Interview with Sean Gabb—Writing as Richard Blake
Deal Community Ad Magazine, Issue 13, Spring 2018
(This is the local magazine for his home town)
Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia.
Under the name Richard Blake, he has written eight historical novels for Hodder & Stoughton. These have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. They have been praised by both The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Star. He has produced four further historical novels for Endeavour Press, and has written two horror novels for Caffeine Nights.
Under his own name, he has written four novels. His other books are mainly about culture and politics.
He also teaches, mostly at university level, though sometimes in schools and sixth form colleges. His subjects include: History, Law, Economics, Latin, and Greek. His first degree was in History. His PhD is in English History. He is currently a Fellow in Classics at All Saints College in Dublin, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies.
He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter. Communityad caught up with Sean to talk about his greatest novels, future work and of course Deal…………….
Sean you have written many books but what was it that initially got you involved in writing and when did you realise you had a passion for this?
I started writing when I was seven. I didn’t do it very well—flat imitations of Enid Blyton, for the most part. But I was soon good at turning out reams of words on any subject I was set. I decided when I was twelve I wanted to be a writer, and that, give or take a few career oddities, is what I became.
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 of Latin and Greek—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.
And 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. Three years ago, it was 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.
But let me expand on your question, as say what has drawn me to writing so many novels set in the Byzantine Empire. I could say that no one else seems to have done this period. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has done the 16th century Ottoman Empire, or 15th century China—though I could be wrong here. In my case, during the three years that I systematically played truant from school, I taught myself Latin in the local library so I could read the great classics on which some of my favourite novels were based. I learned quite a lot of Greek under the influence of Mary Renault. The most intensive use I made of this in my teens was to read all the porn that the Loeb editions didn’t translate. As an aside, the delicacy of the Loeb editors is a blessing to anyone with a taste for the indecency of the ancients. You take up the parallel text of Martial or the Greek Anthology, and skim the English translation till it switches back into the original or into Italian. This done, you give your attention to the left hand pages.
But I read Gibbon when I was fifteen, and my whole interest in the ancient world settled into its final period of crises and of transition to the world in which we still sort of live. I used him very heavily at university, when I kept myself so far as possible to late antiquity and the early mediaeval period. I read him in full more than once in my twenties. I last read him in full about ten years ago, and you’ll find echoes and whole quotations in my Sword of Damascus. He may have been mistaken in his estimate of Byzantium. He never realised the enormous pressures on every frontier of the Empire, and only acknowledged in asides the creative and often liberating force of the Christian faith. But his vision of the past remains as compelling now as it was nearly two and a half centuries ago. All discussions of at least the fourth century must begin with Gibbon. His character sketches of Julian and Athanasius, and later of Justinian and Heraclius, have never been bettered.
And for me, it all began to come together in February 2004. The idea for a novel drifted into mind as I was walking through the ruins of Richborough, which used to be the main port of Roman Britain. But I wasn’t interested in Richborough as it must have appeared in the great days of the Empire. What interested me was how it must have seemed after the fall of the Empire. What was it like to live amid the physical and spiritual ruins of the Roman Empire? The question came up with greater force when I visited Rome with my wife. Of course, we looked at the Forum and the Coliseum and the ruins of the Imperial Palace, and so forth. But we found ourselves pulled again and again to the remains of Rome dating from or just after the fall of the Western Empire—the 5th century church of St Mary Maggiore, for example, or the many lesser buildings. These were largely intact, and, despite many changes and renovations over the centuries, gave a much more immediate sense of the past than the classical ruins.
At last, in 2006, I set to work on what would become Conspiracies of Rome. I wrote this quickly, completing the first draft in six weeks, and it was meant as a diversion for a friend in Ramsgate who had recently been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. He liked the novel, and encouraged me to find a publisher. This was harder said than done, as publishers generally don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, and all the agents I approached either didn’t reply or told me to go away. But my friend was persistent, and I eventually published the novel myself. It sold surprisingly well though Amazon; and, at the end of 2006, I was approached by Hodder & Stoughton and asked to revise it for publication as the first in a series of two trilogies. There have been others written since.
Growing up who were your writing influences?
I read a prose translation of the Iliad and Odyssey when I was seven, and this began an obsessive interest in the ancient world that has never left me. The first historical novels I read were the Artor series by Paul Capon. I read all but one of these when I was eight: I’d have read them all if the last in the series hadn’t been stolen from Crofton Park library.
The first adult historical novel I read was by Mika Waltari. I read this when I was eleven, and I reread it over and over again until my paperback copy fell apart. By then, I was into Robert Graves—the unexpurgated version of I Claudius was most entertaining for one of my still tender years—and into Mary Renault and Alfred Duggan and all the others. You can pick up a lot of history from historical novels. Though a little too didactic by modern standards, I Claudius is the best introduction to 1st century Rome that I know. As for The Egyptian, the 18th dynasty is more complex, and far more remote from our own assumptions, than Mika Waltari made it. But I think he gets his period more often right than wrong.
Then there’s the fantasy fiction. I discovered this by accident when I was twelve. I found a copy of Rider Haggard’s She at a jumble sale. 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.
I haven’t written as much fantasy fiction as I have historical fiction. But I’ve written a fair amount. 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 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.
Who is your all-time favourite author?
Wilkie Collins. Like almost everything good in my life, I came on him by accident. I loved his Woman in White (1869) so much, I got to the end on my first reading, and turned straight back to the first page to read it again. I’ve read all his fiction. I adore all his big novels—including The Moonstone, Armadale, and No Name. I also like his shorter novels, even those he wrote later in life, when the opium was frying his brain. What I like about him is his skill with plotting, and his ability to create living characters. These are often mutually-exclusive abilities, and it’s impressive to see them working together.
You have released a number of books under the name Richard Blake. What is the reason why authors such as yourself use different pen names?
You try spelling Sean Gabb if you haven’t seen it written. You try reading it if you’re a foreigner. Richard Blake, on the other hand, has only one spelling, and there’s almost no one in the world who can’t say it.
My Richard Blake novels have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. Before the sanctions bit, we were looking at a Russian translation. We may still have a German translation in early talks. Try getting that as “Sean Gabb.”
What is your stance on University Tuition fees? Do you feel the huge rise is something that can be overlooked or should be targeted?
A strange question. But my answer is that there are too many universities. They are run by the wrong people, and most of them should be shut down. A few years ago, I was invited to teach Law on a BSc course called “Parking Studies.” I was told it was to give people a qualification that would let them work as traffic wardens. I think most other subjects are equally a joke—Sociology, English, anything containing the words “Environment” and “Studies.” They provide no marketable skills. They provide nothing approximating what would once have been called an education. They are simply courses of indoctrination to fit people with the proper deference for the ruling class. I would shut most of these “universities” down. Until that can be done, I’m not at all hostile to charging so much to attend them that large numbers of people avoid them.
This being said, you take the universities back to where they were before about 1980, and I’d be dead in favour of the old system of fully-funded tuition fees and adequate grants for students from poor backgrounds.
You have published an incredible amount of books, essays and newspaper articles but which piece of work are you most proud of?
I think my favourite novel is The Break, which I’ve already mentioned. It’s a fantasy novel that begins on the beach at St Margaret’s Bay, just down the coast from Deal, and carries on all the way to Constantinople—via a helicopter gunship massacre in Oxford Street, and a leading role for Theresa May as the nastiest Home Secretary you could ever wish to see coming to a bad end. It was nominated for the Prometheus Award last year, and has been praised by several people whose work I greatly admire.
You have many books based on politics, in your expert opinion how do you rate the current state of our nation and do you think this will improve or worsen following brexit?
The country is in a mess, and had been getting worse every year since long before I was born. The Government is too big. It does too many things that no government should try to do. The things it should do it does badly. This was the case before 1979. Since then, it’s fallen under the rule of people at war with both liberty and tradition. I felt let down by Margaret Thatcher. I despised John Major. I hated Tony Blair. I despised and hated Gordon Brown. I loathed David Cameron. I am scared of Theresa May. All of them warmongers abroad and petty tyrants at home.
So far as leaving the European Union is concerned, I voted Out in the Referendum. I voted that way because I wanted to give a bloody nose to the entire mass of the ruling class that wanted us to stay in. If I ever came to power in this country as the front man for a military coup, my first or second act would be to pull out of the European Union, plus NATO.
This being said, I have had my doubts about Euroscepticism ever since the Iraq War. Nirvana for the European Union is one big vacuum cleaner factory for Europe, preferably run by the cousin of someone important. That is, of course, undesirable, but is manageable. What scares me about a completely sovereign British State is that there will be no check on its obsession with surveillance and political correctness, and on its warmongering. At the moment, if it wants to tattoo barcodes on us, the Government needs to get agreement with several dozen other governments, not all of them run by certifiable lunatics. Search me what will happen once these people are free of any external control.
But we have voted to come out. I will do what I can to keep up the pressure on my elected representative to make sure that we do come out. For the rest, I am hoping that the election of Donald Trump will impose a less insane foreign policy on our rulers. His example might also bring them to a more sensible set of domestic policies.
Are you working on any new books?
I need to have another historical ready for the end of the year. This one is set in mediaeval Italy, and involves counterfeiting, devil worship, and a murder that goes badly wrong in the first chapter.
You reside in Deal, what do you enjoy most about living there?
The place is quiet, and relatively free of crime. It isn’t far from London. My women and I have a house we couldn’t afford in London. Indeed, we probably couldn’t afford it now. And we have friends here—good friends.
Finally Sean, away from the writing and teaching, what are your hobbies and interests?
A writer’s main hobby is writing, and thinking about writing. You ask my wife what else I ever do. But I play the piano. I cook. I try to lose weight. I plague Charlie Elphicke, our Member of Parliament, with endless letters of complaint and advice. If I ever leave Deal, I’m sure he will raise a toast.
© 2018, richardblake.
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