Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Interview with Gordon Doherty, author of Strategos, Born in the Borderlands

Hello everyone! Here is my interview with Gordon Doherty, author of Strategos, Born in the Borderlands. Gordon gives some great answers explaining what inspired him to write Strategos, how he researched it and gives us a snippet of what his next releases will be! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did! For more info on Gordon Doherty click here for his official website.

1. Strategos, Born in the Borderlands is based around the Battle of Manzikert and the push westward of the Seljuk Sultanate. What inspired you to write about this specific part of Byzantine history when there are so many other great events within that rich history that a novel could be based on?

Good question. There were two main reasons behind me setting Strategos in the years before the Battle of Manzikert.

Firstly, I am intrigued by moments in history when something that was once great is in its twilight and must face overwhelming odds. The Battle of Manzikert is just such an event. The battle itself is believed by many to have been pivotal in the Byzantine Empire’s fate, crippling its armies and setting in motion the slow decline of the empire over the next four centuries. Indeed, historical texts refer to the battle as ‘The Dreadful Day’.

Secondly, the mood that would have hung over the eastern borderlands in the lead-up to the battle presented an irresistible cauldron of conflict in which my characters could develop. The land would have been a hotbed of mistrust, with tribal tensions between Byzantines and Turks reaching breaking point.

But you make a good point; Manzikert aside, Byzantium's story is indeed riddled with plotting intrigue and war. There are many parts of its long history that I long to write about one day; the complex relationship between Justinian and Belisarius, the rise of the mighty Heraclius and also the fall of the empire with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Story ideas are forming as we speak!

2. The novel is based in the 11th century. How did you go about your research for a book that is based in a time where not many primary sources or texts still exist? Did you have any problems when researching for Strategos, if so what were they?

I love reading up on the history, so researching this time period was a joy. However, the scarcity of unequivocal sources meant it was a lengthy exercise. Pinning down seemingly basic facts kept me occupied for a long time; for example, I wanted to confidently state the size of a unit of infantry (a bandon/vandon), but this proved as elusive as a snake in oil. Eventually I read that the Byzantine military often deliberately kept their unit sizes non-uniform as a means of confusing or misleading an enemy force on the battlefield (and they did a fine job of confusing me too!).

Fortunately, there are some classic and essential reference works, such as Treadgold’s ‘Byzantium and its Army 284-1081’ and Norwich’s ‘Byzantium’ trilogy. One other work I found invaluable was Dr Timothy Dawson’s ‘Byzantine Infantryman’ – a concise and fact-packed volume including illustrations and archaeological photography that really helped me envision the world of Strategos. Indeed, I managed to contact Dr Dawson and he was kind enough to offer me more advice on particular aspects of the Byzantine military which really bolstered the narrative of my story.

3. In the book, Apion is plagued by Bracchus, an imperial secret agent who answers only to the Emperor and has the power to take life where he sees fit. Did this really happen in the 11th Century Byzantine Empire? If so are the powers Bracchus has slightly exaggerated for the novel or were there really agents who had the power to do the things Bracchus does in Strategos?

There is a fair degree of poetic licence in Bracchus’ role in the imperial borderlands, but not without historical footing. In the time of classical Rome, the Frumentarii served as a secret service for the Caesars, spying, informing, sowing dissent and assassinating on the emperor’s command. They grew to be hated by the populace of the empire and its armies until they were disbanded by Diocletian in the 3rd century AD. How substantial this disbandment was is questionable though, as Diocletian almost immediately went on to form the Agentes in Rebus, a group thought by some to have been personal messengers for the emperor, and by others to have been a rebranded and far more effectively organised version of the Frumentarii. Both theories have their merits, but that their title means ‘those who are active in matters’ tells me all I need to know. The Agentes in Rebus remained in existence as Rome fell, and served the Byzantine Emperors until they were officially abolished in the 9th century AD. However, given that subterfuge had been inherent in Rome and Byzantium for over a millennia, and the word ‘duplicitous’ had become synonymous with the word ‘Byzantine’, I find it hard to believe that an organisation like the Agentes of Strategos were not still in existence in some form.

Added to that, the Byzantine Emperors were always wary of the threat of ambitious strategoi and their themata armies rising to challenge imperial authority (which happened often). There are suggestions that the emperors employed furtive means to undermine these threats and prevent the outlying provinces from growing too strong. You could argue that this climate of mistrust probably dampened the possibility of late apogee-era Byzantium growing and flourishing as much as any external threat ever did.

4. Strategos is a classic historical-fiction novel. What authors do you enjoy to read and do any have an influence on your work?

I think my style is a blend of many writers whose works I have enjoyed. One definitely stands out though. For me, David Gemmell was the master of characterisation. Never has any character of his bored me by being a straight forward hero or villain; instead, every individual in his books is just that; unique, complex and both sympathetic and disagreeable at once. I aspire to weave such characters into my stories.

5. After finishing this book, I can’t wait to read more about Apion! So what’s next for him? When can we expect to hear from him again? Is there anything you can tell us about the second instalment to the Strategos saga or the second part of your Legionary series?

I’m pleased to say that Apion’s story has only just begun! The Seljuk Sultanate is poised upon the imperial borders and Apion is lost in a storm of bitterness and anger. Everything has been taken from him. Will he be able to rise to meet the challenge of Alp Arslan and his armies? I can’t wait to start work on the second book of the planned trilogy and I hope to have it published by early-mid 2013.

The sequel to Legionary (Legionary: Viper of the North) is right now going through a final edit and proof read. All things being well, it will be hitting the shelves in early August – just a few weeks away. The story picks up with our hero, Pavo, shortly after the end of the first volume. It pivots around the Gothic Wars of 377AD, so the action is intense and I think fans of the first book will love it.

6. Finally, there are many aspiring historical-fiction writers out there. Is there any advice you would give them to make their work stand out against all the other competition out there?

In reading the works of others, I have learned a lot. However, I think the secret lies in blending all the aspects you admire from your favourite authors while giving your own work a distinctive style. The term ‘finding your writing voice’ is oft-used when trying to explain the essence of good writing to aspiring authors. I’m not sure if I’ve found mine yet, but I am certain that I am a lot closer to it now, as I ready to release my third novel, than I was when I started out writing my first.

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