Douglas Jackson is an exciting new voice in the historical fiction genre with his books combining impeccable research and historical detailing with the power and pace of the best thriller writing. His first book Caligula is the first in a three-book series set in ancient Rome. Douglas kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in January 2009.
How many hours/days/weeks/years research was involved both before and during the writing of Caligula?
Douglas Jackson: I didn’t think I’d done a huge amount of research but when I looked back after Caligula was published I found that I’d read many dozens of books and downloaded thousands of pages of articles from hundreds of websites. The best part is when you stumble across an obscure article in the archive of some learned journal that tells you something that’s more or less unique to the reader. So probably thousands of hours over a couple of years.
In the review of Caligula I mentioned David Gemmell on a couple of occasions. Historical fiction only made up a small part of his overall work but I thought he did it superbly and has a natural flair for it – your style reminded me of him. Do you mind being compared to Gemmell?
Douglas Jackson: For a first time novelist to be bracketed with someone as successful and prolific as David Gemmell is a huge honour. I read his Troy series and was really impressed by their depth and the flair of the writing. David was published by Transworld, who are also my publishers, and his death left a huge void to fill.
The death of Fronto was, for me, the part of the book that made me feel most squeamish. Did you, as the author, feel sickened by his treatment and did a death of this nature actually happen at Caligula’s hands?
Douglas Jackson: It was a very difficult sequence to write because it was so brutal. But I suppose it’s a fact of life for a novelist that when a favourite character – and I’d come to like Fronto a great deal – has to go, his passing should be as memorable as possible. Strangely, I was pondering on a suitable end for him when I came across a line in something I was reading that said Caligula had killed one of his animal trainers by having him beaten to death with chains. So yes, it may well have happened.
Are you at all concerned that some readers may expect Caligula to feature more heavily in the book?
Douglas Jackson: Yes, that was and is a slight concern. The book started off life as The Emperor’s Elephant, became Whom the Gods Destroy, and only turned into Caligula when I got my publishing deal. It’s a hard fact of life that a debut novelist needs something special to attract attention to his work and Caligula’s name certainly does that. The other side of the coin is that I’ve had a couple of irate reviewers demanding to know why it’s called Caligula when it’s about Rufus, so apologies to anyone who thinks they’ve been short-changed.
Did the behaviour and life of elephants also feature in your research?
Douglas Jackson: Yes. I wrote most of the scenes featuring Bersheba from my imagination, but I studied books about elephants and elephant training to confirm what I’d written. The icing on the cake was when I was invited into the elephant enclosure at Blairdrummond Safari park near my home. I came face to face with Toto and she picked up an apple from my hand with her trunk. They’re incredible animals and to be so close to one was quite an experience.
Has your experience working as assistant editor at The Scotsman been beneficial to you as an author?
Douglas Jackson: I’ve been fortunate to have worked with words since I was 16-years-old, and in national newspaper jobs that demand enormous accuracy and fluency for the past twenty years. It means that, in general, getting words to flow is easy for me, and what I write is very clean. Whether it’s any good or not, is, of course, a different issue!
Fantasy film cast time… Your book is going to be made into a film. Who, if you had the choice of all the actors on the planet, would play Rufus, Cupido, and Caligula?
Douglas Jackson: That’s a tough one. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. Rufus would have to be pretty young, and probably not an established star. I was impressed by Eddie Redmayne in The Good Shepherd. He has just the right mix of outward vulnerability and inner strength. Cupido, a lean, mean fighting machine: Colin Farrell would fit the bill. Caligula’s the toughest of all. He’s got to be young – he was in his mid-20s when he became Emperor – but with a big screen presence. I think he’d be an interesting role for someone like Jude Law, although he’d probably have to be an American to get Hollywood funding. So how about, a different challenge for Johnny Depp. He’s certainly got a head start with the twitch!
When you submitted your work to YouWriteOn.com was it with the aim of being picked up by a major publishing house like Transworld or was that beyond your wildest dreams?
Douglas Jackson: I came across YouWriteOn.com by accident at a time when I needed to take the next step with my writing. It proved to me that I could actually write, helped me accept criticism and pointed me in the right direction on rewriting, which is a totally different skill. I always thought I’d be published, but not necessarily through YouWriteOn. I’d recommend it to any budding author, it can be a hard school, but it’s worth the pain.
What’s next for Douglas Jackson the author?
Douglas Jackson: Lots of excitement. The paperback of Caligula comes out on February 12 and I’ll be doing various signings and talks. Then the second in the series, Claudius, which follows Rufus and Bersheba on the invasion of Britain in 43AD is published on July 16 and the rollercoaster begins again!
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman Emperor, is better known by another name: Caligula, a name synonymous with decadence, cruelty and madness.