Henry Venmore-Rowland is the author of The Last Caesar, a book about the infamous Year of the Four Emperors, told from the point of view of Aulus Caecina Severus (later dubbed Aulus Caecina Alienus). The Last Caesar will be published by Transworld on June 21st and will be available via Amazon. I have to say that I’m pretty excited about this upcoming book because it has tapped into an ignored period of Roman history, at least for historical fiction writers. Henry V-R was kind enough to agree to an interview, so read on to see our discussion about accuracy in historical fiction, the road to his publication and inviting Cicero over for dinner.
Of all of the fascinating figures in Roman history, why did you choose Aulus Caecina Severus?
It was a case of story first, character second. After starting a novel in a completely different period, I decided to come back to my comfort zone of Rome. The trouble is there are lots of great authors who have done/are doing Rome so well, it was tricky to find an exciting story that hadn’t really been done. Then in the back of my mind I remembered something called the Year of the Four Emperors, and surely there had to be a great story there. After a quick read of everything from Tacitus to Wikipedia, I found the perfect narrator for the events in Caecina. He had an extraordinary knack of picking the winning side, and the fact that we know next to nothing about the man before AD 68 meant that I had the freedom to give him a backstory that told you something about the character and it gave me room to play with the relationship between his friend the future general Agricola, as well as his wife Salonina.
Who is your favourite figure in Roman history and why? (Other than Aulus, if that is the case.)
Probably Cicero, and Robert Harris had a part to play in that. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to have the man over for supper: pompous, tedious, holier-than-thou, not a brilliant mix! Nevertheless, he was a fantastic orator (despite having a stammer, as I do from time to time) and a commensurate politician. In an age when to succeed in Rome you needed nobility, wealth or military talent, preferably a combination of the three, Cicero had none of those, made it to consul and defended the Republic with the only weapon he had, a wonderful mind.
Historical fiction is such a tricky genre to write in because of the delicate balance between a good story and historical fact. How did you attempt to find this balance? Do you think historical accuracy is important? Why or why not?
I think historical accuracy is very important, and like every author I’m sure I set out to stick to the facts as closely as I could. I am in awe of fantasy writers like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling who are able to create such detailed and realistic worlds from scratch, it’s certainly something I could never do. Historical fiction I find gives you a skeleton of a story, and at risk of resorting to cliche it is the author’s job to put flesh on the bones. We are very lucky in having such detailed sources from the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius who provide an almost blow-by-blow account of the machinations following Nero’s death, and they form most of the story. However, in the interests of plot you do have to take certain liberties. For instance it is most likely that Caecina Severus did not help with the Vindex rebellion, as I have it, but stayed in Spain to help Galba prepare to march on Rome. But the idea of a Roman Senator masquerading as a Gaul in what was meant to be a sham rebellion that Vindex allowed to get out of hand was too good to ignore. At least I thought so!
Have you given any thought as to what your next writing project will be? If you have, can you give us a hint?
I’m a couple of days away from finishing the sequel to The Last Caesar, which will follow the actual Year of Four Emperors, AD 69. It has been so much fun following the rise and fall of Caecina Severus, and it is a shame that his story ends with the second books. On the upside, I do have a slew of ideas as to what to write next, if my publishers want me to that is!
Who do you think are your greatest writing influences?
I’ve already said Robert Harris, Conn Iggulden is another. Bernard Cornwell is the giant of the genre of course, and I’m a self-confessed Tolkien nut. But the two authors whose books I can read again and again and enjoy them every time are P.G. Wodehouse and George MacDonald Fraser. Bertie Wooster is a charming but feckless chap and the world that Wodehouse weaves around him is so crisp and the writing so witty that every story is a delight. Flashman is certainly my favourite character in historical fiction, and I just can’t top the praise that has been lavished on that series. It’s just a shame that MacDonald Fraser died with another story or two still to come…
What was the road to publishing like for you?
Frighteningly speedy, most of the time anyway. I had the idea of writing a novel in my last year of school, thankfully deciding after 10,000 words I wasn’t mature enough to do this character justice, and I started The Last Caesar instead when I began university, so in the autumn of 2008. Two years later the story was finished and I sent out the obligatory first three chapters and a covering letter to half a dozen literary agencies in London. I heard back from the first of them just after my 21st birthday, late September, and I waited until December for the rest of the rejection slips to arrive. Then on the last day of the winter term I asked a friend of mine to drive me 20 miles into the Cotswolds, the coldest December since records began, through the snow and ice. The idea was to hand deliver my parcel to make my submission stand out from the others. I can only assume that the postman hadn’t been able to make it through the snow as I had a call a few hours later from my wonderful agent, Peter Buckman, to say he had enjoyed the three chapters and wanted to read the rest. Within a few months Peter had offers from two leading publishers, and I was delighted to sign a two book contract with Transworld.
As a debut novelist, what advice would you give to all those unpublished hopefuls out there?
The standard advice I think is write, write and write some more. Only when you’re in the habit of writing every day does it seem justified to call yourself a writer. But before that, I would say read, read and read again! I’m still very young and don’t have half the life experiences that other authors in the genre have, meaning there’s less of my own memories that I can call upon to help me. But I read so many stories when I was growing up, and a three year degree in history, that after a while I think you develop antennae for what makes a good story. I couldn’t begin to tell you why or how, you just plan your plot and see whether the story as a whole makes sense to you and is both believable and engaging.