Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Louise Interviews Prue Batten About Her New Book, Tobias

Tobias by Prue Batten
Byzantium stretches a weakening grip across Eastern Europe, trying in vain to hold onto all that has made it an empire. Tyrian purple, the unique die that denotes its power, is held under close guard by the imperial house.
However a Jewish merchant from Venice has sourced an illegal supply and Tobias the dwarf minstrel and his twin brother, Tomas, begin a dangerous journey to retrieve the purple and deliver it into the merchant's eager hands.
But is this supply as secret as they had hoped?
Trade is cut throat, men are expendable, money is power and Constantinople provides the exotic backdrop during a time of scimitars and shadows.
This is Tobias - the story of a minstrel and a broken life...
Prue Batten

Welcome, Prue, thank you so much for joining me here today to chat about your new book, Tobias. 

I have really been looking forward to interviewing you about your new book, especially so, as you have left some very intriguing, 'end of the writing day', snippets from Tobias, from time to time, on Facebook.

For me, choosing an eponymous title is brave, because it gives nothing away to prospective readers. With that in mind, where did you first get the idea to write Tobias’ story?

Tobias was an endearing character in my previous trilogy, The Gisborne Saga where he first appeared in Book of Knights. In those books, he was a funny minstrel as capable of wielding a sword as a song, and he had a way of creeping under one’s skin. But of course, he had a condition that could have made or broken him during the Middle Ages, so I always knew there must be dark juxtaposed to light within. One day, my editor, John Hudspith, said, ‘You know, Tobias has a story! Why don’t you tell it?’It was a matter then, of finding the plot that would reveal his life. And find it, I did. Or to be more correct, and as is often the case – IT found me!

Tobias has a twin, Tomas. Tobias has dwarfism, (achondroplasia), does Tomas suffer from the same disease?

Rather than a disease, it should be considered a genetic condition and yes, Tomas is also a little person. There may be recorded instances of one twin being born normally and the other with achondroplasia, but for my purpose, Tomas and Toby were identical twins in every way, except for a widow’s peak on their hairline.

Having a character(s) with achondroplasia must have presented quite a few problems. I know that when you write, you are particular about collecting as much information as you can before you start, and carry on with the research as you go. Researching this condition, must have raised more questions than it answered, initially. For example, the way that the torso is compressed because of the curvature of the spine; this must create breathing problems, I would have thought. Also, the shortening of the limbs, legs particularly, must have been a more debilitating condition to endure in the time in which you have set Tobias. How did this affect your character?

Initially, I knew nothing. My first instinct was to google it and in so doing I found a wonderful blog, www.dwarfaware.wordpress.com. It’s owner, Jenovesia Porteo, has a wonderful son, Jax, with the genetic condition. Jenovesia generously answered every single question I have had through the writing process, including the seriously relevant ones of how Tobias and Tomas would cope with the rigours of the Middle Ages. There are certain acts that could kill outright and she would stop me in mid-flow and say, ‘No, that’s not possible.’
Little people can suffer claudication (compression) of the spine with certain hard physical activity, also their elbows and wrists are often fused and they can have bowlegs so bone pain is a given. As a horse-rider myself, I know how uncomfortable a hard day in the saddle can be. Imagine for a little person…
But Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones) once said, ‘I am not defined by my size.’ And ultimately that’s EXACTLY how I wanted Tobias (and Tommaso) to be seen.

I know that you have a love of embroidery. Therefore, you will have an ardent love of colour. Tyrian purple, a gloriously heady colour, of which I know little, other than it comes from sea snails. It’s understandable, therefore, that it would, by definition, be rare, and expensive. What gave you the idea of using this colour as a theme for your novel?

There are two dyes which were highly sought after in the Middle Ages. One was purple, made from the Murex sea snails across the Adriatic, as you mentioned, and the other was red, made from kermes, the insect scale often found on oaks in the Mediterranean. For my purpose, with the Byzantines completely controlling the purple, I was enticed into a civilisation that gave so much to the modern world. I was sold on Tyrian Purple the moment I read the word ‘Byzantine’…

When you were in the early stages of writing Tobias, you posted on Facebook, on several occasions, that Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones, was the image that you held for Tobias. How important was that for you, to have Peter Dinklage’s image as a guide for Tobias?

Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones)

Very early on in my writing career, Pat Sweet, from, Bopress Miniature Books, talked to me about actors. She had been a theatre costume designer in Los Angeles in a previous life and she said to me: ‘Watch actors convey mood with their body, with their face, with their hands. Just watch.’ So I did. I found the slightest tic could be loaded, conveying the dimensions and nuances of a character. In respect of Tobias, it was doubly important because I knew no little people at all. So I watched every move Peter Dinklage made, listened to the timbre of his voice, and in the end he became Tobias for me.

I know that you have accumulated many photos on Pinterest, in relation to your research for Tobias. Many authors, including myself, like to travel to the places about which they write, within reason, of course. Do you feel that your meticulous research, which is evident in every book that you have written, would have been complimented by going to Venice, (who needs an excuse to go to Venice?) and Istanbul? And if so, why?

I have been to Venice as it happens. Quite some time ago admittedly, but I was a creature of journal-writing then, so I have a handy pile of handwritten notes from all over Europe and England. Even then, I dealt more with the sensory experience than anything, so that helped me enormously. As to Venice in the twelfth century – it was an archipelago of islets with trees and wildflowers and little flat bridges joining the place together. Saint Marks was in the process of construction, and the power of Venice as a trading centre was just on the rise, so vastly different to say, one hundred and fifty years later when things became legendary. 
Map of Constantinople
But Istanbul/Constantinople was a problem. I had never been there and so I trawled every single thing I could find on YouTube and immersed myself in the place. I read diaries from nineteenth century travellers, and then, most importantly, I relied on a friend who has lived there for many years and is still there and who had her children in the city. As I said in my Acknowledgements, she endeavoured ‘to find the unfindable’ because the reality is that twelfth century Constantinople was destroyed twice over. First in the Fourth Crusade and secondly in the Ottoman Conquest, so I faced a dilemma. But then I found http://www.byzantium1200.com/ and it became my library, my google maps, my wiki, my everything. It is a complete 3D reconstruction of everything I needed to know.

When you typed the last line of Tobias, were you sad, elated, or surprised that you had, in fact, come to the end?

Elated. It was quite a harrowing book to write and as the last words emerged, a sigh of content issued forth.

Tobias is the first in a series of three - The Triptych Chronicles – Will we see Tobias’ character carried through to the other books, or will we be treated to a completely new set of characters?

He will come and go, as will Sir Guy of Gisborne, William of Gisborne, Lady Ysabel, Mehmet al Din and others we have come to love. The next book is about Guillaume of Anjou, the Angevin archer who readers will remember from Book of Kings.
Aqueduct - Istanbul/Constantinople

I love your book covers, they are all exquisite. So, I’d love to chat with you about the cover for Tobias. I know that your daughter, Clare, designed it, and it is beautifully done, and I might add, that Tobias looks quite handsome, too. I know that you consider the cover of your books as important as the story inside. What makes you decide on the composition of your covers? What is the hook that tells you that this cover is going to work?

To be honest, I have little input in my covers. My daughter is very intuitive and we chat a little about a mood I wish to convey and we look together online for suitable portraits as we both feel close-up detail indicates that this (and the other two in the trilogy) is a very personal story. But juxtaposition and font, dark or light shading, placement, overlays of other images, I leave to her. She has won awards for her broader graphics work involving branding here in Australia, so I’m in good hands. Both she and I agree that we don’t want stock photographic images, that we want patina and a sense of a ‘Times Past’ and she manages to do that for me. She has designed eleven covers for me now. We changed covers early on when she suggested to me that a series should be bound by common threads. In The Chronicles of Eirie, you will see a border on each of the four books, on The Gisborne Saga, there is a similar mood created by a head and shoulders portrait, and this series will have the partial and very close-up portrait for each book. Each series has its own beautiful font. She also uses the faintest overlays or underlays – like a ghost whispering the story.

She also designed my website with a very talented web builder, Kim Maisch. Add to that my editor, John Hudspith, my e-formatter, Daniel Gillan, and my publisher, Darlington Press, and I’m really lucky that I have a very professional team.
Sea Wall

I know, by your posts on Facebook, that you enjoy the editing and proofreading process. For some authors this is a daunting prospect. I will count myself as one of those authors. Do you have a particular routine for editing and proofreading? What makes it enjoyable for you?

I write in long hand, so the simple act of transcribing to the computer is the first edit. Then each writing day, I read what I have transcribed the day before and edit again. That’s the process. When I have finished the novel, I print it off, do a red pen edit which takes into account historical facts. Then I send it to John Hudspith Editing Services for a definitive structural and line edit and then it comes back to me with track changes. Then I do a final read through and check that I am happy with it as a reader’s book and that’s it. 
I think the reason I enjoy it is that I like refining things, tidying, turning rough to smooth, making things work. And I’m learning all the time. And I love learning…

Finally, Prue, I know that you lead somewhat of a busy life, having a farm to run on that beautiful island of Tasmania. Do you have a special place to write, and where do you find the time to write?

Writing for me is an escape into another world entirely. I just love it. I write mostly at night and as I write in longhand, that’s invariably in bed with pad and pen. I transcribe onto a Macbook Air, so the little machine can be with me anywhere and everywhere. I don’t have a ‘space’ as such. It’s rather nice really, it means I write wherever I want, with a view out a window during the day, or tucked up on a cold night. Although, I am finding that more of the computer work must be done at a standing station because I have degeneration in some neck joints. Bah, the penalty of an ageing body! But my parting comment is that if one really loves what one is doing, one will make time to do it. Life’s too short not to!


Louise, I have loved these questions. Thank you so much for interviewing me, and thank you also to readers for spending the time learning about Tobias.

Thank you, Prue, it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, and learning about your journey with Tobias! 

You can find Prue Batten on the following links:
Prue Batten's blog - Facebook - Amazon - Goodreads - Pinterest

Louise Rule is author of Future Confronted


  1. Tidy writing is beautiful writing. Tidy writing is the result of meticulous orchestration; the facts, the fiction, colour, depth and weave. Simply take 120,000 words and put them in the right order, eh? Prue tidies so well!

  2. Great interview Louise, love Tobias��

    1. Libby, thank you so much. Tobias is a wonderful book.

  3. This is one of the best author interviews I have read. Not the customary canned dialogue. Tobias is wonderful

    1. Thank you Linda, that's a wonderful compliment.