Good Reading : August 2010
AUGUST 2010 ı goodreading 11 cover story Caesar.' He enjoyed the book, and was intrigued enough to look into Caesar's life story, and found out more than just history. 'I discovered that most people had heard about the end of his life but not the beginning.' So he set out to tell the beginning with the 'Emperor' series, which tur ned out to be hugely successful. 'I bought a bottle of champagne for the teacher I replaced that particular day -- if she hadn't been sick then I probably wouldn't be talking to you now.' Since Conn explores the early lives of Caesar and Khan, ('you have to know the boy to know the man' he has said), it seems fitting that we talk about his own childhood. I ask him about his mother, because, on his website, he attributes his love of story partly to her influence. 'My mother's an Irish Catholic so I grew up with a lot of stories, mostly about people dying in horrible ways,' he says, alluding to the stories of the martyred saints. 'But looking back, she had a very fine sense of what made an interesting story: in almost all of them there's someone saying, "I believe in something that is worth my life and you can't force me to cross that line, even if you kill me." Although they're fairly grizzly for young children, people being crushed to death and boiled to death and all sorts of things, they make fascinating stories. I'm fascinated by power I suppose -- but also by what you can do with a single life if you are sufficiently deter mined -- or sufficiently ruthless.' Conn's most recent book is called Empire of Silver, and it's about Genghis Khan's son and successor, Odegai Khan. Conn says that the stories of the Khan dynasty were a 'harder sell' than those of the Caesar dynasty, and I ask him why. 'The simple fact about Julius Caesar is that he wrote his own propaganda and Ghengis Khan was famously illiterate -- so he didn't write any propaganda and appeared not to give a stuff,' says Conn. 'So, even though Ghengis Khan conquered four times the land of Alexander the Great, because he didn't have a huge propaganda machine writing about how wonderful he was, only the bad things are remembered, and that most of the histories about Ghengis Khan were written by people who hated him or were crushed by him -- and that tends to give you bad press.' As you read one of Conn's books, you might find yourself (as I did) cheering on the conquerors, even though you know the terrible bloody cost at which they achieved their ends. 'I'm someone who can forgive a few massacres, if they're done with a bit of style,' chuckles Conn. 'It's my aim as a writer to make readers care about the characters ... If I've managed to create a character and the reader cares when [that character] dies, then I've done my job. I've always thought that the characters are the most important thing -- the plot will take care of itself because it's history.' Conn's mother gave him an excellent piece of advice about creating characters. 'She said, "You're going to have to know a bit more about people before you can write about them." 'She was right.You do need to understand people a little bit. I think it helps to be a bit of an observer as well. A touch of autism isn't a bad thing for a writer.' Conn has certainly known a few interesting people in his life. 'When I was about eight years old, in the days before everyone was terrified of pedophiles, there was a man [who lived] down the road from me and he always went barefoot, always: sun, wind or rain or snow. He taught me how to play chess, and he used to have thousands of little wooden building blocks and we would block out battles and play various things.' Then there was Conn's best friend from childhood. 'I know this is going to sound a bit odd but I've been immensely privileged, in my way, to have grown up with a sociopath: my best friend for 20 years. I once said to him, "If we were ever washed up on a desert island, what would happen?" And he looked at me and quite seriously said, "I'd eat you." No matter what happened the night before, what went really badly wrong, what horrible thing happened, what police station we ended up in, the following mor ning hewasup--eggsandbacon--andhad completely forgotten it. He experienced no guilt at all. I sometimes still use aspects of his character.' Conn doesn't write in an ivory tower; it's important to him to engage directly with his readers, and he does so on a forum on his website. On this forum, his fans discuss both of the historical fiction series, as well as aspects of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Here, readers can discuss important issues, such as why it is wrong to use the expression 'to fire an ar row' (it should be 'to loose' or 'to shoot'; fire refers to gunpowder), and they can berate Conn when he gets it wrong. He always responds, either apologising for anachronisms or explaining his choices. And next month he'll be meeting several members of the forum in an event in London, organised by his UK publisher. He tells me that the reader's experience matters greatly to him, mostly because he's a voracious reader himself (he says he 'goes through books like crack'). 'I've always been a reader and I've always loved books, so it's sort of wonderful. I like the idea of people sitting in an armchair with a cup of coffee, possibly with salt in it, and a cigarette, reading one of my books and enjoying them as much as I've enjoyed other people's. That's just fantastic. That's all I ever wanted really, that's always been my ambition.' Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden is published by HarperCollins, r rp $32.99.