This week Colossus by Alexander Cole is published, a novel with an entirely different perspective on the life and legacy of Alexander the Great. What if Alexander hadn’t died in Babylon in 323 BC? What further conquests would he have made? In Colossus, Alexander takes on the might of Carthage, bringing the war elephants of India with him under the control of Gajendra, a young mahout who rises to general in Alexander’s army. Gajendra’s ambitions risk rivalling those of Alexander himself.
I am delighted to take part in the Blog Tour for Colossus, for which I was able to ask Alexander Cole questions about his reinterpretation of the figure of Alexander, the challenges and rewards of writing alternate history, as well as authors and books that have inspired him.
Colossus is a historical novel with a difference. It presupposes that Alexander the Great didn’t die in 323 BC but instead went on to make further conquests. What made you want to rewrite history?
My publisher suggested it to me at a dinner one night; he said – I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Alexander hadn’t died so young. That stuck with me; I started to wonder too. But I wasn’t much interested in Alexander, except as an antagonist. The story I wanted to tell was about a war elephant; I knew that Alexander only acquired them just before he died, and never had the chance to deploy them in battle. It was the synergy of putting together a monster elephant and a … monster … that I found an irresistible idea.
Your Alexander is different from any other I’ve read, possibly because he’s no longer restrained by a well-known historical chronology. What does Alexander mean to you and what drew you to his story or character?
What I did was give Alexander one extra year of life. I played God. I was very careful in researching what came before my fictional year, reading about him and his life and his military career. His achievements are breath taking. But I didn’t like him, and unlike in other novels I’ve read he does not play an heroic role for I found nothing heroic in him. I played him forward into the man I thought he would have become. Here was a man corrupted by power, a man who had survived wounds that might have killed ten men. a man who was only at peace when he was at war, only still was he was on the march. I don’t find any of that heroic, but I do find it intriguing. I think other stories about him are constrained because it is the story of his conquests. But my story isn’t about him.
Where did the idea for Gajendra and Colossus the elephant come from?
I already had the idea to write a story about a war elephant. I had been reading the biography of Lawrence Anthony, the so-called ‘elephant whisperer’, who sadly died last year, and I was fascinated with what he had discovered. Colossus was a metaphor for war; here was a beast that you could make into a warrior; and here was Aexander, a warrior who had become a beast. Gajendra, the mahout, is my elephant’s anima; but he is also Alexander’s. For all the epic clashes in the story, Gajendra’s soul is the ultimate battleground.
What is the appeal for you of writing alternate history? Is it important that the story should feel historically true or is it more important that it appeals as a work of fiction or fantasy?
I have recently read Follett, Cornwell, George RR Martin and Thomas Harris. I draw no distinction. I believe a writer has first to imagine a story that will first seduce their reader, whether it’s history, fantasy or alternative history. This is my first novel of alternative history and I applied the same disciplines as I did with my other historical novels – I researched the background history thoroughly, and the chronology, and the documented facts as well as the character of the real people involved. Because alternative history is not fantasy – an author is using what they know of history to speculate on what history might have been under other circumstances.
Are there other figures from history you would like to write about?
I’ve just finished a novel about Isabella, the wife of Edward II, that’s been very successful. I wrote about her because I saw the thread of a great story within her life. A biography of itself has no interest for me. But sometimes, reading about a great historical character, I see the story that could be told. That’s when I jump in! There’s no one on the horizon at the moment.
Which authors have inspired you to write?
Mantel. Kingsolver. Follett. Clavell. I love Mantel’s technique. I love Kingsolver’s ability with characterisation, delineating her characters through point of view and action. Clavell for epic vision. I suppose I should also add Hugo, Shakespeare and Dumas to that list! When I was a little boy my Aunty Ivy used to come and visit us from London and she’d bring down a bag of comics for me. I’d throw away everything except Classics Illustrated. By the time I was ten I think I had read every classic novel and play ever written, albeit in 52 pages with speech bubbles. But I fell in love with story right there and then.
It’s a time of year for lists. Do you have any favourite novels from 2013?
Just one novel stood out for me this year: R.L. Stedman’s Light Between the Oceans. It’s set in south-west Australia just after World War One, a setting I would normally avoid. But I loved how she kept throwing up moral dilemmas and obliging her characters – and by her extension her readers – to try and answer them. I love that in a book!
Thank you to Alexander Cole for his time and to Atlantic Books for inviting For Winter Nights to be involved in the tour. Yesterday’s post at Parmenion Books can be read here. Tomorrow the tour moves on to Reading Gives Me Wings.