Having just read Black Ships, I find myself contented and smiling; the book was a wonderful read, and I recommend it to any lover and ancient history, romance and adventure. J I’m sure all of you out there who also read the book and enjoyed it will be pleased to know that the author of Black Ships, Jo Graham, has agreed to an interview, so without further ado, here’s Jo Graham! :-)
First off, it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to interview you, Jo; welcome to the South African historical/fantasy-reading public! :-) Will you please tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, your influences and loves (both in the world of books and outside of it)?
I’m sure it’s no surprise that one of my greatest influences is Cape Town writer Mary Renault! If I could give my left arm to have written one book, it would be Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. I would say that she’s a major influence both in choice of material and in the presentation. In The Persian Boy she also uses a first person narrator, and that is one of the things that gives tremendous immediacy to events and cultures long gone. This is also true of her The Mask of Apollo and The Last of the Wine, two other books I would consider tremendous influences. Her writing is endlessly graceful, but you can see the swift flow of muscle beneath the prose.
Another influence would be James Mitchener’s Tales of the South Pacific. While most people today know it as the musical South Pacific, the novel it’s based on is quite different, much more serious. And like Mary Renault, he’s taking the reader to a place not so far removed in time, but so different from the experience of most readers that it seems strange and uncharted territory. That’s the kind of journey I’d like to take readers on — to step into a life very different from their own and wear someone else’s skin.
What led you to write Black Ships, and can you tell us a bit about the journey of starting the novel through to getting it published?
I started writing Black Ships purely for my own enjoyment, and started posting it in bits on the internet for my friends all over the world, who were reading it as a serial. One of them was the friend of a literary agent, and she showed it to the agent who sold it. It was actually entirely unexpected!
When reading the novel, we see, hear, feel and experience the ancient Mediterranean through Gull: was it difficult to stay in her head and keep her voice suited to that world? I’m asking because your writing never wavered and totally immersed us in Gull’s world. :-)
Actually, I never found it difficult to stay in Gull’s head. What I found hard was to find the language to express what was there in terms that a modern person would understand. Gull doesn’t have the vocabulary to put things in our terms. For example, how to explain the crashing disasters at the end of the Bronze Age without words like economics, ecology, plate tectonics, technological change? Those words don’t even exist — they’re the product of the Classical world that comes after, the world of the rise of states after this period of disaster. So part of the challenge is to show the events without using any of the words a modern reader would use to describe them!
When you set out to write Gull’s story, did you know exactly where you would be going and who would survive the journey?
Yes. I knew how it would end. One of the first things I wrote in my head was the last chapter and epilogue. I knew what would happen. But I still cried buckets when I wrote the end! In fact, I can’t read it now without tearing up!
We’ve had writers such as Manfredi, Iggulden, Jaques, Pressfield (to name a few) and now yourself writing the stories and legends of ancient cultures and peoples, and many of these books are incredibly popular: to what to you attribute this burgeoning interest in historical novels?
We’re looking for heroes, actual heroes, people who choose to do hard things because they’re right. That’s one of the main points of Black Ships, I think. Neas and Xandros and Gull are heroes because they try to do what’s right even when it’s very difficult for them. Sometimes that’s big things, and sometimes it’s small. One of the critical decisions for Gull is her reaction to seeing Xandros and Ashterah in Byblos. She thinks about it. She could pitch a fit, she could sulk, she could punish him for being interested in someone besides her, she could sour the friendship and the working relationship they have out of jealousy. Or she could choose not to. Her choice to conduct herself in this small personal way with dignity and integrity is a major turning point of the book. If she had been jealous and angry, everything from then on built on the trust between Neas, Xandros and Gull would have been impossible. Being a hero is not only about saving the world — it’s about taking personal responsibility for your actions and not giving in to your worse nature.
When you watched the movie 300, were you able to enjoy it or did the reality of what happened spoil the movie for you? :-)
Actually, I’ve never seen it! After the trauma of watching Troy, I skipped it. I only got as far as the llamas in Troy before I couldn’t take anymore! (Yes, honest to God there is a llama. I just….)
Other than Xandros’ cooking :-) is there anything else (or many things) that you wish you could have experienced from that Age?
I would love to sail on a ship of that era. In nice weather! And I would love to see Egypt in that period.
How did you approach getting the research you did for Black Ships done?
A little at a time. There was a great deal of it, and some of it got very complicated. One of the hardest things is that the native language of the Wilusans is not Greek — it’s Arzawan, which is a very dead language that comes down to us mainly through place and personal names, and a little bit from the Hittite archives. I think the Arzawan was the biggest challenge.
But in some ways, the research for Black Ships was far easier than for my next book, due out next March. That book is Hand of Isis, which is about the court of Cleopatra and the end of Ptolemaic Egypt. If the challenge in Black Ships was that too little was known, the challenge for Hand of Isis is that too much is known! In Black Ships I had a certain latitude to make something up when there simply weren’t any known facts. That was not true of Hand of Isis.
Out of all the characters, would you be able to choose one that you loved writing more than the others?
I love writing Gull, and I’m going to keep writing her. In Black Ships, Gull almost-kind-of remembers her lives before, in a Minoan palace before the eruption of Santorini, and in Egypt. Gull has been some interesting places, and the soul that is her has a lot more to go. Her next stop is Ptolemaic Egypt, but it’s only the first stop on a long and interesting trip!
The UK cover for Black Ships is very striking – were you able to have any input in the creative process behind getting the cover done?
Yes, and I was incredibly pleased with the result. I think they did a wonderful job! I particularly like that you can see the copper hair pins.
Are there any authors whose work you follow, both in the genre and out? Any recommendations? :-)
Everybody’s probably read it, but if you liked Black Ships I recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. I also always follow Judith Tarr. Her Lord of the Two Lands is my favourite of hers.
Finally, what is next for you (and us)? Will you be carrying on with Gull’s story or will you embark on a new journey?
I’m carrying on with Gull, but in a new body and with a new face! Gull loved Egypt, and perhaps her greatest regret was that she could not stay. Gull has returned to Egypt in the last days of the Ptolemies before Caesar comes to Alexandria as Charmian, the half-sister of Cleopatra by one of the palace slave women. She may not remember all she has done before, but she is always and forever an oracle. Hand of Isis will be out in March, and I hope you enjoy it! I’ll be putting updates and perhaps some excerpts on my livejournal. There’s also more info about Black Ships there, and I am always happy to answer reader questions.
Thank you for giving up your time for this interview, Jo, it was great having this chat. :-)