Derek Birks on Triumphs & Tragedies

The novelist discusses a new collection of short stories and his contribution to it.
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Derek Birks, can you first tell us a little about your short story in the collection Triumphs & TragediesThe Emperor’s Sister, and how it fits in with your other novels?

The Emperor’s Sister is a standalone short story which refers to an actual historical event when Justa Grata Honoria, the rebellious elder sister of the feckless Emperor Valentinian III, decided to escape from her unhappy life in Rome to marry the Hun king, Attila, who, at that time, was Rome’s greatest enemy. Tantalisingly, although we know of her defection, we do not know the outcome. This story, featuring several characters from my Last of the Romans series, imagines what might have happened.

What attracts you to the late Roman Empire as a period to write about? Have you ever thought about writing a series set during the Roman Republic?

The period of Late Antiquity fascinates me because literally everything is going through change: the empire itself, Roman lifestyle, religion, dress and customs – even the buildings themselves. Hence, for the novelist, there is fantastic scope in trying to flesh out what little we can glean from contemporary Roman accounts. Though I am interested in the Roman Republic, I relish the endless fictional possibilities of Late Antiquity.

Your short story is based on a real incident; how do you go about researching and writing something like this, as opposed to a more fictionalized event?

When you base your fiction around an actual event, you need to find out what is ‘known’ such as dates, places and personnel involved. First consult secondary accounts by historians then try to test those against primary evidence from the period. In the Late Roman period, first hand accounts are patchy; so, often the writer, like the historian, must piece together these fragments to create a coherent narrative.

Once you have that, you can begin to build upon it by, basically… making stuff up. Since the bones of the story are already decided, the most important element you can bring in is your characters. They will give life to the story and pique the interest of readers.

If you could choose any event from Roman history to witness first-hand, what would it be?

Tough question because it covers such a huge period! I think possibly the assassination of Valentinian III on 16th March 455 (he just missed the ides) because he certainly had it coming. According to the diplomat and historian, Priscus of Panium, when the emperor was cut down, a swarm of bees descended upon the body and sucked up his blood. It would be great to confirm that story!

Have you read the other stories in the collection? Do you have a favourite?

Yes, of course and they offer considerable breadth of settings and storytelling, encompassing spies, adventure, intrigue, betrayal, murder and mystery.

If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be Blood Money by Fiona Forsyth. The author manages to create a self-contained but believable mystery with a varied set of characters with whom the readers can identify.

How important is it to generate a network of fellow writers?

When I first started writing historical fiction, I did not know a single writer personally. I soon found that the writing community is a generous one and I shall always be very grateful to those more established authors who took time to encourage me and offer advice. You soon learn that we all face very similar problems in transferring our fictional visions to the page.

Online, I now communicate with many, many authors and, through conferences and other events, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of them in the flesh. Not only is it enjoyable to chat but I think we all learn from talking to fellow authors; not to mention other publishing professionals.

Derek Birks is a bestselling novelist and contributor to Triumphs & Tragedies: A Roman Short Story Collection.