My Interview with Andrew Levkoff

Andrew Levkoff is the self-published author of one of my favourite historical novels, The Other Alexander.  It’s a greatly underrated novel and this interview definitely sheds some light on why Mr. Levkoff decided to pick such an unusual figure in Roman history to write about.  Today he graciously agreed to do an interview with me, so if you love hearing about Roman history, self publishing and tips for aspiring authors, please read on!

Update:  Mr. Levkoff has just informed me that he won gold in historical fiction category of the eLit Awards.  For anyone who wishes to see the results, here is the link: eLit Awards 2011 (PDF)

1.  Why did you choose to focus The Bow of Heaven on Marcus Licinius Crassus?  Out of all the figures in Roman history, why him?
I think Crassus may have gotten a bad rap. Rome hated nothing more than a loser, and in the eyes of historians like Plutarch and Cassius Dio, he was right up there at the top. Crassus lost the standards of his seven legions to the enemy. It took Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus) 27 years to negotiate their return, and the day they were returned to Rome there was a celebration as great as if Caesar had earned a triumph.

There are two reasons historians put forward for Crassus’ ill-fated war:  greed and jealousy of Julius Caesar and Pompey. There may be some truth to each of these, but in my opinion, not enough to leave the life of Riley he was living. Crassus was one of the most respected, honored elder statesman of Republican Rome. He was known as “the richest man in Rome,” so to me, the greed argument doesn’t fly. As for his generalship, if not for Crassus, Sulla’s overthrow of Marius and Cinna would have failed, and Pompey stole the “glory” of the victory over Spartacus when it was Crassus who deserved the credit. Still, I can see where, as a Roman thing, he might have wanted one more shot at military success. But of those two explanations of why he went to war, he already had plenty of one and a sufficient amount of the other. Plus, he was so old.

The average lifespan for a Roman was around 35-40 years. Let’s call it 50 if you’re wealthy and have a good HMO. Crassus was 60 when he led a host of 50,000+ (including non-combatants) on a 1,500 mile trek across the Adriatic, over Asia Minor and into the wastelands of Mesopotamia.

By the way, Roman politicians were divorcing and remarrying almost as often as they changed clothes. Marcus Crassus was married to his wife, Tertulla, for 35 years, and whatever japes may be found in the historical record, there is nothing that says they were not happy together. (There was a report Crassus was after the property of a Vestal virgin – Plutarch puts this in the very first paragraph of his Life of Crassus. Suspicious? I think so.) I believe history’s take on Crassus may be ill-founded, that the negative taste left in our mouths is the result of spurious attacks meant to demean the man who lost the standards.

There had to be something else to jolt him into leaving an idyllic, powerful, wealthy, happily married life, and I believe there was. It’s in the book.

One last point. I began writing in the third person, but quickly came upon the idea that Crassus’ story would be much more interesting if it were told by one of his countless slaves. The story of Alexandros and Livia is a foil for Crassus and Tertulla, and I hope gives the novel some balance and symmetry.

2.  What would you say are your biggest writing influences?

Unfortunately, I had to toss my biggest influences out the window to write this series. Imagine this kind of narrative told in the style of Woody Allen, Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut? I’ve tried to give Alexander the dry, sarcastic kind of wit I learned when I lived in England my junior year of high school. There was another choice, however.

The voice that sang to me in dulcet, sweet refrains, that urged with wily japes and introspection, to turn my narrative Elizabethan, till perforce all language lost its comprehension. Nope. ‘Didn’t go down that route either, writing as if I held a quill in my inky hand and was married to Anne Hathaway. No, the other one.
3.  Where did the idea for The Bow of Heaven come from?

This is going to make no sense at all. When I saw Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with Russell Crowe, it rekindled a long-standing puzzlement over how a society as advanced as the Romans could also harbor such a wide barbaric streak. I read books, watched BBC videos and quite by accident came across Crassus, “the unknown triumvir.” What on earth was he up to? And why? The result:  not a single gladiatorial combat takes place in The Other Alexander. I guess I got sidetracked. There will be none in A Mixture of Madness, either, but none will be necessary, I promise you. If I can get through it without crying, it will be a miracle. I hope my readers will hang in there with me, because the urge to enter the arena will probably overwhelm me by book three.

You can’t think ‘gladiator’ without ‘slave’ following close behind. In addition to discovering the ‘truth’ about Crassus, I also wanted to explore the nature of the relationship between slave and master. In Rome, everyone who was anyone had at least one or two. What must that have been like? How did they survive the trauma of losing everything? How could they find love and keep it when their lives were not their own?
4.  Why did you choose to self-publish?  What was the self-publishing process like?

Years ago, when Bow was three books jumbled all into one, I did make the rounds and kept at it until I had been rejected by every single English-speaking agent in the known world who handled historical fiction. I’m nothing if not a glutton for self-punishment. Truth to tell, they were right – the book was a mess.

I suppose I could have gone back and been successful going the traditional route once the book was revised (for the 12th time). But having control, retaining all the rights and mostly, knowing that my work need never go out of print, those are some heavy weights to throw on the independent side of the scale. And no, I didn’t throw ‘making more money’ clanging into the balance, because let’s face it, nobody who loves to write these days can be in it strictly for the money. There just aren’t that many disappointed, self-obsessed, embittered writers out there. Wait a minute ….

Smashwords made the process, in spite of their name, almost painless. Caveat:  get a good cover. One of my reviewers called mine “bizarrely hideous.” Oh, the shame.

Join AiA, the Association of Independent writers. They have an Authors Resource Guide with people who can help with every aspect of the process from A to W. Sorry, if you need something from X, Y or Z, it’s not there.
5.  Would you encourage other writers to go along the same route?

I would say keep your options open. Everybody has their price (he said with dripping cynicism). I would write for the love of writing. Self-publish, and if you’re very lucky, the big boys and girls will find you. Then you’ll be in the enviable position of having to decide what it’s worth to give up complete autonomy. If you self-publish first, you won’t have to wait on pins and needles for the mail to arrive – you’ll be out there, published. So if your goal is for people other than the bedridden maiden aunt living next door to read your work, do it yourself. It’s not that hard.

Now I’m going to say something that would make Dan Poynter and Joe Konrath and dozens of other publishing gurus turn over in their graves. If they were dead. I agree that to increase the odds of becoming successful as a writer you need to market your own work, whether you’re with the big six or going it alone. But enough is enough. I didn’t start writing so that I could hop on Goodreads and Shelfari and spend my days posting on Facebook and Twitter talking up my work. (I know that’s what I’m doing right now, but did you have to point it out, right here, in front of all these people?)

Yes, that’s what’s happened, and until recently, I found myself spending more time blogging and posting than actually writing. So I’ll keep my website, post a blog every week or so, talk to nice people like Carrie, but do my very best to spend most of my time working on that next book. If I don’t move as much product, so be it. I’m not in it to win it, I’m in it to pen it. Not even close, I know. But you see where I’m going.
6.  So who is your favourite figure in Roman history and why?

I guess we’re talking after Crassus, since he will be ahead by about 1,000 pages by the time I’m done with him. I guess I can’t say Colleen McCullough. Or Ray Stevens (he played Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome). This is hard! I can’t go beyond Octavian, because all my research has been within a very narrow time frame, from 90 BCE to 20 BCE. Pompey, no – he was power hungry, but when he got it he couldn’t handle it. Cicero, no again. He was brilliant, but politically his principles and positions waffled more than _________ (enter the politician of your choice, from either party). So I’m going to go with Publius Crassus, Marcus’ son. In Gaul, Caesar trusted him to lead legions, conquer less than cooperative tribes, make political decisions, all without any help from the great general – at an age when today he’d just be getting out of grad school. Hail, Publius!

If we can go a little farther afield, let’s hear it for Sappho as well. I wish more of her poetry had survived. She must have been something to be remembered through the millennia, chosen as one of the nine lyric poets in a world dominated by men.
7.  Do you have any other projects planned for after you finish The Bow of Heaven series?  If so, can you give us a hint as to what they might be?

I may work on a spinoff that looks at the war and its aftermath from the Parthian point of view. Or a paranormal, time travel romance with werebies (zombie wolves), if I actually want to sell anything.
8.  What advice do you have for any aspiring writers out there?

Publish more than once. If I could change one thing about my writing style, it would be to type faster. Okay, I have a day job, too, so there is that. But I do believe that letting your readers know you are in it for the long haul will help you sell more books. Oh, and when you’re just about to release that second gem, give the first one away for free.

Get someone other than the bedridden maiden aunt next door to proofread your work. Well, get her if she’s any good, but get at least one other person who knows what she’s about. And if you’re self-publishing, which you should be unless you’re Ryan Gosling with an urge to write your memoirs, you need an editor. Someone you trust, who understands your vision. One pair of eyes just isn’t enough. We’re all too close to our own work to see what might be some awesome suggestions.

Are there any gorillas in the Amazon? Maybe they should have named the company Uganda. Anyway, Amazon is the silverback of publishing, and they have changed the world of writing forever. Although their policies are, at times, let’s be nice – dictatorial, the market they can reach is unrivalled. Publish there.

Definitely give Smashwords a try, too. It’s free, and they have great tools for vetting your work so that it will display correctly in e-readers. They will also distribute to just about everyone (silverbacks excepted for the most part). I also recommend publishing a trade paperback edition of your book. It adds credibility, and there are still 14 people out there without e-readers. You want to sell to them.

Lastly, thank you, Carrie, for giving me the opportunity to talk with your followers. I can always be reached at andrewlevkoff.com or at alevkoffatgmaildotcom. Now can somebody please tell me why email addresses are being written like that? I’m clearly out of the loop.

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