Harry Sidebottom is the bestselling author of the Warrior of Rome series, the latest of which, The Return, came out in October. He is Fellow and Director of Studies in Ancient History at St Benet’s Hall, and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, University of Oxford.
Interviewed by Alistair Forrest.
We know you have an academic background. When did you discover you could write with in pacey novelist’s style?
I was writing fiction long before I became an academic. You know how at school, when you are about thirteen, you stop writing stories, and have to analyse Steinbeck or whatever. Well, I was the odd child that carried on writing stories, just for my own pleasure. Actually I wanted to become an academic because I was under the misapprehension that they got half the year off, and that I could use those months to write a novel. Obviously I was wrong on both counts. First, that you are expected to work in the vacations. Second, it takes me a lot longer than six months to research and write a novel.
Finding a style that suits you – what is sometimes, pretentiously, called finding your `voice` – depends on trying to write many different types of book. I wrote all sorts – a modern thriller, a fantasy novel, several sub-Martin Amis literary novels, even a cowboy story. In the end I fell back on the truism `write what you know`. That gave me three options: literary novels set in academe, horse racing stories, or Classical history. Probably just as well, I started by opting for the latter.
How do you use, whether maximising or limiting, your knowledge as a lecturer in ancient history?
The big advantage of being a lecturer in the history of the period in which my novels are set is the research can be more `targeted`. When I move to a new theme or place, I already have a working knowledge of the original sources, as well as where to find the latest scholarship. Having said which, most of the research has to end up on the cutting room floor. You need to include enough to give the reader confidence that you know what you are talking about, and to evoke the time and place and culture, but avoid at all costs the `info dump`, which serves no purpose other than to show off your research.
What inspired you to write The Return and how did you research the background (apart from your inherent academic knowledge of course!)?
The original inspiration for The Return was reading an anecdote in Cicero about a murder in the Sila Forest in Calabria. The idea lay dormant – for about twenty five years! – until a short story by O. Henry made me think about exploring the effects of Roman imperialism on peasant farmers in Italy.
Researching The Return I needed to learn about farming in the Roman Republic. So, the first thing to read was Cato, On Agriculture.
The Return sets out to merge the brooding menace of a Nordic Noir murder mystery in an evocative Italian setting with the explosive action of a historical novel.
Do you visit the areas you intend to write about to research the lie of the land, so to speak?
I try to visit every location in my novels. A couple of reviewers in the TLS have been kind enough to praise my `boots on the ground` style. Autopsy – in the `looking at it yourself` sense – lets you see how the various elements of the topography link together. You can get lots of views of, say, the library of Celsus in Ephesus from books or the internet. Only when you are there, do you realise what you can see when you stand on its steps and look out at the rest of the city, at the river and the hills – and the weather and the smells…
One or two locations are just too dangerous to visit. Researching The Lost Ten, I did not go to Syria during the civil war!
What else inspires you? Which ancient writers? What modern books do you read?
Most of my novels have been inspired by something in an ancient writer. Possibly my favourite ancient source is the so-called Augustan History. It is a series of biographies of emperors, which claims to have been written by six authors about 300AD. In fact it is a Latin historical novel, written by one man, about 400AD.
A great deal of my reading is taken up by modern historians writing about the Classical world. When I get a chance to read fiction, I tend to go for literary novels (Julian Barnes and William Boyd are particular favourites among the Brits, and Cormac McCarthy among the Americans), or really good crime fiction, such as James Lee Burke or, my friend, Donna Leon.
We know and respect your Warrior of Rome hero Ballista. Will Paullus make a return?
Ballista will return in two novels in the next year or so: Falling Sky (set in Gaul), and The Burning Road (set in Sicily). I have a feeling Paullus may be summoned back to the standards from the plough.
Your earlier series are set in the 3rd Century AD, The Return in the 2nd century BC. Is it difficult to jump 500 years or does this come naturally given your background?
Luckily, I have taught the Roman Republic of the last two centuries BC for many years. Even so, I had to do a lot of reading to make sure nothing anachronistic crept in.
What other era’s would you like to write about?
Lots! Right now, I am thinking about a novel on Alexander the Great, and another on Pompey and the fall of the Republic. Further afield, I have plans for a series of modern thrillers, two novels set at the end of WW2, one in WW1, some contemporary detective stories, and (back to where I started!) a big literary novel.
How do you separate your academic work from your novel writing; which is your main job and do they get on together, so to speak?
I think people wrongly believe there is a great gulf between the two. In both cases you do much the same: identify your subject, plan your research, take lots of notes, make lots of plans, write to try and take your reader with you. Of course, there are differences – I don’t make up dialogue in my history books! – but maybe not as many as is sometimes thought.
My main job now is being a professional novelist. Yet I believe the novels have made me a better historian. They make me think about whole new areas of ancient history.
What are you working on next?
This autumn I am writing a biography of Rome`s maddest emperor. The working title is Sex & Death: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome. I am using Heliogabalus` life as a prism through which to view big issues – both then and now – like political power, religion, racism, and, of course, sex, lots of sex. As Mary Beard often says, `Rome is good to think with`.
And what do you hope to have achieved in, say, five years’ time?
I very much hope to have introduced lots of new readers to the pleasures of ancient Rome!
Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of Libertas and Line in the Sand, the story of David and Goliath. His latest book, Viper Pit, the second of the Agents of Rome series, was published in August.