When did you start writing?
I had always written bits and bobs as a kid but it wasn’t until I left university that I had a serious go at it. I was looking for a job and had plenty of time on my hands so I decided to try a screenplay. I bought myself Teach Yourself Screenwriting (by a chap called Ray Frensham – very good actually). In a couple of months I had Crossfire: a thriller about two assassins sent to kill each other. I bought myself the Writer’s Handbook and set about sending out synopses. There was quite a bit of interest and I eventually signed with an agent in Los Angeles. I was 22 and thought I was well on my way – but nothing ever panned out. It would eventually take me 13 years to sell something …
How did you get the idea for Agent of Rome?
By 2005 I had completed six screenplays and a science fiction novel and had sent out hundreds of enquiries to agents, publishers and film companies. I very rarely got negative feedback – in fact the vast majority was positive – so although it was monumentally frustrating at times, I could at least be sure I was writing to a decent standard. It was always in the back of my mind to try historical fiction but it was C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution that really inspired me; it was so atmospheric and compelling. I have always loved siege stories on film (Zulu, Aliens, The Two Towers) and the Roman world seemed like an ideal setting. I didn’t do much research into the market, which in retrospect was probably a good thing; there are so many strong Roman military novels out there that I might have chosen another period. I had however seen enough to note that most Roman fiction was set “BC” or in the first century. I thought it would be interesting to look at a later era. Early research brought me to the third century: the Palmyran “revolt” and the colourful figure of Queen Zenobia; it seemed an ideal background for my story. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want an archetypal hero for my central character and when I came across the information about Rome’s “secret service” I knew I’d found an intriguing angle for the series.
How did you get the book published?
The old fashioned way – by writing to agents. I was probably into the fourth round of synopsis and chapter-sending when I finally made a breakthrough. I was so committed to the project (having invested so much time and energy) that I was determined to give it every chance. I signed with my agent late in 2009 and he managed to secure the deal with Hodder & Stoughton in a matter of weeks.
Why do you think historical fiction is so popular at the moment?
No idea, but Roman fiction in particular seems to be doing well – there are certainly plenty of books out there. The Roman Empire was so vast and durable that the story opportunities are almost limitless. And thanks to ancient sources and modern research, novelists can find plenty of material to fire their imagination.
How do you write?
Evidently quite slowly! The Siege took me more than five years. But now that there are deadlines to meet I have had to speed up and I feel my writing has improved as a result. Obviously a lot of time has to be spent on research but this often leads me to plot and character concepts, not just background detail. I like to have plots sketched out but not entirely filled in – it’s really a question of knowing where I’m going but not exactly how I’ll get there. I also set targets for words, chapters etc and I’m generally quite good at reaching them. Once I get the first draft done, it’s then a case of editing and refining and until I’m happy with it. I completely underestimated how time-consuming and difficult it would be to transform a decent draft (let’s say something that’s been re-written or checked ten times) into a publishable manuscript. It’s also a team effort – my editor has been really helpful.
What do you read yourself?
Actually not that much historical fiction at the moment – it seems especially weird to read Roman military stuff while writing it so I plan to catch up with all those intriguing-looking books at a later date. Having said that, I really enjoy Simon Scarrow and C.J. Sansom’s work; and the Flashman series. I am also a big fan of heavyweights like Stephen King and Michael Connolly. Growing up I loved Ian Fleming and I will read anything by Poe or Wilkie Collins. My favourite book is not a particularly original choice – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a rich, compelling, timeless tale; and not many authors can claim to have invented a genre. The films weren’t bad either!
What are your future plans for the series?
Well, my deal with Hodder is for three books. A first draft of book 2 is done and I will soon begin researching book 3. The second novel introduces a character who will be an integral part of the series. I do have numerous ideas for the future but first I’ll have to see if anyone buys these three!
(UPDATED MAY ’12)
How did you approach the second book?
I was very keen to bring in another major character and readers of The Imperial Banner will meet Indavara on the very first page. I don’t want to give away too much about him but he could hardly be more different to Cassius. Simo also returns and another significant player in this tale is Cassius’s immediate superior in the Imperial Security Service, Aulus Abascantius (he was mentioned in book 1 but never actually appeared). I also wanted book 2 to really focus on the “agent” angle – I would describe it as an adventure, with elements of espionage/mystery plus plenty of action.
What were the challenges this time?
Obviously The Siege is set in one limited location so although I had to know a good deal about the military, my knowledge of Roman society was fairly basic. The new book, though it sees Cassius recalled to Syria, unfolds in numerous settings, particularly Rome’s “third city”, Antioch. I had to look at countless aspects of Roman life so my awareness of various issues has increased massively and I now have hundreds of files of notes and tons of ideas I can use for future stories. Also, while The Siege had a few twists and turns, The Imperial Banner features a much more convoluted plot and a far wider cast of characters. These added complications provided the odd headache but in general I had a lot of fun taking on a story that is in many ways belongs to a different genre than the straight military tale of The Siege.
Where does the series go from here?
Again, I don’t want to say too much, but I think book 3 is in some respects a combination of the first two. As well as a strong component of mystery, there are several big action set-pieces and some seaborne adventure too. I am currently editing before presenting it to the publishers. It’s due out in summer 2013. As a final word, I would like to say thanks to all those who have supported the series so far, and I hope people enjoy the second book as much as the first.