Tuesday, August 24, 2010

OF ANCIENT POLITICS AND THE DOUBLE LIFE

Lets look at what I’ve been reading lately and why. I tend to avoid reading books very close to my period. Well, yes, because of the risk I might find myself plagiarising unintentionally but also because, on the one occasion I broke this rule, I suddenly found I was confusing the reality from my own research with the other author’s fiction – which may have been based on sound research or invented. Best to stay clear.

But I found the politics of 5th century Athens becoming more and more important in my sequel, so I became keen to see how other authors deal with this. Then I registered that Robert Harris’ series about Cicero’s life – Imperium and Lustrum. They were straight historicals rather than histmysts so little risk of pollution. So far I’ve read only Imperium and exciting it is. Raw power politics with menace and not much else but very compelling, a real page turner. The same author’s Pompeii I hadn’t liked at all. Uninteresting cardboard characters, unbelievable plot sequences, solid undigested lumps of Pliny the Younger (and Elder) plonked on the page, little real understanding of how such a town would work – no thanks. Now here was the real thing – Republican Rome red in tooth and claw. Fascinating. But could I learn anything from it? Maybe not. As a histmyst writer, any political background has to serve and be integrated with the crimes the hero has to solve, though some of these may have a political motive. But the pace and excitement? Can I achieve that? Lets see. But, for now, I’m dying to get into Lustrum.

Then, by chance, I came across a bargain price copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel I had never read before. Apart from the glowing quality of the writing and gradually tiring of Wilde’s epigrams and aphorisms in the mouth of Sir Henry Wotton, what’s fascinating here is Dorian’s double life and the way it reflected Wilde’s own and the whole novel almost forecasts Wilde’s own future life and downfall. Lets stick to the double life for now. My hero, Lysanias, inherits the estate of his uncle, a wealthy aristocrat in ancient Athens, and all the social expectations that implies yet he has been brought up his father in a distant colony as an artisan, a carpenter, and developed sympathies with craftsmen and workers. Now that’s very convenient for me as author (indeed why I invented the device) for Athens is split politically between the aristocrats and the radical people’s party and to be able to investigate his uncle’s death, Lysanias needs to be able to talk to individuals on both sides and get answers. So I invented it for story reasons but did it occur to me because my own life carries elements of similarity? Times when I have worked for a PR agency promoting the cause of, say, property developers while, in my spare time active in community organisations campaigning against specific projects of such people or even involved in plays attacking their whole ethos. Whether that was a cause, obviously it must have helped me to write effectively what it feels like to have that ambivalence, having to balance two different ways of thinking and understanding. That was fine in No.1. How does it work now when there are people on both sides who know of his connections with their opponents? That’s what I’m working out at the moment.

Monday, August 23, 2010

CLASSICS, CRIME AND LOADS OF CHAT

I attended the excellent Summer School of the Classical Association of Ireland at Trinity College this weekend. Two really fascinating talks by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill about how the ruins of Herculaneum (the other Roman town buried by Vesuvius at the same time as Pompeii) were discovered and at least partially unearthed over succeeding centuries and about how the parts so far exposed are being restored and preserved. The problems here are that the volcanic material that overtook the town and flowed into all spaces solidified into rock which is difficult to drill out plus that a modern town was built on top, which doesn’t make the archaeologists’ work easy. Some beautiful and revealing photographs and interesting old newsreel material of archaeological teams at work in the first half of the 20th. century. Useful titbits garnered as well from other talks about ancient Greek houses and temples. Individuals among this gathering of very friendly people – teachers, academics and enthusiasts - showed interest in my novel and there was much congenial conversation.

Launch of my new collection of poems Bluebell Wood and Beyond comes next in late September and early October in Drogheda and Dublin and then, in mid-November, the big adventure of attending Bouchercon in San Francisco, perhaps the most heavily attended of all the crime fiction conventions. It sounds very exciting. With luck I get to meet my heroes – Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis whose series of novels in their different styles about Ancient Roman detectives Gordianus and Falco defined the genre and laid down the high standard to be aimed for.