Our guest today is Thomas M D Brooke from London. He is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Roman Mask. We have conducted an interview with him.
Where did you attain your inspiration behind this highly acclaimed historical fiction "Roman Mask"?
The inspiration for my novel was a strange one, and not one I would really recommend to anyone. The idea behind my novel came about after a street mugging in which I was lucky to survive after being attacked and beaten to within an inch of my life. Physically I recovered quite quickly, but the emotional and mental side was a different matter altogether and it affected me quite badly. I was completely unprepared for the mental-trauma that such an incident inflicts on you. So I decided to put my experiences to good use, and use it for the basis of a novel. Rather than having it a weight bearing me down, let it be something that produces something positive. At the time, the news on the television was full of stories of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and it made me think how soldiers dealt with such issues in the ancient world. My experiences had shown me the power that traumatic events can play on the mind, and I quite simply didn’t believe anyone who claimed that in the ancient world such a thing was not a concern because life was different back then. The human mind was biologically exactly the same then as it is now, and just as fallible to conditions we now diagnose and understand the importance of. So I came up with the character Cassius, a great soldier, but someone who’d been affected by a terrible battle a few years before in the forests of Germany. I knew from my own experiences how easy it was to fall into a trap of blaming yourself for your own perceived weakness, and I knew how living a lie to hide that same weakness can become a part of life. I then started my novel in Rome so I could show Cassius being seduced by the many vices of that ancient city – something that is all too easy under such circumstances. I then returned Cassius to Germany where he learns to understand and come to terms with his fears, just as I did whilst writing my novel. The novel culminates in the Teutoburg forest and one of the most dramatic and historically significant battles of the ancient world. Cassius needs to draw on all his courage and strength in the midst of that terrible event.
How thorough did you make the research prior and while writing this book?
I normally spend an entire summer reading up on a subject before I start writing in the autumn. For me, historical research is something I really enjoy, so it is no hardship. I took a holiday to the where the novel was set, this helped me to start picturing scenes. If you don’t enjoy studying history, you shouldn’t be writing in this genre.
I make sure I have a thoroughly strong and clear understanding of the subject matter before I start. Along the road, I do more research to make sure I have every aspect correct in my novel. If I don’t know something, I never guess. We are lucky enough to live in an age where information is easily accessible and research has never been easier. There are no excuses for not researching my subject properly.
What is your secret of being a master storyteller of history?
The one thing I have learnt about writing, is the importance of writing about what you love, and not getting hung up on what might be successful or sell well in the marketplace. If you are going to write a good novel, it is going to be a long project and fill your thoughts for large amounts of that time – this is much easier if the subject you write about is one you love. Sometimes I hear of authors who choose a period of history or subject because they thought no one else had written about it before. That’s all very well, but the best way to make your novel unique is through its characters, the emotions you explore, and the story’s plotline – the period you set it in is immaterial.
Also, whether you are a first time author, or an old hand, always aim for your novel to be the best in your chosen genre. You might not achieve this, but it is best if that aspiration is always there. Never should your thought process be of thinking that your book should be merely adequate or better than some.
Of glory and menace, what are the key contrasting characteristics of the people and stories written in your book?
So much of my novel is centred on deception and the false perceptions that we hold on people, ourselves included, that the concept of a mask is a key point for many of my characters. Cassius believed himself a coward, everyone else thought him a hero, Julius was the perfect Roman, the Romans held complete control over Germany; All are false perceptions to some degree or another, but all make complete sense if viewed from a certain perspective. So the concept of a mask, and the title to the novel, fitted perfectly with my story. Each character has their own motives and ambitions, but several are hiding something.
Which is more difficult to write: is it to describe Roman Empire's power or about a man's battle within himself and his chance for redemption and honour?
I feel very strongly, that the novels I write are based around strong characters, rather than a dry historic account of Rome’s past. Getting the historical detail correct is important but it is the personal journey of my characters that I value that most. Books have the ability to transport us to new worlds, or periods of time that are otherwise completely locked away from us. The immersion can be so deep from a novel that we can imagine every step that any given character makes, and it is bringing those same characters to life that is the greatest joy for me as a writer.
A book needs to be well written and full of descriptive passages, as they play an essential part in setting a scene and giving the writer’s world depth. But it is the characters within that world, their hopes, wishes, loves, and desires that will make the story come to life. When constructing a character for a novel, you want to be able to really get under their skin, understand all their passions and frustrations, their strengths but equally their weaknesses. Only then can you understand how they will react to any given situation and the tale you spin around them be believable and real.
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