Over the last fifteen years, Simon Scarrow has made a name for himself as one of Britain’s most prolific writers of historical fiction. His immensely popular Eagle series has seen a new adventure almost every year since 2000. Number thirteen, Brothers In Blood came out last year. Apart from this series, Scarrow has found time to work on a number of other titles such as Revolution, four books documenting the rise and fall of the duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Arena and Invader series. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, Swedish and Italian, to name a few. Today we’re in luck, because Scarrow has found time in his busy schedule to grace us with an interview.
It’s a busy month for Scarrow, who’s writing a new crime novel, has a war novel called Hearts Of Stone coming out in June, and is giving readings throughout the country as the paperback edition of Brothers In Blood is released today. In his latest story, main protagonists Macro and Cato return to the British front after years of travelling the length and breadth of the empire: from Gaul, Italy and Greece to Africa and the Levant, their latest exploits take them to ancient Yorkshire. One of our reviewers describes Brothers In Blood as a very exciting story and a gripping read that leaves fans hungry for more. Seeing the staggering availability of gritty sword and sandal adventures from the likes of Conn Iggulden and Valerio Massimo Manfredi, what makes his Eagle series so enduring? Scarrow is willing to hazard a guess:
Simon Scarrow: It’s worth bearing in mind that I was writing about legionaries before either Conn or Valerio, but there were other writers who had been down that path before all three of us. Notably Rosemary Sutcliff, Alan Massie and Wallace Bream. I think that what makes my particular series so successful is the relationship my readers have built up with the two main characters, Macro and Cato, over the course of thirteen novels following their campaigns across the ancient world. A good series is only as good as the main characters, I believe, and it’s our interest in watching them develop over time that keeps us reading about them.
The author’s continuous interest in these two heroes reveals a love of Roman times, which has proved to be such a fruitful backdrop for his stories. We asked him how far this fascination goes back and what inspired him to write about this era.
Simon Scarrow: Two things. Firstly, great Latin teachers – Gordon Rodway and then Reg Nash, who inspired a love of the language and more enduringly a fascination with Roman history and culture. Secondly, when I was growing up in the seventies swords and sandals epics seemed to be on the TV regularly. Not to mention the brilliant I, Claudius.
Historical fiction hasn’t always been as popular as it is now. Not too long ago, Scarrow mentioned that writing historical fiction and seeing it published is quite a risky and unprofitable business. We asked him whether he thinks that the tide has turned since then, noting the popularity of series about Roman and Tudor history, both on screen and off.
Simon Scarrow: Yes, I think you are right about the rise in popularity of Historical Fiction. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a time when it has been more popular. Strangely, that is not often reflected in bookshops which resist shelving the novels in their own genre. Maddeningly, historical fiction is also a regular target for literary snobs. When Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize [with Wolf Hall in 2009 and with Bring Up The Bodies in 2012, ed.] almost every interviewer seemed to have to make an attempt to ‘rescue’ her work from the genre. Personally, I am hugely encouraged by the burgeoning interest in history that is reflected in the growth of historical fiction, cinema and television programming.
With Scarrow delivering such engrossing novels at high speed, we asked about the editing process: how much does he rely on instinct and spontaneity, and how much gets switched around or discarded before the end?
Simon Scarrow: The first edit is fine, because you’re working on a diamond in the rough and the end result is always much better. After that, however, each successive edit becomes more of a chore. I don’t think it is helpful to edit as you write. That just kills the flow of the story. Much better to get caught up in the action, alongside your characters, and see where it takes you. Quite often Macro and Cato will say and do things that I had not expected. To me that proves they have come alive as characters.
Aside from all the action and dialogue, choosing to write any historical novel with a credible background requires a lot of research. Scarrow inserts a dose of history and realism into his adventures by introducing historical figures such as Vespasian, Nero and Claudius into stories filled with his own characters, making them more tangible and complex. Would Scarrow say this poses a challenge when writing? How much leeway does he feel he has when creating new stories based on history? Is there a point where historical fidelity gets in the way of good storytelling?
Simon Scarrow: The research is a delight to do. Why wouldn’t it be? I am being paid to read about things I am fascinated by. That said, I strongly believe that historical novelists have an implicit contract with their readers to render the facts and settings etc. as accurately as possible. Otherwise we would be writing mere historical fantasy. Having chosen to invent my main characters I can build plenty of plots around them based on the historical realities of the era in which they lived. Real historical characters can add a touch of veracity as well as an opportunity to present them in a way that reflects what you have discovered about them that might contradict a more established view. For example, thanks to a certain TV series and the books it was based on, Emperor Claudius is often thought of as a wily survivor. The evidence suggests that it is just as likely that the truth is less flattering.
The adventures of Macro and Cato have found a life of their own beyond Simon Scarrow’s books. Software developers have collaborated with the author to create a digital spin-off: Cato and Macro: The Game, which has hit over a million gameplay sessions this month. The game looks quirky and cartoonish compared to the more gritty realism of the novels and offer a different experience of Scarrow’s universe. So, how did that come about?
Simon Scarrow: I was approached by a games company who loved the books and wanted to build some kind of a game around them. Given that it is nigh on impossible to transform a book into a creditable computer game, we opted for a touch of Asterix in the design of the game, but with the violence and flavour of the books. I particularly like the rendering of Macro and Cato in between game levels. Thankfully the feedback has been very positive and it has gone down a storm in Russia and China for some bizarre reason!
Thanks to his fast-rising popularity, in 2005 Scarrow took the opportunity to quit his job as a lecturer in Ancient History at City College Norwich to become a full-time author. Did his students ever come up to him to express their enthusiasm for his books? If so, was there one instance that is particularly memorable?
Simon Scarrow: I think the proudest moment was when a teenage girl approached me after I had given a presentation at her school and said that she had been moved to tears by the fate of the young hero of my young adult series about a boy gladiator [Arena, ed.]
It seems there is a lot of history ahead of our two heroes, as well as a lot of books to write for Scarrow. After Brothers In Blood, where Macro and Cato will venture off to next? Of course Scarrow knows and he’s willing to share one little detail with us…
Simon Scarrow: The next one is set in Wales. Exciting? You bet!
Naturally, we will keep a close eye on Scarrow’s future works. Meanwhile, be sure to check out EBR’s review of Brothers In Blood. The paperback edition of Brothers In Blood is now available in stores. For more information, visit simonscarrow.co.uk.