Friday, 1 November 2013

Blog Interview with Author DOUGLAS JACKSON

I am sure I do not have to tell any long term readers of historical fiction who Douglas Jackson is. Even if you have not read any of his books, or are fairly new to the genre, this author's books are hard to miss.
He has his literary aquila firmly planted in the soil of the historical fiction genre and with two Roman series' in circulation, one called the Gaius Valerius Verrens series which features the antics and adventures of the Roman Tribune that the series is named for, another series named Rufus that features so far - alongside a main fictional character named Rufus - two of the most infamous Roman leaders of history, Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) and Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), and also a contemporary thriller series with a history connection under the name James Douglas called the Jamie Sinclair series, there is no doubt that Douglas Jackson is playing a lot of aces into the game of historical fiction.

The amount of followers and fans his books have, are testament to how well he has circumnavigated the crowded Roman themed historical fiction sub genre. To stand out from that crowd an author really does need to show some flare with the pen and some aptness in carving out a story. Especially one that is strong enough to persist in a series.
With a stable of books to select from, whatever your poison, historical fiction or contemporary thriller fiction, Douglas Jackson (aka James Douglas or James Douglas Jackson) has something for readers to investigate.
As for Douglas Jackson himself, the author of historical fiction, I hope you will get to know him better as we discuss the books, the author, the history and the future, here in this recent interview.


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

Absolutely. That was the first decision I made when I started writing. I wanted people to learn from my books as well as enjoy them and you can't do that if your readers don't trust the person who's doing the writing. It's great when someone gets back to me and says 'I was so interested in that I got a book out of the library/went on the internet to learn more'. But you're right to qualify it with 'as possible', because the truth is that with many aspects of ancient history we can't be certain what is accurate. We have evidence and clues, written and physical, but in many cases writers and historians have to do what they can to reconstruct the past by using them the way a detective reconstructs a crime scene.

If I do deviate from known history, which isn't often, I always detail it in the historical note. The only time I've purposely done that with a major event was in Avenger of Rome. Unknown to me when I was planning the book, by the time Valerius gets out to Antioch, Corbulo has already fought all the battles that made him Rome's most successful general. When I did my detailed research I discovered that all the elements were in place for the Parthian king, Vologases, to have one last try at conquering Armenia, so I created an entirely fictional campaign which Nero wiped from history after ordering Corbulo to commit suicide.

Where does your fire to write Roman themed historical fiction come from?  What is it about those Romans?

When I decided to write a book I had no idea what I was going to write about. It could literally have been anything. I was driving home from work one night thinking about it. They say write what you know, but my life was one big whirl of family, work, eat, sleep, anything I knew was mundane. So I thought about it a little bit more and came up with write what you love, and what I loved was history. Simon Schama's History of Britain just happened to be on the radio and I heard Timothy West saying 'And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant to take the surrender of the tribes of Britain.' That was the moment The Emperor's Elephant, which became Caligula and Claudius, was born, and my life changed completely.

What it is about the Romans is the mark they've made on our everyday lives and the physical evidence they've left all over Europe, Africa and Asia of hundreds of years of dominance. I did have one direct connection with the Romans. My first job when I left school at 16 was on a sort of workfare scheme, and it was restoring the Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills, after it had been ploughed up to plant trees. We turned the peat turf back into the furrows, and it struck me that we were doing much the same as the legionaries who'd built the turf walls that still surrounded the fort had done two thousand years earlier.

You have written historical fiction novels that collide your interpretation of famous leaders of history with main fictional characters. 
Does this reflect an enjoyment of writing about both – real characters and fictional main characters - or do you actually prefer creating and getting inside the head of one in particular?

I do get a lot of pleasure from writing about both, but again it came about by accident. The Emperor's Elephant was a story about the slave who looked after Bersheba, the elephant Claudius took to Britain, and he needed a life. Though I didn't know it at the time, it would bring him into the orbit of Caligula, the most depraved and dangerous of the Julio-Claudians. That was when the real fun started! Caligula was the one whose head I enjoyed getting into most. There's a scene in the book where he's in a meeting room bored with wealth, bored with excess: bored with life. He asks a guard 'If I ordered it would you kill every man in this room, would you do it?' Of course, there was only one answer. Then he says, 'What if I ordered you to kill me?' I genuinely think that's the kind of young man he was. Ambitious and intelligent, he'd lived in a gilded cage all his life, and nothing ordinary interested him, so he had to make up these deadly games, push back the limits of normality, and test people to the limits of their sanity.

If you could go back in time, which real life character from your books, or one that exists on the peripheral of your stories, would you most like to meet?
And if you could ask them about anything what would it be and why?

That would have to be Claudius, because he's such an enigma. When I was writing about him I had to continually shove this image of Derek Jacobi in the TV adaption of Robert Graves' book I Claudius, out of my head. I think that image would be true of many people of my era: the drooling cripple who was a figure of fun and only became Emperor by mistake. But there's another Claudius. We have fragments of a triumphal arch that stood on the Via Flaminia and announced that the Emperor was hailed Imperator - victorious general - twenty two times, fought six bloodless (for the Romans) battles, and took the surrender of eleven British kings. Who was the real Claudius? I'd like to ask him why he had Messalina killed. If she'd lived there would have been no Nero and no bowl of dodgy mushrooms a few years down the line.

The latest in your Gaius Valerius Verrens series (of which Hero of Rome is #1) is Sword of Rome and it was released only a few months ago. This reveals a commitment to continue with this series with some frequency. Readers of series' like to see that kind of commitment. It makes it worth their while to keep reading the books.
How many more books in this series do you anticipate?

I'm fortunate that my publishers have really taken to Valerius. The Hero of Rome series started off as a trilogy, ending with Avenger of Rome, but the books were popular enough that they asked me if I could come up with ideas for three more. It turned out that our hero was well placed to be at the centre of some of great events during the bloodiest and most turbulent years of the Roman Empire. Sword of Rome, the first, takes Valerius through the opening phases of The Year of the Four Emperors to the first battle of Bedriacum, and it will be followed up by Enemy of Rome, which takes him through to Vespasian's victory. I'd originally planned to complete the second trilogy with Agricola's campaign to conquer Scotland, but we're now talking about a further two books which, chronologically, would fit in between, and a possible finale of a genuine blockbuster in the James Michener/Edward Rutherfurd mould, that would attempt to encapsulate Roman Britain in a single book.

As well as the Gaius Valerius Verrens and Rufus historical fiction Roman era series', you have also done a contemporary series under a different name, James Douglas.
Any other series' or ideas in the pipework? And on that topic, could you see yourself getting away from Romans and doing a non Roman historical fiction series?

Douglas Jackson is my real name, but I was christened James Douglas Jackson, so we decided to use James Douglas as my pen name. I'm talking to the publishers about another two James Douglas books, but I've also given them a detailed synopsis for a Second World War series that I have a real itch to write. I have two crime books on my computer that I wrote when I was looking for a publisher and didn't know if my Roman idea would take off. I don't see Transworld investing in a third genre for a single writer, even under a different name, so I have a plan to self-publish those, initially on Kindle. I've always known that I couldn't write about Romans forever, even if I wanted to, and as a writer I know that to keep yourself fresh you have to try new things. I have lots of ideas, but it's a question of choosing the right one. The one thing in my favour is that I know my strengths, the biggest drawback that there are so many great writers out there looking for the next Wolf Hall or Sharpe series.

Have you done much travelling to settings in your books? If so, which is your favourite and why?

I've been to Italy, Spain, France and Germany to research the books, loved every minute of it and would have liked to do much more. There's a valley in Eastern Turkey close to the border with Syria, where I fought the fictional battle of the Cepha gap. It's a fascinating place full of ancient caves that may have been the starting point for a later civilisation, and the nearby city of Hasankeyf has an astonishingly varied history. Unfortunately, the Turkish government, funded by foreign banks, has decided to dam the River Tigris and Hasankeyf will be under water within the next ten years. The reasons for the decision are clouded in politics, and may have a lot to do with the fact that the people there are Armenian. There's been an international outcry and I hope it doesn't happen, but I'd like to visit the area just once before it does. As for a favourite place, it would have to be Rome, the Eternal City. Every time you turn a corner there's something to make you gasp in wonder.

What authors and/or books have inspired you on your path to today and how/why have those specific authors or books inspired you?

Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome gave me the reading bug with The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons. I loved Robert Louis Stephenson's books, particularly Kidnapped, which I thought was a sublime piece of story-telling the first time I read it and was fascinated by a story set in a Scotland I could instantly recognise. As a teenager I devoured Alistair McLean's books, and when I read that winning a short story competition in the Glasgow Herald set him on the road to becoming a best-selling author, I think that planted a seed for the future. If he could do it, why not me? Likewise later, I discovered the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser created the inimitable Flashman while he was doing night shifts as a sub-editor on the Herald. It was a revelation that ordinary people could become successful writers and fill the shelves of the local library that had given me so much pleasure. Nowadays, for inspiration I turn to John Le Carre, who makes genius look easy, and Bernard Cornwell who writes the kind of books I like to read, with the qualities I'd like to emulate.

Which do you prefer, ebook or paper?

Definitely paper. I love the feel, and the smell, and a well put together book can be a work of art as well as a work of genius, but ...

I once vowed that I would never pick up an e-book. Why would I want to spend any more time staring at what is essentially a computer screen? Then my friend gave me one as a gift for being his best man. Within a week I found that I had access to every book in the world and it was available with one click of a button. An expensive habit was born. 

Thanks again for your interest and giving me the chance to reveal a bit of my writing life!


For more details on Douglas Jackson, please check out the author's website:
To catch up with him on social media, Douglas can be found as @Dougwriter on Twitter:

- MM

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