Douglas Jackson chats to Ben Kane about Romans, research and the writing life.
I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to interview historical fiction writer Ben Kane to celebrate the publication of his new novel, Eagles in the Storm, set in 15AD as Rome attempts to recover the eagle standards lost in the disastrous battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Ben, a proud Irishman and a former vet, has forged an enormously successful career as a writer of Roman-based fiction, is one of the hardest working authors it’s been my privilege to meet, and is a superb example to anyone who wants to make their way as an author.
First let’s get the important bit out of the way. Tell us about your new book Eagles in the Storm. What makes it special and what attracted you to this particular period of Roman history?
Eagles in the Storm is the third book in a trilogy, and concerns the events following the disastrous ambush in Germany in AD 9, which saw three Roman legions wiped out. Storm takes place in AD 15 and 16, by which time the Romans were still seeking revenge on Arminius, the German chieftain who’d masterminded the ambush, and also trying to recover two of the lost eagles.
The battle of the Teutoburg Forest – the ambush in AD 9 – remains one of Rome’s most shocking setbacks. Although the numbers of men lost do not rival those seen at other battles such as Cannae, the fact that it happened in peacetime, that it was so unexpected, sent shockwaves through the empire. It was a joy to write about.
What originally drove you to become an author? I know from experience that you have to be a bit mad to think you can make a living out of writing, so what was the trigger in your particular case?
It was the night ‘on call’ from hell. I trained as a veterinary surgeon, you see, and worked as one for 16 years. Although I had toyed with the idea of writing a novel, I didn’t seriously start it until one Saturday in 2003, when after a long day at work, I got called out six times between 6 p.m. and midnight. In the end, I smashed my pager (it still worked, never fear) and started a novel. I never looked back.
Which takes us nicely to the next question: What made you decide to specialise in historical fiction and once you’d come to that conclusion what made you focus on ancient Rome?
It was only ever going to be historical fiction – that’s my favourite genre to read. I couldn’t decide between Vikings and Romans until I saw Bernard Cornwell’s first Uhtred novel in the shops and thought, ‘If he’s doing that, I can’t, so it has to be Romans.’ Totally incorrect of course, but I’m glad I made that choice.
It’s an incredibly crowded market in our era of the historical fiction genre. Do you think you can have too much of a good thing?
Absolutely, yes. It’s sad, because I am friends with many of my ‘rivals’ – you, for instance. But too many authors = falling sales. Sad to say, I have friends who have lost their book deals already. I’ve seen a fall in my advances, but am hopeful that I can keep on writing for many years to come.
And what’s the secret of writing a book that stands out among a raft of genuinely talented (coughs modestly and excludes self) writers of Roman fiction?
That’s a hard one. Gritty realism? As a former vet, I know what it’s like to ‘slice and dice’, so I think my fight scenes are quite good. I have also marched more than 500 miles in the full military kit of a Roman legionary, and that has informed my writing hugely – way more than I ever imagined it would.
I know you take enormous pride in the depth of research that goes into your books. What were the hurdles you had to overcome to make your early novels feel authentic and how has that changed now you’re well into double figures?
Jeepers, that’s a little embarrassing. Although I did a lot of research for the first three novels, I also knowingly cut a few corners historically speaking. At the time, I was naïve, and didn’t really think about the finality of books going to print, and that I would regret the corner-cutting later. If I ever look at my first four or five books (which is rare), I see a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which is the classical error of the new novelist. I think I avoid that quite well now, and as my fellow Roman author and friend Harry Sidebottom says, ‘If you hadn’t improved your driving five years after taking your test, you wouldn’t be much good, would you? The same applies to writing.’ Still, if I ever had the time, I would love to edit my first half dozen novels again!
You travel a lot to research your books. Tell us a bit about where you’ve been and why you went there. What’s been your favourite trip and your most important discovery?
I feel enormously privileged to have the job I do when I go abroad on research trips. The places I visit – museums, locations and so on – are the same as those I used to visit when I wasn’t an author, so it feels incredible to be doing it for my job. In the last 6-7 years, I have been to Italy about 6 or 8 times, including a week on Sicily. I’ve been to Spain, France, and to Germany three times, as well as walking Hadrian’s Wall and cycling 1500 miles from Spain to Italy via the Alps, as Hannibal did with his elephants.
My favourite trip – the Hannibal one, without a doubt. Twenty-seven days of cycling through the most amazing scenery.
Most important discovery – the Roman archaeological site at Xanten, formerly Colonia Ulpia Traiana. It’s quite extraordinary, and I urge you to visit it!
You’ve raised large sums for charity through your Romani Walks with Anthony Riches (the Empire series) and Russ Whitfield (Gladiatrix). I was lucky enough to join you for a section of the Hadrian’s Wall walk and it was great fun, but to do it day after day must have been hugely gruelling. Your march to Rome took things to a whole new level. Give us some of the highlights and the days that made the experience extra special.
Almost £65,000, including the bike ride I did last September from Spain to Italy, via the Alps, a la Hannibal. The highlight of the Italy march was definitely the camaraderie – I injured my foot on the first day and couldn’t walk, and if it hadn’t been for Tony and Russ, I would have sunk into even deeper depression. Finishing the march with Italian Roman reenactors and marching around the Colosseum was also incredible. See the film, narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, below.
And a supplementary. You were marching in authentic Roman kit. Did the experience help inform your writing? And if the answer’s yes, how?
See the answer to the question above! How: I ‘knew’ how heavy the kit was, but it’s different when you’re wearing it over 20 miles a day – 3.5 – 4 stone (20-26 kgs) is ridiculously heavy. I know how pieces of kit chafe, or rub on your body, how awkward the various bits are to put on etc, how the hobnails wear down quite fast. So much information.
I’ve just realised that your books have taken you right across the Roman Empire, but, unless I’m mistaken, you’ve steered clear of Roman Britain. Was that a conscious decision, and if so what was the reasoning behind it?
Yes it was, in the main because so many authors (and friends) have covered the ground and the history. I didn’t want to tread on toes, nor did I want to do something that’s been done really well.
On the other hand, you can’t move from one part of the country without using what was once a Roman road, or passing a Roman site. Do you have a favourite place in the UK that takes you closer to the Romans? Where do you stand on the notion that a place has memory?
Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman baths at Bath – those are two that stand out for me. I don’t know that places have memory – but I feel as if they do, which amounts to the same thing!
The old standard. Who are the writers who have influenced you and what is your favourite historical fiction novel, and why?
J.R.R. Tolkien. Rosemary Sutcliff. Henry Treece. Robert Welch. Louis L’Amour. Wilbur Smith. Bernard Cornwell. Michael Scott Rohan.
The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith is an amazing work of fiction, bringing the survivors from the sack of Carthage to Zimbabwe, where they founded a city. It fired my imagination like few other books.
Where do you write? Tell us about your writing day and whether it has evolved from that first occasion you sat down and wrote the first few paragraphs of your first book.
In a rented office, which is part of a large office block four miles from where I live. My first 8 novels were written in my office – a garden shed – but we moved house, and I don’t have one any longer. Where I am now is noisier than I like, so I have to wear noise-cancelling headphones, but it’s way more sociable, and gets me out of the house. Overall, it’s better in many ways than an office at home.
As for my writing routine – it has morphed out of all recognition with my first days as a writer. Events take up a lot of time, but it’s social media and emails that have the most effect on my writing. I spend at least 1-2 hours every day on Facebook, Twitter and replying to emails. Trying not to check these sites while writing is a real struggle.
How hard was it to get your first break in writing? Many writers have to experience multiple rejections before they’re finally published. What was your experience?
It wasn’t that hard, luckily. I sent three letters out to agents and got the standard rejection letters. About a year later, I got a personal introduction to my agent, and after reading my material, he signed me. He made me write an entirely different novel to my first one, but that got me a three book deal.
Which of your books do you think would make the best movie and why? Have you had any offers from the film or TV world? (and if not, why do you think that is?)
The Eagles of Rome series, perhaps. The events in the books (Germany, AD 9-16) are being developed for TV at the moment, but it’s nothing to do with my books, sadly. I’ve had faint interest from Hollywood a couple of times, but nothing serious. I live in hope and expectation. Why do I think that is? Because the big film companies can pay a script writer (who might have read so-and-so’s book) to write a story without having to pay the author lots of money.
Is there a current writer whose work you are really enjoying at the moment?
Christian Cameron is my favourite writer – his novels on ancient Greece are truly superb.
You obviously have a proper love affair with the Roman empire, but is there another historical period that draws you? Or are you attracted to taking on another genre at some point. Fantasy? Crime? Thrillers?
I think I’ll always stay with historical fiction, unless I were to try a thriller one day. Not crime – that’s too hard! Fantasy is overdone – a bloated market, I think.
Another old chestnut: if you have one piece of advice for someone considering a career as a writer what would it be?
Write every day for a year at least. Do not edit too much. Read loads of books on how to write, but don’t believe every word you read. Once you’ve written for a year (or so), take a break. Then edit, then start again. And so on. Do not give up!
What’s next for you?
Two novels on the Roman invasion of Greece, and then a stand alone in a different time period!
Many thanks for your time, Ben. It’s been a pleasure as always and I wish you every success with Eagles in the Storm.
Thanks, Doug – it’s been great. We must meet up for a beer soon!