Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interview: Alison Morton

I now present my interview with friend of The Update, Alison Morton:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’ve been a wordsmith much of my life - storyteller, playwright (aged 7!), article writer, local magazine editor and professional translator. Working in a variety of fields – Government service, the City of London, as a European head-hunter (not the real ones – executive search!), a Territorial Army officer and a translation company owner – I can draw on a wide range of experience to fuel my novels. I completed a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics and in 2006 a masters’ in history. I now live in south-western France with my husband. Following the publication of my history eBook Military or Civilians? The curious anomaly of the German Women’s Auxiliary Services during the Second World War, I became an Associate Member of the Society of Authors.

What is the Territorial Army?

It’s the reserve land forces in the UK. Although enlisted personnel are legally civilians, many members serve a tour in theatre now with the regular forces, especially if they have specialised competence or expertise. TA officers are under military rules at all times but are ‘permitted’ to carry on with their civilian lives unless serving in theatre or on mission.

The TA is not exactly parallel, but equivalent to the National Guard in the US.

What got you interested in alternate history?

The trigger was Robert Harris’ Fatherland set in a 1964 Germany where Nazi Germany had won the war. Even as I waited to pay at the counter, I was already intrigued by the idea of an alternate path of history. Published in 1992, Fatherland was intrinsically a political thriller written at the time the whole of Europe was attempting to realign after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the East/West Iron Curtain imposed after the Second War World. Excellent timing by Robert Harris!

Then I started looking for similar ‘what if’s and found Keith Roberts’ Pavane, the story of an England under Spanish domination after the Spanish Armada had succeeded with its invasion. The characters were ordinary people, labouring to make sense of their lives and struggling to take their society forward. But I couldn’t find any Roman alternates then apart from Roma Eterna which while cleverly structured and very detailed but weakened by stodgy writing. Romanitas in 2006 was a much better story, centred around real people. It intrigued me from the start.

What is INCEPTIO about?

New York, present day. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.

Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus who rescued her in America, isolates her.

Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it...

What inspired you to write the novel?

Two events separated by many years!

The first was when I was on holiday in north-east Spain one summer. I was eleven and fascinated by the mosaics in the Roman part of Ampurias (a huge Graeco-Roman site). I wanted to know who had made them, whose houses they were in, who had walked on them.

After my father explained about traders, senators, power and families, I tilted my head to one side and asked him, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism surfacing or maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smartass question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”

Real life intervened (school, university, career, military, marriage, parenthood, business ownership, move to France), but the idea bubbled away in my mind and the INCEPTIO story slowly took shape. My mind was morphing the setting of ancient Rome into a new type of Rome, a state that survived the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire into the 21st century, but retaining its Roman identity. And one where the social structure changed; women were going to be leading society.

But what actually started me writing INCEPTIO? One Wednesday I’d gone to the local multiplex cinema with my husband. Thirty minutes into the film, we agreed it was really, really bad. The cinematography was good, but the plot dire and narration uneven.

‘I could do better than that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema.

‘So why don’t you?’ came my husband’s reply.

Ninety days later, I’d written 96,000 words, the first draft of INCEPTIO.

What sources were particularly helpful when researching for the novel?

Classical texts, but Pliny, Suetonius, Caesar’s Gallic Wars in particular, plus my years of visiting sites and museums throughout Europe. My father had introduced me to history and especially to the Roman world. So much so, that it seemed perfectly normal to clamber over Roman aqueducts, walk on mosaic pavements, follow the German limes, pretend I was a Roman playactor in classic theatres all over Europe from Spain to then Yugoslavia, from Hadrian’s Wall to Pompeii.

I’d also spent six years in the reserve forces, which gave me experience of military life first hand and enabled me to write the later scenes in INCEPTIO.

But the most important source for any writer is other people’s books. Not plagiarising (the gods forbid!) but reading what is out there. Writers must read within their genre and learn the traditions and ‘rules’. It’s a plain fact that readers will be disappointed if you jolt them off the path they expect. I don’t mean your writing should be predictable, but that it should not be implausible. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union can be wild at times, but for all its quirkiness it stays within the genre.

Who designed the cover?

The clever and extremely talented team at SilverWood Books! I collected images of covers I thought attractive and saleable over the three months before mine was designed, and sent them in with a request for imperial purple and gold as dominant colours. It was a fabulous result that has made INCEPTIO a very attractive product which shouts ‘pick me’ or ‘click me’. It even won a cover competition two days before publication day.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I’m working on book two of the series, PERFIDITAS (Betrayal). I drafted it a little while ago, but it’s been ‘in the drawer’ for several months. It’s a thriller again, but gets more to core of Roma Novan society.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just finished The Labyrinth of Osiris by Paul Sussman, a thriller set in modern day Egypt and Israel, but with many historical links. It’s beautifully written with a gripping plot and excellent characterisation. Not sure what I’m going to look at next...

Do you have advice for would-be authors?

Bash the story out. If you pause too long beautifying individual scenes at this stage, you risk losing the narrative flow. You’re first and foremost a storyteller; the story is the most important thing.

Put it away for at least six weeks, then do the first self-edit, checking the plot structure, deleting the dreadful parts and working on the sloppy bits. Then back into the drawer and start the next project.

Out of the drawer comes the first novel a few months later and this time you scrutinise each sentence word by word, forcing each one to justify its existence. Then you have something ready for sending to a professional editor.

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