Tuesday 5 June 2012
An Interview with Manda Scott by Louise Berridge
Today we’re delighted to welcome to the blog one of the First Ladies of historical writing – Manda Scott, Chair of the Historical Writers’ Association, who’s agreed to be interviewed by HG Louise Berridge about her latest novel ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’.
Manda (who currently writes as M.C. Scott) is a veterinary surgeon turned writer, whose twelve bestselling novels have brought her international acclaim. She’s been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, nominated for an ‘Edgar’, and awarded an Arts Council of England Prize for Literature. She’s also very much a History Girl herself, being author of both the ‘Boudica: Dreaming’ novels and also the ‘Rome’ series, the third part of which, ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’, was published just last week.
ALB: Your title inevitably recalls Rosemary Sutcliff’s seminal The Eagle of the Ninth, and your Foreword describes it as the ‘benchmark’ by which an entire generation judges other historical writing. What would you say was so unique and inspiring about it – and do you think the current literary love affair with Rome is to some extent part of her legacy?
MCS: The Roman era, particularly the early empire, is one of those historical time periods, rather like the Tudors, that seems to be perennial in its attraction and I’ve never worked out why. Other periods have strong characters, and surviving dynasties. Other periods had empires that attempted to conquer the world. Other periods have the dichotomy between order (the Empire) and wildness (the unconquered natives of the provinces) and the constant friction between them, but the first century is one of the most deeply and extensively mined periods in fictional history and I have to think that Rosemary Sutcliff has played an overwhelming role in that. Every time I stand on a stage at a book festival or a reading and say that I was inspired by her work, heads nod throughout the audience. When I say the same about Mary Renault or Dorothy Dunnett (the Alexander trilogy and ‘King Hereafter’ respectively) there’s a buzz, but not the same wave of memory and affection.
I’m not sure if it’s simply people of our age, who grew up with The Eagle of the Ninth as our introduction to historical fiction, or whether she genuinely spans the generations, but there’s no doubt that she’s had a huge impact.
Defining exactly why she’s had that impact, is harder than knowing that it exists. Partly, she was the only one: nobody else brought the legions to life as she did, nobody else asked the questions of our identity before the Roman occupation (She never answered them, at least not for me: trying to find out what the Seal People were doing when the Romans weren’t looking has occupied a large part of my spiritual and writing life and the Boudica series is a direct result of that). She had the capacity to engage men and women, girls and boys across the genders, which was one part of her charm: nobody has ever suggested to me that she lost readers because they knew she was a woman: her writing was too strong for that. And she was an imperialist at heart, a girl brought up in the dying days of the Empire by a father who was a Naval Officer, her writing fuses that same effortless superiority and innate sexism that propelled Enid Blyton to such massive success: there’s a level at which it resonates with the part of us that wants security; now as much as then. Her world was ordered. Her Romans were benevolent, if strict. Her natives were noble savages, but they respected their Roman over-lords. I don’t think that was how it was, but it’s a very safe kind of fiction (and just because I think it’s factually inaccurate doesn’t stop me from regarding her as a master of her art and the progenitor of everything I’ve done.)
So either Sutcliff made Rome the attraction that it is, or it’s a hangover from our Imperial past, when the Victorians rediscovered Rome and used it as a fictitious model for their own dreams of empire: the entire ‘white man’s burden and the Pax Britannia’ are modelled on Augustus’ concepts of the Roman Empire - Either way, there’s nowhere near the same kind of interest in the US, for instance, or other European nations. Our love of Rome is uniquely British and, in the same way that it’s possible to divide all those around us into natural Roundheads or natural Cavaliers, so are we all natural Romans or natural Britons. It’s part of our native psyche.
ALB: Unlike Sutcliff’s mythical tale, The Eagle of the Twelfth is based on real events. How did you find this story, and can you give us any hints as to how much of it is true?
MCS: This is one of the wonders of the writing life. When I wrote the outline for a four-part series taking the spy Pantera on his necessary journey, the capture of the Eagle by Menachem and his men as part of the defeat of Rome was the end point of the second book. Jospehus describes it briefly, Tacitus backs him up (it’s always rather good to have two contemporary sources for any ‘fact’, the chances of its being entirely fictitious are slightly less) and it is presented as a victory for those who defeated Rome. Then it became clear that The Coming of the King was far outgrowing its original spec and I realised that it would be possible to write about the loss of the Eagle from the perspective of the legions. Actually, that is would be necessary to do it that way. And that it would be The Eagle of the Twelfth.
It was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments that make a writing life so very wonderful. It’s not quite the discovery of the historical basis for Christ (3 different men whose stories have been welded into one, since you ask) but it came out of the blue and was such a wonder; there’s a sense in which I’ve waited forty years to write this book, to have it there in the time line of what I was writing – the action of the third section is a direct sequel to The Coming of the King – felt like a gift of the gods.
In terms of finding the story, like the rest of this series, there’s a paragraph or two in Josephus that describes the loss of the Eagle, which was the starting point. But having decided that it needed to be spoken from within the Twelfth itself, and that the legion had to be situated within the Roman army of the time… I spent several months reading histories of the legions and of that period. Rome in the 60s is well covered, but this was on the eastern fringe of the Empire, on the boundaries with the Parthian Empire, at a time when the King of Kings was at his most powerful, and getting to grips with the politics of the area took a while: it’s a fact of writing that research is an iceberg: the reader only sees the very tip and it has to be fluid within the story, not an information dump – but it has to rest on the foundations of the 99% that’s invisible, to keep it coherent and to keep the internal narrative valid.
ALB: Something I love about your Rome series is the way in which you capture the ancient mentality where some things truly matter more than life. This is especially so in ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’, where the reader needs to truly feel the horrors of shame and humiliation in order to understand the desperate need to regain this symbol of an legion’s honour. Was this why you chose the young and anguished Demalion to drive the story, rather than the wiser, more intellectually detached Pantera?
MCS: Quick answer: Yes. Longer answer… still yes, but it took a while to find Demalion. I knew I couldn’t write it from Pantera’s viewpoint, because he was so intimately involved with Menachem, whose men captured the Eagle at the battle of Beth Horon. So it had to be from a new perspective, but that viewpoint had to be one we could relate to, and one with which Pantera was intimately involved. I had created Estaph, a Parthian in The Coming of the King, without really knowing anything about Parthia, but as I read the histories, it became clear that there were some very intricate political machinations at the time, particularly in the period when Vologases was temporarily deposed by his son. We came on Pantera first in The Emperor’s Spy after he’d ‘come in from the cold’ in Britain, and we knew his back history in the time leading up to the Boudican revolt, but we didn’t know much of him in his formative years as Seneca’s agent. So it made sense to begin there, with his first foreign venture, but told from another viewpoint. Demalion is so young then, and the scene in the forest where Pantera turns his bow on the three petty kings after he has shot Vologases’ son is so utterly, desperately dangerous, that it made a good start to Demalion.
Originally, I thought he would be a volunteer: a youth who thought war was glorious. I read ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’ and found it enthralling – the extent to which battle is everything, even now, when it’s all so high tech, but in the end, he is a conscript because that was the reality – most of the legions were conscripted – and he has to learn to love his legion and to find the joy in battle against the reality of death and terror.
ALB: One difficulty with historical writing can be inducing the reader to share alien concepts of religion, but I found my world-view so altered that I never questioned Demalion’s interpretation of natural phenomena as guidance from the gods, and was as certain as he was that a failed sacrifice would lead to disaster. Did you find first person narrative useful in achieving this perspective, and does it have any drawbacks?
MCS: Yes. Again, I didn’t plan this as first person, but I kept finding myself lapsing into it so that by the third or fourth chapter I went back and rewrote everything from third to first. I wrote my first three novels in first person and had sworn I would never do so again. Then, I did it because I was a baby writer and it was a way of engaging myself more deeply with my characters. But it is so very limiting. If you adhere to the maxim: ‘Show, don’t Tell’ which, in my view, is one of the key requirements to making any novel work, then your first person character has to be present for just about everything and that can involve some unnecessary plot quirks. But because this is the story of the Twelfth, because we have to come to know what the Eagle means to the legion before we can understand the power of its loss, then it made sense that Demalion experienced it all, so that we could experience it through his eyes, his ears, his skin, his heart. We need to be able to step inside his skin and to know what he knows, to learn as he learns, to love as he loves. And because for Demalion, the world is inhabited by the gods, then it is so for us, the reader. It’s all about the power of the person.
Coming away from this, I wrote Absolution, a contemporary thriller that was the sequel to No Good Deed (the thriller that was nominated for the Edgar) and then The Art of War, the sequel to Eagle. So I’ve written a third person, present tense in between the third and fourth parts of the Rome series. Coming to The Art of War, I was tempted into present tense, but in the end, found that multiple first person, but past tense, was the way forward. It allows the immediacy and involvement of first person, with the flexibility of different view points. Crucially – and the reason I did it in this case – it gives us several different views of Pantera as he comes into his inheritance as the true heir to the spymaster, Seneca.
ALB: Your battle sequences in particular are savagely graphic, but the novel is full of haunting, even lyrical, description. How do you reconcile these two aspects of your world, the beautiful and barbaric?
MCS: Battle is savage. I’m really not keen on the “Boy’s Own’ versions of history (and women write them as often as men) the hero sweeps out his sword and decapitates his enemy, cuts a swathe through the dirty natives and races off to find his woman. Life isn’t like that. Death isn’t like that. Battle isn’t like that. It helps, probably, that I spent a decade or so as part of a re-enactment group and fought most weekends when I wasn’t on call. Like rock climbing (which I did when I wasn’t fighting), battle feels entirely real and entirely dangerous. There may be a small part of my awareness that tells me that I’m not going to fall to my death (probably, if the equipment holds) if I let go of this ledge, or that the man opposite me with the axe is not going to bludgeon my brains out (probably, if he doesn’t go into battle rage, which is all too real, and if he’s practiced enough to know how to pull his shots) if I don’t kill him first…. But the other 99% of my awareness is absolutely convinced that I have to cling to the ledge and I have to kill the screaming Viking/legionary/knight who is coming for me with his dane axe/gladius/broadsword.
SO I know the mechanics, I know the terror, I know what it is to stand in a shield wall and have to hold it against the bersekers and I know what it is to be bare sark (more or less) and to be trying to break the wall. I’ve been in battle rage and I’ve been on the wrong end of battle rage; my helmet has the dents to prove it. I’ve had an arrow in the eye (it was a blunt, for which I am immensely lucky) and I’ve had concussion. I’ve had bruises that took weeks to fade, but I’ve never – yet- broken anything. Battle is hard and grim and difficult and terrifying – and absolutely life-affirmingly wonderful. And the key is: if you think you can win, you probably can… right up to the point where you meet someone else whose belief is the same as, or greater than, yours. Then you find out who has trained the harder, who can think the faster, who has the gods, the sun, the ground, the light, on his or her side.
And all around that, the world is a beautiful place. Language is a beautiful thing. If a book is not about the glory of language, why are we writing it?
ALB: As someone working only in later periods I have to ask how you’ve managed to research the details of a world largely lost in antiquity. Do the real locations offer any help? Do you watch or take part in re-enactment, and do you think it’s a useful research tool?
MCS – See above for battle re-enactment. How anyone can write about battle who hasn’t fought in one is beyond me - and you can tell. Those who haven’t taken part can at least watch, or speak to the re-enactors, which is why things like the Festival of Historical Literature at Kelmarsh (14th/15th July this year, (http://www.thehwa.co.uk/content/events) is so important: there are thirty-odd writers talking about their work, which is a magnificent chance for us as writers to get together – but there are also re-enactment groups from every era of history from the Dark Ages to WWII.
As to the rest… it’s harder: There’s been an upsurge in practical archaeology which is useful, particularly for the pre-Roman world where so little is written and all that is written comes from the victors: never trust the spin of those who win. I spent a week in a roundhouse when I was writing the Boudica series and found out the things that nobody would tell you: how much the search for wood becomes second nature, how important is the carrying of water. I met a man who had done his PhD on the midden remains of the Eceni: you can learn a lot about a people by what they throw away. He found that, for instance, crows/ravens/jackdaws – the carrion birds, all black, seemed to be venerated, as were the white water birds: swans, geese, pelicans (there were pelicans in Iron Age East Anglia. I don’t have them in my books, some ‘facts’ are too alien and it matters that the reading experience be immersive. If you stop to examine the words on the page, I’ve failed as a writer, and putting a pelican in Thetford forest would stop you…) Anyway, back to the PhD: he discovered that there were no magpies: carrion birds that are both black and white. And no otters: mammals that could apparently breath underwater. Some things were taboo… it’s from these little things we build a world.
ALB: I noticed you used George MacDonald Fraser’s wonderful ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ as part of your research into the bonding between men at war. Do you think this is a subject harder for women writers to tackle, or that people might perceive it to be so?
MCS: I think that in the past, it was perceived as such: women wrote about relationships and men wrote action adventures, but the boundaries of that are changing – at least I hope so. That hasn’t stopped the change from Manda Scott to MC Scott, which was predicated on the statistics that show most men won’t buy a book if they know it’s by a woman – but that applies to everything from poetry and biography through crime fiction to historical fiction: it’s the way our society works. Women are encouraged to believe that men write the best books, but that women might write books that are more engaging while men, in large numbers, think that women won’t write anything they’d like. It takes a while for any author to erase that – JK Rowling is a case in point. We’ll get there, it just takes time.
ALB: One aspect of the bonding that’s rarely covered in this genre is the natural existence of same-sex relationships. I love the way your novel refuses to make an ‘issue’ out of this, but explores it as just another manifestation of love between characters for whom we care deeply. Was that how it was seen at the time, and is it only since the dominance of Christianity that such relationships have been stigmatised?
MCS: The interesting thing about this is that every single piece of writing that we’ve got has come to us through the lens of Christianity: monks were holders of the manuscripts and their copiers. There have been times in European history when to own a manuscript considered heretical would have led to a violent, prolonged and deeply unpleasant death. We have very, very few original manuscripts and as a result, unless we find the lost books of Tacitus, or unearth the library of Alexandria, we may never know the true attitude to same sex relationships, but with that coda as a given, they are nonetheless obviously commonplace. We know Julius Caesar was said to be ‘husband to the women, wife to the men’, we know many of the Caesars had male lovers, even when there was a pressure to have children: Galba never got around to taking a wife, but had a slave his own age as his bedfellow. Hadrian lost his lover in the Nile… the incidence of fully heterosexual men, those who never took male lovers, is tiny. And then we have the legions, where it was illegal to marry for the 25 years of service, and many men continued in service long after that time. Of course there were women, prostitutes in every town thrived when the legions camped nearby, but there were also long periods in the lives of some legions where they were camped out of reach of ‘civilisation’. Under those circumstances, it would be immensely surprising if the men did not form powerful and intimate bonds.
All that said, I didn’t plan to give Demalion a lover from his own unit, but as his story progressed, and what we know of the Twelfth was acted out on the page, it was impossible for him to form a lasting relationship with a woman: the legion simply moved about too much. He could have had a girl in every town, but he wasn’t that kind of a man: he’s intense and passionate and he needs to love someone completely. He also needed to feel the devastation of loss that was integral to the story and the loss of the Eagle. So his sexuality grew out of the narrative rather than the narrative being welded around it. But you only have to read some of the biographies of men and women in the services in our own times to know that even when it’s completely frowned upon, same-sex relationships thrive. When it’s not frowned upon… they’ll flourish.
ALB: The Eagle of the Twelfth is a stand-alone novel, but readers of The Emperor’s Spy and The Coming of the King will be glad to know their familiar characters have an important part to play in it. Where will the series go from here? Do you plan to do more with Demalion as we follow Pantera’s later career with Vespasian?
MCS: This series has been deliberately constructed so that each novel can stand alone, but each continues the narrative for those who want to read them in order. So the fourth in the series Rome: The Art of Wartakes us back to Rome, to the Year of the Four Emperors which was one of the most heavily documented, fascinating times in the first century, when four different men all took the throne and tried to hold it, each being toppled by his successor. It’s a time when agents of all sides will have been endeavouring to gain the upper hand for their masters and so this is a novel of espionage, of intrigue of the political machinations at the heart of Empire. It’s also a novel where women feature much more strongly. By it’s nature, Eagle is a novel of the legions and so of men. With Art of Warwe see a lot of the multiple first person action through the eyes of Caenis, the slave girl with whom Vespasian fell in love when he was a young senator, and who was his life-long companion. Roman law didn’t allow Senators to marry slaves, even after they had been freed, and so he had to marry elsewhere, but he returned to Caenis when his wife died and lived out the rest of his life in her company. She was a remarkable woman and she remained in Rome throughout the difficult civil war, when Vespasian was safe in the company of the Twelfth in Syria and then in Egypt. This is Pantera’s novel, but we see him through the lenses of his friends, his enemies, his pretend-friends who are really enemies and the enemies who come to be his friends. Rome was a terrifying, but amazing place in those few months, so the time scale and the action is much more concentrated. It’ll be out early in 2013.
Many thanks to Manda for talking to us today on the History Girls Blog, and we wish her every success with ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’. You can find more about the author and her books on her website http://www.mcscott.co.uk
MCS: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to becoming more involved with History Girls in the coming months and years.
And the good news is: Manda will be joining us as a full time History Girl from 13th August!