Required Reading

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

An Interview with James Mace Author of Soldier of Rome: The Legionary

Author Interview Questions for James Mace

Thank you, James Mace, for your response to these questions.  I have to say that your answers were among the more interesting and thought provoking I have received.   Oddly enough, the only thing that got me through my second year of Latin was Caesar’s Gallic Wars so I have a smidgen of understanding of your motiviation.  I also liked the advice for those of us who want to write, perseverance is sadly underrated, Mr. Mace makes it clear that perseverance is crucial in writing.  Thank you for your time and your insights.

1.) What motivated you to write this book?
I chose the campaigns of Germanicus Caesar because they had always fascinated me, yet were scarcely talked about. Most ancient historians know about the disaster in Teutoburger Wald, where three Roman legions were betrayed by the Germanic war chief, Arminius, ambushed and destroyed. What is not covered in detail are the campaigns of retribution that took place six years later, when the Emperor Tiberius sent his adopted son, Germanicus Caesar, with a huge army to destroy Arminius and the Germanic Alliance.

I made the protagonist, Artorius, very young because from the beginning I contemplated turning this into a series. I got the idea from the C.S. Forrester series, ‘Horatio Hornblower’, which follows a British Naval officer throughout his entire career. I wanted to do the same with a Roman legionary, since it had never been done before.

2.) How has your personal military experience impacted your writing?
I believe my experiences allow me to help the reader reach a mental and emotional bond with the characters and their experiences. One thing I have found is that throughout history soldiers are soldiers. Whether it’s the Greek hoplites, Roman legionaries, Japanese samurai, British Empire soldiers in South Africa or modern American GI’s in Afghanistan, there are certain similarities that can be found amongst all of them. My own experiences allow me to convey the grind of everyday life, as well as the abject moments of terror in battle. It also allows me to share more readily the bond that exists between soldiers who are willing to fight and die for each other.

3.) Is your process to outline and then fill in the blanks or just sit down and start to tell a story or ?
Since I am writing about historical events, the basic outline of significant events is already done for me. I can’t say that I sit down and write out an actual outline, although I will look at how long of a time period I want to cover in each book and what historical events took place. I am more inclined, though, to let the story take itself where it wants to go, regarding the main characters. I believe it was Stephen King who said that books take on a life of their own. I first realized this when writing the second book of the series, The Sacrovir Revolt. Events started happening that I never planned on, and certain characters who had once been bit players or one-off jokes all the sudden became an important part of the story.

4.) Do you have a favorite character in the book and if so why?
Well since Artorius as an idealized version of my alter ego, I confess that I’m a little biased. Vitruvius was an early favorite, because he was the invincible killing machine who all the legionaries looked up to and wanted to emulate. An unexpected favorite that occurred later in the series is the perpetual letch, Valens. He was meant to be little more than comic relief in The Legionary; that soldier who every veteran knows that has no sense of shame whatsoever.  In the third book, Heir to Rebellion, events happen that suddenly give Valens a lot more depth as he suddenly becomes a significant player in the overall story arc. He became such a favorite that I’ve written a short story about him called Centurion Valens and the Empress of Death; which will be available soon on Amazon Kindle.

5.) What do you like the most about writing?
I like the idea of telling stories to a large audience and perhaps getting them interested in the historical eras that I cover. I hope that when someone reads The Artorian Chronicles it will inspire them to pick up Tacitus or Cassius Dio; or perhaps some of the phenomenal works by Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, who is probably the most respected ancient historian of our time.

6.) Where do your new story ideas come from?
I sometimes wonder if I will always write military historical fiction or if I will come out of my comfort zone and cover other topics. Until I find something that overwhelmingly inspires me, I will probably stick with what I’m good at. The story ideas for The Artorian Chronicles came simply from the desire to cover the life and career of a Roman soldier. Once I decided what time period to cover, I looked at historical events that occurred over a span of twenty-five to thirty years that I could insert Artorius into.

The major events in every book are based on actual events, and I like that I’m covering events that are largely unknown, even to those with an interest in Roman history. For example, I have yet to meet one person who knew about the rebellion in Gaul under Julius Sacrovir before they read my second book. The Battle of Braduhenna, which serves as the climax for Book Four, The Centurion, is one of the most tragic and heroic stories of ancient battles that I have ever read, yet sadly most have never heard about it.

The stories for my non-Roman books come from a variety of sources. Brutal Valour came from my love of the Michael Caine movie, Zulu. I then read numerous books on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and am traveling to Brecon in Wales to conduct research for this project. I want to reintroduce this generation to the valiant stories of the British and Zulu.

The inspiration for another project I have been doing on the side came from an unusual source. I love Heavy Metal music, especially bands from Europe. I was listening to a song called 40 to 1 by the Swedish band, Sabaton. The lyrics caught my attention, especially the end of the chorus where the singer shouts, “Soldiers of Poland, second to none! Wrath of the Wehrmacht brought to a halt!” I did some research into the song, and discovered they were singing about the Battle of Wizna (pronounced ‘Vyzna’) in September 1939. It is a heroic story about seven hundred Polish riflemen under Captain Władysław Raginis, who held for four days against the entire XIX Panzer Corps of over forty-thousand men under Heinz Guderian. Research has proven to be a nightmare, since so many records about the actual defenders were lost during the war. Despite this, I am determined to tell the story of Captain Raginis and his men. It is a long term work in progress under the working title, Wizna Kampf: Wrath of the Wehrmacht.

7.) What advice has helped the most in your writing?
The idea of story arc has been invaluable to me. A good friend introduced me to the series, Babylon 5; though it is science fiction, it is a great model of how to build an overall story arc when writing a series. Having numerous people proof read my work has also helped, not just to correct spelling and grammar, but also to make sure I don’t use the same descriptive words over and over.

8.) Your Artorian Chronicles seem very successful, has that success impacted your work on "Brutal Valour"?
The success of The Artorian Chronicles has given me the confidence to branch out into another era in history. I wrote a couple of sample chapters to see if I can write battle scenes involving firearms as effectively as I can those with swords. I have not yet decided if Brutal Valour will be the name for the entire series, or just the name of the first book. I’m leaning towards using that name for the series, which will be broken into three parts.

 I am trying to strike a balance and tell the story from both the British and Zulu perspectives. In order to do this, I am reading books about the infrastructure of the Zulu Empire, along with its culture and political makeup. The Zulu government was extremely complicated and rife with political rivalry and intrigue; a far cry from the depictions of mindless barbarians in loincloths wielding spears. Intertribal politics severely complicated matters for the Zulu king, Cetshwayo.

I think that readers who are fans of The Artorian Chronicles will be willing to give Brutal Valour a chance. One thing that I am conscious of is that I don’t end up recycling characters from one series into the other. In other words, I don’t want to give Private Arthur Wilkinson the exact same personality as Legionary Tiberius Valens.

9.) Who is your favorite author and why?
I have a number of favorites, though Tolkien will always be at the top for me. His works are timeless and still as relevant today as they were sixty years ago. This is evidenced by the huge success of the Lord of the Rings movies as well as the upcoming Hobbit prequels. Another current favorite is J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter books are the only ones I have ever seen that truly transcend generations. I don’t know of any other series that an eight-year old and fifty-year old can both get the same joy from reading.

10.) What advice would you give for the want to be writer?
The sad truth is most people who set out to write a book never even come close to finishing what they started. I constantly have aspiring writers asking me for advice regarding publication before they have even finished their first book. Knowing that most of these will quit before their work is done, to even talk about publishing is a waste of time. So my most blunt advice for the want to be writer is, finish what you start! In order to do this, you must have belief in both yourself and the story you are writing. Yes, we all get assailed with self-doubt about what we are writing; however, if you let this become your focus, then you will quit and all your previous work will have been for nothing.
While one needs to have a clean and edited product when finished, don’t get too wrapped up in that when writing a first draft. Even if it is a grammatical mess, one can easily tell if there is a viable story within. If there is, then spend the money to have a professional copyeditor proof read it. Also, don’t take constructive criticism as a personal attack. You want proof readers to be critical, because it will only improve the end result of the story. Once it is finished and proofread, then you can look into publication and sending your story out to the world.

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