Exclusive Interview with
When did you start writing?
According to my parents, I've been telling stories my entire life. My first proper go at writing a book came in 2005, as a means of escapism when I was in Iraq. I wrote the first draft of a story about a Roman legionary during the early 1st century that had been in my head since around the time I was twelve. In February 2006 this was released as my first book, 'Soldier of Rome: The Legionary'. Fifteen years and twenty-six books later, I've been fortunate enough to turn an escapist hobby into a career.
What makes writing your passion?
The love of history and storytelling. I believe we all have a form of artistic expression within us, be it through drawing, painting, sculpture, music, or writing. One driving force behind my early works was the concept of writing books that I wanted to read. The idea was, "Well if no one else is going to write about this, then I will." I tend to find inspiration from a variety of sources, and every so often something will just resonate with me and I come to the conclusion, "This would make for a great story!" A couple of examples: The series 'I, Claudius' inspired my first book, 'Soldier of Rome: The Legionary'. The Sir Michael Caine film, 'Zulu', compelled me to write my series on the Anglo-Zulu War. And a BBC documentary I happened to catch on gladiators inspired my stand-alone novel, 'Die by the Blade'.
How long have you been writing?
What was the feeling when you published your first book?
Elation and accomplishment. It inspired me to keep writing stories; to follow my passion and my art.
What’s the story behind your choice of characters?
All my stories are based around actual events, so I have to look at the era in which I'm writing. Regards to more recent time periods, such as my series on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, many of the characters were real people, who I research to learn as much as possible about their traits and personalities. Fictional characters, particularly in my Ancient Rome books, have to be created from scratch, to which I use balance-of-probability to write them in a way that is relatable, while also believable for the time in question. As a self-proclaimed 'history geek', I detest when I see characters with modern morals and scruples that simply would not have existed in their given time. I find this very jarring as it takes you completely out of the story.
What annoys you the most in pursuing a writing career?
How do you get over the “writer’s block”?
I don't have any one solution. Sometimes I will put on music or watch films / documentaries based around the subject I'm writing. Other times I'll play video games to let my mind unravel a bit. Occasionally, I'll have to shelve a project completely for a time. This actually happened to me recently, when I was starting my new series, 'The Artorian Dynasty'. I was set to begin with a shorter novella about a possible Roman expedition to Ireland, which takes place before the events of the first book, 'Soldier of Rome: Empire of the North'. I found myself stuck about halfway through and getting nowhere, so I shelved the project and took up 'Empire of the North'. Once finished, I was able to go back and return to what would become 'Isle of Mist: A Tale of Ireland and Rome'. This did also mean the two books were released out of sequence, though I think I mostly got away with it, as 'Mist' is a stand-alone novella, rather than part of the 'Artorian Dynasty'.
We all know the writer’s path is never easy, what makes you keep going? What advice would you give to new authors?
Believing in the story is what keeps me going, and it is what I recommend all authors focus on, regardless of whether they are writing their first book or fiftieth. The biggest challenge is to finish what you start. Of all the aspiring authors who start a book, 97% will never finish. While the reasons for this are as varied as the writers themselves, I personally feel that impatience and self-doubt are the biggest contributors. Fear of ridicule and criticism also play a role, as releasing a book to the public makes one vulnerable to scrutiny. I have a friend who did actually finish a book, which I thought was quite good, yet he refuses to publish.
If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
Wow, do we really want to go there? Tell you what, I'll keep it relevant to just my writing, as there are too many times from my younger years where I would smack the crap out of myself. I suppose I would give myself the same advice that I give all aspiring writers from lessons I had to learn the hard way.
1) Believe in your story and see it through to completion
2) Make your characters believable, relatable, and interesting. Apathy is the worst reaction to get from a reader!
3) Invest in an editor and cover artist. Yes, it is expensive, but you get what you pay for. One cannot take back crappy reviews because a book was not properly edited or has an amateurish cover
4) Write for yourself first. If you don't believe in your story, no one else will.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones?
I admit, I kind of obsess over them. Publishing a book that you've poured so much of your heart and soul into means leaving yourself extremely vulnerable. What I've had to learn with negative reviews is see if there is something substantive that I can use to improve my skills as a writer and storyteller. And of course one has to accept that you're not going to please everyone.
What is the feeling when you get a good review?
Fantastic, if there is some actual substance to it. While I am grateful for all positive reviews, they don't do me or potential readers any good if the reviewer doesn't say why they liked it. Much like how I try to find useful critiques in negative reviews, so too would I like to hear what I did well and what readers would like to see me continue. Please know, I do feel immense gratitude whenever someone takes the time to say they enjoyed my work.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?
Mostly in my early works. I would often refract elements from my own life, or the experiences of others that I found relevant. After my finishing my initial series, 'The Artorian Chronicles', I began to slowly step away from doing this. I don't think it was a conscious choice, though I do feel that I can be a lot more creative, while adding depth to characters and situations, if I don't try to to 'insert myself' into the story. Strange as this may sound, given how common it is for readers to envision themselves as the protagonists, I actually find it liberating to write characters that bear little resemblance to myself. This helps, given that I write historical novels, with values and morals changing over time.
Which of your characters you can compare yourself with? Did you base that character on you?
The only character I have ever done this with was Artorius in my first series, 'The Artorian Chronicles'. I was definitely channeling a lot of my own experiences, as I penned the first book while I was in Iraq. I feel I must stress that Artorius in my first book was a refraction of me during a specific time and place in my life; one which was very dark. Much like how I now view him as not a likable character, so too do I view myself with a critical lens when looking back to that period from 2004 to 2005. My first real break from putting myself into stories came when I wrote my first Napoleonic story, 'Forlorn Hope: The Storming of Badajoz' in 2012. Though the main character's name was also James, I made it a point of making him not like me, and instead being his own person. That has helped me to create more varied characters as I continue to tell stories. Given the number of books and separate series I've already written, I confess it does become a challenge not to 'recycle' characters from previous works.
What do you think, the book cover is as important as the story?
Certainly not nearly as important, though I do believe it is required in order to 'hook' potential readers. The whole "Don't judge a book by its cover" cliché is complete rubbish, as we all do it. When discussing covers with my artist, one thing we strive for is creating an image that will be eye-catching, especially as a small thumbnail, since the overwhelming majority of my book sales are online.
Do you connect with your readers? Do you mind having a chat with them or you prefer to express yourself through your writing?
I do love engaging with readers and encourage them to communicate with me, via either email or my Legionary Books social media pages. That said, I do keep a hard 'firewall' between my personal and professional lives. Hence why I do not accept friend requests on my personal Facebook page unless it is someone I know in the "real world". I am more than happy to discuss my books or history in general, but I refuse to go into modern politics or my personal beliefs. I do not have the time nor inclination to get into debates with people I don't even know. I feel there is an underlying stereotype when readers see what little I do divulge about my personal history; i.e. that I'm an Iraq veteran who served in the Army for twenty-one years, etc. This leads to certain expectations about my worldview, which in turn can end in disappointment for a fan / reader when they realise that I am far removed from the typical "veteran stereotype", and that the real me is likely the complete opposite of their assumptions. It is best we stick to topics we know we can both enjoy. I do also welcome well-thought out critiques, especially if there is something historical that I got wrong. I am not infallible, and have on occasion gone back and changed something in one of my books that I later learned was incorrect. One rather embarrassing "whoopsie!" came from mentioning potatoes in one of my Roman books...yeah, never mind that potatoes come from the Americas and were not brought over to Europe until the 1500s! That was something so basic, which I definitely knew better. I think I cracked the top of my desk from beating my head against it in embarrassment.
How do you feel when people appreciate your work or recognize you in public?
Not gonna lie, it's nice. I am no Stephen King or James Patterson, but on those rare times when I do meet someone who happens to be a fan of my works, I will often in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner reply, "You mean someone actually read that?" I try to keep things light and a touch self-deprecating, which contrasts to the dark and serious subject matters I often write.