From York to Constantinople: an interview with historical novelist Richard Blake
Tell us about yourself.
I read History at York a long time ago – 1979-82, Alcuin, 2;1. I arrived as a shy schoolboy who’d done well at his comprehensive. I left as a shy young man without much idea of how to spend the rest of his life.
I passed through various incarnations – estate agency, the Law, teaching, some rather exciting work in post-Communist Czechoslovakia – before the truth dawned on me. The one thing I do supremely well is to write.
Some people can look about at the bottom of a recession, and see shining back at them half a dozen ways to make a lot of money. Some are inspired leaders. Others have a mission to help the poor.
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. As said, I wish I’d realised this earlier. I’ve tried writing, and I’ve tried jobs that call for proper work. I know which I prefer.
I can’t say how much I’ve written. I have no equivalent of Leporello to keep a tab for me. I’m always too busy with the next project to make a proper list of what I’ve already done. But, under various names, I must have written thirty books.
The most notable of these to date are the six Byzantine historical novels I’ve written for Hodder & Stoughton under the name Richard Blake.
Why “Richard Blake”?
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.”
Your publisher is running a competition. Tell us about it, and explain why Grapevine readers should think about entering it.
It isn’t often a multinational company offers a completely free gift. But Hodder is pretty well doing this at the moment. All you have to do is retweet a Twitter posting from Hodder Books, and you’re automatically entered in a prize draw to win a year’s membership of English Heritage.
You don’t have to buy any of my books. You don’t even have to read about them. Just one click on the retweet button, and you’re in with a chance.
Why enter the prize draw? Well, do you want a year’s free membership of English Heritage? It has thousands of sites, ranging from Dover Castle to raised lines in the earth where iron age villages once stood.
I’ve been a member since 2006, and I wish I had more time to take myself and my women round its many attractions.
If you don’t want to be in with a chance, either I’ve done something in the past that has given you cause to dislike me – not, I regret to say, a remote possibility – or you have no feeling for the heritage of England.
Go on, give it a click!
You’ve written six historical novels about Aelric, an English lad who gets caught up in various adventures in the early Byzantine Empire, early in the sixth century. Why did you choose this setting?
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.
It went straight past the hundred thousand mark, and carried on beyond that. 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 quite so fast. I also knew that what I had written was rather good.
Even so, 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 Virgil 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 c. 400 BC. 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 smallish 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 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 made itself 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.
Instead, 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 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.
Did you think, when you were at York, that you’d one day write historical novels?
I did start one in April 1982, when I was getting ready for my finals. I looked at the opening chapters a few years ago. It starts around the year 400, with the survivors streaming out of a burned city.
I was surprised to see that it has many of the stylistic devices I thought I’d developed ten years ago. There’s the same mix of character and plot development, and the same attempt to showing the background holly through what the characters say and do.
It ran out of steam because finals were coming closer, and because I didn’t realise that you write a novel by writing it. What I mean is that, for me, the plot of a novel always emerges during the process of writing.
Back in 1982, when I couldn’t produce a synopsis to show where the novel was going, I thought I’d hit a brick wall and gave up.
Speaking generally, though, I owe whatever success I’ve had and shall have to my time at York. By comparison with what I had there, the universities where I teach are dreadful places.
Possibly York is nowadays. My job is to give three hour lectures on things like the fiduciary duties of directors. Half way through, I turn the students out of a fag break. When they’ve finished with me, it’s off to be lectured by somebody else.
If they skip listening to us, they get nagging e-mails. If they ignore the e-mails, they get kicked out. They have mountains of written work, and examinations almost every term. Teaching at a university has become an exercise in box-ticking.
The easiest boxes to tick are when the students are kept too busy to look around and think – which I’m reactionary enough to believe is the main purpose of a university education.
Back in my day, attendance at lectures was optional. I had to write six essays a term. But these were thoroughly marked, and I often had tutorial meetings that lasted half an afternoon. Teaching, therefore, was largely by informal conversation. I had endless time to sit in the library, reading whatever took my fancy.
Where this connects with my historical fiction is what I did in my first year. I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and was smitten by an awed adoration that has never left me.
They were soon joined by the Romans. When I was twelve, I read Gibbon, and he lit up regions of Late Antiquity that I’d never considered – Athanasius and Julian and Justinian and the rise of Islam, and all the rest.
I spent the rest of my teens reading the smuttier classics, and focusing on the usual ages of greatness. But I’d been made aware that the gulf most people imagine between the sack of Rome and King Alfred was neither dark nor uninteresting.
When I filled in my UCCA application, I chose my six universities almost at random. I made a final choice of York because the cold winter of 1978-79 caused me to turn up five hours late for my interview, and I was grateful for the cup of tea that Norman Hampson gave me.
I never considered looking at the syllabus. I arrived at York in October 1979, and was asked what introductory course I wanted to take. I glanced up and down a list of worthy subjects. The only one I fancied was The Fall of Rome, which was exactly what the name suggested.
It was a lucky choice. It sent me back to Gibbon, and made me aware of the vast literature surrounding the greatest event in the history of the world. It also put me into the charge of two remarkably brilliant and tolerant scholars – Edward James and Richard Fletcher.
Their brilliance speaks for itself. Go and read their books. Their tolerance they showed for the whole of my first year and beyond. They put up with my prejudices and eccentricities, and kept me heading towards a better degree than I’d otherwise have got.
The passion Edward James had for the Visigoths left me cold. Richard Fletcher’s interest in early Islam ditto. But they let me focus on Byzantium. For weeks at a time in the library, and hours in tutorials, they watched me go through the sources.
The only hint of criticism I recall was early in 1980s, when Edward James asked mildly if I would ever read any secondary work written after about 1920. I eventually did, but he didn’t comment on the funny look I gave him and the airy assurance that all modern scholarship was either corrupt or derivative.
Here, I’ll mention the grief I felt when I heard that Richard Fletcher died in 2005. His death was ridiculously early. He was a great historian and a fine writer. I deeply regret not writing to tell him how much I enjoyed his Christian-Muslim Understanding in the Later Middle Ages, published in 2003.
To bring myself to some sort of conclusion, without York, and without those two remarkable men, I’d probably not have written those six Byzantine novels.
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?
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 fucker 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 sip of wine 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.
Under your real name, 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?
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 2018 when the mainland United Kingdom has been lifted out of the present and dumped into the world of 1064. They’re doing well, though nowhere near so well as the historical fiction.
Oh, and my latest science fiction novel, The York Deviation is set in York University in 1981. Edward James makes an appearance, together with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and various monsters from beyond the void.
Almost everyone gets eaten alive. I finished it a few months ago, and it will come out just as soon as I’ve found a publisher.
I have no trouble getting my historical fiction published. Sadly, British publishers are less willing to look at my fantasy fiction – even though The Break has been nominated for the 2015 Prometheus Award.
But 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.
What are you currently working on?
I have several projects on the boil. The most important of these is The Boy from Aquileia, which is another Byzantine thriller. I began this on the 1st February, and have let it take over my life.
I was hoping to have a first draft written before the end of the month. I now have a number of other things that must be done, and expect to finish in March. I don’t know how it will finish, but I promise you it will be good.
All I can say is that my hero is currently stuck on a mountain, surrounded by barbarians who want to tie him to an idol and burn him to death. My publisher will bring it out later this year.
The other novel I’m working on is The Tyburn Guinea. Set in 1696, this will be another good one. The title almost writes the novel. However, it needs to be about 200,000 words long, and that can’t be continued with till The Boy from Aquileia is out of my system.
Have you anything to say to present History undergraduates at York?
I envy your youth and possible beauty. But I strongly suspect I had a better time at York than you will.
Richard Blake (Sean Gabb) has so far written these historical novels, all published in London by Hodder & Stoughton, and all set in the Byzantine Empire of the seventh century:
Conspiracies of Rome (2008)
The Terror of Constantinople (2009)
The Blood of Alexandria (2010)
The Sword of Damascus (2011)
The Ghosts of Athens (2012)
The Curse of Babylon (2013)
© 2015 – 2017, richardblake.
Thanks for reading this. If you liked it, please consider doing one or some or all of the following: