I was drawn to the story of Galla Placidia - who was a real historical figure - when I discovered that this young woman had ruled over the western Roman Empire at a time when barbarian tribes were invading on all sides and the economic and social structure which had made the empire so powerful was crumbling from within. Galla's cousin Pulcheria had been regent of the Eastern Empire, which meant that at one of the most tumultuous periods in its history the Roman Empire was ruled by two young women scarcely out of their twenties. Roman society was very male oriented and tended to ignore women and so Galla's life has passed largely unrecorded. I thought Galla's story was wonderful - and deserved to be told!
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up on military bases in Germany, the UK and the Far East. Life on a military base is different from civilian society because it is very friendly and supportive, everyone moves on after two years which means there is always a stream of people coming and going, and people get used to making their own entertainment. Life in the armed forces is a little like a barbarian tribe in that the services are outsiders, there to provide the public with security but are separated from ordinary civil society, and yet they have their own customs and way of life and a strong sense of who they are and what they are for.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
As humans, we are all chained by our gender, age, personality, background and ethnicity. Writing enables me to throw off the constraints imposed by who I am and to drop into the consciousness of others. Using my imagination I can become somebody else, possibly someone who has had a very different life to me: a frail old woman perhaps, or a teenage boy in a poor neighborhood, a recently bereaved widow, a nervous soldier, a self-satisfied businessman or a harassed mother. No other activity allows you to experience the lives of others like this.
What is your writing process?
William Boyd once told me that his writing process was to write until lunch and then in the afternoon he edited his work until it was time for cocktails! My routine is much more normal. I write my ideas out in longhand because I find that the ideas come more easily that way, and then I type them out and edit on my laptop. I work better in the mornings, and have been known to wake up in the early hours with my head buzzing with some new plot development. I also jot down notes of ideas when they come to me.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling made an enormous impression on me when I was seven or eight. My uncle Benny sent it to me for by birthday and I just devoured it within days. I loved the characterization of the different animals, the alternative society that Kipling created, the way that the boy with the help of Baloo and Bagheera learnt the codes and languages of the jungle, and the excitement of the battles and adventures that Mowgli experienced.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Whan I was a child I wrote a story about a young boy who was adopted by elephants after his parents were killed in a plane crash . The elephants felt sorry for the boy and took care of him. He grew up among elephants, spoke their language and regarded them as his family. Later, he was able to repay them by warning them that poachers were coming to destroy the herd and steal their ivory. My story was very obviously a retelling of The Jungle Book, but set among elephants rather than wolves.
What are you working on next?
I have written three books about the end of the Roman empire in the west. The novels form a Barbarian Series and while each is a Romantic Adventure story, they also explore the idea of so-called 'barbarians' working alongside the Romans when the empire was undergoing enormous political and social upheaval. The novels examine themes of identity and belonging, what 'civilization' really means, as well as ideas of family and romantic love across political and cultural frontiers. The Half-Slave looks at Saxons and Franks outside the empire; Attila's Gold - soon to be published - portrays a poor Goth, hired by Roman senators to spy on a general; and The Regent features an Alan who is a senior officer in the employ of the Eastern Roman Emperor.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a kindle; in fact I have two because I recently replaced my older steam-driven one with a new Kindle. I love it and take it everywhere with me, but it can never replace my books. I find that I still hanker after the smell and touch of paper, and the front cover illustration is really important because it gives a taster for the period and the characters in the book.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool bookaholic and my favourite writers are Cormac McCarthy, Iain Banks, William Boyd, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler, Nick Hornby and Jay McInerney. Historical fiction writers include Bernard Cornwell, Alan Furst, Philipp Meyer, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Tracy Chevalier and Ken Follett. Non-fiction writers include Tom Holland, Peter Heather, Lucien Musset, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Max Hastings, and Anthony Beevor. As you can see my tastes vary!
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