Richard Foreman on The Die Is Cast

The prolific author discusses his latest collection of short stories.
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You’ve written quite extensively on ancient Rome, beyond the two short tales set in Rome in The Die is Cast. There’s the Sword of Rome, Sword of Empire and Augustus Caesar series, to name a few; what has attracted you most to write about this period?

Fundamentally, Ancient Rome furnishes us with great stories and interesting characters. On the one hand, Ancient Rome feels alien and exotic – but on the other, it resonates and feels relevant. For all of their military prowess and stoicism, there were swathes of Romans who were witty and urbane, just like people today. I could be mistaken, but one of the earliest recorded jokes comes from Ancient Rome: “How would you like your hair cut?” “In silence, please.”

Many of the books I have written on Ancient Rome are structured around real historical figures – such as Julius Caesar, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and Octavius Caesar – but I also get to create purely fictional characters, such as Rufus Varro, who features in The Die is Cast. Varro is initially cynical and world-weary, but he surprises himself and others by how decent and even heroic he becomes. I’m probably still stuck at the cynical and world-weary stage, unfortunately.

The other answer is that I am attracted to the sales. My Roman books have sold well both sides of the Atlantic. Ancient Rome appeals to eighteen and eighty-year-olds alike. I did say that I was still stuck in a cynical stage.

You quoted Julius Caesar for your title, ‘The Die is Cast’, which he allegedly said whilst he crossed the Rubicon, entering into Northern Italy. Today, it has been taken to mean that when a decision has been made, it cannot be reversed. I found in reading each short tale that there was this subtle, underlying theme of fate and the inevitable consequences each character faces when they choose to roll the dice. Would you say this is an interpretation you agree with? Or, if you disagree, what alternative reading would you put forward?

I’m not sure I’m that clever, as to have been able to consciously weave such a theme throughout all the stories. I would say that, in many of my books, there is a sense that characters can give themselves a second chance. One can roll the dice more than once in life. I fear if I did so, however, I’d still be world-weary.

I put the first collection of shorter works together, Fight or Die, during lockdown – to give people something fun to read. Hopefully, the stories in this second volume prove fun too, but if I have given an audience more bang for their buck by encompassing the theme of fate, then so be it.

Out of the five short stories in The Die is Cast , which has been your favourite to write – and why?

I’m not sure is the answer. A couple of the stories, such as Rubicon and Bowled Over, I wrote several years ago. I dare say I would have enjoyed writing them at the time. It was nice to re-visit the character of Rufus Varro, though – and I am tempted to write a few more short stories to complement the Spies of Rome novels. It was also fun to write a short story based around my recent Dick Turpin series. Anti-heroes are so much more interesting than heroes.

I found the final tale, Hobby’s Horse, to be quite different from the other four stories and the books you have written outside The Die is Cast. What inspired you to write this?

Yes, the Pat Hobby stories are slightly different to other things I’ve produced. I can’t help but note how much other writers tell me how much they enjoy them. I went on holiday one Summer I believe, having recently read plenty of Fitzgerald. I wrote Hobby’s Horse as a fun exercise really, but a friend encouraged me to write more of the same. They’re a curate’s egg, in relation to my other series, but they may be the funniest stories I’ve ever published. Hobby may be even more cynical and world-weary than I am. He has given himself more than one second chance too, but with little or no success.

You admitted yourself in the End Note to Sword of Rome: Rubicon that ‘it’s the prerogative of the novelist to make things up’. I can imagine it can be quite hard to write a tale that is interesting and action-packed as well as believable and completely historically accurate. How do you balance between these two issues? And, do you sometimes find yourself leaning more to one end or the other?

At the heart of things is the drive to keep the reader engaged, whether one is doing so by zealously sticking to history or not. It is a balance, which can vary with each series. There are set waypoints in the story of Julius Caesar, for instance, that it would be foolish to ignore or dramatically change. No one wants to see him die during the Ides of April. I have given myself more dramatic licence when it comes to Dick Turpin, though – who in some ways has become more legend than man, like Robin Hood. It’s enjoyable mixing fact with fiction. I loved, for instance, writing about the likes of CB Fry and WG Grace in the Raffles stories. Similarly, it was no hardship reading up on Cicero to have him feature in the Sword of Rome and Augustus Caesar series.

Do you think that you will release a third collection of shorter works?

The answer is yes, but I have no idea when. It’s difficult to find a window during my world-weariness.

Richard Foreman is the author of The Die Is Castout now and published by Sharpe Books.