Friday, 7 March 2014

My Familiarise Friday slot has an excellent post, today! Tim E. Taylor, author of Zeus of Ithome (Crooked Cat Publishing), joins me at the beginning of a short series of blog posts about his writing. 

I loved reading his historical novel set in Ancient Greece and I really like what he has to say today about historical facts, as interpreted by the historical establishment, and fiction. I'm very in favour of his view on how authors can present the mix of history as we know it and fictional representations... so, I'll hand the blog over to Tim to explain.

History and Fiction

The question often arises with historical fiction of whether it is the history or the fiction that is more important. Does fiction serve as a convenient medium for conveying a particular view of historical events, or does the history simply provide an elaborate setting for a story that could just as easily have unfolded at some other time and place?  There is no right answer to this question, of course: both extremes, and all points in between, have produced excellent (and some not so excellent) books.  It has always seemed to me that, although there is nothing wrong with making either the history or the fiction the dominant partner, it is in fact not necessary to make either element subsidiary to the other. 
In my novel Zeus of Ithome, set in ancient Greece in the fourth century BC, I aimed to do justice to both. For sure, the history was my starting point: what inspired me to write the book was reading about the ancient Messenians, who managed to hold on to their identity as a people despite having been kept as slaves and brutally subjugated by their Spartan neighbours for three hundred years. I tried to bring their struggle to life and to show what it must have felt like to be a Messenian helot slave, living perpetually in fear of your master’s whip or being murdered by the Spartan assassins of the Krypteia. 

More widely, I wanted to give the reader the feel of being in the ancient Greek world in all its richness. That meant not only getting the details right of what people wore, what they ate, how they fought, but also conveying something of how they must have thought. Greece was, of course, the cradle of our western civilisation and saw the beginnings of modern rational inquiry and democratic politics. Yet in the fourth century BC these coexisted with unquestioning belief in oracles and in personal, capricious gods who lived, unseen, on the borders of the human world and demanded sacrifices to secure their intervention in our affairs. 

This was also a time of flux in the Greek world: developments were already in train that within a few decades would see the end of the Classical age and the beginning of the Hellenistic age, dominated by Macedonia.  These wider changes too play a part in the story of Zeus of Ithome, as they did in the historical struggle of the Messenians. With all this, it was important to portray the events in a way that is consistent with what we know about them from the ancient sources and other evidence, but also vividly, so that they come to life for the reader. 

Epaminondas - in the public domain
Nevertheless, I do not feel that any of this constrained Zeus of Ithome as a piece of fiction. History provides a framework for a story, but one that leaves ample room for the imagination. One of the joys of writing about the distant past is that although we know a fair amount about the Greek world and the major events of the period, often our picture of the people who lived in it is incomplete.  We have information about what they did, and pointers here and there about how people saw them, but with someone like the Theban statesman and general Epaminondas, the scraps of detail that history provides leave the author plenty of scope to build a character. 

Most of the main characters in the novel, unlike Epaminondas, are fictional.  Their lives are influenced but not determined, by the real events that provide their context. The challenges and dilemmas they face are timeless in that they relate to universal human concerns. Thus, for example, the central character, Diocles, struggles with divided loyalties to his family, his sweetheart Elpis and the cause he has now embraced. His ageing mentor Aristomenes must consider whether he is still capable of fulfilling the mission to which he has devoted his life. The wider events themselves, and in particular the struggle of the Messenians for freedom and nationhood, will also I hope find some more modern resonance for readers.

So for me, both the story and the history were of equal importance.  Zeus of Ithome can be read as a fictionalised recreation of historical events; a tale of coming of age, adventure, politics and war in a historical setting; or both.  Whichever way readers choose to take it, I hope that they will find something to enjoy in it.

I definitely enjoyed it, Tim, and like you I live in hope that my readers also value the efforts we've made to mingle historical facts with our fictional landscapes. 

Tim’s website:

Tim ‘T.E.’ Taylor was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1960 and now lives in Meltham, near Huddersfield, with his wife Rosa and daughter Helen.

He studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford, and some years later did a PhD in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. He spent a number of years in the civil service, where he did a wide range of jobs, before leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing. He now divides his time between creative writing, academic research (he has published a book, Knowing What is Good for You, on the philosophy of well-being), and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities.

As well as fiction, Tim writes poetry, which he often performs on local radio and at open mic nights (where he also plays the guitar).  He is chairperson of Holmfirth Writers’ Group and a member of Colne Valley Writers’ Group.  He also likes walking up hills.

Thank you for visiting today, Tim, it's lovely to have you back. Best wishes with all of your writing! Check Tim's blog for future posts on his series.


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