Writers of Rome: Doherty & Turney, interviewed by Peter Tonkin.

Peter Tonkin

Three writers of ancient Rome discuss Doherty & Turney's new series.
Home » Author interviews » Writers of Rome: Doherty & Turney, interviewed by Peter Tonkin.

Doherty & Turney, Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney are the authors behind the Rise of Emperors books, the first of which is Sons of Rome. The two writers, both successes in their own right, have teamed up to write this new series. Peter Tonkin, author of Caesar’s Spies, caught up with them to ask about their writing style and the history behind the stories.

Having just finished reading Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney’s fantastic novel Sons of Rome, I’m sure fans (like myself) can’t wait for its sequel, next in the Rise of Emperors series, Masters of Rome. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to ask the two authors a few questions that no doubt readers will be interested in. 

Several reviewers have remarked on how Constantine and Maxentius speak with individual voices. How easy was it for one of you to write Constantine’s story and the other Maxentius’ as first-person narratives?

Gordon: Honestly? It was effortless! From the outset, Simon and I wrote naturally and without filters, allowing snippets of our own autobiographical detail and quirks of speech to come through authentically, along with the elements of character we wanted to add ‘by design’. I remember reading my chapter one (Constantine) and Simon’s chapter two (Maxentius) for the very first time and was worried that it’d be full of repetition and echoey scene-setting etc., but both openings were pleasingly discrete. Since then, we’ve never run into a situation where both characters sounded too similar — except by design when we wanted to draw the reader’s attention to the parallels in their lives.

Gordon Doherty

Simon: Yes, I think it was natural and almost instinctive. Gordon and I have known each other since before either of us released a book, well over a decade, and we’ve both been reading each other’s novels since the start. We each have our quirks, but given the broader similarity in our styles and our familiarity with each other’s work, it came naturally to write in a form that complemented each other, yet kept an individuality of character.

Writing a parallel story like this is a brilliant idea. What first drew you to it, other than a boozy meeting in a Leicestershire pub?

Simon: As much as anything, we wanted to write something together from the outset, and the simplest way to begin was to each take a character in a dual-protagonist tale. Given that my main focus has been Principate and Imperial Rome, while Gordon’s has been late Rome and Byzantium, these events fall seamlessly right in the middle of our shared interests. The mechanics of it came after that, but from the start, it was partially an experiment.

Gordon: Remember that old childhood game where you take a sheet of paper, then player one draws the head and folds it over so you can’t see what they’ve drawn. Next, player two draws the body and folds it over, and so on? Then you unveil the whole thing —usually to reveal some insanely imaginative creature. It sort of reminded me of that —a story where we would drive each other’s creative spirit. It worked even better than we hoped. Instead of scratching my head about how to write the next chapter, I would find myself bubbling with energy to pick up the tantalising threads Simon had dangled at the end of his and relished the opportunity to leave a cliff-hanger for him to pick up.

Given its success as narrative, are there any other famous pairs of Romans you might consider doing the same with?

Gordon: You know, every time I hit upon a new solo historical story idea, I soon spot the protagonist’s rival or close comrade—most recently Aetius and Atilla the Hun. Every time the question floats into my mind: ‘Is this the next Turney Doherty project?’

Simon: Ha, yes. It’s now almost impossible to see only one side of a tale. Like Gordon, I’ve had my eye on one tale and only recently realised that it would work so much better with two entwined protagonists. We’ve discussed such possibilities since finishing the ‘Rise of Emperors’ trilogy. Currently, life and events dictate that no new project will begin in the short term. Still, we’ve played around with a number of ideas, including Constantine’s heirs, Justinian and Belisarius, and even a story about the Border Reivers, to depart from Rome for a while.

Obviously, this interview’s main focus is Sons of Rome, but as you started work on the project some years ago, I see you have both published other books and articles while working on this series. Has this presented any problems? Is it something you plan to continue?

Simon Turney

Gordon: Before starting work on this joint initiative, my solo novels pretty much took up every spare minute of my time. But I knew that I would grow and learn from working as part of a team, and I very much enjoy Simon’s company and long-distance banter, so it was a welcome challenge to reshape my working pattern to make Sons of Rome part of my author’s journey. There have been days where it has felt like an interruption to switch context from a solo project to this joint one, but learning to do that is a very valuable skill.

Simon: Sons of Rome, was designed to be something that fit into our spare time. It was scheduled so that we could put aside the odd day to work on it without interrupting our day jobs too much. There were times when the pace lagged, in truth, when other commitments dropped spare time to a minimum and the next chapter would wait more than a month to move on, but because we work well together and stayed in touch throughout, it was always easy to slip back into the text.

You both write about such a broad range of historical eras. Which, if any, is your favourite and why?

Simon: I vary a lot, but my favourite has always been Imperial Rome, roughly from the 2nd to 5th centuries. Once upon a time, I was obsessed with earlier Rome, but I’m finding myself more and more interested in late Rome and Byzantium as I get older. Simply, Rome has always been my passion and hobby, so, naturally, it’s my favourite milieu for fiction.

Gordon: When I was in full-flow with Legionary, the late Roman Empire was my thing. When Strategos was building towards its climax, I thought of myself as a true medieval Byzantine. Now, I’m five books into my ‘Empires of Bronze’ saga, and I consider myself an honorary Hittite. The commonality between those three eras (and future ones I plan to cover) is that they all take place on the edge of a great and sometimes cataclysmic shift in history. That’s what appeals to me—getting under the skin of the people who lived in those world-changing and often desolate times. Also, every single book I’ve written has been partly or entirely based around Greece and Anatolia. That wasn’t by design. I simply love the profoundly layered history of that corner of the world and find myself being drawn back to it over and over again.

It seems a little trite, but it has to be asked. Which historical character would you most like to meet and why?

Gordon: Emperor Diocletian. It is he who kicks off the chaos in Sons of Rome, and I’ve never quite figured out what was going on in the man’s mind. He triggered the gory and ruinous Great Persecution (of the Christians), a reign of fire and terror across the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It lasted for years, yet he rarely showed any signs of doubt that this was the way to ‘fix’ the Christian’ problem’. He even went as far as to condemn his wife to death by burning. One can only assume it was a form of madness, and that he did, at last, see sense when he abdicated his throne and retired to his palace near Salona (modern Split in Croatia) to spend the rest of his days tending to cabbages in his garden!

Simon: I used to say Julius Caesar, but thanks to recent projects, there are two men I would like to meet more than any other. The first is Maxentius (from Sons of Rome) because we have such a biased picture of him from later biographers, while the hints given by archaeology and history suggest a much more thoughtful and interesting character. I’d love to find out the truth. Similarly, I’ve just written a non-fiction biography of Agricola, the Roman governor who conquered the north of Britain. Similarly, he was biographised by his son-in-law, in his case turned into a hero, and we have little else to go on. I would love to meet the man and find out what he was truly like.

If you could time-travel safely, what historical period or event would you most like to witness and why?

Gordon: The Trojan War. The legend is both fundamental to ‘Western’ history and yet almost ethereal in terms of hard evidence. I’m currently there, by the way, and re-interpreting Homer’s Iliad and the other works of The Epic Cycle, and trying to answer the question: why were the armies of the Hittite Empire—Troy’s mighty overlord and protector—not mentioned?

Simon: Ha. The important factor is always absent from that question. Almost any time could be interesting, but only if you’re rich, free, or a landed nobody. If you’re poor, a slave or a public figure, most periods can be horribly dangerous. In the best of worlds, I would be minor and unimportant aristocracy in Antonine Rome. Someone wealthy enough to see it all, but too unimportant to draw the wrong attention.

I see you travel extensively, both in Britain and further afield when researching. Is there any particular place from which you draw the most inspirationor does it depend on the project?

Gordon: As touched on, the Aegean world, Greece and Turkey draw me back repeatedly. Istanbul is the jewel in the crown; I’ve been there so many times, yet it never fails to inspire. I’ve written travelogues about my adventures there, one titled Walking Through Constantinople, and the other of my epic journey across Turkey and Georgia in what I call The Great Hittite Trail, which also commenced from Istanbul. I urge anyone who enjoys travelling to visit the pleasant open spaces around the ruins of the Hippodrome: buy yourself and kebab and a bottle of juice, frosted with condensation, and sit back under the shade of a tree to take it all in— the call to prayer mixing with the modern-day hustle and bustle and the long-gone ghosts of the Roman, Greek and even more ancient pasts. A dreamer’s bliss.

Simon: For me, it always depends on the project. Usually, I visit places because they appear in my work, and I want to get the feel of them to portray them right—the smells and sounds, the gradient and landscape and so on. A man can write a convincing passage about a legionary slogging up the hill to the defences of Gergovia. Still, until you’ve done it in the hot July sun, with sweat running into your eyes and flies buzzing around your head, there are details you’ll miss out. Occasionally, though, I visit somewhere that captivates me, and I have to find a reason to write about it. The latter happened at Les Fontaines Salées in Burgundy that so impressed me it ended up being the site of a clandestine meeting in Marius’ Mules 7.

As well as master storytellers, we have here a Yorkshireman and a Scot. Has your background and upbringing influenced your writing? If so, in what way?

Gordon: I’d say so. The underdog spirit is prevalent in many Scots, including me. I try to bring this out in my work—the need to remain strong in the face of overwhelming odds, the strength of character required to prevail in pretty bleak times.

Simon: For me, I don’t think so as such. I’m a middle-class Yorkshireman, and all I’ve ever had to worry about is losing my whippet and flat cap. Heh. But in truth, perhaps being a rural northerner has given me an appreciation of landscape, given that I live among some of the best examples in the country, jammed between the beautiful Yorkshire Dales and the stunning Moors. Most of my writing is set in mainland Europe, often in warm Mediterranean climes, often in grand cities, while I am a truly countrified yokel.

You have both published a large number of novels. Can you describe your normal writing routine?

Gordon: Up at stupid o’clock (6 AM ish), out for a run—come rain, shine or hellfire —shower, brekky, coffee and a pleasant read through emails and news to see what’s all going on in the world of writing and more generally. Then it’s a solid three hours of laser-focus writing, editing or researching till lunchtime, and an hour off for a walk with my wife and a nice bite to eat, then another three hours of work. This is my weekday routine, and weekends are free (to do housework usually). I try to be disciplined about my time both in doing enough and not doing too much. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that while writing is a massive part of my life, it is not everything.

Simon: Ha. Get up, drink coffee until I’m trembling, get the kids off to school and then shut myself away. I try to write 5,000 words a day, and I reward myself every thousand with a game of something before launching back into it. I finish in time to get the kids from school, and I do a four-day week, with Wednesdays off, so that I don’t get frazzled by Friday. If I don’t break the week in the middle, my work suffers by the end of it. On the other hand, I will also often research, plan and even write a little during the evenings and occasionally in the middle of the night. I’m rarely not thinking about work, and even my day off is usually spent reading or visiting sites.

You are both full-time, successful authors with well-established reputations. Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out as a writer and hoping to emulate your success?

Simon: Luck and perseverance. I was lucky twice, in that I happened to hit the boom in digital publishing, and in that my writing became profitable at the same time I was made redundant from the day job. But perseverance is the key since only the gods can control luck! I might have stopped trying after I’d spent several hundred pounds mailing manuscripts to agents to get firm rejections in reply. But instead, I self-published, and with the aid and advice of a couple of friends, I managed to secure a niche which grew enough that eventually, agents came after me. So I sort of did it in reverse to the traditional manner.

Gordon: Tenacity, rather than skill, got me into this game. I learned how to be a (hopefully) decent writer, but only by writing a whole tower of rubbish and relentlessly pursuing feedback and advice from others who helped me understand my weaknesses. In fact, I met Simon on just such a peer-critique website (sadly now defunct). It’s a great way to become a better writer… and if I hadn’t done that, Sons of Rome might never have come to be!

I assume if you have a proposed publication date (March 4, 2021), Masters of Rome is nearly ready. Are you going straight onto the third episode or are you preparing another project in the meantime, and in either case, when can we expect to see it in print?

Simon: Actually, all three volumes in the series were complete and edited when the series was sold. Needless to say, there were edits after that from Head of Zeus (the publisher) in the form of our fabulous editor Hannah Smith (I’ve always had the best editors!) So, Sons of Rome is out, Masters of Rome is now almost print-ready, and the third volume is awaiting its HoZ edits now. I suspect it will be given a release date around the time that book two comes out. We’re all ready to go!

Gordon: It’s weird having a completed trilogy all ready and waiting on the conveyer belt. Weird but in a good way. It has been a thrilling experience from that first day in the Leicestershire pub through to this point of seeing our hard work in glorious hardback. As Simon says, the Head of Zeus team has been first class with us. I cannot wait to see Masters of Rome and Gods of Rome arrayed next to this first volume. What an epic story, and what a journey it has been!

Gordon Doherty is the bestselling writer of the Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the novelisation of the video game, in addition to the Legionary, Strategos, Rise of Emperors and Emperors of Bronze series.

Simon Turney has a background in ancient history and has written a number of international bestsellers including Marius’ Mules, Knights Templar, The Ottoman Cycle and Praetorian.

Peter Tonkin has had more than 30 novels published, including the Tom Musgrave series set in Shakespearian England. His latest series, The Trojan Murders is set during the Trojan War.