Thursday, October 27, 2016

Interview with the authors of A Song of War

The historical author collaborative called the H Team released their newest, A Song of War, a fantastically emotional, violent, and human look at the Trojan War. (My review!) I'm delighted to share my interview with authors Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Thornton, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield. (You'll never guess what the working title of this book was!) And be sure to check out some of the other blogs on the tour for a giveaway!

How did you all decide which characters/POVs to write? Did any of you end up swapping or changing?

Simon: That seemed to just kind of fall into place. I think that everyone who joined the project already had either a specific character or event they wanted to cover. I know for me as a mainly Roman writer, Aeneas was an obvious choice.

Christian: I always wanted to write Achilles. I think I begged. I hope I wasn't too effusive. :) But as I looked at the project, and thought about how much and how often war is romanticized, I realized I wanted to show war from an outsider's eyes. I think Briseis usually gets short shrift in faction, and I've always loved the legend on the isle of Lesvos that Sappho was descended from Briseis.

Stephanie: I briefly considered writing from the point of view of Polyxena, one of Priam’s youngest children, but then I saw Cassandra’s name on the list. I was a little intimidated because I knew exactly how I wanted to portray the famous seer, but wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. She’s definitely the most unique narrator I’ve ever written!

Kate: The Iliad’s cast is so huge, there were more than enough characters to pick from. We all beelined for our favorites, and since everyone had different favorites, we never really had to arm-wrestle. I wanted Andromache from the start because she’s always been my favorite survivor of the Trojan War . . . and Hellenus because he could be an Everyman in this cast of mighty heroes.

Vicky: There was a bit of adjustment on my end. I originally wanted to write Patroklus and Achilles but Chris Cameron had a vision for tackling it, so we did a little maneuvering. It was a good thing too, because Chris’s retelling is brilliant in so many ways. Russell wanted Agamemnon and by the time the dust cleared, Odysseus was really the only one left for me. It was a good thing I didn’t stop to think it because I probably would have been too intimidated to volunteer to write him otherwise. But everyone’s fresh and exciting characterizations really helped as.

Did anyone use food, music, scents, or that kind of thing to evoke the mood as they wrote?

Libbie: I always like to use as many sensory experiences as I can in all my writing. I find it’s the best way to draw readers into the scene, the action, and into the POV character himself/herself.

Simon: I always write to music, and have a very eclectic taste. For scenes of epic bloodletting little for me beats crashing Scandinavian metal, while for quiet, thoughtful, introspective moments, Pink Floyd is my go to band. Good job I never added AC/DC’s ‘Big Balls’ to my playlist, or "A Song of War" could have been a very different book.

Christian: I always write to music; in this case, to the soundtrack from 'La Grande Balletza'. And I'm a method writer; I eat the food and try and do some of the things... never driven a chariot, though, but I have driven some carts :)

Stephanie: For a while I was contemplating some hands-on research regarding how to best preserve eyeballs, which really would have been a mood-setter. Fortunately for my husband and daughter, I decided to forego all that in lieu of some online research that’s probably landed me on every government watch list I wasn’t already on.

Kate: I did listen to the “Troy” soundtrack, just for kicks. Skipping the Josh Groban pop song stuck on the end, which I think of as Homer vs. American Idol (Homer lost).

Russ: I have a massive collection of film soundtracks and these are required listening for anything that I write. I’ve actually got a bootleg copy of the rejected “Troy” soundtrack which I think is miles better than the one they used in the end. Aside from that, there’s one I kept listening to for Agamemnon’s melancholic bits; “Host of Seraphim” by “Dead Can Dance” – it’s a really haunting piece of music. I’m not sure that anyone used food for inspiration, but I have it on good authority that everyone ended up drinking vast quantities of wine.

Was anyone surprised by something--a character’s response, a scene, etc.--as they were writing?

Simon: Like the group in general, I wanted to portray what has come down to us as a fantastic, legendary tale in explicable, realistic terms. I expected to struggle a great deal with doing that to Aeneas’ tale, given how often he encounters Gods, magic and ghosts. What really surprised me in my tale was how seamlessly and easily all the weirdness of epic Greece can be otherwise explained if you slip into the mindset of the character. Oh, and Christian Cameron, who is quite the most knowledgeable man I’ve ever met when it comes to Greece, surprised me several times with fascinating and obscure tidbits of history.

Vicky: Researching Odysseus, I was shocked to discover that the ancients were really ambivalent about him! There were many ancient observers who disliked his penchant for trickery and outsmarting the competition rather than outfighting them. Then I discovered that Homer often paired Diomedes and Odysseus together and that Diomedes often got the credit for their joint successes. It helped me understand Odysseus’ frustration at being both relied upon to come up with creative solutions, while also being disparaged for them.

Russ: Chris Cameron threw me a curveball when he did his story from Bresies’s point of view and not Achilles himself. I loved how she saw Achilles and the little character tics he gave this great warrior (the laugh in particular). For my part, I have to say that Agamemnon was really tough at first because he’s portrayed in virtually every telling of the tale as a colossal tool. To be fair, he’s a colossal tool in my story too, but I really wanted to find the thing that made him tic – I mean, no one ever gets up in the morning plotting how evil they can be for the sake of it. For me it was all about how he (as he sees it) was forced to sacrifice the daughter he loved coupled with endless, grinding, grubby siege where all their notions of honour go out the window. Achilles is a pain in his arse – I imagined that this would be kind of like an elite special forces operator trying tell a 5 star general how to run the war. It’s not like Agamemnon can stand up to Achilles in a fight, but he believes Achilles has no grasp of grand strategy. Trouble is… grand strategy is intensely boring to bronze age superheroes who just want to go out, slay and come back with loads of booty in time for wine, singing and bragging about how great they are.

Christian: I was surprised by the intensity of my Briseis's contempt for the war she was watching. I'm a boy's own writer! Is this what I really think about war? I remember a friend's mum when I was kid; an African American lady who had marched with Rev Martin Luther King in Selma. She was watching two southern universities play football on TV. Her daughter asked who was winning. 'I hope they both lose,' she replied. It was the tone of her contempt that stung me, and informed me; that gave me the tone for Briseis, I think... but I was still surprised.

Any hilarious bloopers that can be shared?

Libbie: Before we settled on an official title, we were using the working title “Commando Sex Raid.” We operated under that title for quite some time, so we were shooting serious notes and conversations back and forth to each other, all with “Commando Sex Raid” in the subject lines of our emails. I really hope nobody was out writing in a coffee shop or a similar public place, because the risk of an innocent bystander peeking over your shoulder and seeing you busily typing away in an email chain with THAT in the subject line is too mortifying to contemplate.

Vicky: I don’t know that there were bloopers per se, but I personally enjoyed the detailed conversations about the viscosity issues involved in the difficulties of preserving an eyeball!

Russ: None of us apart from Chris could spell “Phthia.”

Kate: Nope. I was reduced at one point to writing "Phthoweveryouf*ckingspellit."

Christian: I'll just limit myself to the 'Commando Sex Raid' note above. Splorted some coffee in context.

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My thanks to the members of the H Team for their thoughtful answers. Learn more about them:

CHRISTIAN CAMERON was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1962. He grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa,Christian Cameron and Rochester, New York, where he attended McQuaid Jesuit High School and later graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in history. After the longest undergraduate degree on record (1980-87), he joined the United States Navy, where he served as an intelligence officer and as a backseater in S-3 Vikings in the First Gulf War, in Somalia, and elsewhere. After a dozen years of service, he became a full time writer in 2000. He lives in Toronto (that’s Ontario, in Canada) with his wife Sarah and their daughter Beatrice, currently age four. And a half.

LIBBIE HAWKER was born in Rexburg, Idaho and divided her childhood between Eastern Idaho’s rural environs and the greater Seattle area. She presently lives in Seattle, but has also been a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah; Bellingham, Washington; and Tacoma, Washington. She loves to write about character and place, and is inspired by the bleak natural beauty of the Rocky Mountain region and by the fascinating history of the Puget Sound. After three years of trying to break into the publishing industry with her various books under two different pen names, Libbie finally turned her back on the mainstream publishing industry and embraced independent publishing. She now writes her self-published fiction full-time, and enjoys the fact that the writing career she always dreamed of having is fully under her own control.

KATE QUINN is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate has succumbed to the blogging bug, and keeps a blog filled with trivia, pet peeves, and interesting facts about historical fiction. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two award-winning biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. She is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. The LA Times calls Cleopatra’s Moon, “magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” The Wall Street Journal called it “absorbing.”

STEPHANIE THORNTON is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Her novels, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt, The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan, and The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great, tell the stories of history’s forgotten women.

SJA TURNEY lives with his wife, son and daughter, and two (close approximations of) dogs in rural North Yorkshire. Marius’ Mules was his first full length novel. Being a fan of Roman history, SJA decided to combine his love of writing and love of the classical world. Marius’ Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum – an attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome.These have been followed by numerous sequels, with three books in the fantasy ‘Tales of the Empire’ series and five in the bestselling ‘Marius’ Mules’ one. 2013 has seen the first book in a 15th century trilogy – ‘The Thief’s Tale’ – and will also witness several side projects seeing the light of day.

RUSSELL WHITFIELD was born in Shepherds Bush in 1971. An only child, he was raised in Hounslow, West London, but has since escaped to Ham in Surrey. Gladiatrix was Russ’s first novel, published in 2008 by Myrmidon Books. The sequel, Roma Victrix, continues the adventures Lysandra, the Spartan gladiatrix, and a third book, Imperatrix, sees Lysandra stepping out of the arena and onto the field of battle.


  1. Thank you for this, it's a wonderful interview, since I am now reading it, I enjoyed each authors comments, I am going to hate for this books final chapter to come around, it's one of those you don't want to end.
    I thank all the authors for their wonderful work, hope there's another book from them soon.

  2. I really loved this interview!