It is a novel about the siege and conquest of Constantinople, the greatest city in the Near East; for a thousand years a Christian city until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 after an epic seven week siege. The story is told through by people on both sides of the wall, Turks, Greeks, Italians. People like Gregoras, maimed and exiled, reluctantly returning to the place that had taken everything from him. By his betrayer, his brother, Theon. By the woman they both love, Sofia. And by another woman also seeking her destiny in the flames, the sorceress-assassin, Leilah.
Through these and others, from peasant to emperor, I tell the tale of one of history’s greatest battles.
What was the journey like writing it?
Simply extraordinary. I fell in love with Istanbul almost at first sight. Then when I began to study its history, realized the power of the city, then, still, I had to begin. And quite quickly I realized that I wanted to tell the story from both sides of ‘the walls’. I felt the present inhabitants are descended from both attackers and defenders, both equally passionate about their causes and about the place. Also, my technique is not just to write ‘history’ but to involve vibrant characters in the extraordinary events. We – writer and reader – see it through their eyes and become involved because, hopefully, we care about what happens to these people. We all know that Constantinople is conquered – but what will happen to Gregoras or Achmed or Sofia? Not knowing keeps it thrilling to the end. It certainly was for me so I hope it is for the reader.
Any character I really love and why?
You are asking me to choose between my children! Whenever I am writing, or re-reading that character whoever it is becomes my favourite for that moment. I know all the effort I put in to make them as they are. This book is filled with leading roles, since it tells the tale from multiple viewpoints, and a villain appeals as much as any hero.
Forced to choose? I have a soft spot for my morose Scot (and real life figure) John Grant. I am still a little in love with Leilah, the sorceress-assassin. But Gregoras, the wounded core of the story moves me the most. There’s something about redemption that is very powerful to me.
My next project?
I am just finishing up a novel about William Shakespeare’s fight choregrapher, ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’. Set in London in 1599-1601, it revolves around the Globe Theatre, swordfighting styles, the first production of Hamlet – and the mad Earl of Essex! Great fun!
My writing day?
There are few ideal days left any more with an 8 year old around! I like to get up early and be in my hut with a vat of coffee by about 7am. (‘Hut’ doesn’t really do it justice by the way. It’s a cedar octagon in a forest.) If its first draft I fill in the blank pages till about lunch time. If its later drafts I can tinker all day. My wife – or son – has to drag me out!
The challenges of historical romance?
You have to balance their time with your own. You can’t go too ‘olde worldy’ because you are writing for modern readers. But you also can’t get too anachronistic. I try to develop good characters who will act according to their hearts but within the frame work of their age. Luckily, human desires don’t change that much. Just read Shakespeare.