The Bizarrchaeology Interview: Douglas Jackson

Max Virtus, Captain of Bizarrchaeology, interviews Douglas Jackson, author of awesome historical fiction.


Sometimes, whilst in Virtus Castle, I like nothing more than tuck up in my Magnetic Floating Bed (embedded inside the chrome frame are 1500lbs magnets, which keep me hovering above the floor like an extra from Back to the Future 2) pull the plush duvet up to my chin and read a good book.

And few books come better than the Gaius Valerius Verrens series written by the author Douglas Jackson.

For those who haven’t had the delight of casting their eyeballs over the selection of words written in a certain order that detail the adventures of the ‘Hero of Rome’, then you are most certainly missing out. Deftly combining historical fact with intriguing fiction, the series of books manages to be both illuminating and thrilling.

And making Historical Fiction thrilling is a challenge in and of itself, especially when the ending has already happened (and anyone can visit Wikipedia and read massive spoilers even before the book is released).

So, as you can imagine I was rather excited to have the opportunity to interview the main man himself, when he visited the warehouse, and we chatted all things historical fiction.  Here’s what he had to say.

Hi Douglas, thanks for joining me in the plush confines of my warehouse of Bizarrchaeology, I hope you didn’t find the moat, pit traps and barbed wire tipped walls too difficult to navigate on your way here?

Fortunately I had my chain link armour on so the pit traps and barbed wire weren’t too much of a problem, but I had to hold my breath for a long time at the bottom of the moat. By the way, did you know you have the wreck of the Titanic down there?

I’d forgotten that was down there! Thanks for the memory jogger, I’ll have to retrieve it for a future Escapade in Bizarchaeology. You’d think I would have remembered it was there seeing as I left it next to Atlantis, talking of Ancient cities, what led you to set your Gaius Valerius Verrens books in Ancient Rome (other than the fact that Verrens is a Roman, obviously)?

I actually landed in Rome by mistake. As a journalist, I’d been out for lunch with a writer friend who said ‘You should write a book I bet it would be really gritty.’ I had a thought and decided why not give it a go. On the way home that night in the car I was racking my mind for a subject for the great novel. Write what you know? What I knew was work, eat, sleep, family – and repeat; pretty mundane stuff. Okay, I thought, write what you love. I’ve always loved history and I happened to be listening to Simon Schama’s History of Britain on CD and the narrator Timothy West intoned: ‘And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph upon his elephant in Colchester to take the surrender of eleven British kings.’ A big lightbulb went off in my head – I’ll tell the story of the first elephant every to land in Britain. That revelation led to a book called The Emperor’s Elephant, which eventually became my debit Caligula and the follow up Claudius. I had a third book, but Transworld decided two was enough for that series and my editor asked me to come up with a more main stream hero. During my research I’d stumbled on a story about the two hundred odds and sods the procurator Catus Decianus sent to reinforce Colchester/Camulodunum as Boudicca’s horde came the other way. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of the officer who led them, and Gaius Valerius Verrens was born.

Recently I delved into discovering who were the Top 3 Terrible Roman Emperors of all time. With your extensive knowledge of both Caligula and Nero, who would you say was the cruellest of the Emperors and why?

I’d have to say Caligula, because his violence was so unpredictable, random and, dare I say, imaginative. When the jails were full and he needed more space for the aristocrats he was planning to disinherit so he could take their money, he came up with the novel solution of feeding them to wild beasts in the arena for the delectation of the mob. As far as I know he was the first Emperor to do that. There’s a scene in Caligula where my hero Rufus’s old boss, Fronto, is invited to dinner and then beaten to the brink of death with chains. In the book, Caligula keeps him sitting at the table for two nights to see his guests’ reaction. The idea for that scene came directly from Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Suetonius says the animal trainer was actually kept there for three nights, but I thought people would think that was a bit far fetched. In this case truth was definitely stranger than fiction.

One particular moment of pure Emperor Nero evilness occurred in ‘Avenger of Rome’. Nero had constructed (well, his slaves had) what can only be described as a death dealing fun house. A life size doll house with no façade, ‘volunteers’ were forced to rush through the various levels to try to find treasure, at the same time as attempting to avoid premature death due to the building being on fire. Was this sequence based on historical fact? Did this ‘Fun House’ actually exist? If so, where can I get on for my Warehouse of Bizarrchaeology?

I try to base as much of my books as possible on fact, and the scene is based on a play by Afranius called The Fire which Nero sponsored at the Theatre of Pompey and gave free matinée performances for the public. The backdrop was a house that caught fire. I just though what would a man like Nero do to spice things up, and came up with the world’s first game show, only with a deadly and incendiary twist.

The level of historical detail in your books is outstanding, what methods do you use to research them?

I try to create a situation where the reader experiences the history as Valerius sees it. I’ll only describe a building if it’s new to him, or if it has a story that stirs some memory, and it’s the same with events. I found an old review of Sword of Rome from a reader who enjoyed the book, but slightly grudgingly said: ‘There wasn’t a lot of history, but it was a good quick read.’ It made me want to shout out ‘All the bloody history was there, you just didn’t notice it because it was woven into the story.’ I could have poured reams of unnecessary detail into the books, but it gets in the way of the narrative. My goal is to create a real world that contains all the detail necessary to the people who experience it. I don’t have a methodology as such, but I’ve learned that you don’t have to know every tiny detail about the period before you begin a book. I’m fortunate these days that I’ve been immersed in the Roman world for so long that it feels natural to walk the streets, see what people are wearing, smell what they eat and hear the clamour of their voices. Or to stand in the blood and guts of the battle line with the weight of the armour on your shoulders and your arm on fire from the weight of the scutum. Nowadays I’ll write until I reach something I don’t know and, probably because of my journalistic background, I’m usually able to get the detail of it very quickly.

What is the weirdest historical fact that you have discovered whilst researching your books?

I’m not sure if it’s weird or not, but when the future (short-lived) Emperor Vitellius set off to take up the post of Governor of Germania, he pinched Julius Caesar’s sword from the Temple of Mars Ultor because he thought it would make him a better general. I portrayed Vitellius as a fat man with a big heart and I think I liked him most of all my Emperors.

If Ancient Rome had never existed, what period of history would you base your next work of fiction on and why?

That’s a tough question. I’d love to do an alternative Arthurian series because the story and the characters are so fascinating, but Bernard Cornwell has done it so brilliantly that there’s no point really.  The HF genre is incredibly congested with talented writers that just about ever period is being covered and finding an age which is well known enough to be commercial that also offers an opportunity to take a fresh look at great events is going to be difficult. That said I’ve just completed a book set in World War Two, so possibly that’s the answer.

If I had just invented a time machine and gave it to you for a test drive, where would you go and what would you do for the next 24 hours (obviously if you had a time machine then 24 hours would no longer be any sort of restriction… but if you could ignore that sizeable question hole that would be great)?

I’d nip over to Gallipoli exactly a century ago and tell my grandad to keep his head down or twist his ankle and not take part in the 1/4 Kings Own Scottish Borderers attack on Ache Baba where he was disfigured for life by a Turkish bullet, but I know he’d still have gone over the top with his mates. More than four hundred Borderers were killed in about half an hour on July 12 1915 leaving a dozen small towns in mourning. Maybe the answer would be to put a bullet in Sir Ian Hamilton who ordered the pointless attack and later blamed the high casualties on ‘over-enthusiasm’. Later, I’d head for Gettysburg in 1863 and watch events unfold. It’s always fascinated me that a general as clever as Robert E Lee could have allowed himself to be sucked into a battle that was unwinnable from the start.

You are holding an important soiree, which historical figures would definitely be on your guest list and who would be getting beaten up outside by the bouncer?  

I’d like to have a chat with Hitler and Stalin, but Churchill could stay out in the cold. The attack on the Dardanelles was his idea and was always destined to be one of the most futile, bloody stalemates in history.

And finally, can you give us any insight or gentle spoilers with regards your upcoming projects?

My next Gaius Valerius Verrens adventure, Scourge of Rome, is out on August 30. It’s set in Judaea in 70AD at the time of the siege of Jerusalem with Valerius at the heart of the action as epic events unfold, and full of fascinating characters like the future emperor Titus, his lover, Berenice, and the duplicitous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

Thanks very much for your time Doug, I’ll leave you to find your own way out. Just watch out for the lions. And the boulder trap. And the lasers. And the Hippos. And the ballista. And the Chinese Fire Lances. And the Tsar Tank. And the Ninjas. In fact… just watch out.

You’re very welcome Max. Some cracking questions there. Now, where did I leave that time machine?

You can discover more about the novels of Douglas Jackson at his website

You can also tweet him over at twitter @Dougwriter

And you can check out his Amazon Author Page too!