Friday, 25 September 2009

INTERVIEW: Anthony Riches

Fascinated with stories of the military and warfare since he was a child, Anthony undertook a degree in Military Studies at Manchester University. Years later, having worked hard to pay the bills as well as improving his ability to write fiction, he's come to the fore with a book that goes back to his first love, military history, as the Roman War Machine marches in Britain to help maintain order to the Empire. We decided that we needed to chat to him about how everything came together for him as well as uncovering his own guilty secrets...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Anthony Riches: For me, the fact that my stories keep harassing me until I write them down (only for the next part of the narrative to start the same process) means that I’m not really given much of a choice in the matter. Story lines are the last thing I think about when I go to bed, and the first thing on my mind when I wake up, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s true to say that since I have no choice, because this subjective process of narrative creation just never goes away – it only gets a lot stronger when I have downtime from my current day job – I am indeed ‘afflicted’, but for me that’s my strongest blessing in life aside from my family. I love writing, and I fully intend to make it my full time occupation when that makes sense financially.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

AR: The desire to write professionally first came to me in 1983. I converted my university dissertation (on the disintegration of the US Army in VietNam) into a book that sadly never saw the light of day, despite some interest from a couple of publishers. In the 90’s I noodled about with a thriller for several years – and nearly got an agent to take it – before getting the inspiration that became Wounds of Honour in 1996. Whether sublimating the desire to write to the need to work for a living for twenty five years has made the eventual step to the other side of the glass any sweeter is difficult to say. I’m just wildly grateful to have made it at all.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

AR: I can only partially agree with the idea; although I’ve read some great shorts, really pithy and gripping, some of them have been written by authors whose full length work does rather less for me. I think that there’s a skill to writing a great short that some authors could never master given their need to build stories across broad canvases, while I think there are some authors who don’t have the long grind of building a great full length read in them. Perhaps it’s easier to write a great short when it’s set against the backcloth of an established storyline – Iain M Bank’s ‘The State of the Art’ springs to mind. I’ve never written a short story, so I don’t know if I have the skill to do so or not.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

AR: I’d tell the potential buyer that if they were a keen reader of historical action novels this would be right up their street, with a constant fast pace, gripping combat, characters you come to care about and a historical accuracy that never gets in the way of the story. I wouldn’t ever seek to compare my work to anyone else’s in my chosen genre though, because for every different style of writing there’s a happy reader base, and who I am to even imply that they’re wrong?

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

AR: Wronged son of privilege faces down the odds and becomes warrior leader. Brotherhood, betrayal, brutal combat and revenge. Buy it!

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

AR: I’m a great admirer of both Steven Pressfield and (inevitably) Patrick O’Brian, and I enjoy books by a range of authors including Richard Morgan, Lee Child and Stephen Hunter. There’s more detail on my website – - but the one person whose books I would queue to buy are those written by Iain M Banks. Why does a historical novelist love great science-fiction? I just always have, so why I ended up writing about the distant past is as much of a mystery to me as to everyone else.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

AR: I start my novels with two things – how the story begins, and how it’s likely to end. I should explain that I have a very long term plan for Marcus Valerius Aquila, from the Britannia rebellion of 181 a.d. through to the death of the emperor Septimius Serverus in 211, and within that chronological framework I know the direction each book must take. As a ‘spectator’ novelist, however, I never know is what’s going to happen as each book develops - it just comes to me as I write, in a subconscious process that I guess must be ticking away as I do my day job. How much more productive I’d be without the daily grind of project management is a moot question! My characters usually behave themselves, although I’ve had more than a few ‘where did that come from?!’ moments as one of them does exactly what they want to, rather than what I had intended a moment before, and I treasure those occurrences over everything else in the writing process.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

AR: I read a lot, and I go to air shows and take hundreds of photos in search of that one perfect image. My photography, both good and bad, is showcased at What have I read recently? ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’ by Patrick Hennessey, ‘Transition’ by Iain M Banks, ‘Desperate Glory’ by Sam Kiley and ‘Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual’ by Philip Matyszak.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

AR: Whisper it quietly – the Warhammer 40k novels that tell the story of the Horus Heresy from the perspective of the various Space Marine chapters involved. I know…but I can’t help it! What a back story!! And the battle scenes...bliss.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

AR: We live with a gorgeous Staffordshire Bull Terrier bitch who is the spirit of good temper and nevertheless loves nothing better than a good fight with the pack leader, with lots of snarling and snapping but with all bites carefully pulled at the last moment. If she wanted to she could probably have my throat out in seconds, bless her. We also have a kleptomaniac Spaniel who lives a precarious existence since the Bull Terrier tends to discipline him by dint of pulling him around by the ears when he transgresses or is slow to do what the real pack leader (my partner) tells him to do. I can’t say that either of them have ever made it into a book – but who knows…?

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

AR: Rufius, the old bugger. He’s got an answer for everything, and he lives for the moment, given a glorious second chance to play at soldiers and help guide Marcus into his chosen profession. I see something of my own inexorable slide into previously unthinkable maturity in him, I suppose.

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

AR: In no way, shape or form. He’s tall, has nice thick hair, is quite good looking and above all is sudden death with an edged weapon, and I am none of the above. Although I am quite handy with barbeque tongs.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

AR: Only the photography, and I get hardly any time for that these days, what with a full time job and a contractual obligation to write a 120,000 word novel every 12 months. At least (my partner tells me) it’s stopped me surfing ‘camera porn’ websites planning my next equipment purchase.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

AR: Purely my subconscious. I must be influenced by what I’ve read, but I never consciously use an idea or storyline that I know I’ve read anywhere else. Originality is very important for me.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

AR: No. I don’t have the time! Seriously, I suspect that not being able to lounge around all day worrying about delivery dates is probably a good thing. When I get time, I write, it’s as simple as that. So far…I’m touching wood now!

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

AR: I write at any and all times of the day when I’m free to do so. I work abroad a lot, so I also write in airline seats, in hotels, in departure lounges – just anywhere. And I’m not a middle of the night writer as a rule, but every now and then I’ll wake up at 3.00 am with an idea that turns into an hour or two at the PC. It’s also true that when I’m free to write for a day I often struggle to settle to it with the same ease, and end up hammering away at the keyboard late around midnight.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

AR: I sometimes set iTunes to shuffle while I’m writing, but then I’m forever fiddling when it plays something I’m not in the mood for. I’d love to spend a day or two building some playlists, including one for writing, but I can never spare the time! Usually I put on something that’s a bit ‘background’, some Sasha, or a Bar Lounge album, and ‘wake up’ 50 minutes and a few hundred words later. The other trick is listen to music that I’ve already played to death – Depeche Mode, Queens of the Stone Age, Suede, William Orbit, Prefab Sprout, that sort of thing – and just tune it out as a pleasant background noise. Does it leak into the writing – no…or at least I don’t think so…although I’m just writing a climactic battle right for Empire 3 and I must admit that Velvet Revolver’s Spectacle is doing a pretty good job of getting the adrenaline flowing!

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

AR: I think every would-be writer starts out in glorious innocence of the true nature of the publishing industry, and at some point has to be rudely disabused – unless you’re lucky enough to be Joanne Rowling! Its my firm belief that publishing is just like any other industry, with the usual mixture of good people and not so good people, and as I got to know just how lazy, incompetent and dishonest some of the people in my own walk of life are at what they do, I came to realise that I had to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible. I made a point of reading both the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and Carole Blake’s excellent From Pitch to Publication in fine detail, and so I harboured few illusions – especially once I’d been plagiarised by a part-work magazine (but that’s another story). My one word of advice to the would-be author would be the obvious one – a good agent is a prize beyond compare, and well worth the commission percentage.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

AR: Writing is in part my escape from reality (although I like my reality!), and the only way I can deal with the insistent hammering of stories trying to get out of my head and onto paper!

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

AR: ‘The Battle of Lost Eagle saved Hadrian's Wall, but the new Roman governor of Britannia must stamp out the rebellion of the northern tribes or risk losing the province. Rampaging south with sword and flame under the command of their murderous chieftain Calgus, they have stretched his forces to the limit. For Marcus - now simply Centurion Corvus of the 1st Tungrian cohort - the campaign has become doubly dangerous. As reinforcements flood into Britannia he is surrounded by new officers with no reason to protect him from the emperor's henchmen. Death could result from a careless word as easily as from an enemy spear. Worse, one of them is close on his heels. While Marcus is training two centuries of Syrian archers to survive a barbarian charge and then take the fight back to their enemy, the new prefect of the 2nd Tungrians has discovered his secret. Only a miracle can save Marcus and the men who protect him from disgrace and death.’

Or at least that’s the blurb, and if I tell you much more I’ll spoil it for you. Given the leisurely gestation that Wounds had I’m unsurprisingly a little nervous about a story that took less than a year to write, so I hope you enjoy it when it hits the shelves in April.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

AR: · BBC Football Gossip – I have to know what’s happening to my beloved team, even when most of it seems to be depressing.
· The Bookseller’s chart page – a recent discovery!
· Help for Heroes - I’m planning a sponsored walk of Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman equipment next Easter, and they’re my chosen recipient of the donations I can drum up through my website once I get round to setting it all up.
· Amazon –for the obvious reason. I read so fast that I’ve been accused of inhaling books, and every addict needs a good source of supply.
· Wikipedia – a great source of research if you’re careful not to get taken in!

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

AR: Not much. I did commission a Nooza review, and it was from that I got what was probably the last critical lesson I needed to learn, to ‘show but don’t tell’ (thanks, Nooza reviewer). Until then the novel was groaning under the weight of historical accuracy being explained (by me) at every turn, and you can only imagine my delight with the results when I finally learned to let my characters tell each other the 5% of it that actually mattered. Apart from that it was a simple case of reading a wide range of fiction and reflecting on my own work in that context. I might have got the whole thing to ‘click’ quicker if I’d had a writing group to help me, but I had neither the time nor the courage to expose my fledgling work to an audience. It took me until early 2008 to even show ‘Wounds of Honour’ to my friends.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

AR: For a long time I hid my head in the sand, to be frank. Even when an agent (in 2002) said that my idea for Wounds sounded good, but that he was conflicted by his existing client (Simon Scarrow), I took that as some kind of ‘don’t bother sonny’ message, and went back into my shell for several years. In the end I wrote to six agents and was picked up by the last one to reply – thank you Robin – and had he not done so I would probably have given up on the whole thing. There’s a lesson there, readers – when an agent writes back and says ‘we only deal in edgy British fiction’ (I’ve had that one, and from an agent with an alleged interest in historical fiction!), keep trying, and don’t give up unless you’re told that there’s no way the manuscript is publishable. A would be novelist has to have the skin of a Rhino, and not give up unless they’ve had a good deal more rejections than I ever got.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

AR: I don’t know, because I work for my living right now, and I’m lucky that I love my current career for the most part, but I’ll take a guess. Best aspect – not having to worry about finding time to write, what with work, family, elderly parents and so on. Possible worst aspect – having perform for your daily bread what was previously just a hobby, with all the pressures that might bring. I’m willing to have a go though, so please keep on buying the books! I’ve still got a thriller lurking at the back of my head that’s been hanging about in there since the early ‘90’s, and it’s getting increasingly insistent that it wants out!

1 comment:

Diane Girard said...

Very good interview! I might even read his book, though it isn't the sort of thing I normally read.