Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Interview with Author David Blixt

I'm super pleased to welcome author David Blixt to Confessions of an Avid Reader.  David is currently touring the blogosphere for his novel Colossus: The Four Emperors and has stopped by today for an interview (click here to read my review of the novel).  David is quickly becoming one of my favourite historical fiction authors, and if you haven't yet had the opportunity to read one of his novels I highly recommend you do so. 

 Q.  Each of your series is set in very different time periods and places (Star Cross’d – 14th century Italy, Will & Kit – Elizabethan England, and Colossus – 1st century Judea and Rome).  What is it about each of these times and places that draws you to them?

A.   I don’t choose periods. They choose me. I haven’t written any books in my personal favorite periods. I love the 1940s – the music, the clothes, the films. And I think about late-Republic Rome a lot, because we’re reliving it now (I did write a play about the night before Caesar’s assassination). But until I started the Colossus books, I couldn’t have cared less about post-Caesar Rome.

So I don’t think about period when I start looking for a topic. I’m not even drawn to stories so much as gaps in stories. When I watch a movie or read a book, I see plot holes. It’s a dreadful affliction, but it’s served me well here. I hear some detail, or read a piece of history, and start wondering what’s been omitted. That’s how I start. For the Star-Cross’d novels, it was the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud. For Will & Kit, it’s Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ years.

For Colossus, it’s that strange moment when Christianity takes root in Rome. How did that happen? Why did it happen? I was thinking about that, and started reading. Then, as with each of the other series, the story started spiraling out on itself. So much happened in these years to lay the ground for Christianity to lay its seeds – the Roman/Jewish war, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Diaspora which brought a huge influx of disaffected and dispirited Hebrews into Rome as slaves – that the series really took on its own life.

I tend to see the thread of the story, and start tugging until I know where it ends. Once I know that, I’ll start writing to find my way to that end. So, while I fall in love with each period I write about, it’s not the period that draws me in, but the story I see germinating that I have to bring to life.

Q.  During the course of the research for your most recent release, Colossus: The Four Emperors, what was the most interesting or surprising piece of information you found?    

A.   Amid all the excesses and atrocities of Nero, I found one that broke my heart. It’s the story of his ‘wife’ Spiros. Months earlier, Nero had kicked his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry and die. While in Greece, he spotted a young Greek lad who bore a strong resemblance to his late wife. He immediately had the teenaged boy castrated and wigged, turning Spiros into his ‘reborn’ wife. What happened to that boy is staggeringly awful, the stuff of grand tragedy. Even after finishing the book, I can’t get that story out of my head. Maybe it needs to be a play.

Q.   Have you always wanted to be a writer?  Was historical fiction always the genre you wanted to write it? 

While I’ve loved writing since 6th grade (and making up stories since long before that), there was a time when acting was all I wanted to do. Today my life is neatly split between theatre and writing. But when I’m doing a show, I want to be writing. When I’m writing, I don’t want to be doing anything else. So I think this is my calling.

As for Historical Fiction, fate kept conspiring to put the genre in my path. I didn’t even know it existed until a car-trip with my father when I was 18. He put on an audiobook of The First Man In Rome by Colleen McCullough. I was utterly hooked. Then a couple years later I was doing a play directed by David Doersch, and he told me his concept for the show came from reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books. I read them and loved them. Then I was doing a show and a reviewer wrote that I appeared ‘as if stepping out of a Raphael Sabatini novel.’ Finally my future wife gave me a copy of The Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, and I knew I was home.

Q.   In addition to writing, you also act and direct.  Do you think your experience as an actor and director helps you with your writing?

A.   Theatre will always be a part of my life, as I get a lot of my inspiration on the stage. That said, the answer is sadly equivocal: ‘yes, and no.’

Yes, in the sense that theatre makes me look at the interlocking parts of a whole story, and of all the characters that make a good story, that I have to have proper motivations for each one. Everyone’s the hero of their own story. It’s valuable to remember that, and to think of them all as flesh-and-blood people, not mere plot-points. Theatre teaches me a lot of lessons that I instinctively use when writing.

No, in the sense that theatre takes away my writing time. In recent years – 2012-2013 especially – theatre has conspired to keep me away from my desk. On the other hand, it recharges me in a way nothing else does, and it also puts bread on the table. I’m still trying to find the right balance, but I’m close – if I act in the summers, and write the rest of the year, that may be it. We’ll see.

Q.  As an author of historical fiction do you think certain historical figures and/or time periods have been overdone?   What historical figures or time periods do you wish were written about more often?

A.  Terribly, there are whole swathes of periods I simply avoid. Seeing a new Tudor novel makes me cringe, which is hilarious not only because I’ve written one, but also because my favorite books (The Lymond Chronicles) are technically Tudor books.

Who would I like to see more books on? That’s the thing, I don’t know until someone wows me with a person I’ve never heard of. I want to be surprised, and I want to learn something. I’m not much interested in court romances. I’m interested in the law, and philosophy, and war, and social mores. I’m interested in human flaws and foibles, and overcoming them. I’m fascinated by religion and power and the misuse of both. Most of all, I’m interested in a good story.

A lot of films today are two-thirds of a good story, with a rushed finish. I feel the same way about some novels. I don’t need a happy ending, but I do need an ending, something with emotional and intellectual heft. I want to regret closing that last page, and yet be satisfied that the author has brought everything together.

I’m resisting naming the people I want more books on, because I want to write them. But I don’t think I’ll ever get to writing about John Hawkwood, who I stumbled across while researching the Verona books. An exiled English knight in England, selling his sword to anyone with the coin – there’s a great series in that. So someone out there, have at!

There are also characters I’d also like to write about, but think I have too little to add to what’s out there. I love King Arthur. But while I have a few minor ideas of things that intrigue me, they’re not enough to make me dive in, because I don’t think I’ll ever have enough original material to top Cornwell, Hollick, Stuart, or Bradley. Maybe a short story would be enough. We’ll see.

Q.   Do you read historical fiction featuring the people and places you’ve written about? Why or why not?

A.   I do, because I’ll steal every historical detail I can find. Seriously, outright theft.

To be clear, I will not filch characters or interpretations or plots. I always know my plot and how I want to get there. And my characters always appear through the writing. But if someone’s done the research already, and their research can point me in new directions, I’m in. For Colossus, I read Lion Fuchtwagner’s Jospehus series. His Josephus is very, very different than mine, but I learned a lot, and had a ton of questions when I was finished. Of course, you have to be careful – check sources and facts. Never assume that what you’re reading is actual history. But there is so much knowledge out there in the HF community that it would be madness to start at zero for each book. Before I ever started writing HF, I learned so much about Rome from McCullough, about the Napoleonic Wars from Cornwell and O’Brian, about the whole 16th century from Dunnett, that I will always use my fellow authors as my guides. Because I travel in the company of giants, and can stand on their shoulders to see.

Q.   Who are your favorite historical fiction authors?  What is it about their writing that you most admire? 

A.  Sharon Kay Penman, Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, CW Gortner, Raphael Sabatini, Patrick O’Brian, Colleen McCullough. Not in that order. And I love them all because they get both my brain and heart engaged. I think, and I care. I learn, and I grieve. I wonder, and I exult.

Q.   Have you started work on your next novel?  If so, who or what is the subject?

A.  I am about five years behind my brain. I currently have four books in progress, and two more that I’m researching, with ten more in queue behind those, and a series I hope to get to before I die.

The next novel I’ll finish will be The Prince’s Doom, the fourth book in the Star-Cross’d series. After that will come the third Colossus book, Wail Of The Fallen. We’ll see where the muses take me from there.

I also have my first horror short story coming out soon from Grey Matter Press, part of a compilation. We’ll see how that one goes.

Q.   If you could invite three historical figures to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

A.   I think Will Durant had it right – Caesar and Christ.  Shakespeare, too. Those are my three. But only if I had some veritaserum.

Thanks for having me!

Be sure to check out all the other stops on the Colossus: The Four Emperors virtual book tour.  Click here to see the schedule.

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