in the US, Simon”) and fighting to the death (“can’t do that in a family film, Simon”) in a story about gladiators… So, if it happens, it happens, and I’ll take the cheque and cry all the way to the bank. No writer should grieve over any adaptation of their material they have sold to film-makers, I think. I know some who do, but if you sell something, it ain’t yours any longer. That’s how I look at it.
Cato and Macro have become quite iconic characters. What makes a great character for you, and as a writer, what do you consider are the vital ingredients when creating a new character?
Cato and Macro are like old friends to me. What makes them good to readers is that they talk and think like real people and frequently will take stories off in new directions, regardless of what the humble author may originally have planned. If they can do that, then to me that is proof that they work. Making up new characters is like meeting new people. There’s that process of probing to see what makes them tick, and whether you like them or not, and then analysing why.
This may be like asking you to choose a favourite child, but who is your favourite character to write, and why?
Right now, it is Marcus, the hero of the YA series who has undergone a process of change from happy child in idyllic home to slave, to gladiator, to hunted fugitive. It’s been an education watching him deal with loss, grief, determination, survival and most significantly, revenge.
You’ve obviously won so many awards and accolades throughout your career. What have been your proudest moments and achievements?
There have been many wonderful moments and opportunities which I have been lucky to enjoy as a result of the novels’ successes. It’s always nice to receive praise from readers from around the world, from schoolboys in Africa, to farmers in the outback, to the King of Jordan. But my proudest moment was when a young reader told me she cried when she read the scene when Marcus’s mother forces him to abandon her and flee. If writing can do that, then I feel I have made it a real experience for someone.
You must have learnt a great deal about writing and publishing over your career. What words of wisdom would you impart to the next generation of writers?
It’s the obvious advice, I’m afraid. There’s no substitute for doing a lot of reading and writing. You have to be experimental with both. There’s no point in reading just vampire fiction or Harry Potter. It has to be far more eclectic than that. (And while we’re on the subject, Rowling has proved that she can outdo Potter with ‘The Casual Vacancy’ which I loved). Experiment with your writing. Try different styles out, a necessary process through which to discover your own distinct voice. Most authors are fairly interchangeable, but there are some wonderful writers like Chris Humphreys who have such a distinct ‘voice’ and if you can achieve that then I’m sure you will find success.
Can I ask how you see the future of publishing? In such a rapidly changing market and technological world, do you believe ‘real books’ will survive or that e-books are the future?
I’d like to think physical books will survive since they are brilliant pieces of technology. They don’t need recharging, they’re rugged, they are cheap, they are reusable and they are far more rewarding than films, computer games and even music and art. Interestingly, the evidence is that ebook sales are plateauing out. While I appreciate the opportunities for new authors afforded by ebooks, the sad fact is that most of the output is pretty poor and barely merits the low prices charged for it. That said, some very, very successful publishing stories have their origins in self-published ebooks. So go for it.
Finally, what are your plans for the future and what next do you have in the pipeline?
At the moment I have 9 more books under contract, which I aim to have cleared within three years. Macro and Cato will carry on until they pay my mortgage off and then I dare say they will continue for a while longer as there are some great stories they can be involved in. Other than that, I’d like to learn how to fly and get a private pilot’s license. Before I’m too old.