Thursday, 29 August 2013

Blog Interview with author GORDON DOHERTY

Who is this Gordon Doherty person?  Okay, rhetorical question in part, since I know many of you know who he is, but many won't, and some of those who may know of him still may not know much more than 'he is an author of some historical fiction books isn't he?'.
If you have not heard of him nor read any of his books, then please, let me introduce you.

As a person, you will get to know him better through this interview. Therefore, from that angle, I really only need to say that he is a Scot and lots of fun and I would love to hang out chatting with him in a pub one day. That is the kind of person he is. Without airs and graces.  Good natured and completely devoid of pretentions.

But that's Gordon as a person. What then of who he is as an author? Since you are avid readers and you are always looking for new books and authors then let the work speak on who this author is.  So, in answer to the question I began this blog interview with, this is the answer, this is Gordon Doherty. Legionary , Legionary: Viper of the North, Strategos: Born in the Borderlands, Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart

As you can see, he's written some books. Some very fancy looking books. And, for shame, like many of you, I have not yet read a single one.  That is about to change however, as I venture into the land of Gordon Doherty this September with his book Strategos: Born in the Borderlands.

Strategos: Born in the Borderlands
I know many of you will be joining me for that and I am looking forward to it.  Gordon Doherty will also be joining us for the read of his book and to help give you a multi layered experience with the group read, he was kind enough to do this interview.
I hope you enjoy it and that it excites you even more about the September read of his book. I know for myself, that after reading Gordon's interview responses that I certainly am ready to put on my black kohl and get eye gouged in Byzantium.  Care to join me?

                                                *   *   *

Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction book?

Ah, a nice easy one to start with . . . I can’t just say yes and move on, can I? :)
Seriously, the question can be posed to almost every aspect of historical fiction from a grand scale right down to the minutiae: Does the tale stay true to recorded events and dates? Do the characters converse and behave in a manner appropriate for the belief structures of their time? Does the protagonist use the correct type of loom to weave cloth for their latest outfit?

At the finer end of the scale, I think there is a distinction to be made between historical accuracy and historical depth. Yes, accuracy is paramount. If you’re going to mention a loom in your tale, then make the effort to ensure you research and describe it as it would have been in that time. However, don’t spend a whole chapter describing that loom. I’ve seen good stories suffocate under historical info-dumping. Balance is the key in this respect. The best histfic works I’ve read are those that draw me in with dashes of authentic detail while allowing the tale to flow and the imagination to breathe.
At the thicker end of the scale, concerning recorded events and dates, I think any work of historical fiction has to be well-researched in this respect. I spend months immersed in the primary and secondary sources before I begin my story planning. This forms the spine of my work. The storytelling comes next. Where history does not provide the characters, the scenes or the twists*, I will add flesh to the tale. At times, this might require bending the historical fact (e.g. shifting dates by a few weeks or so to fit a character’s timeline) and I’ll usually highlight this to the reader in my author’s note. I think the fiction part of historical fiction allows licence for this.
* Though it often does, and sometimes in eye-wateringly brutal fashion – I’ve lost count of the number of eye-gougings described in Norwich’s excellent Byzantium trilogy.

A two part question I always like to ask historical fiction authors. Who is your favourite historical figure or figures and why? And if you have not already written about them, do you think you one day will?

Justinian and Belisarius. What a pairing and what an era! They could and almost did reconquer the empire’s lost territories. The image of Belisarius holding the decrepit walls of Rome – the gates bricked up and the battlements crumbling – with just a handful of men against the Ostrogoths armies is pretty awe-inspiring. It’s a shame Justinian’s ego curtailed his brilliant general’s progress, but then who knows for sure that Belisarius didn’t covet the imperial throne?

Will I write about them? I’ve started planning now, thanks to this question . . .

As a stalwart of the historical fiction genre, I was happy to discover the setting of your book. I feel not enough historical fiction is being written about Byzantium from both a local and a border lands perspective. What attracted you to this era and to the settings in this Strategos series?

I’m always a sucker for the underdog, and Byzantium comes across as just that – an echo of lost greatness, permanently at war on eastern and western fronts without the manpower to make a decisive move on either side. Such a fatalistic backdrop can’t fail to conjure strong characters. I also felt a little sorry for the modern, possibly western notion that Byzantium was a duplicitous and somewhat craven state. The truth is that they often had little option but to resort to espionage and artifice. That said, I don’t for a moment believe they were universally altruistic . . . as you might see when you meet certain characters in ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’ *rubs hands together and throws head back with evil cackle*

I thoroughly agree though that Byzantium is criminally under-explored. Who knows – perhaps the Strategos trilogy will prompt a Byzantine revival. Soon, folk might be strolling the streets with kohl-stained eyes, purple buskins and gold-hemmed tunics on their way to Byzantine-night at the local nightclub. But then you might get authentic eye-gougings too, especially in Glasgow. Okay, scratch the revival idea . . .

If you could go back in time and meet a person of history (not necessarily a favourite person of history) who would it be and why?

On 29th May 1453, one man took his place atop the near-crippled walls of Constantinople bearing arms, the banner of his god and the weight of nearly two millennia’s history on his shoulders. Constantine XI Palaeologus, the last emperor of Byzantium, stood with a few thousand weary, starving and desperate men. The Thracian countryside beyond the city was masked by Ottoman regiments – numbering over three hundred thousand – and the colossal guns that would blast the walls asunder and consign the Byzantine Empire to history.
 Before the siege commenced, Sultan Mehmed II offered to spare the emperor’s life if he would surrender the city, to which Palaeologus replied;

“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else's who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.”

The stance epitomises Byzantium. If one man could convey what it was like to strive against the odds as the empire did on those dark, final days, it would be Palaeologus.

A question along the same lines, but also a fascinating one to see an author’s thoughts on...
If you could go back in time and witness a moment in history, for example; an event, a battle, a court, a construction (I have always thought I would like to go back to see Stonehenge being built), what would you like to witness firsthand?

I’d love to see what really happened at the fall of Troy. So many legends spread from that event, doubtless exaggerated many times over. I think there would be something quite humbling in witnessing the true scale of what happened in the Troad all those centuries ago. I actually indulged this fantasy by writing a time-travel short a few years ago where an average fellow from the present day travelled into the past to witness the climax of the siege (not in a sitting back wolfing a bag of maltesers way, more in a peering over an adjacent hilltop, terrified that an Achaean warrior might find and gut him way). It wasn’t my best, but I certainly enjoyed writing it.

You also have a Roman Series. Your Legionary Series. What prompted you to write it?

Legionary was my first foray into full-blown noveldom. As much as I was intrigued by Principate-era Rome, I never really felt compelled to write more than short stories about those centuries. I mentioned my love of the underdog previously, and later Rome, specifically the late 4th century, absolutely snared me. Like Byzantium, it deserves so much more attention than it currently receives.

The legions were impoverished, scattered and low on morale. The borders were overstretched, undermanned and creaking. Then came the small matter of the Huns, riding from the steppes like a dark storm, displacing and driving the masses of tribes before them onto the imperial borders. This was utterly irresistible for me. Imagine standing on the walls of a crumbling Roman border fort, clutching a spatha, spear and shield, watching this tide of invaders wash towards your homeland. Your dilemna is simple - you and your comrades must stand firm or the empire will fall.
Here’s a guest blog I wrote a year or so back discussing on the state of the imperial borders at this time:

With the recent release of book two in your Strategos series, I was wondering, with both your Strategos series and your Legionary Series, how many books have you planned for them?

Strategos started out as a one-off and it’s now planned as a trilogy. Legionary started out as a standalone yarn and it’s now a series of five books at least! I’ve learned how easy it is to underestimate just how much characters and concepts can burgeon from those initial story ideas.
With Strategos, I was sorely tempted to expand beyond a trilogy. The story potential is certainly there. However, from the beginning, I felt that there were three momentous periods in Apion’s life. ‘Born in the Borderlands’ charts his childhood and the making of him as a man. ‘Rise of the Golden Heart’ finds him at his lowest ebb, a pivotal moment for him and the empire.

The yet-to-be-penned conclusion to the trilogy ‘Island in the Storm’ will put him squarely in the face of fate itself – his own and that of everything he knows – as he treads the fabled plains of Manzikert.

The covers of your books, in particular your Strategos series, are really lovely. Have you had much of a hand in their design and are both series' done by the same cover artist?

I designed the original cover for my first book, Legionary. I had a vision of a desperate band of limitanei legionaries charging into the fray, but I simply didn’t have the graphic design talent to execute this. In the end I cobbled something together – an image of a Roman intercisa helmet on a grainy purple background. Some readers emailed me to say they loved my book, but nearly didn’t bother trying it because of the ropey cover art – cheers, Ray ;). So I opted to contact a professional designer to revamp the cover, sending them a rough textual description of my original vision as guidance. It was a rock-solid investment, and I’ve never looked back.

Now I have a process; I will get the crayons and pencils out and sit doodling out my cover as best I can (and we’re not talking fine art here – my outline sketch for ‘Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart’ had the warhorse looking more like a crazed Scooby-Doo). This tends to convey my requirements far more accurately than a textual description.
I’ll then send this sketch over to Olly and Barry at GB Print. Within a few weeks, they have turned my manic etchings into a thing of beauty!

Any new ideas on the horizon for Gordon Doherty? Any new Historical Fiction settings you would like to write in?

Besides the Strategos trilogy and my Legionary series, there is another top, top secret project underway. So secret that no one person knows all of the details. So secret that if I was to reveal anything, I’d probably go missing overnight. So secret that even the local secret squirrel knows nothing about it. Okay, I’m exaggerating a wee bit. Actually, I’ll be co-authoring a new novel with my good friend Simon Turney. We’re trying to keep it under wraps while it comes together and it is still in the formative stages, but the early signs are promising. Suffice to say that it pitches us both into an era that will appeal to fans of each of our works.

Apart from that, I sense a trip to Bronze Age Anatolia on the horizon. A tale I worked on some years ago in that setting has been calling out to me in recent times. And then there are the centuries between Legionary and Strategos that ooze story potential (more Justinian ideas bouncing around my thoughts now!). Just a few days ago, I also had a friend insist that I should write some Scottish histfic. I suggested Skara Brae, he demanded Dalriata. In the end the debate turned to the subject of beer . . . and beer won (that happens a lot).

Which do you prefer? Ebook or Paper?

Paper is hard to beat. I love dark, brooding and evocative cover art, and treebooks are always going to win in this respect. A quick glance at my bookshelves and I can see Helikaon of Gemmell’s ‘Troy’ trilogy, Dionysius of Manfredi’s ‘Tyrant’ and Eskkar of Barone’s ‘Empire’ series gazing back at me and I’m quickly whisked back over the joy of those reads. I also appreciate the absolute escapism of possessing nothing other than a paper volume and an open mind. No texts, tweets, emails or otherwise to distract me.

That said, these days I use my eBook reader for the majority of my reads. It’s dangerously easy to sample and stockpile books, and I find my particular device very discreet (no notifications/distractions other than a prompt to charge it up once a month or so). I can lose myself in eBooks as easily as I can in treebooks. The portability of eBooks is another major bonus; I was in south-western Turkey earlier this year, researching for the final part of the Strategos trilogy. I was on a dolmus, heading into Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus), when I realised my itinerary for touring the city was flawed. I whipped out the eReader, switched on 3G, and within 30 seconds I had before me a copy of Jay Artale’s excellent city guide. Problem solved and city well and truly explored! You can read about my exploits here: Searchability (pretty sure that’s not a word) is another big win for eBooks, particularly when researching, or when I simply want to find that passage in a favourite read and relive it.

To conclude; the eBook/treebook debate is a popular one, but I think both have a firm place in my reading life. Beyond this, I always try to remember that the medium is transient and story is king. Indeed, a few millennia back the argument was probably: “which is better: bard or paper?”

                                                                      *  *  *

Thanks Gordon Doherty for giving such fun answers. I learned some stuff and laughed at some stuff.  Those are my favourite kind of interviews.

Strategos: Born in the Borderlands is the September 2013 Group Read in Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group on Goodreads. It starts September 1 and runs throughout the month.
All welcome to join in. Discussion thread here: Group Read of Strategos by Gordon Doherty

- MM

No comments:

Post a Comment