1. How and when did you get hooked on history?
When I was young, my Aunt Ivy used to visit us from London and she always brought a collection of comics that she bought for me at the Chingford markets. The ones I treasured were Classics Illustrated. By the time I got to high school I’d gone through Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Solomon’s Mines and all of H Rider Haggard, as well as about fifty other classic adventures. My dad bought me all of CS Forester’s books.
By the time I got to high school, I was hooked on historical broad canvas adventure. I wanted to travel, and I wanted to write.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I weave a lot of my personal family history into my work. My mother was a great storyteller and from a child she had vivid descriptions of her life growing up in a very poor part of London, surviving the blitz, surviving an alcoholic and abusive father.
Growing up in a very safe suburban setting, this fired my imagination of a world quite unlike my own. The family history shaped the way my family saw the world and our place in it, and it shaped my own views.
3. How does history play a part of your professional life/career?
I've been writing historical fiction for thirty years. My niche is historical action adventure. My Epic Adventure series comprises stand-alone tales that draw inspiration from many periods of history. I have written for example about Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Cortes, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Cathars, and about many places such as the Silk Road, Atlas Mountains, the fabled city of Xanadu, and the Aztec temples of ancient Mexico, even Auschwitz.
I travel a lot for research and am fascinated by the history of every place I visit.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
When I was at school, history was taught alongside Maths as an absolute: Two and two make four, and Merry England won the war.
For much of my life since my schooldays, I’ve made my living writing stories based in the past. What it has taught me is that there is no such thing as ‘history’. Infact, read ten different authors writing about the same event and you’ll find ten different versions of history and none of them will be right. None of them will be wrong either.
When I wrote a book about Cortes, it caused something of a furor in Mexico because it challenged the conventional history of the conquest. My critics didn’t dispute the facts, they just didn’t like how I interpreted them. Was I wrong? Was I right? No one can ever know, because history is like smoke. It’s there, but you can’t hold it, and anyway it keeps changing its shape. History is a point of view. We all have differing views on current events so how can we all possibly agree on what happened in the past?
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I don’t have a favorite period, I write across many periods and places because it all interests me.
6. What inspired you to write historical fiction?
Full disclosure: I am myself not a historian, I am a storyteller. Primarily, I write to entertain. My epics of the Ottoman empire, the Silk Road and the ancient Aztecs aim to sweep people up in the tide of romance and great adventure.
But whenever I sit down to write a novel, I always remind myself that the people in the past didn’t go around thinking: Isn’t this rubbish, living in the thirteenth century? Wow! I wish I lived in 2020, when things get a lot better! They thought of their society as the finished product, that their values were solid and timeless and irrefutable.
Which is how it is, isn’t it? How else could decent Bible-reading people in nineteenth century America have thought owning slaves was okay? There’s an equally good chance that future generations will look back at us and think: How could they have burned down the Amazon? Why did they destroy their own climate?
History is the lens through which we see the past. It is not a constant. As societies change, so history changes. I find this fascinating to write about.
7. Please tell us about your latest book?
Fury is two books. It tells the story of the formation of Israel. In writing the story I wasn’t about to write a history lesson; most of all I didn’t want to take sides. I wanted to know what it was like for the Jews and for the Arabs in the thirties and forties who were standing in the way of this human tragedy.
So I wrote one book from the point of view of a holocaust survivor and the other through the eyes of three Arab brothers, who called Palestine their home until it became Israel. It was instructive, writing about the same historical events from two entirely opposed points of view.
It confirmed for me one of the things that continues to draw me to writing historical fiction; the bias of the source. History is not objective or a fact. Historical ‘truth’ depends on whose eyes you see it through.