Historical novelist Richard Blake
on writing fiction readers will like
Jan 5, 2015
Blake’s first novel in the series came out in 2006 as “The Column of Phocas.” Perhaps wisely, the major British publisher which picked it up retitled it “Conspiracies of Rome.” It’s been followed by “The Terror of Constantinople,” “The Blood of Alexandria,” “The Sword of Damascus,” “The Ghosts of Athens” and “The Curse of Babylon.”
Blake also writes novels and nonfiction works under his real name, Dr. Sean Gabb. He is an outspoken political polemicist, a radical libertarian and a defender of British traditions such as the monarchy. He lives in Kent, in England. In this interview, I have chosen to keep his British spellings.
Sandusky Register: You have written six acclaimed historical novels about Aelric, an English lad who gets caught up in various adventures in the early Byzantine Empire, early in the seventh century. Why did you choose this setting?
Richard Blake: The literal answer to your question is simple but opaque. In April 2005, I decided to write a novel. I sat down at the computer. By the time I got up to make some coffee, I had written the first three chapters of what would become Conspiracies of Rome. There was minimal conscious planning. I just sat down and wrote. Over the next six weeks, I continued writing. I wrote on railway journeys to and from London. I wrote at work in the gaps between lectures. The words accumulated in thousands and tens of thousands. I had no idea where the plot was going. I felt at times as if I were taking dictation.
This isn’t to say that I wrote entirely on autopilot. I ransacked Wikipedia for dates and other facts. I spent hours checking things like whether horses had stirrups, and how long it needed for a man to ride between Rome and Ravenna. I had a street map of Ancient Rome open on the computer throughout. But I finished the novel in a state of shock. I had never written anything so large or so fast. I also knew that what I had written was rather good.
This being said, I can reconstruct the background causes of the novel. In February 2005, my wife took me for a long weekend in Rome. Out of duty, we went round the bigger piles of ruins, and they are very grand. But we found ourselves repeatedly struck by the very old churches and the mediaeval buildings. Some of the churches date from the fourth century, when the Empire was still intact. They have all been in continual use and are still standing. They had a much greater immediacy and feeling of communion with the past than the patched up ruins of the Temple of Vesta.
When I set out to write a novel, I decided it would be an historical novel. I also decided it would have to be set right at the end of antiquity. In the first instance, I thought it would be exclusively focussed on early mediaeval Rome. The more I wrote, however, the more I found I was sinking into the power politics of the Byzantine Empire. In the other five novels in the series, my hero is solidly based within the Empire, and the theme that gives continuity to the series is the first steps along the path that took that Empire from a slave state ruled by snobbish intellectuals to something like a state capitalist democracy.
The Roman Empire has enormous glamour. It was large and successful. It was the place where the Christian Faith emerged. Its civilisation is the basis of our own. But it was a ghastly thing. Part of its ruling order was a class of parasitic landlords, whose land was largely tended by slaves. The other part was a monstrous bureaucracy. It was headed by Emperors who were sometimes capable and even humane, but who were more often bureaucratic non-entities, or tyrants, or raving lunatics, or a combination of all three. The middle classes were progressively destroyed by grinding taxation. Everyone was disarmed and suspected. One reason why the Christians were persecuted was that they didn’t fit into the increasingly totalitarian structure of the Empire’s life.
The high culture in both Greek and Latin halves of the Empire was stagnant. Before about 200AD, both Greek and Latin as written were dead languages. Educated Romans were expected to write as if Cicero and Vergil were still alive – and the language in which they wrote had never been understood by the people at large. Educated Greeks were expected to write as if they were living in Athens c400BC. The subject matter was self-consciously obsolete.
The Empire wasn’t destroyed by catastrophic floods of barbarians, who burned the cities and killed the scholars. What happened in the West was that misgovernment and bad luck created a demographic vacuum into which rather small bands of marauders entered and set up new states. And these were really the beginning of our own civilisation.
In the East, it was different. The demographic collapse was never so great, and there was much more commerce. The downside of this was that, adapted to a now hegemonic Christianity, the governing structures of the Roman Empire seemed likely to continue indefinitely. Then came the great crash around the middle of the sixth century. There was now a demographic collapse brought on by the unexpected arrival of bubonic plague. After this, came the long Persian War, in which large parts of the Empire – Egypt and Syria chiefly – were conquered. The Persians were eventually thrown back and destroyed. Almost at once, though, came the Arab conquests, and the Empire that emerged from these crises was fundamentally different.
The Empire survived because it became different. Mediaeval Byzantium was a Greek Orthodox nation state, with a large mercantile class and an armed class of peasant freeholders. A microscopic intellectual class kept the old culture ticking over – and we should be grateful for their efforts to hand on to us what we have of the Greek classics. But mediaeval Byzantium lacked the social and bureaucratic rigidities of the Roman Empire. But it was mercantile and commercial and armed. The Greek mostly written was something like the spoken language. It had the popular cohesion and the wealth and the flexibility to face down militant Islam for something like four hundred years. The Roman Empire survived in the East because it had stopped being the Roman Empire in any meaningful sense. State capitalism is inferior to free market capitalism, but was better by far than what it replaced.
These changes began in the early seventh century. If we know a little about the origins and progress of the changes, they make an inspiring story. As said, they are the background to the whole series of my Byzantine novels.
Sandusky Register: Your books give a lot of information about the Mediterranean world in late antiquity, but your characters also drink a lot, have lots of sex and take lots of drugs. Did they really party that hard, or did you tart things up a bit for a 21st century audience?
Richard Blake: At all times, and in all places, people are motivated by sex and power and money. The objects they pursue will depend on local circumstances – for example, the ancients saw boys as well as women as legitimate targets of their affections, and power was often achieved by religious means. Again, where we expect to live at least sixty years, and expect to get over mechanical damage, and do not have to live in great pain, people in the past had to pack their lives into their teens and twenties. I think Aristophanes had his first hit when he was seventeen. Catullus was dead before he was thirty. But there are no essential differences between us and our distant ancestors. To show them as other than human beings is to write bad fiction.
This brings me to language, which is a problem in all historical fiction. Let me begin by showing how it shouldn’t be done. Take this:
The King rose up upon his couch. “Thou shalt, before this night is out,” he quoth, “mount upon thy trusty charger and bring me the head of the false Bobindrell.”
Whether people may once have spoken like this in England is beside the point. What matters is that it sounds ridiculous now, and it distances a reader from the characters in a novel. Whether your novel is set in England c1550, or some other time and place, here is how I suggest it should be done:
Still smiling, the King leaned closer. “I want the f— dead,” he breathed. “I don’t care how you do it. Just make sure none of the blame ever drifts my way.” He took another swig from his cup and went back to watching the jugglers.
Of course, you avoid words and images that only make sense in our own civilisation. But, when I write one of my Byzantine novels, I try to write in a way that sounds natural to a modern English reader. I can do this because the pretence is that the narrator is writing in natural Greek which has been translated into natural English. At the same time, an educated person writing Greek in the seventh century would have paid some regard to the conventions of the ancient language. Therefore, the English translation has a slight tinge of the eighteenth century. You get something like this:
“My Lord Bishop,” I sighed, “you really should consider how much you are pissing off our Imperial Lord and Master.”
As for things like sexual morality and the taste for recreational substances you’ll find in my novels, these are fully evidenced in the sources. Life is usually awful when it isn’t boring. The answer has always been to find the right mix of chemicals to make things seem better than they are.
Sandusky Register: Under your real name, Dr. Sean Gabb, you have written nonfiction and begun to publish science fiction novels, such as your new book, “The Break.” Why did you turn to science fiction, and what have you learned about SF fans, as opposed to historical novel buffs?
Richard Blake: I’ve been devouring historical fiction since I was eight. I discovered fantasy fiction by accident when I was twelve. I found a copy of Rider Haggard’s She in the local library. If you’ll pardon the colloquialism, it blew my mind. From Rider Haggard, I moved to Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells. Later, I discovered Colin Wilson and R.A. Wilson and Philip K. Dick. I didn’t come to actual science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, L. Neil Smith et al – until much later. Even now, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I write science fiction. I write fantasy fiction. The Churchill Memorandum is an alternate history thriller, set in a 1959 where the Second World War hadn’t happened. The Break is set in a 2018 when the mainland United Kingdom has been lifted out of the present and dumped into the world of 1064. The York Deviation is about an ageing lawyer who wakes up one morning, and finds himself in his younger body thirty years before at university. I will defer to your greater reading in the genre. But I suggest that none of these novels is straight science fiction.
I write it because I like it. I probably like it for the same reason I like historical fiction. I am bored with the world I inhabit. I appreciate its technology and general wealth, but don’t feel inspired to love it. For me, whether reading it or writing it, fiction is an escape.
As for differences between the fans, I see none. What readers of any genre want is a good story. Beyond that, they want authenticity. They don’t want historical fiction to be clogged with anachronisms. They don’t want fantasy that hasn’t been thought through. For example, suppose you have created a world where people live for about a thousand years. Well, this will be a world with longer investment horizons than we now have: very slow returns will be normal and acceptable. It will be a world with less specialisation than we now see: everyone has time to learn medicine and law and how to play the piano. It will be a world where people can’t be lied to as easily as they now are.
Sandusky Register: Your politics are largely libertarian, but you also seem to be a bit of an old school Tory. You are in favor of the monarchy, for example, which isn’t a big strain in American libertarianism since about 1776. How do you define your politics, and what do you call yourself?
Richard Blake: I am a libertarian. That is, I believe that people should be left alone to live as they please. I don’t like our present world of wars and heavy taxation and omnipresent surveillance. Almost inevitably, this makes me a conservative of sorts. One reason for this is that both England and America had more overall freedom in the past than they now have. I grant, two men couldn’t get married before 1914, and they would have gone to prison if caught in bed together. But you could buy guns and drugs without any question. You hardly ever came in contact with the State unless you went to a Post Office or asked a policeman for the time.
The second reason is that there are good abstract arguments for liberty. But the problem with abstract arguments is that they are abstract. Special cases can always be found or made up for state action. What keeps America from becoming a really ghastly police state isn’t arguments about the non-aggression principle, but the wording of a Constitutional document that is generally revered. You can’t burn paedophiles in the town square because there is something in the Constitution about “cruel and unusual punishments.”
It used to be the same in England. We had no written constitution. But freedom was preserved because it was part of an order of things that had lasted since the middle ages. Trial by jury couldn’t be abolished, because it had always existed. It was the same with secret trials and ex post facto laws. If you look at the story of how England lost its freedom, it begins with the assault on customs and institutions that had nothing obvious to do with individual freedom, but that provided the setting within which individual freedom was untouchable. Once those were swept away, the freedoms themselves became isolated oddities that could be abolished as hindrances to some overriding goal – the war on terror, the war on drugs and money laundering, and so forth.
I grew up in a country where you defended trial by jury and the right to silence by saying no to anyone who suggested the judges and lawyers should stop wearing wigs in court. Sadly, that war has now been lost. England is a revolutionary state, and conservatism is no longer an appropriate defence of freedom.
Sandusky Register: One of my favorite interviews is the one that science fiction writer Gene Wolfe did with himself in his book, “The Castle of the Otter.” Please ask yourself a devastatingly clever question, and then answer it.
Richard Blake: The only question I can think of is to ask why I write. The answers are as follows:
1. I like writing and do it rather well. Most things I do no better than indifferently. Don’t ask me to run a conference or manage an office. Don’t ask me to set up a business that requires me to employ people. I am a good teacher – a very good teacher. But my empire is of the written word. I seldom read back what I’ve written. I hardly ever revise it. I just think what I want to say, and how I want to say it, and the words come without conscious effort. I can, at full stretch, turn out five thousand words a day. I can write a whole novel in six weeks, though I normally take about four months. Stop me from writing, and I might die.
2. I do it for the money. Much of what I write is for free – this interview, for example, or the millions of words of libertarian polemic I’ve turned out. But I can make money from my fiction. It pays the bills and keeps me and my family fed. It isn’t a stable income. One year, I made so much, I was able to pay off my mortgage. This year has been good enough for me to buy part of the building next door and to lay out a fortune on integration works. Other years, I’ve had to scratch around for teaching work. I never know how much I’ll make, as I’m paid twice a year, eighteen months in arrears. I could work out what is coming to me. But I never do. I simply wait and see how much appears in my account in April and November.
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