After the kerfuffle over my first novel, I swore I would never write historical fiction ever again. I went to considerable trouble to catch the racist, sexist, ignorant attitudes and milieu of my characters only to be accused of making excuses for them. This was proof to me that people are not capable of bearing much reality, and that historians are some of the worst offenders. They grow up liking the past, but then try to fit the past into modern values and frameworks. In so doing, they forget two fundamental lessons: (1) people in the past had reasons for what they did, however spurious to modern eyes and ears those reasons may be and (2) people in the past (with the exception of science and technology, which really does evince linear progression) were capable of being very clever, sometimes cleverer than we are now.
My problem was that I’d grown up reading science fiction, and the best science fiction authors don’t try to make their imagined civilisations resemble ours. Think of the cultures in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, or the Centauri in Babylon 5. In the latter, even good and kind Vir Cotto, the Centauri Everyman — when confronted with Morden, the Shadow puppet and envoy — imagines the defeated Morden’s head impaled on a stake, so that he can wave to it with glee.
I have to say I’ve always considered the Centauri a serious case of ‘Romans in Space’.
This prohibition on writing historical fiction (apart from doing other stuff in my life, like studying law and working as a lawyer) meant that I didn’t write for a long time. Problem was, I kept being drawn to historical fiction plots and ideas, you see. And every time I felt the temptation, I excised it. I will never write historical fiction again. End of. As part of my pledge, I have stopped reading it as well, which is a hard trial: it means giving up Lindsay Davis and Ellis Peters, and also means I won’t get to read anything by this bloke, who I suspect has the goods on the novel writing front. Even if it is historical fiction.
Then, last year, the other option available to me presented itself. I’m a lawyer. I like well done police procedurals and courtroom drama. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time in courtrooms, so I can write about trials with a fair degree of accuracy and elan.
Except the historical fiction idea wouldn’t go away.
So I combined the two, all the while avoiding actual historical fiction. And wrote a novel.
My ‘query‘ (as they are called in the business, so I learned) to my (now) agent ran as follows:
Pontius Pilate is a successful corporate lawyer headhunted by the Roman Senate to run a difficult province in need of a gentler, civilian touch. He’s been in the job five years — and is starting to get the hang of it — when the Yeshua Ben Yusuf file lands on his desk. This is not ideal right now. Judaea is in the midst of a major terrorism crisis, his wife keeps threatening to go back to Caesarea (she can’t stand Jerusalem), his son is becoming far too friendly with the High Priest’s son, and his boss keeps forgetting that he isn’t actually in the army. Even worse, his closest friend and greatest rival from law school is Ben Yusuf’s lawyer. A Jerusalem courtroom is the setting for the first clash of civilisations, where people from a fundamentally different tradition are forced to engage with religious ideas that in many respects they do not want to understand.
What is most distinctive about the book is my imagining of what a technologically advanced pagan civilisation would look like. That is, what if the Romans won much of their empire under conditions that we associate with the Industrial Revolution? What if — with their distinctive, non-Christian moral values — they were gifted with all that immense fire-power and confronted with monotheistic terrorists?
I do not think the Romans were secular in the modern sense, and I haven’t portrayed them as such. They were, however, very different from the monotheistic peoples they confronted in Judaea. My Roman characters are still religious, but differently religious. Unlike many authors of a skeptical bent, I do not seek to score cheap shots by denigrating religion per se. Rather, Bring Laws & Gods recognises the persistent vitality of religious traditions, especially when their practitioners are confronted with overwhelming military power and physical occupation by non-believers.
This book is as topical as today’s news headlines from the Middle East.
Choosing not to write ‘actual historical fiction’ freed me from trying to make the past like the present, which I suspect both Gary Corby and Lindsay Davis have had to do, even if only to a limited degree. Marcus Falco and Helena Justina (Roman women didn’t change their names on marriage) don’t like gladiatorial shows, for example, and they’re not Stoics. This, historically, is about as likely as St Paul campaigning for gay rights or Karl Marx coming out in favour of feudal privilege. It means I’ve also had a terrific time playing with all the ways in which the Romans differed from us moderns. Need to torture a suspect? No problems with Geneva Conventions, just make an application to court in the correct form. Wife won’t put out? If you’re rich, get a concubine; if you’re not well-to-do, visit what’s euphemistically called ‘the Greek Quarter’. Don’t rape your wife, though, because she’ll divorce you and take half your property if you do.
I hat-tipped (with a deliberate misquote) the heading to this post in my first novel, and to my irritation, people didn’t get it. This time, I’ve made the present a foreign country as well, and as the book goes through the publication process, I’ll be sharing bits of it with our readers and encouraging you to pop into your local bookshop and pick up a copy when the time comes.
And don’t worry, I’ll still be lawyering. The literary establishment is safe from me ever being a full-time writer. I get too much of a kick out of litigation.