Author Interview with Henry Venmore-Rowland
Author interview with Henry Venmore-Rowland
By chance I stumbeld upon The Last Ceasar of Henry Venmore-Rowland while browsing the Transworld/Bantam Press catalogue. But on the first go I knew it was a book for me. I have been catching up with a lot of Roman fiction lately and I am pleased to see how these stories are told. What makes Henry Venmore-Rowlands books even more impressive is the fact that when his first book was acquired he was only 21. From the writing style he uses this is hardly noticeable. The books are written with a clear confidence and a very strong narration. If these are just his first books, be sure to keep an eye out for future works! I know I will.
Aside from the occasional family holiday, often to Italy, his only escape from school and village life was in the pages of historical fiction. His fascination with military and political history, the kings and battles approach, somehow got him into Oxford to read Ancient & Modern History at St. John's College. After dedicating so much time to reading grand tales of epic wars and political intrigue, he was inspired to write his first novel, the acclaimed The Last Caesar. His second novel is The Sword and the Throne.
He lives in London.
He lives in London.
Hi Henry, Welcome to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.
BP: First off, could you give a us a short introduction about who you are? What are you hobbies, likes and dislikes?
HVR: I’m never quite sure how to answer this question without resorting to the simple ‘I’m a writer’! I think the call to write is such a big part of you that it’s hard to define yourself as anything else. After a couple of attempts at living in London, it’s clear that I’m very much a country mouse. I enjoy beagling, chatting and drinking in the pub and the company of friends. Simple soul I know! Dislikes? Staying in the same place for too long. Sometimes when I get very restless I’ve been known to go for 10 hour drives to explore a new part of the country. Thankfully I drive a diesel the days…
BP: You were discovered in your final year at university by one of the leading publishers in fiction, Transworld/ Bantam Press, what was your first reaction when you heard your books were to be published?
HVR: Apart from the obvious of punching the air and dancing round the room for joy? Foolishly, my mind began to wander a little from things like my thesis and Finals, focussing instead on the sequel and what life would be like as a full time writer. I ended up with a degree that qualifies me for little else but writing!
BP: The genre of Roman Fiction offers a lot of possibilities but it must be hard to write stories set in this time, trying to keep everything as accurately as possible. When and why did you decide that you wanted to write this genre?
HVR: I was introduced to the world of Asterix and Obelix almost from the cradle, studied Latin for nine years, ancient Greek for five, followed by three years of Ancient and Modern History at Oxford...and yet Rome wasn’t the first thing I had decided to write about. There is a story that I’m desperate to tell still, and I started to write it when I was seventeen, but thankfully I had the sense to realise that I wasn’t old enough or good enough to do the story justice. The plan is to return to it once I have a bit more life experience, and it made sense to write something set in a world that I knew much more intimately: Rome.
BP: Writing your debut must have been quite a daunting task, did you learn some tricks from The Last Caesar that you were able to use in The Sword and the Throne?
HVR: Less than you might think actually. There is only a gap of four days between the end of The Last Caesar and the beginning of The Sword and the Throne. To all intents and purposes they are two parts of the same story, so I pretty much picked up where I left off. When it comes to writing a new series, I am discovering more ways to deal with the occasional limits of writing in the first person, but on the other hand writing is such an instinctive process that I sometimes I wish there were rules and guidelines such as there are in screenwriting. All I can do is keep on reading the greats of the genre and try to pick up a tip or two through osmosis really.
BP: What was for you the hardest part when you were writing either The Last Caesar or The Sword and the Throne?
HVR: The bedroom scenes, definitely. I’ve just turned 24 and I’m living at home for the moment, so I’m all the more conscious that my parents are going to have to read those scenes, which is possibly why they are less raunchy than those by other authors I know!
BP: Both of your books have been published and you have gotten some feedback, would you if given the chance rewrite any scenes or chapters?
HVR: The one change I would make is that I’d probably have Caecina’s family with him in Spain from the outset, if only to make him a bit more likeable at the beginning. It was quite normal for a senator to leave his family in Rome while on duty in the provinces; we even have a speech recorded in Tacitus which argues that having the family with him would weaken his decision-making. Since the speech was made by one Aulus Caecina Severus in AD 21, perhaps my Caecina’s grandfather, it seemed appropriate to have Salonina and the young Aulus at home in Rome and to give the reader a glimpse of what life was like for a young senator out in the provinces.
BP: There are a lot of historical characters to choose from to use in Roman Fiction, how did you come by Aulus Caecina Severus and had you considered others as well?
HVR: Ashamedly, I discovered Caecina on Wikipedia. I was doing a little background research on the four Emperors themselves and seeing who the main players were. I was looking for someone who could help me tell the whole story from Nero to Vespasian, and a six-line entry made up my mind for me. Without wishing to give the story away, there was no-one who played such a crucial role in the Year of the Four Emperors, aside from the emperors themselves and many of them did not last long enough to be a compelling protagonist, nor did they have such a satisfying way to end their story as Caecina did, for me anyway.
BP: When you were writing your series did you have to carry out extra research to keep several facts straight for the overall story?
HVR: I wouldn’t call it extra research, I probably do a lot less than the likes of the Harry Sidebottom or James Aitcheson who are academics to their core. I’ve always loved the kings and battles approach to history, the high politics and the venal backstabbing. I’d observed some of that with friends in the Union at Oxford and in the political societies. The scary thing is I have at least a dozen friends and acquaintances that will definitely end up as politicians, so that world wasn’t so difficult to depict. I did take out a mountain of books from the library and did some mugging up about the layout of a legionary fortress, names that were used in Gaul, but once I got going with the writing I would just look something up as and when I needed to really.
BP: The type of narration that you used for both books, with an older Caecina, retelling/recounting his past and somehow making trying to redeem himself produced a very engaging storyline. How did you come by this idea to tell the story in this way?
HVR: Thank you. A lot of my favourite stories from books and the screen have been told in the first person. Bertie Wooster is one of the loveliest characters ever written, and I enjoyed getting into the head of Francis Urquhart in the BBC adaptation of the House of Cards (the American version on Netflix with Kevin Spacey is very high up on my to-do list), and of course there is Flashman. I love writing in the first person because you can really get into their character, understand their motives, their insecurities, and first and foremost I wanted the character to be engaging, not least because some of Caecina’s action are morally questionable. I suppose there is also the freedom of imagining what life would be like if you were what people considered to be a ‘baddie’. I can’t remember who said it, but every villain is the hero of their own life story. Without wishing to lower the tone, a recent cultural phenomenon is the cult-like following of the character of Loki from the Thor and Avengers films. He is an out and out villain, but the great Kenneth Branagh saw enough in the character to give the part an air of Shakespearean tragedy, the outcast son in his brother’s shadow. Villains are far more interesting characters than heroes, I find, and a first person narration allows me the freedom to explore that.
BP: Caecina is, from what we learn, a complicated character, when I read The Sword and the Throne and wrote the review of it, a lot of things fell into place and I came to see Caecina in a lot of different lights. What was you own idea of how you wanted other to perceive Caecina?
HVR: The perils of not looking ahead to see what the next question is! Whether you want to call Caecina a misguided hero, anti-hero or villain in the making, the only thing I want is for people to decide and interpret for themselves. Morality is so subjective, and things are not made any clearer by the books being in essence a grand defence speech, now that his reputation and his very name have been blackened by the Senate. Whether the reader approves or disapproves of Caecina’s action, primarily I wanted them to understand. Over the two books Caecina changes from the orchestrator of events to an opportunist, now reacting to events. I wanted people to understand how little it would take to push someone with good intentions into becoming objects of distrust and even hatred.
BP: Caecina’s story has been completed. Do you have any other projects that you are currently working on or that you wish to explore in the near future?
HVR: There is room for one more story in this world, following the adventures of Totavalas and the young Aulus in Britain and perhaps Ireland, but that is something I may come back to a bit later, publisher permitting. I have written the opening chapters for a new series set in the 12th century, vaguely based on what my family was up to in those times (and no, it’s not yet-another-crusades-series). Hopefully in the next few weeks I shall be sitting down with my agent and editor and we can thrash something out…
BP: Everyone enjoys fantasy fiction in its own way. What do you like most about reading or writing fantasy?
HVR: I wouldn’t necessarily describe historical fiction as fantasy. You’ll be hard pressed to find dragons and magic swords in our genre, but there is one thing they do have in common. The world the author builds has to be credible, and I’m in awe of someone like J.R.R. Tolkien who could dream up a world like Middle-Earth and make it so detailed and convincing that I would happily lose myself in it for hours at a time. There was a bit of an outcry that Peter Jackson was turning The Hobbit into a trilogy but the amazing thing is that there is enough material for him to do that. Thankfully with historical fiction all that’s needed to make your world credible is to do a lot of research, which while tough is I think much easier than having to conjure up an entire universe from scratch.
BP: And just lastly, if you would have to pick your top 5 favourite books, which would they be?
HVR: The Count of Monte Cristo, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, Robert Harris’ Imperium, anything from the Jeeves & Wooster canon and Danny, Champion of the World.
BP: Thank you very much for you time Henry and I am looking forward to read your future stories!
HVR: Not at all, thank you for having me!