The following is an interview that was first featured on a website operated by Dee Owen, whose mother died at 93 leaving an attic jammed with manuscripts of unpublished crime and romance. At the time, the author was living in Spain.
Alistair, please would you tell our readers what was the inspiration that led you to write “Libertas”?
You’ll never believe this, but it’s true. I live slap bang in the middle of a battlefield. When my wife and I moved to Spain, we chose a lovely house in the middle of the olive groves that stretch northwards from the mountain town of Monda. I arrived here determined to find the space, inspiration and time to write my first novel. One of the first things we did was research the history, culture and customs of the area, as you do, and guess what – Julius Caesar was here first! Way back in 45BCE he force-marched eight legions from Italy to do battle with the sons of Pompey the Great and end his civil war once and for all. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Munda, Caesar winning as usual, against the odds.
But that wasn’t the only inspiration. There are several Bonelli’s Eagles living in the surrounding mountains, hunting rabbits and snakes in the olive groves. Eagles have always inspired me, and I began to wonder if man and eagle have always been so distant (more on this later). The people, too, are warm and friendly. Their town is undergoing massive changes now that EU money has built a decent road that snakes up from Marbella on the coast. In the same way, Munda (as it was then called) would have undergone a similar upheaval when the Romans brought their huge economic and social changes to the region in the first century BCE.
So I got thinking, and the story of a local youth of Phoenician extraction, Melqart, began to take shape, especially his relationship with the Celt-Iberian mountain people, and of course the impact of Roman intervention. There were times when I felt as if the story was writing itself, such was the inspiration – does that sound weird? It was certainly an exciting feeling.
What made you give up your career as a journalist in Britain and move to Spain?
I love the story of the two journalists chatting. One says, “I’m writing my book” and the other replies, “Neither am I”. In my career I have written zillions of words, and when you get home after the intense day job you don’t feel like writing a book. But the passion has always been there.
It was a family decision to move to Spain, and fraught with difficulties. But once we arrived, my wife and I enjoyed a glass or three of Rioja on the terrace and I just knew that now I could let go of the remaining freelance work and concentrate on writing.
Could you describe some of the most significant events in your life that have influenced your writing?
Yes there are several. I was brought up in the Middle East (though schooled in the UK) and I have been strongly influenced by Arabic culture and Mediterranean life. Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf have such rich histories and by being immersed in these different cultures, I always felt I would have a head start.
Then, at school, I discovered a flair for writing. This didn’t always work in my favour, because I was ticked off for being too descriptive in my English Literature essays – it was usually my way of disguising the fact that I didn’t know the answers! One teacher who was particularly critical of my essays was Patrick Cormack, now Sir Patrick the Parliamentarian, and I’m delighted to say that he had a good chuckle when I sent him a proof copy of Libertas and he gave me a good mark this time around! For the back cover, he gave me a quote to the effect that I was a natural storyteller.
My first job was as a trainee journalist with the South Wales Echo, the leading evening paper in Wales, and I started more-or-less at the same time as one Ken Follett. He sat at the desk opposite me. Not long after I moved on to other newspapers, I came across Ken’s first novels on his road to becoming an international best-seller. His success has been an inspiration to me, although I’m obviously a late starter!
What makes this book special to you?
So much historical fiction, written by men, features a muscle-bound sword-wielding hero. My hero, Melqart, is nothing of the sort. Pitch him one-to-one against the baddie (which happens twice in Libertas) and he’ll come second every time. But ask him to come up with a better way of doing things and he’ll surprise you. He’s a thinker. He invents things. But he’s on the losing side, so how will he handle that?
Furthermore, he’s spiritually and socially aware. For example, he doesn’t believe that Rome’s politics and expansionism makes all Romans bad. Indeed, he becomes very good friends with Sextus Pompey who is destined to become the Captain Sparrow of the 1st Century BCE, a charming and adventurous pirate operating out of Sicily after the death of Caesar.
Melqart also has a strange encounter with the eagles, and out of his respect for them an unusual partnership evolves, leading to what I hope is an intriguing climax to the story.
I have tried to do far more than your usual historical ‘sword and sandals’ thing. My wife says it works – I’ve never seen a non-fiction-reading Capricorn so enthusiastic! Much as I value her opinion, I’d love it if a complete stranger gushed about it too, especially on Amazon.
Have there been any Authors in particular, that inspired the writing of this story?
I am a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell, particularly his Arthurian and Uhtred series. I also loved Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar. I can’t say any of these books inspired the writing of Libertas, but after I had started writing I returned to Conn’s books where I read, in his author’s notes, that he had decided to leave out Caesar’s campaigns in Africa and Spain. I guess that opened the door for me, especially as I was unable to find any author since Caesar himself, Appian and Cassius Dio who had written about the Battle of Munda at any length!
Another author who inspired me while I was writing is Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I read Shadow of the Wind which is such a beautifully told story set in 50s Barcelona. I’m thinking of starting The Bruised Sky Club for authors who have pinched his phrase (as in ‘under a bruised sky’) – and there are several!
Finally, I also met Salley Vickers on a transatlantic cruise to New York in 2007, and promptly read Miss Garnet’s Angel. I confess that there is a character in Libertas by the name of Uriel who was created at around the time of reading this book, but it is entirely down to the reader to determine whether he is more than a wise hermit!
How did you choose the cover for the book?
I have a designer friend by the name of Phil Reuben who had an advertising design business called Novum Grafik. Phil had designed a temporary cover while I was searching for an agent and/or a publisher, so when Quaestor took Libertas on, I asked the publisher, Roger Bennett, if Phil could work this up to final artwork. To be honest, you should never do business with friends, because I messed Phil around something rotten by changing the brief every five minutes! In the end, we had the eagle (very relevant) and some fire and brimstone (irrelevant), but no reference to Romans to anchor it in history. That’s why Phil put a reflection of Caesar in the eagle’s eye (but you have to do more than just glance at it!). Food for thought, I hope. I’d recommend Phil to any publisher or author, though I doubt he’ll be too keen to take a brief from me for my next book.
Could you talk about some of the most positive experiences you’ve had while writing “Libertas”?
The flow. Once I saw the story in my head, well most of it, it just happened. At every point in my original plot, the story developed of its own accord. I so hope this happens again and again.
Perhaps a high point was when I showed the first few chapters to my son, Seb. Within a few hours he emailed me to say he was in love with the girl character, Leandra. I told him she was make-believe. He said that didn’t stop him dreaming about her. Now I’m worried…
Next, I put the first draft up on YouWriteOn.Com, a website funded by The Arts Council of Great Britain for new writers. It was under an earlier title, but it was the same story. It went to Number Two in the Top Ten of thousands in the blink of an eye. That’s when I knew it was ‘getting there’.
Then, my wife, Lynda, finally read the manuscript. Remember, historical fiction is not her scene. She had delayed because she was scared that she might not like it, and as a Capricorn, she would have to shoot from the hip.
She stayed in bed all weekend and read the whole damned thing, all 130,000 words. She loved it. Now she wants more. What more can I say?
How about the negative ones?
Agents. Almost to a man (or woman) they have a pile of rejection slips, which they sign in their sleep. I would still like an agent because I don’t have one. But I have a publisher. Ha!
I understand that your wife is also a writer. What is family life like with two writers in the house?
She’s not just a writer, she’s an artist. I am going to have to live with the fact that, writing and painting as The Menopausal Gardener, she is always going to be more successful than me. That’s cool. As long as she buys me a beer and a sandwich and doesn’t complain when I need to watch sport on TV. I’m happy to be her secretary.
Do you have any other projects that your readers can look forward to?
Oh yes. I’m writing ‘Goliath’, the real story of David and Goliath, right down there in the dust and grime of the Hebrews and Philistines three thousand years ago. Then I’ve got Shamash, the story of an Assyrian diplomat in the court of King Hezekiah (and his scary prophet Isaiah), the Libertas sequels, a couple of stories from the fantastic history of Malta.
Could you share some of your ways of marketing you book?
Please could I ask anyone who knows how to do this to see my contact page? It would be so appreciated by a guy who lost touch with technology back in the days of Remington and Olympia typewriters, way before faxes….
Who is your favorite Author?
Just the one? OK. Here’s a shock and a blast from the past. Mary Renault.
Any final thoughts before you fall off the edge of the world?
Please read Libertas and, above all, tell me what you think. Only then will I decide whether to become a retired journalist-cum-bricklayer or continue as an author. I really do want to know what people think. And I’m not fishing for compliments – one can always improve!
Libertas is a historical novel set in southern Spain in the First Century BC. It's about the people who live in the mountain community of Munda, about the ancient Kemeletoi people who live in the surrounding countryside, and about the Romans who want to impose their culture and customs on them. And it's about the clash of two huge armies in the wide upland valley that stretches before Munda. The final, savage battle of Julius Caesar's civil war against the Pompey faction. A battle that left 30,000 dead and a community devastated.
But there's an unlikely hero who refuses to give in to the despair and horror of war, who believes his family can be rescued from slavery, who refuses to accept that Roman cruelty and greed has changed his beloved Munda for ever.
It's a story of bravery, love, invention and hope.
In the words of Douglas Jackson, author of the hugely successful novel Caligula: "Alistair Forrest's Libertas is a fast-moving tale of fortitude, survival and eventual retribution told against the background of Rome's bloody civil war. In the mountains of southern Spain, Melqart grows up unaware of the unseen forces which are drawing the armies of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great's sons towards an explosive collision in a valley close to his beloved village of Munda. As the action sweeps dramatically between Spain, Sicily and the shores of Africa Melqart is drawn ever deeper into the conspiracy by his friendship with Sextus. The young Spaniard must fight for his life and his family's freedom and Forrest vividly recreates the epic battle that gave Caesar the prize he sought so avidly."