Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Paula's People: A Conversation With Manda Scott

Manda Scott
PAULA: Hi Manda, thanks for agreeing to chat with me about your writing career and your books.

MANDA: Thank you, I'm honoured and very glad indeed you enjoyed The Emperor's Spy. Did you read the Boudica books? Or did you come to The Emperor's Spy cold, so to speak?

PAULA: I came cold but I'm thinking I must now read the Boudica books.

MANDA: it's a very different style of book [The Emperor's Spy ]- in Boudica, I was laying out who we were before the Romans came, exploring the nature of a culture.  The Rome books arose because I wanted to look at some of the surviving characters, but they're much more in the style of a thriller, and there are 4 of each, which might be a tad too much!

PAULA: OMG i think i just fainted lol; trouble is there is not enough time in the world to read all the books I want to but I could make an exception here. I was really interested in finding out what actually happened to Pantera in Boudica as he reflects on the torture he received.
Paula Lofting

MANDA: Ah - he's not in there.   Various of the others are, but he was a new character, created for The Emperor's Spy.  He goes on through the rest of the Rome series, but he's not back in the history (although there are people who could have been him...) The people who are there are Math and his family, Ajax (under another name) and Valerius. In The Emperor's Spy, Pantera is reflecting on a past that is real to him, but it's not in the Boudica books - it's in that universe, if that makes sense... and similar things happened to Valerius, but there isn't anything I've written (yet) that takes you in more detail into Pantera's past in Britain - in the other Rome books, we find more of his past in other ways, though...

PAULA: Ah I see.Well it all sounds very intriguing! Right now to get down to business with the questions. What influenced you to start writing.

MANDA: Good question. I read obsessively as a child, and was always planning to write: I wrote my first 'book' when I was about 9 years old (and found it recently: first person narrative from the perspective of one of the owls at home - my mother ran a rehab centre for birds of prey... If we looked at specific authors: James Fenimore Cooper - his 'The Last of the Mohicans' was the first thing I bought with my own money. I was obsessed with Alan Garner, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Sewart's 'Crystal Cave' trilogy, later, Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault. My life was reading. And veterinary medicine. But I always planned to do both.

PAULA: Hey that sounds like something out of my life. My earliest influence was Rosemary Sutcliff and when a bit older the Arthurian books by Mary Stewart. I also remember the Owl Service by Alan Garner - I loved anything mysterious and the Romano/British were an excellent conduit for that. I haven't read Rosemary Sutcliff for many years but i definitely noticed an influence in your writing style. Is that a conscious thing, has anyone else ever said that or have you not noticed it before?

MANDA: Really? I re-read 'Eagle of the Ninth' before I wrote 'Eagle of the Twelfth' and I have to say, I didn't notice any similarities, though it was definitely her writing that put me on the spiritual path that I follow - I was not so impressed with the Romans, but I was *desperate* to know what happened behind the goat skin curtain when the priests of the horned moon made their rites. She never showed us, but it's been my life's work to understand it in a way that is real and makes sense and is applicable in the 21st century. I think my more obvious influences are Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault.

PAULA: Well you certainly have an erudite style which is how I once heard someone refer to Rosemary S's work.

MANDA:  Thankyou

PAULA: You’re welcome.

MANDA: I wasn't suggesting you were wrong - I read her in my very formative years... so it may be there, I just don't see it.

PAULA: Perhaps I am wrong - but like I said the erudite style is definitely there. As Elizabeth Chadwick recently said something similar about another author, its like painting a picture with words.
 I understand that your first books were crime thrillers. Can you tell us about them?

MANDA: Hen's Teeth, Night Mares, Stronger than Death were a trilogy, first person, told from the PoV of Dr Kellen Stewart who is a medic and (briefly) a therapist. They are set in Glasgow and the first two plots derive from PhDs I didn't do (genetically engineered eggs with insulin in the albuim and Ketamine in horses). The third came from a newspaper article. The fourth book was a stand alone, 3rd person thriller, much more fast-action, again set in Scotland, but the protagonist is an undercover police detective, Orla Mcleod, who has a past history in the Troubles in Ireland. This one is a whole different league to the first three - and the first one I'd written where the main protagonist is heterosexual.

PAULA: Those all sound like fantastic reads. which one is your favourite?

MANDA: That's really hard... I tend to be in love with the last really good book I read - at the moment, 'Maquis' by George Millar which is an autobiography of his time spent with the French Resistance in '44. Of the ones we've discussed... Mary Renault's 'Fire from Heaven' is one of my desert island books, for sure, tho' I think Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or Robert Wilton's 'Spider of Sarajevo' might eclipse it as the final pick...

PAULA: Haha, I actually meant which of your crime books was your favourite but I was going to ask that question sooner or later anyway. So which one of your crime thrillers did you enjoy writing the most?

MANDA: That question is impossible to answer anyway - I love each book when I'm writing it - each one feels like 'The One' - and then afterwards, I go through a period of loathing it, but always that passes and I can see the bits that were worthwhile and appreciate the process

PAULA: You used to be a vet before turning to writing. Do you ever miss that job?

MANDA: That's easy: no. Or actually, there have been brief flashes - when my step-daughter's dog needed an MRI scan and I went to the clinic run by people with whom I went to college... there was a moment when I saw where I could have been if I'd stayed in vet med. But no. I love the life I have now with ever fibre of my being. I wouldn't swap it for anything. That said, I"m immensely glad that I did it - I can have my own animals and know how to care for them, and the discipline of research has been immensely useful.

PAULA: Now on to Boudica. Where did your ideas come from for the Boudica series?

MANDA: OK, I"m in the middle of the heavy phase of the new book, so my brain space is limited, but in essence: I wanted to find out who we were before the Roman invasion, which is, to my mind, the point when our culture/civilisation began to fall apart, when we lost our connection to the land and became its enemies. So I needed a figurehead and the woman who led the armies of resistance against Rome, was that figure. At least in Britain, if nowhere else in the world, people knew roughly who she was. They may not have known anything else about her, but the name has resonance. So the Boudica books grew out of that.

PAULA: I'm pleased that you didn't call her Boadicea! Lol.
I understand what you mean about losing our respect and connection for nature. And i never thought about it being then. The missionaries who came over to convert the pagans had their part to play in turning people away from nature, but I like to think that some of the old customs that still carried on reflected that time in our history.

MANDA: If Rome had not conquered Britain, or at least, if the conquest had failed at the time of the Boudican revolt, then Nero would have fallen, very likely Seneca would have taken his place and the expansionism that followed would, I think, have halted. Added to that, the resurgence of the druids in Western Europe (there was a Druidic revolt in Gaul in the 70s, which failed for lack of input) would have driven Rome out of Britain, Gaul, maybe Belgium, the north countries - and already half of Germany was non-Roman. So Rome would have shrunk, druids would have flourished - and I think Christianity would have withered as did so many other tiny, irrelevant blood cults. Without it, the Norse invasion would more likely have been repelled and the whole concept of the Anglo-Saxon would not have existed. No Norman invasion. No imposition of feudal society. No Empire. No invasion of the Americas, no genocide. All because one battle when the wrong way...

PAULA: Wow, thats an amazing concept for alternative history. No Norman invasion would have been good - lol, not so sure about no Anglo Saxonism though - lol. But I think eventually Christianity would have risen again somehow.
How much do we actually know about Boudica as a person. Can you tell us what your research turned up for her?

MANDA: That's easy. There are 2 paragraphs in Tacitus. And that's it. We know *nothing else at all*. Still, it's contemporaneous and relevant because his father in law a legate in the legions she fought against. So there's more than there is, for - say- Christ - but still not very much.

PAULA: Sorry Manda can you explain that last sentence?

MANDA: There is at least a contemporaneous 'living eye to living eye' account of Boudica where we know that the people giving the accounts were a) real people b) when they existed and c) what else they wrote/thought/said. And there are coins marked with 'the Eceni' and there are layers of ash in London, Colchester and St Albans all of the same era, consistent with the Boudican revolt that burned all 3 to the ground. Which is massively more evidence for the existence of *someone* who led a revolt than there is for Christ, who, as far as I can tell, didn't actually exist and for whom there is *no evidence at all*. (I think we have one myth made of out the life stories of 3 different people). Make sense now?

PAULA: So onto the next question, your Rome series, Ive read the first one and am looking forward to continuing with the sequels.  I loved the characters and the way they interacted with each other. I especially liked the relationship between Pantera (such an awesome name) and Math. Have you based Pantera on anyone particular or is he entirely of your own imagination?

MANDA - He's entirely my imagination - although his name - Pantera - comes from 2 sources: One of the earliest Christian texts says that the man we know of as Christ was the 'son of Pantera' and nobody knew what that meant until a grave stone was found on the banks of the Rhine detailing 'Julius Abdes Pantera' who was an archer in Syria and then moved to Germany: so this is Pantera's father and his son - whom we get to know is named for the emperor Augustus: Sebastos is the Greek equivalent.

PAULA: Yes I love the inclusion of the Christian thing, very spiritual and mysterious Another character I particualrly grew to like was Ajax. His character development made the story really interesting. Did Ajax's personality develop as you wrote or did he take hold of his own story?

MANDA: Ajax is Cunomar [in the Boudica books]... so I knew him intimately anyway. Part of the reason for writing it was to give him the space to grow that he hadn't had in Britannia.

PAULA: Ah yes! Well he is a great character.
You write your scenes vivdly, especially the ones with the chariot racing. What research did you undertake to create such amazingly enthralling scenes?

MANDA: I was a horse vet for 15 years? Other than that... I have friends who drive horses, so I know the basics. The rest is pure fiction.

PAULA:Wow that's pretty awesome then .
Right, were nearly at the end
How do you take your Rome characters forward in the next books without giving too much away?

MANDA: I follow the timeline of what was happening in the Roman Empire at the time - with a focus on the obvious next moves of Pantera's sworn enemy, Saulos (aka St Paul, one of the most obscenely spun individuals in the history of our civilisation)

PAULA: Ah yes the dastardly Saulos. Every good novel needs a villain. He plays his part well.
 Righto, finally Manda, Where to now for you?

MANDA: The Jeanne d'Arc book needs one more edit for the American market (actually, I've said that before. I said it last July, and that was 6 edits ago) but it's basically done. Next is ACCIDENTAL GODS which is another dual time line novel, with the contemporary thread following on the time line of the surviving characters from The Girl Who Walked Through Fire and the historical thread is based in the latter phases of WWII and on into the cold war. I am in the reading phase now and am completely obsessed. Of all the historical periods I've looked at this, is by far the most accessible, has the most depth of reading available, and it the most complex. Added to that, the events of then have a direct impact on now in ways that are far easier to tease out than the more nebulous impact of the Roman invasion and colonisation of Britain. So this one could take a while, but the end result should be pleasingly incendiary.

PAULA: Well. it all sounds amazing Manda. Thanks so much for your in depth answers. I've really enjoyed chatting with you and wish you well for the future. Is there anything else you would like to tell us before we wrap up?

MANDA: I think that's about it - I'm immersed in 1943/44 and will emerge in due course with a book that will, I hope, cause people to think about where we are, how we got here and if it's where we want to be...

I hope you have enjoyed my conversation with Manda Scott. Here is a bio of Manda's writing career as MC SCOTT

M.C. Scott (also known as Manda Scott) Novelist, columnist and broadcaster  trained as a veterinary surgeon in Glasgow and worked at the Universities of Cambridge and Dublin, specialising in anaesthesia. A brief three year stint as a Director of the computer games company, Frontier Developments (Elite, Frontier First Encounter, Wallace and Gromit; Elite: Dangerous) bridged the gap from veterinary medicine to writing.

Her novels have been short listed for an Orange Prize, nominated for an Edgar Award and translated into over twenty languages. She was a long term columnist for the Glasgow Herald, is a reviewer for the Independent and has contributed to the Telegraph, Times, Daily Express and BBC History Magazine. She has appeared on Time Team as an expert on the Boudican era and contributed to Radios 4 & 5.

She is honoured to be Founder and current Chair of the HWA and looks forward to the association's continued growth. When not writing, or writing about writing, (or blogging, facebooking and tweeting about writing), she competes at canine agility and teaches shamanic dreaming courses and, of course, the occasional Arvon week somewhere beautiful in the UK countryside.

Her latest novel is Rome: The Art of War. In preparation is a dual timeline novel of Jeanne d'Arc which lifts the lid on centuries of spin: whatever & whoever else she was, she absolutely wasn't a peasant girl who happened to get on a horse and found she could carry a lance.

Twitter name hare_wood and click here for her website.

1 comment:

  1. Oh I have so enjoyed this 'chat' between Paula and Manda! So interesting, so engaging, and it's a joy to read how someone like Manda Scott researches her work. Interesting, also, to read that Manda was a vet. Another author I read was also a vet, Ben Kane, though obviously not a prerequisite to writing historical fiction !! Kudos Paula! Great Interview!