Saturday, 25 March 2017

Diana talks to SJA Turney

Author’s interview – 2017. Diana talks to a rotund numpty J (His words, not mine!) 

Hi, Mr S J A Turney. This sounds a bit formal. May I call you Simon? OK.
First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!

Coming back to this ...

If your latest book, Invasion – A Tale of the Empire,

was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

Well, now, there are 4 lead characters, with a good share of screen time, so let me see… No. I’ve thought about this for at least half an hour now, and the problem is that I am completely out of touch with the acting generation. I still picture people like Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman when people say things like this. I can’t remember the name of a single actor under 50 at this exact time. Maybe I should have a poll on social media and see what everyone thinks? Or maybe I should try not to be so out of date that I still crave a wooden telly that runs on string, cogs and elastic bands.

What made you choose this genre?

Fantasy is my guilty pleasure. A chance to escape the bonds of the historical narrative and play around with the way the world works. But even then, my fantasy is heavily influenced by history because that’s true of most aspects of my life, from décor to holiday destinations. ‘Invasion’ is tightly linked to the Roman Invasion of Britain, as any even passing student of the era will quickly recognise. But essentially, yes, it is because I love to make stuff up. And in fantasy you can make stuff up more than in any other genre! It’s like a giant box of mental lego.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

I am at the mercy of the gremlins in my head. I have at least a book idea a week. And a shower, a walk, a long drive, anything that gives me pause for thought means at least one new idea will pop into my head, be it a character, a situation or a plot. And places? Well, sometimes I go in search of locations and experience them, photograph them, walk then, smell them and so on in order to truly communicate them. Other times I will just be travelling and be struck by how much a place needs to be used in a book. The upshot is: I really don’t know. I don’t plan it. Inspiration hits me like a DAF truck every 10 minutes. It can be quite wearing, and I occasionally get distressed by the realisation that in my life I will only have time to write a tenth of the stories I want to tell.

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

I keep toying with a horror novel, which, given my reputation for battle and scenes of violence might not be a huge step, but that is pie in the sky, I think. There are too many people too much better at it than me. What I would really love to do is write humour like my heroes Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. And I’ve tried on odd occasions, but it’s really hard. I can pepper my work with humour, but to anchor a whole book on it? Who can be funny so consistently? One day, perhaps I’ll do it. I still plan to write the story of my grandfather, too, which would be full of howlers. Being shot down repeatedly by his own side in the war. Catching flies with Polish pilots. Walking into windows. Endless one-liners. He was a character.

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.

I wrote (badly, I’m sure) as a kid. And I used to love writing stories at school and was always deemed ‘more creative than academic’. In 6th form and higher education, I gained a level of notoriety with tutors for twisting the meanings of essay titles so that I could write what I wanted to. I was a master at it. And at Uni I started writing short stories. Never shown them to anyone as far as I can remember, and since they were written on a 20mb Amstrad and saved to a 5.25” floppy disk, they’re now  long gone. I remember one was about the crew of a Klingon Warbird, which labels me a geek more than anything, I suppose. But I started writing properly partially as an experiment and partially through boredom. I wanted to know if Caesar’s De Bello Gallico could be made more accessible, and decided to try turning it into a novel. Marius’ Mules was born from that and has been far more successful than I ever hoped. At the time I ran a computer network for an Insurance company. I spent one day a week working like a fruitcake, running around and firefighting problems, and the other 4 days waiting for another issue to arise. I filled in my free time by writing, so I was rather lucky, really. It became a full time career in 2012 following redundancy, which rather forced my hand.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?

Ooh, I’m a hater. Can’t even eat Twiglets. ‘Orrible. Tastes like monkey rectum. (At least, I have that on good authority from a marmoset.) (Laughing. Loudly!!)

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...?

Too many to mention. Coffee on tap ‘til lunchtime, then maybe a beer during the afternoon. Used to be always my Picasso Don Quixote mug until it broke! L Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Insomnium’s Winter’s Gate are currently my listens of choice, but it varies from time to time. There is always a soundtrack, though. There has to be, or in the quiet my brain works too hard and I start to accidentally multitask. You have no idea the problems that causes. I have two screens on my PC and they have to have the appropriate windows on each one. Everything on my desk needs to be in the right place. I am one for routine and ritual, you see.

I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?

Ah, simple. Always the family. I’m a family man foremost. Our family are very tight-knit. My wife’s family have lived in the same village since her grandparents moved here, and mine came before the first war. Three generations all in the same village and two more in the churchyard. Because family is continuity, and continuity is history. It all ties in. My kids, I hope, will grow up wanting to continue on in the village and maintain those same values. Hmm. Might have gone off point a little there, but you get the idea.

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I had a friend who was given by a university the task of cataloguing ancient remains in Turkey. The lake of envy I found was so deep I almost drowned in it. If I could support the family by travelling around the world and cataloguing ancient sites, I would even drop the writing! Travel is one of my greatest loves. Always with home to anchor me at the end of trips, mind…

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Usually for me it’s coffee. I love a good coffee. Preferably half a dozen. Cortados, or Americanos or Turkish, I don’t mind. I drink coffee every day. Unless I’m ill or dehydrated in which case for some reason my body craves tea instead and I switch. But only on rare occasions. And I like both red and white. I started with red, since we used to caravan round Europe when I was a teenager. I remember the plastic bottles of French red for 3.5 francs from the supermarkets close to the caravan sites. And still better than a £5 bottle in the UK. I switched solely to white for about a decade when for some reason red started to give me awful headaches, but that has also changed over time and I’m having a bit of a red renaissance again now.

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

I begin with an idea, then stretch it out to a one page outline. Then that gets chopped into parts and chapters. Then I expand that out so that I have a full chapter plan with details of what I’m writing in each chapter. Sometimes the plans can be almost 10k words on their own! But then, without a detailed careful plan, I’d have nothing from which to deviate when I get wild, mad epiphanies mid-draft!

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

I am arial, 10 point McBoring. I like to write my drafts in that. Partially because I find it the easiest and most relaxing to read, and also because I know the rough word-count of a page in that font, and now many words in an average line. I can judge things at a glance. But really with the printed word? I just read it as it comes. Different publishers like different things. As long as it’s legible and neat, it suits me.

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

God’s diary. No… err… the dedication page of the Bible. ‘To my wife Joan…’ In truth there are too many. I would love to read a number of lost texts. I’m not sure whether it counts, but I would ove to see an intact copy of the Forma Urbis – the giant marble map of Severan Rome that now only exists in a thousand broken fragments. That probably tops my list. And I’m waiting to read the early Roman documents found in London recently. Once, when my grandfather had his printing shop in Ripon, a local noble family brought in a document for copying in the 80s and I got to hold that, which is a high point for me, as it was signed by one of my heroes: Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?

Happens all the time. All. The. Time. I have careful character arcs, but then the characters develop all that irritating personality as they grow and suddenly they have to do more to fit their new persona. Only once did it ever change a tale significantly. Usually I can weave it back in. Sometimes, when it happens and I’m left baffled, I take a day out and go walking until the answer strikes me. But it always does in the end. Once I killed off a character far earlier than intended because he just damn well wouldn’t behave…

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

I tend to write in my comfort zone (Roman/Byzantine) and so I’m confident enough with my knowledge that I don’t do a lot of preparatory research. A little reading on events and personalities and so on. But once I’m writing half of every day is research. Because it’s only when you need to add a bitter fruit that you need to check precisely what fruits were available in Gaul in 50BC. And it’s only when your character needs to find a priest that you wonder ‘what did priests do all day when there wasn’t a festival on?’ Locations, though, I like to experience. I believe the very best descriptive in books can only come from experience. If you’ve worn the armour and you’ve climbed the hill fort, then you stand a better chance of communicating the experience of that to the reader. A location isn’t just terrain. It’s temperature. Smell. Feel. So I try to visit anywhere I intend to write about and soak it up.

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

Hmm. Not sure there. Clodius Pulcher was irritating in Marius’ Mules, but I knew he had a fun end to come, so I relished that. Actually, Commius. A Gallic leader, whose last screen time I completely ignored, because it really did not fit in with the flow of the series. He was pootling around on the edge of things and outside normal campaigning time and I couldn’t work out how best to tell his tale, so I didn’t. Ya, boo, sucks to you, Commius. J Actually, with my Ottoman Cycle, when I came to the fourth and final book and had the circle to close and all the loose ends to tie up a number of real characters irritated me by either being in the way or not being there to use.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

I do. But I go away from then rather than against them. I refuse to get history wrong for the sake of a plot. But I will add to it. I did it in Marius’ Mules IX by throwing in an entire fictional campaign in the Pyrenees because I had a gap in the timeline to fill, and some backstory to tie in. It was too good an opportunity. But while there was a whole lot of fictional stuff in there it was all based at root on historical reality. Because once you start playing with that you’re no longer writing historical fiction. You’re writing fantasy. And there is a place for that – see point 2!

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

Have you been peeking at my notes for my talk at Alderney Literary Festival? Because I touch rather heavily on that there. There is blurring by nature to my mind, because only half at best of our knowledge of the past comes from actual evidence (archaeology). The rest is either the opinion of ancient writers, who could so easily have been mistaken or making it all up, and from using logic to fill in gaps in the historical record. Half of history is fiction. Look at the Trojan War for example. So, most definitely they are blurred lines. J

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

Once or twice, yes. If you can’t hate your villain, then there’s a good chance no one else will. If you can’t love your hero will anyone else? My own emotions are a yardstick for whether I’ve succeeded with a character. I still have to wipe away a tear when I read the epilogue to Interregnum, and it’s been over a decade since I wrote that, and I’ve read it many times. My new villain in Marius’ Mules X is an interesting one, though. In no way black and white. I think I like him. It is, of course, fine to be bored with a hero but love the bad guy. Otherwise I’d never have made it through Dexter.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

I read a lot of Historical Fiction, some fantasy, a lot of non-fiction, and some humour. But what I’ve recently got rather a taste for is 20th century murder mysteries and thrillers. Michael Ridpath’s Traitor’s Gate was the best book I read all that year (2 years ago). And last year I read Luke McCallin’s Inspector Reinhardt whodunnits.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

I would never presume… But if I were to, I think a light, dry red. It’s a fantasy novel, but as I noted fairly heavily influenced by Rome, so red wine is the most appropriate. You probably wouldn’t want to mix it with water, though like the Romans did.

Last but not least... favourite author?

An easy one for me. Always Guy Gavriel Kay. An author who cut his teeth on the original fantasy by helping Christopher Tolkien gather together his father’s notes and turning them into the Silmarillion. I read his first solo book when it came out in ’84, and have been a devoted fan ever since. He writes fantasy that is so closely identified with historical eras and locations that they are fictional reflections of our own reality, and he does it with such passion and power that he has yet to write a work that does not move me to my core.

Thank you Simon. I really enjoyed this!

(He's not that rotund, is he???)

Simon Turney is an author of Roman and medieval historical fiction, gritty historical fantasy and rollicking Roman children's books.

He lives with his family and extended menagerie of pets in rural North Yorkshire. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of the country, he divides his time between staring at a computer screen while surrounded by the natural glory of the Yorkshire Dales and charging around the world wherever he can find the breathtaking remains of the classical era.

Since leaving school and University, Simon has tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even painting and decorating sales. He has lived in four counties but never strayed far from his beloved Yorkshire.

While struck with ennui at the corporate world in 2003 Simon, a lover of Roman history, decided to combine writing and history with a new look at Caesar's diaries. Marius' Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum - an attempt to create a new fantasy world with a flavour of Rome. Since then, the success and popularity of both has spawned sequels to each work. Simon's portfolio has expanded over the years to include a series set in the medieval era (The Ottoman Cycle), a series of Roman thrillers (Praetorian), and most recently a new series of Roman novels for children.

As well as his website at, Simon maintains a website detailing the Roman sites he visits at, and a blog at He can be found on Twitter as @SJATurney and on Facebook at (His comments make me laugh on FB every day!)
© Diana Milne January 2017 © S.J.A. Turney 2017


  1. Oh I ABSOLUTELY loved reading this! Fabulous answers! Thank you Diana and Simon, this was pure joy to read, and very enlightening.

  2. Great interview. Just bought Invasion and read the prologue - "trailing destiny like a cloak of stars" - wonderful. I'm going to enjoy this.

  3. STOP PRESS!!!



    Retweeted Orion Publishing (@orionbooks):

    We’re delighted to welcome @SJATurney to Orion! #Caligula, first in The Damned Emperors series, publishing Spring 2018 @sallyanne_s