Today, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk with SJA Turney, author of the Marius’ Mules series of Roman historical fiction and the Tales of the Empire historical fantasy series.
Martin: I’d like to start of by finding out which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
Simon: I would have to say that from a very early age it was Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix books that fuelled jointly my loves of history and of literature. Later on in life I became an avid reader of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, from his early epic fantasy trilogy to his later historical fantasy novels, which I still consider to be the best books ever written. Needless to say, I grew up with a healthy love of Tolkien, too, as well as Douglas Adams, who I still consider the pinnacle of humorous literature.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
I used to write short stories as a teenager, and even poetry for a time. That waned, though, as I went to university and then left, finding myself in an unforgivingly dull and grey job market. I worked as many things over the next decade, never truly settling into anything. My writing began partially as an experiment, to see if I still had anything of the bug, and partially through the sheer ennui and boredom I suffered in my excruciating job at the time. It was only as I finished writing Marius’ Mules in my spare time that I realised just how much I enjoyed it and how much I wanted to keep doing it
You write historical fiction. Why this genre in particular?
I write historical fiction, though I have also delved into the world of ‘historical fantasy’ with my Tales of the Empire series. In all cases, though, the Roman theme is prevalent in some form or other. I have had an unquenchable fascination with the world of Rome since the age of six, when my grandfather (the wisest person I ever knew) took me to Hadrian’s Wall and I stood on the wall of Housesteads fort, staring off into a blizzard. Since then I have travelled to every Roman site I can reach at any given opportunity, and read extensively into the history of that fascinating world.
You’ve gone down the self-published route. What made you decide this and what advice would you give to writers contemplating this path?
A complex question. In short, the only reason I self-published was following three years of failure to secure an agent or publisher while touting around two completed books. Even then, I was never intending to make a career of it, but rather to use it as a promotional platform to sell my work to a publisher. Since then, when the divide between traditional publishing and self-published books was almost unimaginably vast, the world of publishing seems to have changed, making the gap ever narrower. Now it is often hard to tell if a good self-published novel is not a traditionally published one.
I do believe that the phenomenon has only a finite life in this form before the whole industry changes again, though when that happens, I think that self-publishing will be much more rigidly controlled and probably will come under the aegis of the big houses. There is money to be made in self-publishing and I appear to be one of the lucky ones, but figures apparently tell us that less than 10% of self-published authors can make a living. Also, there is still a stigma attached to this route when compared with traditional writers, though the effects vary depending on to whom you speak. Simply: do not go into self-publishing your work expecting to become rich. It is extremely unlikely. However, if your goal, like me, is to reach a wide audience and promote your work, it can be an invaluable tool.
Can you tell us about your Marius’ Mules series?
Marius’ Mules was the first full length novel I wrote. Some time ago, on holiday, I visited Mont Beuvray and Alesia in France– the site of the last stand of independent Gaul. That led me into studying Caesar’s own diaries of his Gallic Wars. While reading them – and they’re a fascinating and powerful insight into the times, I began to wonder what they would be like novelised, rather than as direct historical texts. Moreover, I wondered at how much of the tales told in them was pure propaganda on the part of Caesar. Thus was born the idea of retelling those stories but in a fictionalised account and seen from the eyes of a different character. Marius’ Mules and its sequels are an attempt to reproduce Caesar’s Gallic Wars in a form that everyone can enjoy, while exploring the possibilities of what might happen when you read between Caesar’s lines.
What made you decide upon Marcus Falerius Fronto as your protagonist? In what ways has he most surprised you?
Fronto was a natural choice. I needed a protagonist who was high enough in the ranks and close enough to Caesar to be involved in the whole process, and yet who was removed enough to produce a fresh, non-sycophantic angle. Clearly, he needed to be someone fictional, and I decided to begin with him as high in the ranks as he is, as I wanted to avoid the trap of having to promote him once every book as so often happens with historical series.
Fronto has surprised me in two ways specifically. Firstly in his popularity. It seems he strikes a chord with many readers and they find him likeable and easy to identify with – a fact that pleases me immensely. Secondly, he is like an onion in terms of layers. Every time I write a Marius’ Mules book he seems to become a little more complex and more of his secrets are revealed. Marius’ Mules III was a particular joy to me, for this. Many hanging questions about Fronto’s past and what made him the man he is have begun to be answered. He is a character that will never stagnate, because that’s how he started, before the changes that have been wrought on him in the books.
If you could spend time with your favourite character where would it be and what might you do?
My favourite historical character, or literary one? Historically – and I recognise that this might sound strange with my obsession over Roman history – I would most like to spend time with Vlad Dracula. The reason being that he is a fascinating character with a mysterious past overshadowed by the damage done to his reputation by Bram Stoker. The real Vlad may have been frighteningly violent, but he was also a nationalist, a crusader, and a hero of Transylvania. I would love to discover the real Vlad.
In terms of literary characters, again there would be a surprise, I think. I would spend time with Douglas Adams’ character Dirk Gently, who is simply the most interesting character ever written. I fear that with Dirk, it wouldn’t matter where you were or what you were doing, it would still be mind-blowing. And again, if you mean one of my own characters? Well, as they say in the board game Cluedo, it would have to be Fronto… in the bar… with the amphora.
How do you research your novels? Do you do it before you start to write or is it more of an ongoing process?
That very much varies for me. The Marius’ Mules series clearly have a set sequence of events that must play out from the records of the time. What is required then is to take all the ongoing threads in the series and use them to tie those events together in a good, tight, format. Generally, I have the Marius’ Mules books very tightly planned before writing, with spreadsheets and doc files full of details. When writing other novels, though, such as any of my Tales of the Empire ones, I have gone into it with a full plot and rough plan at chapter level, but always aware that the tale will change and grow as I write. That’s one thing I love about not being tied to history: I can let it become a truly imaginative and flowing process.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I would love to have set everything (I have OCD tendencies that push me in that direction). However, since we have a small boy and a baby girl, they very much dictate my schedule and I tend to work around them, rather than vice versa. Typically, though, I write somewhere around 4-5 hours a day in a solid session, and spend perhaps another 2-3 hours planning things, making notes, muttering ideas into my Dictaphone while walking the dogs, and so on.
Ritually, I need coffee to function while working, and I tend to play music while I write, but not while I edit. I do have a small office in a back room where I write (with a coffee machine and reference library) though my little boy also uses it as a carpark for his toys.
What is your next writing project?
This one I’ll have to be a bit coy over, I’m afraid. I am almost finished on a new project. This one is again a work of Roman historical fiction, though completely unconnected with the Marius’ Mules series. Due to a number of factors, though, I’m keeping it all very much under my hat until it is ready and I am more sure of what I am doing with it. I can say that my current plans are to begin work on Marius’ Mules 4 as soon as this is complete.
Thanks, Martin, and you’ve made me think a bit there.
You can find out more about Simon and his writing on his web-site
and on his Amazon author pages: