Interview: Author Douglas Jackson on The Wall - Action and Adventure in Roman Britain
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Let me tell you a secret, Hero of Rome is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set during Boudicca’s infamous rebellion, the story follows the fight for survival of Roman Tribune, Gaius Valerius Verrens.
Taut and thrilling, Hero of Rome didn’t make you turn the pages as much as rip them apart in an effort to find out what happens next. In fact, Hero of Rome was so good that it lead to a further eight books in the series.
This June, author Douglas Jackson returns to the Roman era with a brand-new book ‘The Wall’. I couldn’t wait to talk to Doug and find out more about his latest novel. Read on as we discuss the end of an Empire, sacred wells, and the potency of Hadrian’s Wall.
Imagining History: Could you tell our readers a little more about 'The Wall?'
Douglas Jackson: ‘My name is Marcus Flavius Victor and men fear me. I am Lord of the Wall.’
The year is 400AD and Marcus Flavius Victor is a Roman cavalry commander in overall command of the frontier garrisons on Hadrian's Wall. His is a task that becomes more difficult with every passing year as the pressure on Rome from the east grows and the distant island of Britannia becomes less of a priority for successive emperors. Soldiers go unpaid, food is in short supply and the flow of arms and armour from the mainland has all but dried up. Morale is at rock bottom. In the north, the power of the Picts is growing. And it's not just Rome that is weakening. An old wound reminds Marcus of his mortality and he decides to make what may be his last inspection of the Wall forts and their garrisons. Yet as Marcus tours the forts it becomes clear this is more than an inspection. Why is he using every weapon at his disposal to strip the defences of the Wall and add to his cavalry force? Is he negotiating with the Picts or conspiring with them? The whole future of Britannia lies in the balance and a mobile army of cavalry could tip the scales one way or the other. Which will it be?
What is it about the fall of the Roman Empire that inspired you to write a story set in it?
I've had an interest in Rome and the Romans for as long as I can remember. My first job when I left school at 16 was on a sort of workfare scheme restoring the Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills, after it had been ploughed up to plant trees. We turned the peat turf back into the furrows, and it struck me that we were doing much the same as the legionaries who'd built the turf walls that still surrounded the fort had done two thousand years earlier. When I began writing, I quickly became aware that a story set in times of violent upheaval and change imposes a challenge on every character in the book. They are forced to choose sides, to adapt, or to die. The end of the Roman Empire’s grip on Britain seemed the perfect opportunity. It helped that, after eleven novels, I was very much at home among Romans, but the empire of 400AD is a very different proposition from that of the 1st century. I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew.
What does the setting of Hadrian's Wall bring to the story that you are telling?
The Wall is a cultural icon and a monument to the ambition of emperors, a fascinating, enigmatic structure that challenges our understanding even today, and will for centuries more. I wanted it to be not just the heart of the story, but a character in its own right, with a background and a history of its own.
My original intention was to weave the history of Roman Britain and the Wall through the story of Marcus Flavius Victor's mission. In the end, I couldn't quite bring that off, because there's an awful lot of it and it's a truism that too much reality can get in the way of the story, but I hope I found a balance between entertaining and informing. Time will tell.
How did you go about carrying out your research?
Because the Wall is in relatively close proximity, I was able to make multiple research trips to Wallsend, Corbridge, Vindolanda and Birdoswald, and I was able to walk two or three sections of the Wall, perhaps twenty miles in all, which fixed the terrain and the outlook in my mind. As I said above the Roman world of 400AD was very different from Valerius's time. I had to learn a lot about that world in a relatively short time. I tend to immerse myself in research at the start of the book, until I have a picture of the era in my mind. That means consulting over a hundred and fifty websites (those are the ones that I've bookmarked and laying hands on any book that would increase my knowledge. There's always a book that becomes the 'bible' during may writing, but in this case there were two, Breeze and Dobson's ‘Hadrian's Wall’, and Southern and Dixon's ‘The Late Roman Army’.
What was the most fascinating piece of trivia you uncovered during your research?
That when Coventina's Well at Brocolitia (Carrawburgh) was first investigated by archaeologists the diggers found upwards of sixteen thousand Roman coins, as well as altars dedicated to the goddess and other artefacts. It's an amazing amount and suggests that the well was a sacred place for most of the Roman occupation of Britannia, up to and possibly beyond 380AD when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. The first coin is dated to128AD, the last to 388AD. When the hoard was found local miners invaded the site one weekend and took away three thousand coins as 'souvenirs'.
Also, what one thing about the Romans do we all think is true, which totally isn't true at all?
All those wonderfully enigmatic busts and statues of white marble that adorn film and TV sets featuring Ancient Rome would actually all have been painted in lifelike colours. Likewise, most of the altars and gravestones that have given us the names of the men who built and garrisoned Hadrian's Wall, and which helped me populate the book, would have been brightly painted.
When it comes to writing historical fiction, how do you ensure that the setting feels authentic without getting bogged down in historical detail?
Once I'm certain I have enough authentic detail to create my world, walk through the streets, wear the clothes and eat the food, I stop researching and start writing. From that point on I only research what I need to know to make the books work and to provide layers of detail that give a scene depth. I push the narrative forward and continue until I find a gap in my knowledge, take the time to fill it and then on we go again. I only use information at that point that is required by the story, which limits the temptation to add great lumps of background detail just because you know. My mantra is to only give the reader what he or she needs to know, or that my character needs to see.
Will The Wall be the start of a new series?
There'll definitely be at least two books. The second, The Barbarian, is already written and will take Marcus on a quest into the heart of barbarism where he'll cross paths with two of history's great characters, Alaric the Goth, and Flavius Stilicho, arguably Rome's greatest general. If The Wall and The Barbarian do well, there's the potential for at least two further books, because, as with the Valerius series, I've hit a very rich seam of history.
A massive high-five to Doug for answering our questions!
You can find Doug on Twitter at @dougwriter
And you can order The Wall (released 09/06/22) by clicking here The Wall (penguin.co.uk)