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June Author Interview: Nick Brown

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A few years ago now, a new name popped up among the extant heavyweights of Roman fiction. Friends mentioned his first book: Agent of Rome – The Siege favourably, and I decided that I ought to add it to my towering ‘to be read’ pile. At the time, I was trying to catch up with a few series I’d fallen way behind on, and wasn’t sure whether I really needed to commit another Roman author to my busy reading list, and in the end, reading it kept getting put back again and again. Clever me. You see, Nick was about to release his second book when I finally got round to reading the first.

The Siege surpassed my expectations by many a mile and gripped me. Nick rocketed straight up to take his place among those heavyweights I’d mentioned. And because I’d been so lax, joy of joys, I had a sequel to read pretty much straight away! Well, we’re now four books down Nick’s road and I’m a firm fan, waiting along with plenty of others for the next installment with boyish eagerness. And his fourth opus is almost here.

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6th of June is D-Day, when we commemorate the Normandy Landings. But 5th of June is N-Day, when we celebrate the release of Agent of Rome – The Black Stone. A review will be posted here in a few days, so keep an eye out, but in the meantime, with propitious timing, my author interview for June is with the man himself. Well I’ve bigged him up enough for now, so let’s see what he has to say about his work…

Introducing Nick Brown:

Cassius Corbulo is something of a unique character in the field of Roman fiction (and even in Historical fiction in general.) A dissolute, privileged background, his enforced military experience and his career unravelling plots and mysteries for the authorities of Rome make Corbulo truly individual. What made you decide upon your unusual protagonist?

There are two aspects to that really. In terms of the ‘grain men’ – often called Rome’s secret service- they were involved in so many fields (espionage, policing, assassination to name a few) – that the dramatic opportunities seemed huge. In terms of Cassius himself, that dates back to ‘The Siege’ – I wanted a character who was young, inexperienced, certainly not a warrior but someone with the intelligence to organise the threatened garrison of Alauran. That just seemed a bit more interesting than a more typical sword-wielding, inspirational type.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I agree that all are viable and I’m sure most of us employ a healthy mix. I’ve never gone down the re-enactment route though, nor have I been able to visit any of the locations. So I suppose I do rely heavily on research and a healthy dose of imagination. Having read so many great texts on the Roman period (examining everything from sailing techniques to intelligence-gathering; mosaic design to types of bread) I’m always conscious of how indebted we novelists are to historians.

Is there anything you’ve come across based in Corbulo’s time that you are itching to write about? Anything that’s dragging you in and demanding you include it in a plot?

Yes, a few things actually. Usually I will try and include them; if not as a story point then at least as a reference. In ‘The Black Stone’, for example, Cassius speaks to a Saracen ally about a distant island protected by mysterious flying creatures. Cassius knows only the Latin word for them which comes from the northern provinces – dragon!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose. And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

As long as I could take a well-equipped doctor back with me I would be straight off to the third century – just to compare reality with what I have read and imagined. It would be beyond incredible to have a chat with Emperor Aurelian or maybe Queen Zenobia. Then I might jump back in my time machine and head off to see the dinosaurs, followed by a sojourn in medieval England!

You have travelled widely in your career, working in Nepal and Poland. Neither of these fascinating places – which must have had a profound impact on your life – comes close to being within Rome’s sphere of influence, so what made you choose Rome over them for your tales? And consequently, do you feel to any extent limited by the era you have chosen? Admittedly, third century Rome is quite a deep, rich time, but have you ever felt like writing in another era and location too?

Both fascinating places it’s true but it never occurred to me to write about them. I suppose like many people, including yourself, I just caught the Roman bug. The third century appealed because though the Empire was in decline, Aurelian was a very successful emperor. In general, whatever the period, I think there are always more opportunities than limitations. I have thought about many different eras, ancient and modern – it’s just a case of finding the right project, I suppose.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Nick’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Er …. well it’s hard to judge your own work but I certainly try to mix dynamic plots with compelling characters and a dash of humour. Within the genre I think the ‘agent angle’ is something fresh, allowing Cassius, Indavara et al to get mixed up with everything from protecting princes to hunting stolen artefacts and investigating murders.

(For the record, for me there are three specific draws for Nick’s books. They are always innovative, intelligent and very well constructed plots. The character and his situations are different from anything else out there in the Roman fiction world at the moment. And finally, they are a very pleasant, comfortable and engrossing read. There is no struggle. Pick up the book for 5 minutes and next thing you know it’s got dark and you’re 200 pages through it!)

Given that your books are something of a mix between mystery, combat, investigation, adventure, historical travelogue, and even humorous character-interaction, it must be very difficult getting that mix just right to keep the reader hooked. How do you go about that and do you ever worry if you have imbalance in these aspects? For the record, they have been the perfect mix for me, by the way…

You’re very kind! I think that all begins with the plotting, though it’s also crucial to make sure that the story is balanced in terms of character. It gets easier after four or five books, especially as the tone/style is quite well established now. Having said that, I am always looking for ways to mix things up. Books five and six will include the most dramatic and challenging situation the trio have faced yet.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

There are some little things but nothing major – yet. It may well be that I look back in a few years and cringe!

Are you taking each plot as it comes, throwing Corbulo in new directions as the mood takes you, or do you have a finite arc for the series? Where do you see the whole tale taking him in the end?

I do have a basic arc established, yes, though I’m not sure how long it will take to get to get there. As for where Cassius (and Indavara/ Simo) end up that’s one I keep quiet about!

What are you reading at present?

Lots of non-fiction at the moment. The last book I read was ‘A House in the Sky’, a brilliantly written and very moving memoir by American reporter Amanda Lindhout – she was captured in Somalia by Islamic militants and survived a terrible 460 day ordeal. On a lighter note, I also came across a book called ‘The Far Arena’ – it was written in 1979 and is about a Roman gladiator frozen in ice who is reanimated in the modern world!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

Well, hopefully a few more Cassius books but at some point I would like to move onto different eras and types of stories. I like reading and writing both fantasy and sci-fi so basically it could be anything.

* * * * *

 Thank you, Nick for taking the time to answer my questions and help enlighten new readers out there. Look out for Book 4 on the 5th, as it’s a stunner once again. For those of you who’ve not had a chance to speak to Nick, I would say that you’re missing out. If you’re on twitter, follow him here.

Also, don’t forget to browse his website here, his facebook page here, and peruse (and buy) his books on Amazon.

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Written by SJAT

June 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

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