A LITERARY WORD: An Interview with T.E.Taylor
A LITERARY WORLD
Author Interview with T.E.Taylor
Today I am honoured to welcome to A Literary World, author, T.E.Taylor, whose books are quickly garnering international acclaim. His first historical novel novel, Zeus of Ithome, was a Chaucer finalist, and his second, most recently published novel, Revolution Day, looks set to follow in its footsteps. Tim studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford, and some years later did a PhD in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. He spent a number of years in the civil service, where he did a wide range of jobs, before leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing. He now divides his time between creative writing, academic research (he has published a book, Knowing What is Good for You, on the philosophy of well-being), and part-time teaching.
Thank you for joining us here today, Tim
1. Where do you live?
I live in Meltham, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire. It nestles underneath a big hill, just outside the northern edge of the Peak District.
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about and what inspired you to write them?
My first, Zeus of Ithome, is a historical novel about the struggle of the Messenian people in south-western Greece to free themselves from three centuries of enslavement to their Spartan neighbours (in the 4th century BC). I was reading about the Messenians – ironically, in a book about Sparta – and it seemed to me that their story was crying out to be told.
My latest novel, Revolution Day (published on 30 June) is about an ageing Latin American dictator. His vice-president is plotting against him, and his estranged wife is writing a memoir in which she recalls his rise to power and his regime’s descent into autocracy and repression. The immediate inspiration came from the fall of a string of dictators in the Arab Spring. I was interested not so much in the specific causes of those events but the general issues they raised about the nature, effects and ultimate fragility of autocratic power.
3. How did you come up with the titles?
I struggled for a long time to find a title for Zeus of Ithome – for a while it was provisionally entitled ‘Slave of Sparta’, but I was never really happy with that. Then I thought I could name it after Zeus Ithomatas – Zeus of Ithome – the patron god of the Messenians, since the characters’ belief in him plays a role in the novel. I do like the title, though it has a couple of disadvantages I didn’t realise at the time. It may have been responsible for Amazon miscategorising the book under Fantasy (there are no actual gods in the book, though the characters believe there are). Also, no one knows how to pronounce it! For the record it’s ‘Ith’ (‘pith’, without the ‘p’) – ‘o’ as in ‘snow’ – ‘me’!
With Revolution Day, it was a lot easier. The first scene I wrote was the opening of the book, where the dictator comes out to make his annual speech on the anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power. And there was my title, straight away!
4. In Zeus of Ithome, what were the characteristics you looked for in Diocles and his mentor, Aristomenes?
I came up with Diocles first. He was always going to be young, naive and ignorant of most things outside the very constrained life he lives as a ‘helot’ slave, but with the spirit and potential to develop once free of that environment – Zeus of Ithome is, in part, a coming-of-age novel. I needed Aristomenes to be not just a mentor, but also the perfect foil for Diocles. So he is world-weary, hard-bitten and cynical about many things, but still a passionate believer in the cause he has dedicated his life to, however hopeless it seems.
5. The Messenians had been Spartan slaves since 720 B.C. Can you tell us about the political and cultural world in which Diocles lived?
It was the age of Greek city-states – relatively small independent nations centred around a city or occupying a small geographical region. There was tremendous rivalry between them, which produced some great cultural achievements (particularly in Athens) as they sought to outdo each other. But it also resulted in more or less continuous warfare, as the larger states struggled for pre-eminence and the smaller ones squabbled over boundaries and the like. Sparta, the most powerful state at the opening of the novel, was regarded as rather different and a little odd, by the other Greeks. It still had kings, which most of the others had got rid of long ago, and though slavery was commonplace in Greece, Sparta was unusual (though not unique) in keeping an entire people (and moreover, a Greek people) permanently enslaved. This is what enabled Spartan citizens, unlike other Greeks, to spend all their time training for warfare and thus to achieve their formidable martial reputation.
6. Can you tell us more about the Krypteia – the Spartan death squads?
They were youths who had excelled in the Agoge – the rigorous Spartan military training programme. They were sent out to spy on the helots and to kill any who were considered a threat or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fear they created was a major factor in the subjection of the helots.
7. During Diocles’s travels through the Peloponnese to Delphi and Thebes, he learns both the theory and the practice of war. What did this involve?
He learns some skills from Aristomenes on his journey through the Peloponnese – in particular the use of the sling. In Thebes he becomes a protege of Epaminondas, one of the great generals and statesmen of the age. And he trains with the elite Theban Sacred Band under its leader Pelopidas.
8. Throughout his travels, Diocles comes to understand himself through his struggles, in particular his relationship with his mother. Without giving anything away, what is it that brings about this understanding?
Early in the book Diocles’ mother Euthalia is extremely cautious and submissive to the Spartans. The reasons for this she keeps to herself, but when Diocles comes to learn them much later on, it brings them closer together.
9. Earlier philosophers and playwrights of the classical period in Greece challenged religious and moral issues. Did any of them have an influence on your writing?
Not really – or at least, not my creative writing. I also write philosophy, and I do reference Aristotle in some of what I do (it’s difficult not to when your field is the philosophy of well-being), though I’m not particularly a disciple.
10. How much influence did religion and a belief in the power of the gods have on the lives of people during this time?
A huge influence. Most people believed unquestioningly in the existence of gods, their involvement in human affairs and the necessity to placate them with sacrifices. They also believed in the veracity of oracles, despite the studied ambiguity of their pronouncements. Both of these beliefs play a big role in the novel.
11. The period about which you write was one of waring city states and we learn that Epaminondas embraces the idea of a Panhellenic League of free and independent states. Can you tell us more about this?
The Greeks were well aware of their shared cultural, linguistic and religious identity, but except when threatened by the Persian invasion, they were never able to unite militarily and politically (and even then not fully). Epaminondas worked within a federal system in Boeotia, where Thebes was the primus inter pares of several semi-independent city-states, and may have aspired to spread a similar system throughout Greece. Sadly, though, Panhellenism was never achieved by free association, though it was imposed on the Greeks when Macedon became dominant later in the 4th century.
12. In your book, Revolution Day, why did you choose to base the story over the period of a year?
The central story of the novel is the progress of the Vice-President’s plan to undermine – and thus overthrow – Carlos by using the resources at his disposal as Minister of Information and Security to manipulate the perceptions of Carlos and those around him and drive a wedge between Carlos and Angel, the hitherto loyal head of the Army. A complex plan like this would take time to develop and put into practice, so the main narrative needed to take place over a period of months. As I’d begun the novel with Carlos’s annual celebration of Revolution Day, I thought it would be structurally satisfying to end it on the next one.
13. Did you base your protagonist, Carlos Almanzor, on a particular dictator?
No. He looks a bit like Augusto Pinochet of Chile (but with a beard), but his character is his own. He is not the stereotypical strongman dictator, nor is he a monster, though he is deeply flawed in other ways. As you’d expect, aspects of his career do have parallels with historical dictators.
14. Why did you choose South America as the setting?
Although the novel was inspired by the fall of a string of dictators during the Arab Spring (see Q. 2) I thought that Latin America, with its long history of dictatorship, would be more a more suitable location than the middle east, as I wanted a strong female character (see next question!)
15. How much did Eva Peron influence your character, Juanita, Almanzor’s estranged wife?
I didn’t consciously draw upon Eva in developing the character of Juanita, but it occurred to me afterwards that there were several parallels – her glamour, her feminism, her early political career alongside her husband (though while Eva died young, Juanita lived on and separated from Carlos both politically and personally). So perhaps there was a subconscious influence there.
16. What do you believe are the circumstances needed in order for a dictator to rise to power and what do you think are attributes a dictator must have to achieve this?
I don’t think there is a single answer to this. There needs to be something perceived to be wrong with the incumbent government (or lack of it!), sufficiently widely for a would-be dictator to secure enough support (though that need be only within a single faction, if it is powerful enough). The existing government’s military and security could either to be strong, but not loyal to the status quo, or loyal and weak. The would-be dictator undoubtedly needs considerable force of personality, and probably a good deal of luck (as I sought to illustrate in Carlos’s somewhat fortuitous rise to power in the novel).
17. Do you believe there is such a thing as a ‘benign’ dictator, or do you think that ultimately all dictators are corrupted by power?
I think such a thing is possible in principle, and some dictators are more benign than others. But I think it is very difficult for someone wielding absolute power not to be corrupted by it in one way or another.
18. With Historical Fiction, one of the most difficult things to get right is the voice. How important do you think this is to a novel?
It’s very important, but I don’t agonise about Voice with a capital V. I just ask myself ‘what is the most vivid and effective way to put this story across’.
19. How long did it take you to write each book?
The first draft of Zeus of Ithome was just under a year, as I recall. Revolution Day took a bit longer (it was interrupted when Zeus was accepted by Crooked Cat, so I had to do the editing and promotion for that).
20. What are you working on now?
I am researching two possible novels – a sequel to Zeus of Ithome, probably taking in the early career of Philip II of Macedon (so it may tackle panhellenism), and a completely different idea for a contemporary novel about an old lady with dementia who goes on the run from a nursing home. I haven’t decided which one to write first.
21. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
With historical fiction in particular, I look for true stories that have not really received the attention they deserve, or new angles or perspectives on history.
22. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
I did lots of research for Zeus of Ithome, and enjoyed most of it. What was most fun was using Google Earth to work out what the landscape would have looked like to my characters as they walked through it.
23. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
I shared early chapters of both books with friends who write, and later got a couple of people to read first drafts before I submitted them. I think my tip would be to join a writers’ group – it will help develop your writing, and provide a ready source of well-informed and supportive readers to offer comments on your work. You will need to reciprocate, of course!
24. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I do most of my work in what I call ‘The Office’ – a small upstairs room with a desk, a computer and a couple of bookcases.
25. Do you write longhand?
Only when I am writing with others – I am in a couple of writers’ groups, in which we set writing exercises and write for 30-40 minutes. At home I always write straight onto a computer (though occasionally things I write at writers’ groups turn up in my books).
26. Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I find that music demands my attention, if it’s any good – and irritates me if it’s not. So for me, it’s not conducive to concentration.
27. What kind of child were you?
I think I was fairly shy but quite happy as a child.
28. Were you an avid reader?
Absolutely! And I was fortunate to have parents (my father, especially) who kept me liberally supplied with books.
29. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
I play acoustic and electric guitars, and a bit of piano. I like to read and watch films, and spend time with family and friends. And I enjoy walking up hills.
30. Do you have a philosophy on life?
I have written a philosophical book on what it is for someone’s life to go well (Knowing What is Good For You, Palgrave Macmillan 2012) but I don’t claim any oracular knowledge on how to achieve that – I think it will vary from person to person. All I would say is try to understand yourself – work out what most matters to you, and be guided by that. Oh, and be nice to people!
And a few quick questions:
31. Who are your favourite authors?
There are lots, but to name a few: Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, William Golding, Barry Unsworth, Kazuo Ishiguro.
32 What are some of your favourite books?
By the above: IQ84, New York Stories, The Inheritors, Stone Virgin and The Remains of The Day respectively. And I still retain my childhood love for the Lord of the Rings. There are lots of others, of course.
33. Favourite type of music to relax to?
I find music stimulating more than relaxing. I like a wide range of music, including some classical and some jazz, but what I listen to most is rock music of various kinds: indie, classic rock, singer-songwriters, prog.
34. Favourite film?
Difficult to name just one. Dr Strangelove and Apocalypse Now spring to mind.
35. Favourite painting?
Again, I find it difficult to settle on a single painting. Something by Turner or Van Gogh.
36. Favourite holiday destination?
Somewhere with mountains. Switzerland, probably.
37. Favourite drink
Red wine, Newcastle Brown Ale, or a nice cappucino with gingerbread syrup – according to mood.
38. Where can we buy the book?
They are available on Amazon, Nook and Smashwords. Paperbacks of Zeus of Ithome (and hardbacks of Knowing What is Good for You) can be ordered from Waterstones and other bookshops.
Until 15 August, e-books of both novels are reduced to 99p/$1.54 in the Crooked Cat Summer Sale.
RD on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Revolution-Day-T-E-Taylor-ebook/dp/B0106GALR4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1435512473&sr=1-1&keywords=Revolution+Day&pebp=1435512460458&perid=1CCVM4BE2J6WKH55WM9Y
Zeus of Ithome on Amazon.co.uk: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Zeus-of-Ithome-ebook/dp/B00G7S04D2
ZI on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Zeus-Ithome-T-E-Taylor-ebook/dp/B00G7S04D2
Knowing What is Good For You: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-What-Good-For-You/dp/0230285112
A Literary World: Previous guests.
“Ordinary life does not interest me”