A Brief and Rambling Advertisement
for the Works of Richard Blake
Oh dear, I suddenly feel just as I always do when I reach the “horrid page” of a job application form. You’ve given all the easy information – date of birth, qualifications, previous experience, and so forth. You now have a whole sheet of A4 on which you need to explain why the job should be yours. The horridest of horrid pages even contain the words “Continue on a separate sheet if necessary.” There’s no point shouting “Haven’t I said enough already to show whether I can do the bloody job?” No point at all. You’ve a readership of dead-eyed human resource managers, and they won’t even consider having you round for interview until you’ve revealed your childhood ambition to work in whatever position is being advertised.
It’s nearly the same with you lot, my dear readers. It’s not enough to know the titles of the books I’ve written, or where and how to buy them, or to read the reviews, or to be told how they’re historically-informed, contain more than a dash of satire and black comedy, and are filled with extreme and graphic violence. No, you want to know all about me as well. The only difference is that, while human resources people – you always excepted, my dear readers, if such is your calling – are a waste of space, you have an absolute right to know about me whatever takes your fancy. The shops are filled with books, and you are at liberty to buy mine or not to buy them. If making a shed load of money from my novels means that I have to open up to you, that’s the deal.
So, what to say about me? Try these as the highlights of half a century. Richard Blake: born in Kent; a blissfully happy boy in Kent, then far less happy in South London; crap comprehensive; good university by fluke; next ten years drifting to little obvious effect – estate agency, mini-cabbing, the Law, teaching; Economic and Political Adviser to a Slovak Prime Minister; ringside seat for disintegration of Czechoslovakia; teaching, ghost writing, various modes of troublemaking; married with daughter; living in Deal, in a house where Nelson is said to have slept with Emma Hamilton, and that was certainly once a brothel. Parts of this might make a good novel, though not the sort of novel that I enjoy writing.
Looking at the past few years, I’ll simply observe that anyone who becomes a proper writer gives up the time even to look interesting. Most of my life nowadays I spend slumped over a keyboard. When I do sometimes pull myself away from the thing, I’m invariably still thinking about more writing, or about rewriting, or about how to sell more copies. I will always put this aside for my daughter. If my poor wife nags me hard enough, I’ll put it aside for her. One day, when I’ve sold enough books, I hope to become interesting again. For the moment – and any honest writer will confirm this – I am what I write, and I write what I am. If you really want to know me, don’t come and look into my blank face. Read my books instead.
Oh, but I need more text to flow around the pictures I’ve chosen! So, what drew me to writing thrillers set in early 7th century Byzantium? The answer is that I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In a sense, I’ve always been one. At school, I much enjoyed the numerous volumes of horror stories published by Pan, and did my best for about a year to imitate their cheerful sick-mindedness. I eventually moved away from these, passing through H.P. Lovecraft and Colin Wilson to M.R. James. But something of their influence remains, I’d never deny. Indeed, the torture scene in Blood of Alexandria – the one that made one of its reviewers fell unwell for three days – could easily be excerpted into one of those Pan anthologies.
But, since I’m ultimately an historical novelist, let’s talk about my influences here. I read a prose translation of the Iliad and Odyssey when I was seven, and this began an obsessive interest in the ancient world that has never left me. The first historical novels I read were the Artor series by Paul Capon. I read all but one of these when I was eight: I’d have read them all if the last in the series hadn’t been stolen from Crofton Park library. The first adult historical novel I read was The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. I read this when I was eleven, and I reread it over and over again until my paperback copy fell apart. By then, I was into Robert Graves – the unexpurgated version of I Claudius was most entertaining for one of my still tender years – and into Mary Renault and Alfred Duggan and all the others. You can pick up a lot of history from historical novels. Though a little too didactic by modern standards, I Claudius is the best introduction to 1st century Rome that I know. As for The Egyptian, the 18th dynasty is more complex, and far more remote from our own assumptions, than Mika Waltari made it. But I think he gets his period more often right than wrong.
But this doesn’t say what drew me to 7th century Byzantium. I could say that no one else seems to have done this period. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has done the 16th century Ottoman Empire, or 15th century China – though I could be wrong here. In my case, during the three years that I systematically played truant from school, I taught myself Latin in the local library so I could read the great classics on which some of my favourite novels were based. I learned quite a lot of Greek under the influence of Mary Renault. The most intensive use I made of this in my teens was to read all the porn that the Loeb editions didn’t translate. As an aside, the delicacy of the Loeb editors is a blessing to anyone with a taste for the indecency of the ancients. You take up the parallel text of Martial or the Greek Anthology, and skim the English translation till it switches back into the original or into Italian. This done, you give your attention to the left hand pages. But I read an abridgement of Gibbon when I was fifteen, and my whole interest in the ancient world settled into its final period of crises and of transition to the world in which we still sort of live. I used him very heavily at university, when I kept myself so far as possible to late antiquity and the early mediaeval period. I read him in full more than once in my twenties. I last read him in full about ten years ago; and you’ll find echoes and whole quotations in Sword of Damascus. He may have been mistaken in his estimate of Byzantium. He never realised the enormous pressures on every frontier of the Empire, and only acknowledged in asides the creative and often liberating force of the Christian faith. But his vision of the past remains as compelling now as it was nearly two and a half centuries ago. All discussions of at least the fourth century must begin with Gibbon. His character sketches of Julian and Athanasius, and later of Justinian and Heraclius, have never been bettered.
And for me, it all began to come together in February 2004. The idea for a novel drifted into mind as I was walking through the ruins of Richborough, which used to be the main port of Roman Britain. But I wasn’t interested in Richborough as it must have appeared in the great days of the Empire. What interested me was how it must have seemed after the fall of the Empire. What was it like to live amid the physical and spiritual ruins of the Roman Empire? The question came up with greater force when I visited Rome with my wife. Of course, we looked at the Forum and the Coliseum and the ruins of the Imperial Palace, and so forth. But we found ourselves pulled again and again to the remains of Rome dating from or just after the fall of the Western Empire – the 5th century church of St Mary Maggiore, for example, or the many lesser buildings. These were largely intact, and, despite many changes and renovations over the centuries, gave a much more immediate sense of the past than the classical ruins.
At last, in 2006, I set to work on what would become Conspiracies of Rome. I wrote this quickly, completing the first draft in six weeks, and it was meant as a diversion for a friend who had recently been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. He liked the novel, and encouraged me to find a publisher. This was harder said than done, as publishers generally don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, and all the agents I approached either didn’t reply or told me to go away. But my friend was persistent, and I eventually published the novel myself. It sold surprisingly well though Amazon; and, at the end of 2006, I was approached by Hodder & Stoughton and asked to revise it for publication as the first in a trilogy. Conspiracies of Rome (2008) did well, as did Terror of Constantinople (2009) and Blood of Alexandria (2010). They did well enough for a second trilogy to be commissioned, and I’ve now written Sword of Damascus (2011) and Ghosts of Athens (forthcoming). There’s one left to write, and we shall see what comes after that.
In closing, I’ll say that I’m not just the novelist of Byzantium. So far, I’ve written half a dozen works of non-fiction under another name. In 2011, also under another name, I brought out an alternative history thriller called The Churchill Memorandum, which was rather controversial in its reception, though all the reviews have been lavish. And I’m currently (July 2011) at work on a fantasy novel set in a very bleak England of 2014. One way or the other, my dear readers, I repeat that I intend to make a shed load of money from fiction – certainly enough to let me give up real work. And, if this rambling introduction to the life and thoughts of Richard Blake helps shift those piles of books out of the warehouse, it has not been written in vain.