Today I’m delighted to be talking with Ben Kane. Ben brings the ancient world of the Roman Republic to life in his The Forgotten Legion trilogy and novels about the most feared enemies of the Republic, Hannibal and Spartacus.
Martin: Before we focus on your own books could you tell us about the fiction which has most inspired and influenced you?
Ben: *Thinks hard* Rosemary Sutcliff, for her own iconic book The Eagle of the Ninth. I first read that when I was about nine or ten, and the story has stayed with me ever since. Wilbur Smith, for his amazing books and stories of Africa. In particular, his book The Sunbird, which is an alternate history of some of the survivors of the sack of Carthage. Bernard Cornwell, for his Sharpe novels, which made me realise that series of novels about soldiers were not only popular, but really good fun to read. JRR Tolkien, for the Lord of the Rings – need I say more? Guy Gavriel Kay, for his outstanding Summer Tree trilogy. Of all the fantasy novels I have read, and there have been many, these were some of the finest.
Why Rome and why the focus on Rome’s adversaries?
I am interested in all periods of history, but particularly ancient history. When I decided first to write books about soldiers set in the past, I wasn’t sure whether I’d write about Romans or Vikings. This was in 2001, and one of the first books I saw in Waterstone’s at the time was the first or second in Bernard Cornwell’s Alfred series. I thought to myself, ‘Damn it, if he is going to write about that period, I can’t.’ Of course that is not true, but that was one of the deciding factors for me to write about Rome.
As for writing about Rome’s adversaries, well that sort of happened by accident. The plotline for The Forgotten Legion is about underdogs, and I was very interested in the Etruscans, whose civilisation was overtaken by Rome. Before I knew it, I was writing the book from the point of view of those at the bottom of the social ladder. I guess I continued the trend through the trilogy. However, when I decided to write the books about the second Punic War, I was not intending just to write about Rome’s adversaries. What I wanted to do was to present a story that showed two peoples engaged in a conflict with each other; two peoples who were very similar to each other; and how members of those races could actually be friends with each other in different circumstances.
Did you intend to write the books as series when you first thought of them?
Yes I did, with the exception of my Spartacus novels. That was supposed to be just one book, but when I was about a hundred thousand words into the story, I realised that there was no way I could finish the amazing tale in just one book. I rang her editor, and asked if she minded me writing a second one. She laughed and said that was a brilliant idea. So far, it seems to have worked!
How do you plan your novels?
I used to not to plan at all. Nowadays, when I read some authors saying that they never plan their books, I laugh out loud. The reason for this is that I went seriously astray during the writing of my second novel, The Silver Eagle. I cannot believe that I am alone in having this happen to me. Thanks to my editor, who is extremely tough, I had to rewrite 25% of the book – twice! This meant that I went way over my deadline. The whole experience was most unpleasant.
Since then, I’ve been very careful to plan all of my novels. Generally, I plot out each chapter of the entire way through the book before I write a single word. Often, some of the chapters change as I write the book, but the important thing is to have a solid strand that holds the story together, which keeps me and my writing in line.
Have you been surprised by any themes which have emerged in your writing?
Yes indeed. An example: I had never really thought about slavery before, but as I wrote my Forgotten Legion trilogy, I realised how much I hated the idea of it. This was something I had not expected. I look back now and realise that some of this passed through into the writing, which was a mistake, because in ancient times nobody would have thought twice about slavery. It was just a part of life, like having a washing machine to do our washing for us today rather than having a slave to do the same thing.
What has been the most exciting part of your journey as a writer?
Without doubt, the day in August 2007 when my agent rang me and told me that six major publishers were bidding for my first novel, The Forgotten Legion!
Do you have a favourite character in your novels and, if so, why?
Of all the characters in my novels, I think that Hanno in the Hannibal books is my favourite, but only by a small margin over Carbo, who is a character in the Spartacus books. I like Hanno because the odds are always stacked against him, but somehow he still manages to survive. Carbo came about completely by accident. I had already planned out the Spartacus book, and he wasn’t in it. Something made me decide to put a major Roman character into the story, because I wanted to show that not every Roman would have thought Spartacus was an evil monster; I also needed somebody who can survive the final battle!
Women are often the silent voices in history. I thought Fabiola was a great creation, full of drive and courage. How would you describe your approach to female characters?
As a man, I’m not sure how to answer that! However, I think it is very important to have a major female character in every book. As you mentioned, we know very little of women in ancient history. Very few names of Roman women that have survived in comparison to men. It is difficult to write their stories in books that are mostly about soldiers and battles, but I do my best. Many of the novels of this type do not share any female characters at all; if they do, they are often just cardboard cutouts. Hopefully, this means that in my books are a little bit different, so that more female readers might be attracted to read them.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
There is no such thing as a typical writing day for me any more! There used to be, but in the last eighteen months or so I find it difficult to find sustained periods to write. I work from Monday to Friday, generally from 9 AM to 5 PM or so. However, this has to be flexible, as I have more and more things to deal with such as emails from readers, emails from publishers, research, Twitter, Facebook and so on. In order to keep up the momentum, I set myself a daily word count. This used to be 2000 words a day, but I have had to reduce it to 1500. If I have not met this total by 5 PM, I come back out to work after my kids are in bed and keep going until I hit it.
I have no writing rituals that I know of!
Finally, Ben, what is your next writing project?
I am currently writing the sequel to Hannibal: Enemy of Rome. There will be four books in total in this series, and the one I am writing is called Fields of Blood. It will be published in the UK in the summer of 2013.
Thanks very much for a fascinating talk, Ben.
If you’d like to know more about Ben and his books please click on the links he has provided below.
My website address is: www.benkane.net
My Twitter username is @BenKaneAuthor.
My Facebook page can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/benkanebooks
My next talk will be with Elizabeth Chadwick, author of a wide range of historical novels including The Greatest Knight, To Defy a King and Lady of the English.
- Talking with Harvey Black. #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Talking with MC Scott. #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- #TheReadersVoice An invitation to readers (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Bernard Cornwell on historical novels (telegraph.co.uk)