Thursday, 28 March 2013

Interview with M C Scott - Author of Rome: The Art of War

I am delighted to welcome Manda Scott to the blog. The brilliant 'Rome: The Art of War' is published today.
Please tell us a little about yourself
I grew up in Scotland, and trained to be a vet at Glasgow Vet School before coming down to England to work as a horse vet in Cambridge and Newmarket. I took a specialist degree in veterinary anaesthesia and spent most of my professional life as an anaesthetist, with a particular interest in intensive care of neonatal foals. Somewhere along the line, I started writing again (I'd spent my childhood writing 'books' which I found in the house when my mother died) and around the turn of the millennium, I gave up veterinary work for ever and took to writing full time. That was the time, too, when I made the switch from writing contemporary crime thrillers, for which I did no research beyond walking into the pathology department and asking the guys how they'd commit the perfect murder, to writing historical novels that took huge, huge amounts of research.
These have shaped my life. First came the 'Boudica: Dreaming' series that charted who we were before the Romans came, and what we lost when Boudica lost that final battle. In many ways, these were the books I'd always wanted to write. I'd read Rosemary Sutcliff as a child and been enthralled not so much by Marcus and his imperialism, but by Esca and Cub. They were wild and had an authenticity that sang from the pages, but she never let us see what went on behind the goatskin door flaps when the Romans were not around. I wanted to know that and writing was as good a way to find it out as any.
After those, I wrote a one-of 'The Crystal Skull' based around the Mayan 2012 prophecies, and then began the ROME series of ancient world spy thrillers - again, I was addicted to John le Carré and Len Deighton and wanted to write something with that sense of constant danger, but in the past. Along the way, I think I found the historical basis for Christ, which was rather exciting: I'll write more on that, one day.
I live in south Shropshire, which is rather too far from London for my own good, but is beautiful and perfect for the dog training, of which more down the page.
Please tell us a little about 'The Art of War' and your inspiration for the book
Rome: The Art of War is fourth in the ROME series. I originally planned the series quite differently, but after The Coming of the King, I realised that I could write my own reply to Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff's seminal novel, the one that kicked this all off for me. I knew that the Ninth hadn't really lost their Eagle, but I discovered that the Twelfth really had and yet the legion hadn't been disbanded, which means that someone, somehow, got it back again. So Eagle was a first person novel told from the perspective of a young conscript who joins the 'unlucky twelfth' and rises slowly through the ranks. It was such a joy to write and is easily the best thing I've written, so finishing it was a hard act to follow. I wanted to come back to Pantera, the spy who had been my central character in The Emperor's Spy and then The Coming of the King and I knew that I wanted to bring him into Rome and look at the Year of the Four Emperors which was quite easily one of the most documented - and most exciting - periods of Roman history.
I tried writing it in the third person, but it didn't have the life it needed, so I started again and wrote a multi-first person novel with Pantera at its heart - we see everyone's view but his, and yet we come to know him better than we have ever done. The Year was a time of great upheaval and there's no clear over-arching dynamic: men changed sides back and forth with no obvious reason other than the desire to be on the winning side, so it took some serious thinking to forge a path through - and in the end, it became clear that it was the men working behind the scenes, the agents of both sides, who were hunting each other while trying to influence the coming clash of armies, who drove the entire dynamic. So Pantera is right at the heard of all that happens, which feels good.
What are you working on now?
I've moved to a dual narrative style for a book looking at Jeanne d'Arc. I think I know who she really was and it wasn't a yeoman's daughter from Bar - I am astonished, really, at how people accept that as if it could somehow be possible. The general statement nowadays is that we don't believe in her god, but she did - and so her faith let her do the impossible. Which is still… impossible. I don't care how much faith you have, you can't put on a full suit of armour, pick up a lance, mount a fully trained war horse and ride into battle. Which she did. Although in the beginning Jean d'Alençon found her running about in a meadow with a lance, which is exactly what squires did when they were training. Impressed, he offered her a war horse and she rode it so well, he let her keep it. And then someone made her the armour. And then during the siege of Orléans, when her banner caught fire, she spun the horse on the spot, pulled the banner down and quenched the flames. And later, when they were losing, she and La Hire (a knight on the French side), couched their lances and led the charge that began the rout of the English.
All of this - and lots of other small details, chief amongst which is that she referred constantly to 'my father in heaven' who had told her to put the Dauphin on the throne, lead me to believe she was Marguerite de Valois, illegitimate daughter of Charles VI, the 'mad king' who loved the tilt so much he would go out incognito to watch the tournaments.

I also have reason to believe that she didn't burn and that her bones are still in existence.
So this is a dual thread narrative. one looks at the impact on the present day of the discovery of those bones. The other looks at the person she was, and the ways she became what history has made of her. It's a joy and a delight and I love every part of the writing.
Where is your favourite place to write?
My office at home in the cottage in Shropshire. In fact, this is pretty much the *only* place I can write. If I go away, I take research books and read and make notes, I don't' write.
What do you like to do outside of writing?
 I am completely addicted to dog agility. I have a working cocker spaniel and will soon (I hope) have another and we train here in Shropshire and in Devon with some very switched-on dog behaviourists and trainers who have woven together the leading edge science of how dogs learn (how anything learns) and the skills we need for top level competitive agility. We haven't competed much (injuries, deaths in my family, a litter of pups) but we won first time out, so I have hopes for later this season if I can work out why she's lame. One of the advantages of having been a vet is that I have good friends who have all the machines that go ping and can tell me what's wrong.
When I'm not doing that, I teach shamanic dreaming courses (more on which here: and do all the admin for the Historical Writers' Association, of which I am founder and Chair. I write a blog of my own, very intermittently, and try to keep on top of Facebook and Twitter. And I have been known to play computer games…
Here is a picture of Manda's beautiful dog!
Thanks Manda.
Rome: The Art of War is available to buy now.
Look out for my review coming later today.

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