It’s author Douglas Jackson on the blog today. He is the author of many historical fiction novels and thrillers, the first of which was Caligula, the story of Rufus. Be sure to visit his website www.douglas-jackson.net/
1) Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders in the summer of 1956 and educated at Parkside Primary School and Jedburgh Grammar School. My first job after leaving school involved the restoration of a Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills, where I had a glorious two months turning turf, avoiding the occasional adder and dreaming of legionaries. Later I joined my local paper as a cub reporter and for the next 36 years worked in local and national newspapers in Scotland, including the Daily Record and the Scotsman. I left the Scotsman in 2009 after nine years as assistant editor to become a full-time writer, a decision I only ever regret on pay day. I’m married to Alison, and I have three children, Kara, Nikki and Gregor, who never fail to make me proud. Nikki and her husband Greg have just brought granddaughter Lily into my life and provided me with a new kind of happiness.
2) Tell us about your books.
My first novel was called Caligula, and featured a slave called Rufus, who was the keeper of the Emperor’s elephant. I’d planned it as a trilogy, but my publisher thought Rufus had run his race after the second book, Claudius. My editor asked me to come up with a more mainstream hero, so I came up with the character of Gaius Valerius Verrens, a young tribune destined to return to Rome and a rather dull life, who gets caught up in the Boudiccan rebellion and realises that his destiny is to be a soldier. That novel became Hero of Rome (my editor’s theory was that novels with Rome in the title sold well), and I think it took my writing to a whole new level. Six more Valerius novels have followed, with two to go, and he’s met up with Nero, Seneca, St Peter, General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo and his daughter Domitia, the future Augusta, the future Emperors Titus and Domitian, and the Emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian, as well as a host of minor characters, many of whom meet grisly ends. I have two more Valerius novels to write, which will take him full circle back to Britain and on campaign with Julius Agricola.
I’ve also written four thrillers, under the pen name James Douglas, featuring the urbane art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair. They’ve all been well received and I’m very proud of them, but my publisher decided they weren’t commercially successful enough and ended the series. It’s a crying shame. My own view is that they didn’t push them hard enough. They’re great light summer reads for anyone who likes a mystery with a bit of history.
3) How did you first get interested in Rome?
When I was restoring the legionary marching camp at Pennymuir. The Forestry Commission had ploughed it up to plant trees – this was in the 70s when panacea was a land covered from coast to coast in Norway spruce – until someone pointed out they were destroying a scheduled historic monument. We used mattocks and shovels to turn four feet wide slabs of peat turf back into the holes they’d come from. It could be an eery place, full of grouse and curlews and adders, but there was a gap in the hills where Dere Street entered the valley and in the quiet of the evening you could imagine the legions marching through it and the impact they had on the local population. I think that’s what draws me to the Romans in particular. Two thousand years ago they laid their stamp on the known world and almost everywhere you go the signs are still there. That said I only started writing about Rome by accident. I’d decided it was time to write a book, but had no idea what about. They say: Write what you know, but what I knew was deadly dull. So I came up with write what you love. I realised that what I loved was history. I also just happened to have Simon Schama’s History of Britain on the radio and the actor Timothy West suddenly intoned ‘And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on his elephant at Colchester to take the surrender of eleven British tribes’. I went home that night and sat down at the computer and a new career was born.
4) Can you remember the first piece of fiction you wrote?
It would be an essay at school. The only thing I was any good at were English and history (I only discovered recently that I suffer from something called Discalculia – numerical dyslexia – give me a string of numbers and I’ll always transpose two of them, which can’t have helped). My English teacher was also my form teacher. He didn’t like me and after the prelims he said I’d never amount to anything. I decided to leave, but when the exam results came in my English mark was one of the, or possibly the highest in Scotland and he pleaded with me to stay on. I said no. My first proper piece of fiction was a novel I started when I was about 27, rattling it out on an old portable Olivetti in an attic room. It was a thriller, very much of its time, IRA dirty bomb, Mossad, the SAS and a spy who knows this will be his last case. In those pre-internet days I decided I didn’t have the time or the money to do the necessary research to make it authentic, so I gave up and concentrated on raising a family. I found it recently among the junk in our present attic and was astonished to see that I’d actually written 80,000 words plus and it wasn’t bad.
5) What’s the main difference between writing thrillers and historicals?
I’m tempted to say how you kill people, and that would be partially true, but its actually more about the world your character is living in. In a historical novel you have to be certain about every detail of the street your walking down, what the people you meet are wearing, how they’d greet each other and what they eat and drink. In 1st century Rome you can’t have Valerius admiring a temple that wasn’t built until a hundred years later, and that’s more difficult than you’d think, because those kind of details are often uncertain and buried deep. That means research and more research. In a contemporary thriller the key to writing a similar scene is putting in the effort to make it interesting when your reader is perfectly familiar with everything you’re showing them.
6) How has your professional life as a journalist influenced your writing?
It was a huge help.l. I spent 36 years in newspapers and twenty of those in high pressure positions on major nationals. Standards were immensely high and we were taught never to waste a word and that has carried on into my fiction writing. My initial drafts tend to be clean and tight and my grammar and spelling tends not to need a lot of editing. Most of that time I’d be working in an open plan office amid mayhem (screaming confrontations, people throwing things, death threats: the normal atmosphere of a national daily newspaper) and I learned to focus despite what was happening around me. That made it much easier when I decided that the only way I was ever going to finish a book was by working on the commuter train between Bridge of Allan and Edinburgh. Previously I’d managed 500 words a day. Now I was doing 1200 or 1500 and the maths of producing a book started to add up.
7) How do you research your books? How do you balance between taking liberties and keeping the history as accurate as possible?
I’d love to say that, like Stevenson or the great western writer Louis L’Amour (“When I write about a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink.”), I’ve visited every place I’ve written about. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I hate the internet. I’m of the firm opinion that it is a black hole that will eventually devour the world. But without the internet I could never have written a book. I have about two dozen bookmark files filled with several hundred web links. I could build a Roman flour mill or make a pair of caliga sandals. I know the range and power of a scorpio, the catapult the Romans called the shield splitter. I have the translated works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio and Plutarch. I know the rudiments of manufacturing a bomb, the sound of a Kalishnikov and how to fire it. All without leaving my desk. More importantly, thanks to Google Earth I can travel to the remotest places in the world, check out the terrain, the temperature, look at photographs and then link to blogs to get the first hand experiences of people who’ve been there. That said, there is nothing to beat being there in person. I’ve travelled to Rome, Madrid, Dresden and Berlin on research trips and it’s a lot easier to soak up the atmosphere than trying to evaluate what you see on a computer screen. Oh, and I have books, hundreds upon hundreds of books that cover my study floor like a sea.
8) Which authors have most influenced you? Which are your top three favourite books?
I think Robert Louis Stevenson would be the first. Kidnapped is a wonderful, simple story with captivating characters that takes you on a helter-skelter ride through the grandeur of the Scottish landscape. Alan Breck Stewart is the perfect flawed hero as the Jacobite who’s fallen on hard times and you can tell that Stevenson has visited every location and sketched it with words. I’ve always been drawn to thriller writers: Alistair McLean and Jack Higgins gave me the itch to write, because they have such a straightforward style. And the late, great George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman books taught me more about history than I ever learned at school. The fact that he wrote the first Flashman while he was still working at the Glasgow Herald was an inspiration to me. My three favourite books? Tough one, but I’d say Kidnapped, Flashman and the Great Game, and John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy.
9) Any other hobbies aside from writing?
You sound like my mum. I’m always trying to convince her writing is my full time job. I like to annoy salmon if I can find the time. I seldom catch any, but there’s something wonderfully therapeutic about being on a river and doing physical exercise in the fresh air for hours on end. I love to watch rugby. I played it from my teens to my thirties. My proudest memory is scoring a try for Melrose Thirds in my last game when my leg was so badly injured I had to crawl up the stairs in the house when I got home. My wife almost choked laughing.
10) What is the one quality that you believe new author should possess to achieve both critical and commercial success?
I wish I knew. I seem to have cracked the critical side, with comparisons to some of the most successful writers around, but commercial success is harder to come by. I’d say be more savvy about the way the business works. if you’re going to be traditionally published use what power you have to squeeze as many guarantees about ongoing publicity, marketing, print runs and sales support from your publisher as you can. All debut authors are dazzled by the numbers, but it’s not all about the money. For independent and self-published authors it would be build up your back catalogue and maintain the quality of your writing and editing, which isn’t easy over a long period.
11) What is going to be your next release?
My next book, Saviour of Rome, is out on August 25. It takes Valerius and his sidekick Serpentius to the gold fields of northern Spain and a conspiracy to wreck the Roman economy at a time when Vespasian needs it most.
12) Anything you would like to add?
My best piece of advice to any writer would be: persevere.
A. J. Chaudhury is a young author from India writing mostly in the fantasy genre. His historical low fantasy short “A Song of Blood” has released and is being acclaimed by reviewers (grab it here!)
To download his fantasy novella “The Drabird” for free CLICK HERE!