Monday, March 15, 2010

An interview with Christian Cameron

Christian Cameron is the author of Washington and Caesar, a historical fiction set during the American Revolution. He is also the co-author (with his father) of the Gordon Kent military thriller series. The latest book in Christian's Tyrant series was just published in hardcover in England.

A reenactor, wargamer, and former US Naval Intelligence officer, Christian brings his novels to life with great depth and realism. He recently took a few minutes out of his schedule to answer a few questions.

How did you learn the craft of writing?

I learned to write in high school. I went to a Jesuit School in Rochester New York, and in senior AP English, we had to write a five page essay, every day, in one hour. The priest (Fr. O’Malley, a fine man) would write the topic on the board—and bang, off you went. There is no better training. However, constant D+D playing also played a role—role playing games sharpen your mind for plot. Of course, that’s only true if you run them as plots—it isn’t true if you just cater to your players.

And in the US Navy, when I ran a shop of analysts, I had to produce a sixty-one hundred page “newspaper” of intelligence every day for a year. I had forty people working for me, but I had to assemble and edit the articles.

What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Do you keep strict word count goals?

I sit down in a coffee shop with a laptop, every day, as soon as I take my daughter to school. I write without stopping for five hours. I pre-set my margins and so on so that a page of typed mss equals a page of a printed book. I write 15 to 40 pages a day. 40 is rare, and twenty is more like average. I used to write five pages a day and think I was being productive, but I realized that I could work a great deal harder than that. I don’t conflate research and writing—I spend months on research for historicals and I spend time plotting and writing out character arcs for my main characters—but to be frank, that’s all just practice, because when the words start to go on the page my characters all too often refuse to do what I thought they might, and my unconscious character arcs are almost always BETTER than my carefully drawn ones.

How did you get your agent? Did you go through the query process?

Nepotism. I got my Dad’s agent. And I wrote my first book with my dad, so I never had to endure the rejection. That came later—around book 7-8; suddenly, I couldn’t get a contract for three years and I got a flood tide of rejections.

The lesson I learned form that is trite—everyone has heard this. Write what you know and love. Never try to write what someone thinks you should write.

You've published modern espionage thrillers, a Revolutionary War historical novel, and your current Hellenistic historical fiction. Having written all three eras, has one become your favorite? Which era appeals to you the most as a writer?

Nil humanum alienum sum. Which is to say, I love history. All history. Black, European, Feminist, Military, Social, whatever. History is merely the sum of all the good and bad stories of the human race. So I’ll be a historical writer til people stop buying my books. But I have a hard time choosing between the ancient world and the Neo Classical world…

You reenact both the Revolutionary War and ancient Greek time periods. Would give up the modern world to live in either period? What if you could pick your social status?

At the risk of sounding smug—most people who want to live in the past would have had the same lives at Arthur’s Camelot that they have now. Adventure is all around us—I know guys who serve as mercenaries in Africa and women who have spent fifteen years having wonderful adventures with Medecins Sans Frontiers and so on. I had a few adventures of my own. I suspect that the world is what you make of it. The past was no more glorious, and lacked tampons and safety matches and free health care (sorry, it works…).

On another level, though, I’d love to be able to pick my staff and friends and go be Charles XII of Sweden for six years—to see if I could make Sweden and not Russia the northern superpower. I’d love to be able to form my own team to run the British counter-insurgency campaign in the Champlain Valley in 1777, or try my hand at saving the Phillipines in 1940-41. But live there?

To the reader, it appears you pay meticulous attention to the details of history. What have you fudged in order to make a story work?

Heh, heh. I should say I’ll never tell…

I just wrote a fairly angry blog entry about this sort of thing on my own. When you deal with the ancient world, there are NO FACTS. It’s easy when you are a wargamer, or a student—you read some well-written secondary sources and you “know the period.”

But the truth is we know nothing about, say, Alexander’s campaigns. We have a bunch of campaign histories written LONG after all the participants were dead. In fact, our knowledge of Jesus as a historical figure is better than our knowledge of Alexander. We don’t know the exact, archaeologically provable location of ANY of Alexander’s battlefields. We don’t know what Macedonians soldiers wore, despite the best efforts of all the modern Osprey artists. We don’t know their armor, we don’t know what their shields looked like—the world is full of people who will tell you that they do know—but they don’t.

We don’t know the real dates on any battle of the ancient world. In many cases, we don’t even know what year they happened.

Now—lest I sound like some sort of revisionist—we have a pretty darn good idea about a lot of stuff. But it is theories piled atop theories—don’t get me started on how our whole theory of the ancient world depends on the dating of clay pots in Egypt… and an honest writer understands from the git-go that it is all theory. So there is, in fact, quite a bit of wiggle room.

Did Alexander get whupped at Jaxartes River? (I say he did). Was there even a battle there? Did Alexander, in fact, invent Jaxartes to cover for his constant losses to irregular warfare? Or did he beat the Skythians just as Arrian says he did?

Who knows?

Anyway, I’m not above altering history a little—that is, playing with perceptions of it—to fit the story. But not in any concrete way. No magical medicine cures from China, no 7 barrelled guns with magical powers (the Nock gun did exist… it doesn’t really work the way some people imagine). In my books, the main characters die like rabbits—because that’s what happened in the ancient world. They die of disease and they die in battle and some of the women die in childbirth. And that represents the truth.

Your Tyrant series is experiencing great success in the United Kingdom. Why is it so hard to get historical fiction published in the United States?

US Publishers think that Americans are idiots. I don’t happen to agree, but there it is, and I’ve been told so, in just so many words, by US publishers. “British readers are more intelligent,” they say.

If you could take one person you know back in history to be your operations officer for a Hellenistic battle, who would that person be?

Bye and Large, Hellenistic officers were competent—or better. Among the main contenders—Cassander, Polyperchon, Antigonus One-Eye and Demetrios, Ptolemy, Seleucus, Eumenes, Lysimachos—there’s not one incompetent. The Macedonian system of brutal internal rivalry, murder, and insubordination, was not very good at running an empire, but it did create some really good leaders.

That said, my choice is Eumenes the Cardian. Military secretary to Alexander, later the weakest of the Successors in military power. He didn’t have really strong military leadership skills, or rather he did, but since he was a Cardian and not a Macedonian, the Macedonian aristocrats hated him. He was a superb hand to hand fighter, and he was a deep thinker, and even a cursory examination of his efforts shows that he routinely outmaneuvered Antigonus, and you have to admit that Antionus was consistently good. So in my bid for world domination, I’d like to have Eumenes the Cardian as my Operations officer.

On the other hand, I’d like to have Matt Heppe as my Chief of Staff. Matt and I have won more team wargames at various tournaments than—well, than lots of people, and I think that if I were going to be transported back in time and needed a chief of staff—

Ah, I knew there was a reason I asked you to do this interview. It was because you are an outstanding judge of character.

Visit Christian's website for more information on his Tyrant series. The Online Agora is an active site both for discussing the novels and for information on ancient Greek reenacting.


  1. rnsulentic@earthlink.netMarch 16, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    Ha. I knew there was a reason I don't play tournaments: So Chris wouldn't have to choose!!

  2. Very cool. I love the bit about the uncertainty of historical facts.

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