Author interview with David Gibbins

Author interview with David Gibbins

I have always been an avid gamer but over the last years it has decreased a bit and found more pleasure in reading books. Among the many games I have played several franchises just leave an impact, and one that isn't an exception is Total War. When I was given the opportunity to read Total War: Rome: Destroy Carthage, I immediately jumped to the occasion. I have been reading a lot of Roman fiction lately and it is a genre that is so full of cool stuff. I was eager to see how David Gibbins would translate such a large concept into a book and had some small reservations but David Gibbins did an excellent job. Showing a great amount of action packed scenes but not steering away from the intrigue and betrayal that you like to see when you read about the Romans and their times. And what really tops this book of is the accuracy of the history that is used, from places visited to battle armament. Spot on. This book will appeal to a broad audience, from the gamers do to the Roman fiction readers.

Author bio:
Much of the inspiration for my novels comes from my own experiences as an archaeologist and diver. I was born in Canada to English parents, and have divided my time between the two countries when I’ve not been on expeditions and travelling. After taking a first-class honours degree from the University of Bristol I completed a PhD in archaeology at the University of Cambridge, and then spent almost ten years as an academic in England before becoming a writer full-time. I’ve been a passionate diver since boyhood, and have led many expeditions to investigate ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world.

BP: First off, could you tell us who David is? What are your likes/dislikes and hobbies?
DG: I’m an archaeologist by training, and a novelist by profession. After a first career as a university lecturer I became a full-time writer ten years ago, and have since published eight novels that have sold three million copies in thirty languages. My biggest passion is diving and underwater exploration, but I’ve also worked on archaeological sites on land and travelled extensively. My hobbies – when I can find the time! – include antiquarian books and maps, genealogy, and restoring and shooting antique firearms; in Britain I love mountaineering, and in Canada, where I was born, wilderness canoeing, everything about the winter and managing the forest on our family farm where I do most of my writing.

BP: You have written several Roman fiction stories. How did you get involved into writing the first Total War Rome book, Destroy Carthage?
DG: My PhD at Cambridge was on Roman maritime trade and I lectured on Roman archaeology and history, so my background lent itself to the topic. The idea for the Total War novels came about through a meeting between my agent, Luigi Bonomi, and Rob Bartholomew of The Creative Assembly, the company owned by Sega who create the Total War games. I’d already been discussing the idea of writing a historical novel set in ancient Rome to complement my ‘Jack Howard’ series of archaeological adventure novels, so when my proposal for a companion novel to the game was accepted by the Sega team and then contracted by Macmillan I was delighted.

 BP: With having written several books set in the Roman times, were you able to use anything from your previous books when you were writing Destroy Carthage?
DG: Three novels in my Jack Howard series have chapters set in the Roman period – in Crusader Gold, during the triumph in Rome after the capture of Jerusalem, in The Last Gospel during the eruption of Vesuvius and in The Tiger Warrior during the escape of Roman soldiers from the Parthians across Central Asia. As the first of these was written eight years ago, it means I’ve had a good amount of practice in writing Roman fiction and developing a ‘voice’ that fitted with my own feel for ancient Rome, something I’d been immersed in since doing Latin and school and studying classics and ancient history as an undergraduate.  In addition, while I was developing the Total War novel I was completing the latest novel in my Jack Howard series, Pharaoh, which has some pretty visceral battle scenes set during the 1884-5 British expedition to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, and I’ve no doubt that working on the Roman and Victorian battle scenes together improved the writing and benefitted both novels.

BP: What was your biggest challenge when you were writing Destroy Carthage?
DG: Every new novel is a huge challenge, in almost every way; any novelist who claims otherwise is skirting the truth! The particular challenge with this project was to know just how much to take from the game before putting that aside to focus on writing a self-standing, character-driven novel, something that could sit well alongside other historic fiction on the bestseller shelves and be enjoyed not only by existing Total War fans but also by other readers with no knowledge of the games or of the period of the Punic Wars.

DP: Did you encounter any specific problems while writing Destroy Carthage?
DG: The main issue was the perennial challenge of the ancient historian – the reliability of the sources. Many popular  books have been written in recent years on the Roman army and its campaigns, a lot of them excellent, but all of them reliant on the same scraps of literary evidence from the Roman period – much of that written many years, often centuries, after they events they describe. The 2nd century BC is only partially represented in surviving sources yet was a time of great change in the Roman military, so we have to be wary of generalizations drawn from later evidence, for example about soldiers’ equipment.  I found myself always going to the original sources in Greek and Latin, and to the scholarly studies I’d known as a student where each scrap of evidence is exhaustively critiqued, for example concerning the life of Scipio Aemilianus.

 BP: Would you if you were given the chance re-write any chapter of Destroy Carthage? If yes, what would it be and why?
DG: I think as an author you have to ‘close’ the book once it’s gone to press, as there’s no going back other than for proof corrections. But I’ve never submitted a book without feeling that I’d nailed it to my own satisfaction, and knowing that if there were a need for a significant rewrite it would be flagged by my editors and others who scrutinize the manuscript during the production process. For me, once a book has gone to press it’s almost as if the story has become real, and therefore immutable – that helps me to focus on the next novel.

BP: The Roman fiction genre offers a lot of possibilities because the history of Rome is so rich. When I look at the Roman times, the chariots and gladiators directly jump to mind. The Roman times offer a certain unique richness to stories. What do you like most about writing about these past times?
DG: I thought about this after visiting the marvelous Pompeii exhibit in the British Museum. My overwhelming sense, looking at the remains of day-to-day life, was of intimacy, sometimes uncomfortably so – you can still see the stains below the latrines in Herculaneum, and the piles of human ordure in the sewers beneath. I think it’s this immediacy that fascinates us about Rome, made even more beguiling when we remember that it’s two thousand years ago and set against a backdrop of splendor and spectacle that also captures our imagination.  These two aspects of the archaeology, represented perhaps by a half-eaten loaf of bread from Pompeii on the one hand and by the Colosseum on the other, are what makes Rome such a draw for historical fiction, alongside of course the high drama of events during the Roman Republic and Empire that shaped the modern world.

 BP: The focus in the video game of Total War Rome is on the huge field battles, but in Destroy Carthage the focus is on Scipio’s career and the final destruction of Carthage. How did you come by starting the story off with this piece of history?
DG: One of the first things I was shown from the Total War: Rome II game in development was an amazing sequence showing the Roman assault on Carthage in 146 BC.  Even before I’d finished watching it, I knew that the fall of Carthage had to be a centrepiece of my novel. So much fiction has been written surrounding the war against Hannibal sixty-odd years earlier, yet the destruction of Carthage was the climax of the Punic Wars and contains more high drama than anything that had gone before. Scipio Aemilianus, ‘the greatest Roman emperor who never was,’ is one of the most intriguing characters in Roman history, not just because of his military achievements but because he stood back from all that might have been his – something that gave extra interest to his character and development in the years before the siege, and allowed me to explore the constraints that Rome put on the ambitions of men. And there was another decisive factor for me: I’d worked as an archaeologist at Carthage myself, leading expeditions there to excavate the ancient harbours. The chance to write fiction so closely related to my own discoveries was too good to miss!

 BP: Even though the focus was on Scipio, when the battles do take place you describe them in detail with the different units and gear and even the formations. Did you have to carry out any extra research to keep to the facts?
DG: Yes, and add a good deal of careful speculation. The battle at Intercatia in Spain where Scipio was decorated for bravery is only known from a couple of lines of ancient text, considerably later than the event and with hardly any detail at all. 

 BP: Fantasy is rich genre and everyone experiences it in its own way. What do you like most about writing fantasy?
DG: I think ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’ are often interchangeable words, as indeed are ‘historical fiction’ and ‘history.’ I had a strong sense of that overlap when I was a university lecturer and teaching big survey courses on ancient history, standing in front of hundreds of first-year students and trying to weave together disparate strands of evidence to create a convincing picture encompassing large geographical areas and millennia of history. I think historical novelists and historians proper – often, one and the same person – are faced with a similar challenge to fill in the gaps and join the dots, and I’d say that’s what I like most about writing this kind of fiction – the challenge of historical plausibility, set against the novelist’s requirements of a strong, character-led story and an exciting plot.

BP: Destroy Carthage does leave the book on an open ending with a bold statement with “the war has just begun”. Can we expect more books from you in the Total War Rome? And if so, can you tell us a bit of what we can expect in them to come?
DG: Absolutely! I’m very excited to work on a second novel because the first one came together so well, and has had such a great response from readers.  It will be set around another pivotal event in ancient history, one that decides the fate of Rome itself, and at a time when a similarly strong cast of characters can be drawn into play. Beyond that I can’t say anything at the moment, but keep an eye on my Facebook page and website for more of a preview as the book comes closer to publication!

BP: What can we expect from you in the future? Are you currently working on other projects now that you have finished Destroy Carthage?
DG: My main project continues to be my Jack Howard series – the most recent novel, Pharaoh, has just been published in paperback, and the sequel will be out next year. I’ve written eight novels now in that series and have many exciting ideas for future novels, so that will keep my occupied for a long time to come, I hope!

BP: And just lastly, if you would have to recommend your 5 favourite books, which would they be?
DG: I’ll say any five novels in Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series, the twenty novels of nautical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars – probably the best historical novels ever written, in my opinion.

BP: Thank you for your time David and good luck with your future writing!

DG: Thank you!

David Gibbins, 2 October 2013
Facebook: DavidGibbinsAuthor

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