There are few authors I enjoy reading as much as I do Douglas Jackson (except perhaps James Douglas – Doug’s thriller alias) and so it was a pleasure to be asked to be involved in the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication this week of Sword of Rome. Sword of Rome is the fourth in the Hero of Rome series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, the sole survivor of Boudicca’s bloody siege of the Temple of Claudius and now caught up in the aftermath of Nero’s death. You can read my review of this wonderful novel here. I grabbed the opportunity to ask Doug some questions about Sword of Rome and the series, being a writer of historical fiction and thrillers, inspiration, favourite books and much, much more.
Congratulations on Sword of Rome! I’ve loved each of the Gaius Valerius Verrens series but I think that if I had to pick a favourite it would be the latest. Its mix of historical intrigue and all-out military mayhem makes it a hard book to put down. It’s full of energy. Was it fun to write?
It was great fun to write, but also pretty exhausting. I always try to put heart and soul into my battle scenes and there’s a lot of hard fighting in Sword of Rome. I’d get up from the keyboard sweating and with my heart pounding at some points, which is always a good sign. It was also quite a complicated book, because the Year of the Four Emperors was a complicated and very wide-ranging civil war that affected every part of the Empire.
Valerius is an unusual military hero, missing his right hand. He’s also complicated. Did you know from the beginning of the series how Valerius’ character and career would develop or does he surprise you with each book?
I didn’t plan it that way, but soldiers from every period carry their wounds, whether visible or otherwise. I knew it was always going to be a test to have Valerius survive the climax of the first book – Her of Rome – where he was the only survivor of the last stand at the Temple of Claudius during the Boudiccan rebellion. It seemed natural that there would be a price to pay for that, and that’s how he lost his right hand. I knew it would make him stand out as a character, but I wasn’t prepared for the way it affected him in the second book and beyond. He’s a great character to write and is very real to me. I know him as well as my own brothers, perhaps better.
I really enjoyed the inclusion of the abandoned marines, here seen banding together to form a legion for the first time, led by Juva, the giant of a man. Where did that idea come from?
The story of the First Adiutrix, how they were treated, how they were formed and their heroism at First Bedriacum/Cremona, is all recorded in the historical sources and seemed to me to throw up a lot of fascinating dilemmas and potential for drama. I’d never heard of legions being formed from bands of shipmates and I thought it was a unique story worth telling. The fact that they were peregrini, from the Danube, Syria and possibly Nubia. and not Roman citizens made it all the more interesting.
The novel is set at a popular time for readers and writers of Roman historical fiction – the demise of Nero and the civil wars that followed. What draws you to this time and how do you think your series stands out?
I ended up in 1st Century Rome by accident. When I decided to write a book I had the usual problem of what to write about. Write what you know? My life was very boring, so I thought, okay, write what you love. I had a CD set of Simon Schama’s history of Britain in the car and when I stuck it on Timothy West was saying ‘ … and the Roman Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant to take the surrender of the British tribes’. It was like an epiphany, and The Emperor’s Elephant, which became Caligula and Claudius, was born. I had a third Rufus book in mind, set during the Boudiccan rebellion, so when Transworld asked for a new hero, I decided to stay with idea, but change the character and point of view. I didn’t realise that a lot of others were writing about the period until I was published. We all write from the same sources, so there will always be similarities, but I think all of us have out own unique voice and that’s what sets the books/series apart.
Do you visit the places you write about?
I try to, but time and resources make it impossible to go everywhere. I’ve been to Rome several times, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Greece, Germany and Spain for research, but there are a lot of other places I’d love to have visited. Avenger of Rome was set on the Syrian-Turkish border and I created a massive battle near a place called Hazankeyf, a historical gem that will soon be submerged under a massive dam.
It’s quite refreshing to change genres. There are only so many ways you can kill somebody with a sword or a spear and it’s liberating to pick up a machine gun and let rip. All of the thrillers have historical elements, one of which so far has always been the Second World War, which I’ve a long interest in. The difficulty comes when the demands from your publisher begin to stack up. I had a few weeks recently when I was editing a Roman book, copy-editing the thriller, writing my next Roman book, proofreading the previous one, proofreading the thriller and then back to writing. It does make your head spin.
You are the master of set scenes. I’ll never forget the gladiator fight in Caligula, the wicker man scene in Claudius and the siege of the Temple in Hero of Rome. There is also a terrifying scene in Sword of Rome involving Claudius Victor and Valerius. Do you like to shock?
My characters live in dangerous times. When I wrote Caligula I was just feeling my way through the book and still wondering if I could write. I was a bit shocked at the reaction to the arena scene where the leopard dies, and it made me take a long, hard look at myself as a writer. I think I may have been showing off: look at me I can paint graphic pictures with words. In the next book, with the wicker man scene and another involving a sacrifice, I had to keep asking myself: ‘Is this justified?’ With the battle scenes, it’s much easier. I just tell it the way I imagine it to have been. If it makes my heart thunder, the likelihood is that it will make the readers heart thunder, too.
I toyed with self-publishing The Emperor’s Elephant 3 as an e-book, because quite a few readers would like to know what happens to Rufus and Bersheba. It already exists at around 60,000 words, but as I worked on it, I realised that it isn’t as good as the books I’m writing now. I’d either have to rewrite it entirely, which is impossible time-wise, or publish something which is a step backwards in terms of quality. Reluctantly, I’ve decided to leave it be for the moment. If I’m spared to write the final Valerius novel, which will be set in Britain, I plan a scene/chapter where one of Agricola’s scouts tells the story of his father, the animal trainer, and the Emperor’s elephant, during Boudicca’s revolt.
Do you think you could write about a different period of history?
Absolutely, and I have several plans for books during different periods if I or the publishers tire of Rome. I pitched a series set during the English Civil War, but someone called Giles Kristian had done the same thing two weeks earlier and had his accepted, so I ended up being offered the chance to write thrillers instead.
What are your favourite books that you’ve read this year?
I read John Le Carre’s A Delicate Truth and it is a bleak, but brilliant commentary on the sick state of British democracy. I’ve also been re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, which is fantastic and incredibly consistent. I also never miss a new Bernard Cornwell or Philip Kerr novel.
Thank you so much and I wish you every success with Sword of Rome. It’s a marvellous novel.
It’s been a pleasure, Kate, and glad you enjoyed Sword of Rome.