Robert Fabbri is best known for his bestselling Vespasian series, the most recent of which, The Furies of Rome, came out in 2016. Now he’s back with his first standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire. Author Nick Brown talks to Robert about writing and reading habits, and what we can expect from the new book.
Your name is now synonymous with the Vespasian series. What inspired you to write this standalone novel?
When Vespasian met Arminius’ son, Thumelicus, in Rome’s Fallen Eagle he is read Arminius’ life-story, however we never get to hear it as I cut directly to the end. I always intended to write the story that Vespasian, Sabinus, Paetus and Magnus heard in that tent and The Limits of Empire is it. The four Romans with Thumelicus as the story is told are, of course, Vespasian and his companions but we never get to know their names – although Magnus does drop in his part of the narrative just so we know for sure.
Did you find it refreshing to take on a new protagonist, this man an enemy of Rome?
I loved becoming Arminius; it was my treat every summer for four years, between Vespasian books and Magnus short stories. I particularly enjoyed Arminius’ hatred of Rome; as Germany is my adopted country – I live with my wife, Anja, in Berlin – I was always rooting for the German tribes.
Were there any major challenges during the research?
No, I read as much as I could find about the battle and the subsequent campaigns as well as walking the ground. It was a very enjoyable experience.
Arminius: The Limits of Empire covers a very well known historical event. Were you concerned at all about many readers knowing the outcome? Did this affect the way you told the tale?
For me it didn’t matter that the events in the book are well-known as I tried to focus more upon their causes and effects. I see the book much more as an exploration of how it came about that we have both Latin and Germanic culture now in modern Europe.
While reading the new book, it struck me that it could easily appeal to readers of fantasy as well as historical fiction. Are you a fan of the genre and have you considered a move in that direction?
The Lord of the Rings is about as far as I’ve got in that genre, not because I don’t like it, I do; it’s just that there is so little time and so much historical fiction to read. However, some of my Vespasian books do have elements of what would be considered as fantasy: for example, the rebirth of the Phoenix in False God of Rome and the manifestation of a god in Masters of Rome. As the Romans actually believed in these things – Tacitus spends over half a page describing the Phoenix – I don’t consider them to be fantasy in Roman terms and therefore feel able to include them in a novel set in the Roman world. As to writing full-blown fantasy, I think I’ll leave that to the professionals.
Arminius contains many compelling scenes of action. Which – if any – authors do you admire for their ability in this area?
I’ve always loved Bernard Cornwall’s action scenes, especially in the Uhtred books. One of the most memorable images for me was his description of Ubba exploding through the Saxon lines. I will admit to having borrowed it on one occasion, although not word for word of course. Then of course, there is George MacDonald Fraser: his action scenes in the Flashman books are very vivid, firstly because the prose is perfect and secondly because they are told from a coward’s point of view so Old Flashy spends the scene in a terrified funk. It’s classic stuff.
Are there any other eras, incidents or characters from Roman history that appeal to you as a storyteller?
Gaius Marius is, for me, very interesting as you would have a good mix of politics and battles as the New Man forces his way to the top. Colleen McCulloch covered the era wonderfully in her First Man in Rome series. Then there is Pyrrhus’ invasion, again a good mix of battles and politics. But as to what my next project is, I’m afraid I’m not going to say until I’ve finished the first book for fear of putting a jinx on it; with luck and a following wind that should be around this time next year.
I know from your website that it’s the ‘escapist’ element of historical fiction that has always appealed to you: what do you think are the crucial ‘ingredients’ necessary in order to really transport the reader?
I think that the crucial thing is to ensure that your characters are products of their time and nothing to do with the modern day world; they must think like a Roman or a Greek or a Viking or a Tudor Queen. Whoever is your subject must be real to their era. And then there are all the sights, sounds and smells that must be brought out; here you have a much more universal brief as the smell of wild thyme is the same now as when your character trod on a plant two thousand years ago. So I suppose the short answer is combine the familiar with the unfamiliar.
Looking back to my first book, I realise how much I and my working practices have changed. How do you feel you have developed as a writer since Tribune of Rome?
I cringe at some of the writing in Tribune of Rome; I think most people do when thinking about their first book. I’m much more aware now of repetition of words too close together and also the fluid structure of a sentence; one of the great things about English is that you can play with the positions of words within a sentence.
A bit of an author’s question this but I noticed that – like myself – you’re a keen proponent of the semi-colon! In your view, how can they benefit a writer of fiction?
I’m a great fan of the semi-colon; they keep an idea going within a sentence without bringing it to an abrupt end.
Have you discovered any interesting new authors lately? Do you find that your writing is ever influenced by recent reads?
I’ve been reading the Bernie Gunter books by Philip Kerr recently. Set in Berlin before, during and after the Second World War, they follow a private detective through that ravaged city. I’m sure I’m influenced every day by what I read; it’s why authors should read as much as they can.
Since moving away from your career in film, what has surprised you most about life as a writer?
How little the phone rings and how few people I speak to in the average week.
Do you have a very specific writing routine? What is most likely to distract you from it?
I start by reading in bed for an hour between 0830 and 0930 whilst drinking a lot of tea. I then go a power-walk, as fast as I can, for an hour; this is my thinking time. After a shower I’ll start writing at 1100 and work right through until 1900; I try to write about 1500 words a day, sometimes more, often less. I tend to hit my sweet-spot around 1700 and most of my books are written in the last two hours of the day. Cricket on TV is the most distracting thing
Regardless of format (film, TV, novel) what, for you, makes a great story?
For me it has to have a backdrop of reality to it. I like to be able to think: wow, so it might have happened like that. I don’t mean to say that the hero or heroine must always be a real character to make the story great – Flashman, Jack Aubrey and Sharpe are testament to that – I mean that the story should be set in and around real events for me to really enjoy it.
It has to be when I received the advance copy of my first book, Vespasian, Tribune of Rome, and showed it to my children; my youngest son, Lucas, said: ’Gosh, dad, I didn’t realise that you’d written a book book.’
Do you read your reviews? Do they ever affect your writing?
I think all writers read their reviews, it’s hard to ignore them; however, I don’t trawl the internet looking for them nor do I request them and no, anonymous opinions do not affect my work.
Lastly, could you give us three recommended reads: one historical novel, one historical text, one other great piece of fiction?
Gore Vidal’s Julian is my historical fiction choice; it’s a fascinating account of the apostate emperor as he tries to replace the new religion, Pauline Christianity, with the traditional religion of Rome. Josephus’ Jewish War is my favourite text at the moment as I’m relying on it heavily for the last Vespasian novel. The fact that it’s an eyewitness account makes it an invaluable insight into that rebellion. Great piece of fiction, hmm, that’s a difficult one; but after much consideration I think I have to go for Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. It covers such a broad sweep of history and gets to the heart of Russia.
Before becoming a novelist, Nick Brown worked as a teacher of both English and history. Book six in the Agent of Rome series, The Earthly Gods, was published in 2016 and the series has been translated into Dutch and Spanish. Nick is currently working on various projects including several screenplays.