Gary Corby, author of The Pericles Commission, spoke to the Bookiemonster Henchperson on writing, strong lady characters and of course, sea battles.
So, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Having your first novel come out is a bit like being exposed as a serial killer. All your friends and neighbours say, “But he was such a quiet fellow. Who would have thought?”
I’m really very normal. I come complete with one very normal family: one wife, two daughters, two budgies, four guinea pigs, and four fish in the backyard pond that I made this summer. We live in a normal house in a normal suburb.
What inspires you to write? Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I have no idea why I started writing! No doubt a psychologist would have a wonderful time analysing me, but then, any writer would probably make good material. The earliest story of which I still have a record dates to when I was 17 or thereabouts. As to why I kept writing, well, I had all those stories to tell. It was only recently that I tried writing a novel, and to my surprise sold it.
Writers tend to be either planners, who work out everything in advance, or else they make it up as they go. I am very definitely a make-it-up-as-I-go person. I tried to plan my second novel. The Pericles Commission was sold and I knew I had to produce the next within a year. I thought if I planned it all out in advance the writing would go faster. But it all went wrong! I was totally bored with the writing because I knew what was going to happen. So I threw out the plan, even deleted the file from my computer, and began again. Everything went back to being fun and interesting, and the second came out as good as the first.
Your first novel, The Pericles Commission, is set in ancient Athens. Tell us non-historians what attracts you to that period in time, specifically? (Why not, say, Ancient Rome?)
It was an incredibly exciting time! Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years, during which the people invented almost everything fundamental to western society. Here’s a list of what’s happening in 461BC:
The world’s first democracy has begun. It’s only days old. A sovereign state with one man one vote, free speech for every citizen, written laws and equality before the law, with open courts and trial by jury. Sounds very modern, doesn’t it?
Drama as we know it is being invented. Aeschylus is writing his plays; two young men called Sophocles and Euripides are beginning to write their own.
Scientific ideas are about to explode: Anaxagoras is developing a theory of matter in which everything is made of infinitesimal particles. It’s the beginning of atomic theory.
Herodotus is travelling the world, writing his book, and in the process, founding both history and anthropology.
A young kid called Socrates is outside somewhere, playing in the street, and on the island of Kos, a baby called Hippocrates is born to a doctor and his wife.
Nicolaos begins his career right at the start of those 50 golden years. If he survives, he’ll live to see the founding of western civilization.
Before I start writing, I do massive amounts of research. Because I use a large number of real historical people in the stories, I study their lives in minute detail to make sure I don’t break real history. I’m very keen on the historical accuracy aspect. Because I’m plotting by the seat of my pants as I write, the people and the places have to be well embedded in my brain before I start typing.
This is an outrageous name drop, but I was chatting to Ruth Downie about this over email a few weeks ago. She’s the author of the astoundingly good Ruso mysteries set in Roman Britain. We both agreed that being immersed so heavily in the ancient world makes you view the modern world in a very different way.
Do you also write fiction set in the now? Why or why not? What’s the difference between then and now, fictionally speaking?
I’ve written some contemporary, but it’s not published. I seem to have scored a personal sweet spot with mystery puzzles set in the ancient world.
There is a huge, vast, enormous difference in the fiction settings between the modern and ancient worlds. The ancient world is so long ago, even historically accurate stories can seem to a modern reader like something out of epic fantasy. That’s adds to the fun. Yet people don’t change. Love, fear, ambition, lust, anger, greed, cowardice and valour, intelligence and stupidity… those are the things that drive any society, and they’re a constant, then and now.
From the viewpoint of a mystery author, it’s a freeing experience to write in past times…because there’s no CSI. The CSI effect is really quite restrictive; contemporary authors have to come up with all sorts of reasons why technical analysis shouldn’t solve the puzzle in the first ten pages, and I suspect some authors have to write around the problem. Nicolaos and his friends have only their wits to rely on. I’ve seen The Pericles Commission described as a cozy for that reason, which is lovely, but I think it more accurate to say the book has something in common with the traditional mysteries of the 1950s and 60s: the Christies and Allinghams and Marshes. I’m a huge fan of Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand author. If anyone inspired me in the rigour of tight plotting, it would be her.
How do you research your work?
I read. I read lots, mostly classics written in the 5th century BC, which may sound ultra-nerdy, but really is fascinating. Herodotus was the father of history, and he is researching his great work, which we know as The Histories, at the very moment Nicolaos is solving murders. So I’ve picked a very decent time to be writing in! Herodotus feeds me lots of information, and so do all the other great Greeks whose work remains. (I can absolutely guarantee Herodotus will appear as a character in a later book.)
It’s remarkable how much detail you can pull from extraneous comments in some of the classics. I try hard to make sure everything that goes into the books is either definitely true, or else can’t be proven to be false. That last point is very important! There are some things we know in great detail, such as the politics and, surprisingly, how prostitution worked (useful knowledge since Nico gets into some seriously seedy parts of town). There are other things about which we know practically nothing, such as what music sounded like, how thieves thieved, and most important of all, what motivated the great men and women of the time, and what they were really like. It leaves me free to write some really fun stuff, as long as I’m careful not to break known history. I never knowingly break history. When I plot my stories, I’m playing a game that I call: What Is The Most Dramatic Thing You Can’t Prove Didn’t Happen. Now I’ll pause a few minutes while you work your way through the double negative…
It’s surprising how much information about daily life comes from archaeology and not written history. I get house plans, cooking utensils, boat design, weaponry, clothing pins, bronze mirrors, hair combs, assorted pottery, voting tokens, clothing styles, musical instruments, and all sorts of other stuff from archaeology. The Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the National Archaeology Museum of Athens are my friends.
The Pericles Commission featured a few strong female characters. Who inspires you?
There are certain features of Diotima you’ll find in common with my wife, Helen. Her prodigious ability to quote long texts from memory for a start, so too her attention to detail! But none of the characters are based on anyone I know, and in the case of Euterpe, even if she were based on someone I knew, I’d never admit it.
The truth is, the real women of the time supply me with all the inspiration anyone could need. It’s hard not to look at the historical Diotima, Aspasia, Queen Gorgo, Queen Artemisia, Sappho, Phryne, Hypatia, and plenty of others, and not see that Ancient Greece was well supplied with women you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Does the sequel lead right on from The Pericles Commission, or does it jump to something new?
The next book in the series opens a few months after the close of the first. The third book in the series opens a few days after the close of the second, so my hero is having a very busy year! Which in fact is historically accurate. Because I link the stories to real history, I’m somewhat driven by when things actually happened. The years 460 to 461 BC were among the most momentous in history: minor events such as the founding of western civilisation. I’ll have to slow the pace soon though, or at 3 books per story year I’ll need 180 books to get my heroes through the entire Golden Age of Greece.
Can we expect sea battles in your next novel? If not, why not?
Nico always seems to gravitate to the seediest inns, and you usually find those around ports, so he spends quite a lot of time around ships and sailors, but he’s not the seagoing type. I think you’re going to enjoy meeting the harbour master of Piraeus in the second book though. Nico’s adventures will eventually take him around much of the known world, so like it or not, he’ll be doing some ship travel. In book two Nico will take a trip on Salaminia, the most famous warship of the ancient world, but I’m sorry to say there’s no fighting on board. Among my notes for future books is a scene involving a naval action; I have no idea yet when it will appear!
I actually have a blog post due to write on Greek trireme tactics. It was very sophisticated stuff, much more so than the later Romans who were pretty useless at sea. A trireme was essentially a floating battering ram, and the Greeks turned their use into an art form.
Where to next for you? Will we see more of Nicolas and the gang from The Pericles Commission?
You will indeed. St Martin’s Press has exercised their option for a third book, and we’re talking about a fourth. So it seems we have a living series!
The second book in the series is The Ionia Sanction. Nicolaos must enter the Persian Empire to track down a mystery and meet a military genius. The province he goes to is called, not surprisingly, Ionia, which these days we would call western Turkey.
The third book takes place at the Olympics, which in those days was called the Sacred Games and will probably be the title. An unfortunate death sets the Greek city states against each other, and Nico must solve the killing before war breaks out in the middle of the athletics.
I’ve only this week sent off the copyedit review for The Ionia Sanction. I’m now doing revision of Sacred Games based on early reader feedback. There’ll be a couple more rounds of that, and I’ve begun research for book four.
Anything else you’d like to add??
I’m unbelievably lucky to have a chance to write about these fun people! One thing I didn’t anticipate about having a book published, was how much fun it would be to meet readers from around the world. It’s been eye-opening. There’s a real sense of community among book people.
Thanks, Gary! We’re all looking forward to reading the sequel to the Pericles Commission!
Gary’s website is here. Check it out for more ancient goodies than you can shake a sea battle at!
(Pictures are from Gary’s website, or shamelessly borrowed from the always excellent Wikimedia Commons.)